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Tim James: 120 Years Since the Pest Phylloxera Came to Constantia

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“The 26th November, 1898, will always remain a red-letter day in the history of Constantia”. So wrote JP de Waal, manager of the government wine farm, Groot Constantia, in his report to the Cape of Good Hope’s colonial parliament. For, he continued, “on that date the Phylloxera was for the first time discovered in this district, and right in the very heart of it too”. De Waal knew well that this meant that “it will sooner or later spread over the whole of the district”, meaning that ultimately the only way that viticulture could proceed in Constantia would be by grafting vinifera vines onto American vine rootstocks, which evolution had rendered immune to the devastating predations of the much-feared little creature.

Phylloxera had long since invaded the winegrowing world, first Europe, and then just about everywhere else, spread by the faster ships that now connected the continents. The first sighting in the Cape had been 12 years earlier, and by the time de Waal was writing his report it had already spread to much of the Cape winelands, with terrible consequences – a quarter of the Cape’s vines were destroyed by phylloxera during the 1890s. But its effects were not seen in Constantia until 26 November 1898. This delay was strange, given that first outbreak observed in the Cape had been in a vineyard in Mowbray, less than 10 kilometres away. It had been noticed there in early 1886 – by the French consul, who presumably had some idea from his homeland of how infected vineyards looked.

Just a year before phylloxera’s arrival in Constantia, JP de Waal had noted the “remarkable” fact that there was still “not a trace of the pest” there. He ascribed this firstly to the prevailing south-easterly summer wind blowing inland “during the winged period of the insect’s life”, and secondly to strict regulations “prohibiting the introduction of certain articles and plants likely to carry the infection from phylloxerised areas into the Constantia area”.

Groot Constantia, where a phylloxera visitation could now be expected any day (de Waal hoped for a year or two’s delay) was in a better position than most to contemplate replanting its winegrape vineyards with grafted stocks. The historic property had been owned by the Cape government since 1885 (after it had gone insolvent). A model and experimental farm had been envisaged, including a winemaker-training school. But the rapid spread of phylloxera meant an urgent need to concentrate on planting and growing American rootstocks here (and in other centres in the winelands), as well as experimenting with affinities between different rootstocks and varieties in local conditions, and with grafting techniques.

So Groot Constantia was by then supplying phylloxera-resistant rootstocks to other, already infected areas. But, says de Waal, “now that the pest is within striking distance, it behoves us to study the interests of this estate firstly, and to annually retain sufficient cuttings for the reconstitution of its vineyards”. Already “about 12 acres of land” was, at the time of his writing his report, already “being prepared to be planted with American Vines during the coming season, partly with grafted nursery transplants, and partly with plain stocks, which will be planted in situ next season”.

So, with Constantia definitely affected, phylloxera chalked up another significant victory in its relentless campaign to wipe out vines in the Cape. Replanting on American non-vinifera rootstock was proceeding as fast as supplies of stocks could be made available. Things moved slowly at first, in fact, but by the turn of the century at least a million grafted vines were being planted annually (out of a total of about 85 million vines).

Constantia was saved for viticulture, happily, but my surmise would be that the blight of phylloxera hastened the end of winemaking in what were developing as the southern residential suburbs of the city of Cape Town: no more vines for Rondebosch, Mowbray, Wynberg – the places where the Cape wine industry had had its infancy.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

6 COMMENTS

  1. It would be interesting to know how many ungrafted vineyards there are now; I can think of Jean-Vincent’s Clos d’Orange in Oranjezicht; I have an idea ‘T Voetpad & maybe others up the West Coast where the louse hasn’t reached due to these remote locations far from other vineyards. Any others?

    • Yes, I would also like to know, Angela. Perhaps the Riesling vineyard that used to go into Howard Booysen’s wine (if it still exists)? Or a vineyard in the Overberg (Bruce Jack) or in Sutherland?

  2. I know of the Callender peak Chardonnay vineyard in the Witzenberg mountains close to Tulbach.
    These are ungrafted Chardonnay vines planted about 30 years ago and delivering beautiful wines.

    • Ah, yes, I was going to mention Ceres and surrounds, but forgot. Isn’t there some newer plantings in Ceres that’s also not on rootstocks?

    • Chris Alheit is planting some ungrafted Pinot in Ceres, which is pretty cool. I’d love to know about more ungrafted vineyards in SA.

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