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Tim James: History of grape varieties in the Cape

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A question about the identity of a grape variety emerged from Joanne Gibson’s latest article on winemaking in the early Cape and I commented that the “Persian” vines referred to couldn’t be shiraz in my opinion. It made me think that a quick sketch of the pre-20th century history of grape varieties in  the Cape might be a good idea – especially as many readers of this website seem to have a taste for learning about the past of the South African wine industry.

Vergelegen
Vergelegen.

A sketch – a mere and even vague sketch – is what it has to be with regard to that period, and not only because my research has not been deep. Viticulture was not much of a science in those days; nor were winedrinkers much concerned about different grape varieties as such. We must rely a good deal on the written records of commentators for what understanding we can glean. In my comment on Joanne’s piece I quoted one of them, the Dutch traveller Francois Valentijn, reporting on grape varieties he noted at the turn of the 18th century at Vergelegen: “Frontignan, Russelaar, Pottebakker, and a Persian long white variety as well as varieties from Avignon, Champagne and Burgundy”. Now, Frontignan is familiar, as one of the earliest varieties in the Cape. But we’re not helped by the other references and much the same goes for many other early accounts – many of which are more than a little bewildering when it comes to this matter.

The earliest varieties successfully grown here were muscadel, steen (chenin blanc) and hanepoot (muscat d’Alexandrie – presumed to be the “Spanish grape” referred to by Van Riebeek). As described in J van Rensburg’s 1954 Stellenbosch University MA thesis about winegrowing in the first 100 years of the settlement, there were attempts to diversify the varieties grown, especially on the “model farms” of the two van der Stels, Vergelegen and Constantia – hence Valentijn’s rather long (albeit vague) list. Later, the reported lists of varieties became much shorter, suggesting that the earlier array of varieties constituted, to a significant extent, experiments and trials.

As viticulture spread during the 18th century – or consolidated, really, as it could never spread far from the Cape Town market because of poor communications – the number of varieties clearly reduced. Groendruif (as semillon was known) had early become important – probably even before Simon van der Stel’s time, as had pontac and fransdruif (palomino). Marketed wines were not associated with specific varieties, however (although the different kinds and colours of famous Constantia did imply careful associations here). Rather (again Constantia being different, as it was in most regards), fanciful and over-hopeful allusions were made to the famous wines of Europe: most local stuff was given such names as Mallaga, Vintint, Moselle, Vin de Grave, Rheinwein and, above all, Madeira.

It seems clear that the overwhelmingly greater part of Cape wine was from white varieties. A government official in 1778 did some research and found that the it was mostly made from groendruif (semillon, remember), also from pontac, red and white muscadel, and steen. But it appears that farmers were already busy replacing pontac and steen with groendruif – a more productive grape, and more resistant to pests and disease.

The trend towards groendruif continued apace in the early 19th century, with the large expansion in production that followed the British takeover of the Cape Colony from the Dutch. According to what we must accept as reliable calculations and observations made in 1821, by this time groendruif commanded over 93% of plantings, out of “really no more than eleven distinct species of vines”. Next came muscadel, then hanepoot (though apparently little used for wine), pontac, steen, and then six unnamed others. Groendruif occurred by this time in both red- and white-skinned versions (both producing white wine).

Incidentally, referring back to my earlier note about the dubiousness of most observers’ knowledge of grape varieties, we can note that this author describes pontac as “the same as the cote rotie of the Rhone [ie syrah], the pontac of Guienne [Bordeaux, presumably] … and the port grape of the Douro” – which covers rather too many bases to be convincing!

Later in the century, in 1885, the new government viticulturist, Baron von Babo, reported that greengrape was still the commonest variety, that the “Stein Grape” was “not common but can be a high yielder”, that muscadel was still important, and that “‘of the dark grapes the Pontac is the most valuable”.

That really is the end of what we could consider the pre-history of modern Cape viticulture and the grape varieties it used. The year after von Babo’s report, phylloxera was discovered in a Mowbray vineyard and was soon devastating the Cape’s vines. Meanwhile, better informed understanding and advice was emerging from the government model farm at Groot Constantia in the last decades of the century, important new varieties were being brought in, and plantings were to change drastically as farmers slowly replaced their vines with new ones on rootstocks. We hear for the first time of grapes like cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, shiraz and cinsaut.

Trouble aplenty lay ahead for the Cape wine industry, but at least the vineyards were being more consciously planned.

  • 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.

11 COMMENTS

  1. So we basically didn’t know much about what was in the ground at the time. I wonder if in other new world places (Australia, NZ, Chile etc) they were equally clueless at the time. I know Chile for many years thought they had merlot when it was carmenere. And even in Europe – were they clued up enough to know what they had planted? The French obviously had a lot of time to figure it out and to see what worked where, but I wonder if there were as much trial and error.

  2. The puzzle about the wine grape varieties in play in the Cape during those early days reminds me of a personal favourite label description: “Gemischter Salz” in Austria, otherwise known as “Field Blend”.
    In Vienna’s wondrous city vineyards, it is now a much-admired DAC seal of origin. The story is that Heuriger (tavern) owners planted this mixture of varieties (sometimes literally in their back yards) to make sure the season will deliver ripe grapes to make the house wine.
    Literally “mixed composition/set” the description has a nice natural, unpretentious ring to it (now somewhat ironically, of course). Not quite knowing what’s in the vineyard has its own charming challenge to winemakers, side-lining today’s label queens.
    In the Douro in Portugal, a similar precaution has a long history (A quinta I just visited has a hill of 46 different varieties!)
    (Beyerskloof’s Field Blend is more a controlled version – Bordeaux being the blueprint.)
    Maybe our early chaps also placed their bets on a “versmelte versnit”….

  3. Hi Tim
    Just a correction, the thesis of Jac van Rensburg was published in 1930: Die Geskiedenis van die Wingerdkultuur in Suid-Afrika tuidens die Eerste Eeu, 1652-1752. MA Thesis, University of Stellenbosch, 1930.

  4. I read on Twitter this morning that the Itata region of Chile has around 26 unidentified varieties. I think Peter Richards MW either originated the tweet or retweeted it with a link to an article.

  5. 1. Thanks, Ina. I read the thesis in an “Archives Year Book for South African History” published in 1954, and didn’t look closer….
    2. Stewart: That sounds very plausible. I did wonder about “roussanne”.
    3. Hennie: Even to me, pretty ignorant as I am about this, it’s clear there was a mixture of ignorance and knowledge in the past everywhere. The best known varieties were known and named in Europe (pinot noir, riesling etc), but there are so many local synonyms of many grapes that clearly there was usually no understanding of the correct situation. People grew the grape that tradition and experience demanded and gave it a locally meaningful name. I have open beside the page on Cabernet Franc in the Robinson et al book on “Wine Grapes”. It lists a few dozen “Principal synonyms” for the grape, and 6 “Varieties commonly mistaken for cabernet franc”. Those categories are populated for most of the varieties discussed in that great work.

    Even now many facts are emerging – just think of obvious bits of modern identification, as with zinfandel. And talking of riesling – just think how many areas named a white grape after riesling because of its prestige, and presumably many at some stage came to believe it was the real thing. Of course, even for sophisticated winelovers in Europe there was probably great ignorance, because why should they care what claret was made from, or red or white burgundy or hermitage? So it’s not surprising that in the Cape no-one had any idea of the identity of the grapes they were growing. Groendruif was only identified as semillion around 1900 by a clever viticulturist who happened to notice the similarity while travelling in Bordeaux. Cinsaut was known as hermitage before Perold correctly identified it. Etc etc. I find it all fascinating.

  6. Fransdruif, white French, vaalblaar – the synonyms for palomino in the Cape. Semillon was known generally as groendruif or green grape, and for a period was even known as “wyndruif” (wine grape), so popular was it.

  7. Hi Tim,
    I quite enjoyed your article including the quotation from François Valentijn, and I quote: “…Here are found the ‘steen-druif’, the blue Muscatel or Catalonian, the white Muscatel, the small blue grape, and the ‘kristal-druif’…”
    However, we should not forget that many table grapes have doubled up in the past as wine grapes. For example, Cinsaut (Hermitage) was originally a table and a wine grape. Similarly, White Crystal (kristaldruif) was used in Simon van der Stel’s time as both a table and wine grape.
    In fact, in August 2015, the South African Wine and Spirit Board re-certified White Crystal for ‘vinification purposes’. It had been provisionally listed under the wine legislation of 1957, but removed from the schedule in 1990 because newer ‘international’ grapevine cultivars were preferred by the winemakers at that time.
    According to Lowell Jooste of LJ Crafted Wines and inventor of the wine-from-the-barrel dispenser aptly named the “Wine Steward”, the White Crystal grape is most likely a minor cultivar that produced sweet table grapes.
    From a recently-determined microsatellite DNA fingerprinting (simple sequence repeat or SSR) analysis performed on the White Crystal it has been revealed that the original name of that “minor cultivar that produced sweet table grapes” was ‘Krystalli’, a Greek table (and wine) grape variety.

    The SSR data analysis has also revealed that White Crystal was the result of a crossing between Krystalli x Sémillon (Groendruif) and is probably South Africa’s first indigenous grape variety.
    Please see my article in the Weekend Argus, 2 April 2016 (by Jan Cronje): 300-year-old grape makes comeback.
    URL: https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/weekend-argus-saturday-edition/20160402/283205852409863

    Kind Regards,

    Dr Jerry Rodrigues

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