SA wine history: On early market demand and the first wine ‘experts’ at the Cape

By , 9 October 2018



In his article on the first grape varieties planted at the Cape, Tim James says: ‘Viticulture was not much of a science in those days; nor were wine drinkers much concerned about different grape varieties as such.’


‘Is it sweet enough for you, my dear?’ The Wine Glass by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1659-1660), Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum.

While I agree on both counts, it’s interesting to note that the Council of India (the Dutch East India Company’s government in Batavia, present-day Jakarta in Indonesia) knew exactly what its market wanted: something sweet.

In a letter that arrived on 28 April 1676 with the homebound ships Ceylon, Alexander and Voorsigtigheyd, the Council wrote: ‘As we have heard here from various persons that vineyards are increasing very rapidly among the different people at the Cape, so that a fair quantity of white wines is already being obtained, we wish to suggest to you to see whether no Spanish, or Canary or Sack grapes are found at the Cape … and should there as yet be none of those kinds, then to requisition the Directors at Home for some, and only plant that particular kind which principally agrees with the Cape climate, and is less subject to getting sour than the white wines.’

‘Sack’ was a sweet, syrupy, usually fortified wine from mainland Spain as well as the Canary Islands, where winegrowers favoured the Malvasia grape, aka Malmsey, today best known for producing the sweetest and richest style of Madeira.

On 16 May 1676, the Cape’s newly appointed seventh commander, Johan Bax, duly wrote to the ‘Directors at Home’, the Lords XVII, requesting Spanish, Canary Island and Sack cuttings. (Note: I haven’t as yet tracked down any mention of these arriving at the Cape but, as Tim notes, the Spanish grape palomino was here before the arrival of Simon van der Stel.)

What intrigues me most about that Council of India letter is that it reveals the identity of the Cape’s first wine ‘expert’, who arrived with the fleet on 28 April 1676, namely ‘one Hans Adam Cockenberger, of Vienna, who … is an expert viticulturist, and professes within a few years to plant such a large quantity of vines, that soon he will have more than the Cape needs, so that many leaguers could be sent to [East] India’.

The letter instructed the Cape authorities as follows: ‘You shall permit him to select such lands as may be sufficient, as this is deemed a matter of importance, in which the Masters are greatly interested; hence a helping hand must be held out to him, by providing him with the cuttings of the various Company’s vineyards, such as he may desire to have. And as he says that his wife is equally experienced in viticulture, and in case of his death, would be able to continue the work, he has requested our recommendation to the Masters to allow her a passage to the Cape.’

Alas, it seems the ‘expert’ left the Cape only one year later. Perhaps his wife hadn’t been allowed to join him after all. Perhaps his Austrian winemaking philosophy was at odds with the call for wines more similar to the syrupy sweets of the sun-baked Mediterranean.

The next supposed expert is recorded as having arrived at the Cape with Commander Simon van der Stel in 1679. Hailing from the south of France, Jean Marieau was said to have ‘thorough knowledge from many years of experience’ but his actual contribution to building the Cape wine industry can’t have been very considerable given that there is no further mention of him in the records.

Whether initially assisted by Marieau or not, Van der Stel personally undertook to improve the general quality of wine at the Cape. Believing that a great deal of the vrijburghers’ wine was ‘disgustingly harsh’ because they picked their grapes too early, he decided towards the end of 1680 to prove a point by purchasing grapes still hanging on the vine, and then – only when the time was right – picking them and pressing them ‘the way they are handled in Europe in the wine countries’.

His own verdict on the wines he had made? ‘Very tasty and lovely to drink … yes, we can declare that in two or three years these will equal French wines.’

Van der Stel proposed to the Cape authorities that he should buy and personally press all the grapes grown by the vrijburghers on an annual basis, but visiting commissioner Rijcklof van Goens Jr. insisted that he should rather tell the vrijburghers what to do.

He duly established committees, issued official decrees and imposed penalties for unripe grapes and dirty barrels. He also repeatedly wrote to the Lords XVII (on 12 April 1686, for example, and again on 18 April 1687) asking them to send out more people with knowledge of winegrowing.

How delighted he must therefore have been to receive a letter from the Lords XVII, dated 16 November 1687, informing him that, among a group of French refugees who would soon be arriving at the Cape, there were ‘vine cultivators as well as those who understand the manufacture of brandy and vinegar’.

Yes, indeed, it’s time at last to meet the 200-odd French Huguenots who arrived at the Cape between 1688 and 1692 – the men, women and children who have all too often been credited with laying the foundations of winegrowing in South Africa when, in fact, as I’ve hopefully managed to reveal over the past few months, there was rather a lot going on before they got here.

À bientôt…

Leibbrandt, HCV: Precis of the Archives of the Cape of Good Hope (Journal, 1671-1674 & 1676; Rambles through the Archives of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope, 1688-1700), originally published by W.A. Richards & Sons, 1896-1905, digitised by University of California Libraries

Leipoldt, C Louis: 300 Years of Cape Wine, Tafelberg, 1974

Van Rensburg, J.I: Die Geskiedenis van die Wingerdkultuur in Suid-Afrika tuidens die Eerste Eeu, 1652-1752. MA Thesis, University of Stellenbosch, 1930

  • Joanne Gibson has been a journalist, specialising in wine, for over two decades. She holds a Level 4 Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and has won both the Du Toitskloof and Franschhoek Literary Festival Wine Writer of the Year awards, not to mention being shortlisted four times in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards. As a sought-after freelance writer and copy editor, her passion is digging up nuggets of SA wine history.


2 comment(s)

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    Hennie Taljaard | 9 October 2018

    van der Stel was a very important wine family. Jean Marieau was a wine merchant married to Simon vd Stel’s mother-in-law and because further reference to him cannot be found doesn’t mean “his actual contribution to building the Cape wine industry can’t have been very considerable..” Given the fact that he was from the south of france it wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t him that brought Pontac to the Cape! (pontac hails from the South western part of France).

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