SA wine history: A contemporary account of Cape wine in the early 1700s

By , 4 February 2020

Peter Kolbe (1675-1725) was an early fan of Cape wine.

Just over three centuries ago, in 1719, the German astronomer and surveyor Peter Kolbe published his comprehensive Caput Bonae Spei Hodiernum, a detailed account of day-to-day life at the Cape where he had lived between 1705 and 1713. Largely – and sympathetically – devoted to a study of the Khoikhoi (‘Their Religion, Government, Laws, Customs, Ceremonies, and Opinions; Their Art of War, Professions, Language, Genius, etc’), it also described the topography, climate, flora and fauna of the Cape, and included ‘a Short Account of the Dutch Settlement’.

Needless to say, I was particularly interested in what Kolbe had to say about winegrowing, given that the first few vines had only been planted 50 years prior to his arrival.

‘The Europeans were a long Time at the Cape before they could see a good Vineyard planted among ’em, tho’ from the Time of their Arrival there, they had bestow’d all the Pains and Expense they could in the procuring and Planting of Vines. They procur’d some Quantities of Vine-Stocks from the Rhine and, by way of Batavia, from Persia. These they planted and cultivated in the Ordinary Way. But none being able to procure, from either of those Places, Vine-Stocks sufficient for a Plantation that might deserve the Name of a Vineyard, Vines, for many Years, made but a very inconsiderable Figure at the Cape; and the Vintages there were Nothing.’

This more or less tallies with my account of the Cape’s first winegrower, Jan van Riebeeck, and his various frustrations.

Continued Kolbe: ‘This put many Europeans at the Cape upon racking their Wits to facilitate the Propagation of Vines there: And at Length, a few High Germans among ’em hit upon a very successful Expedient. Vines being ordinarily prun’d once a Year, these High Germans took, one Year, the Twigs lopt off from the growing Vines, and having cut ’em in pieces of Half a Foot in Length (some not so long, but all of ’em having the Knots from whence rise new Branches) they plough’d up some Land, and sow’d those Pieces upon it…’

These Germans presumably included Van Riebeeck’s successor as Commander at the Cape, Zacharias Wagenaar of Dresden, who focused his attention on planting vines at the Rondebosje (Rondebosch).

‘The fertile Cape Soil rewarded this Labour very nobly; for, at the proper season, the Land was cover’d with such a Family of young Vines, that there was no longer any Necessity for the Importation of Vine-Stocks. The Experiment was renew’d, and being follow’d with the like Success, the Colonies were quickly stock’d with young Vines, and soon after in the Possession of spacious and flourishing Vineyards. The Vine-Stocks, they afterwards imported from Persia and Europe, were only for the Sake of Variety…’

By the time Kolbe lived at the Cape, he was able to report: ‘There is hardly a Cottage in all the Colonies without a Vineyard. And there are but very few Settlers who have not, from their own Vineyards, a plentiful Provision of Wines for themselves and their Families. Many, when their own Cellars are supplied, have large quantities for Sale, by which they make, from Year to Year, very considerable profits.’

Along the Liesbeeck River, flowing through what are now the southern suburbs of Cape Town, there were ‘several fine Gardens, Vineyards and Corn-Fields’. And not far from the ‘Estate of distinguished Beauty and Fertility’ originally established by Van Riebeeck in 1658, namely Bosheuvel (today the suburb of Bishopscourt stretching towards Wynberg or ‘wine mountain’), was Constantia, the ‘extremely delightful’ estate established by Simon van der Stel in 1685.

What we all know today as the Durbanville Wine Valley was then ‘call’d Tiger-Hills, not for that they were formerly the Haunts of Tigers, but because they appear colour’d and spotted to Something of the Resemblance of the Skins of Tigers. These Hills are esteem’d the most fertile of all others about the Cape,’ wrote Kolbe. ‘I reckon, that there are upon the Tiger-Hills Twenty Two commodious Seats, and the same number of very handsome Estates; all of ’em divided into Corn-Fields, Vineyards, Gardens, and Meadow-Ground.’

Similarly well developed, according to Kolbe, was the Stellenbosch ‘colony’ which he divided into four Parts: ‘One bears the Name of the Colony, Stellenbosch; another is call’d Mottergate; a Third is known by the Name of Hottentots Holland; the Fourth is call’d Bottelary.’

Then there was the Drakenstein valley, primarily settled by French Huguenots from 1688 onwards. ‘But very few are the stately Seats and Pleasure-Houses in it,’ observed Kolbe, who explained: ‘The Refugees begun the World here under great Incumbrances, and were oblig’d to contract many Debts, which are not discharg’d to this Day. And those Incumbrances on them and their present Descendants, in all Probability, hinder ’em from erecting Houses for Pleasure and Parade, as the Capians and Stellenboschians have done in great Numbers.’

Indeed, I’ve argued before that the Huguenots struggled at first; that their impact on the Cape’s wine industry was not (at least not initially) as dramatic as has traditionally been made out.

According to Kolbe, challenges faced by all Cape winegrowers included mildew, locusts, the small black worm known as ‘Sugger’ and the south-easterly winds: ‘These Winds sometimes break off large well-loaden Branches; which perish then of Course. If ’tis very hot when they blow, vast Numbers of Grapes are dried to Raisins upon the Trees.’

Kolbe then provided a description of winegrowing throughout the year: ‘In August (when the Cape-Spring commences), the Cape-Vines are prun’d. In September the Leaves appear. In October one may, allowing for Accidents, make a pretty good Judgement of the approaching Produce… The Cape-Vintage begins about the End of February, and continues all the Month of March. The Vineyards are dung’d, in the General, once in Three Years.’

He noted that ‘Cape-Vines’ were not trained to extend upwards, as in Europe. ‘They are generally prevented from Rising above Three Foot; on Account of the South-East Winds; which, if the Vines were suffer’d to rise much higher, would destroy the best Part of the Grapes. The Curbing of the Vines, that they exceed not Three Foot in Height, is called Toppen, and is performed in November.’

Intriguingly, Kolbe then described the vinification process:

‘From the Wine-Press the Wines are put into Vessels; the White Wines in Vessels that have been season’d by burning in each a Match of Brimstone; and the Red into such as have been season’d each by a Couple of burnt Nutmegs. Red Wines, put into Vessels that have been season’d with Brimstone, are said to lose much of their Colour. When the Wines have stood some Time, they are rack’d off from the Lees. ’Tis a general Notion at the Cape, that Wines, standing long on the Lees, become sour. What Foundation they have for this, I know not.’

He went on: ‘When the Wines have stood for Three of Four Months in other Vessels, they fine ’em, in the ordinary way, with Isinglass. And if Isinglass fines ’em not enough, they pour hot Sand into ’em; which carries every foul Particle before it to the Bottom. When the Wines are well fined, they are stopt up close; and thus they remain for Use or Sale.’

Kolbe lamented the fact that most winegrowers could not mature their wines for very long for want of barrels: ‘Casks are always very scare and very dear at the Cape, and often not to be had for Love or Money. As the Cape Wines, the Older they are, become the Richer, and by much the dearer, so were the Planters enabled by being plentifully supplied with Staves, to keep their Wines long by ’em, they might double their Fortunes immediately.’

Kolbe believed that wines matured for about two years lost their ‘Capian’ taste and resembled the (highly sought-after) wines of the Canaries.  ‘I have drank, at the Governour’s, Capian Wine which was Six Year old; and which sparkled like old Hock, and was as racy as the noblest Canary.’

He concluded: ‘The Cape Wine, in all its Richness, tempts you powerfully to a Debauch.’

In his view, at least, it seems we were off to a good start.

Kolbe, Peter (translated by Guido Medley): The Present State of the Cape of Good Hope, Vol II, Containing the Natural History of the Cape, London, 1731

  • 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.

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