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MKB Second History Lesson: The South African Wine History

MKB Second History Lesson: The South African Wine History

I just love history, and the South African Wine History is full of excitement, dreams, corruption and cutting-edge technology. The wine-making industry plays a massive role in the development of our History. I shall do my very best to keep it short and exciting. History doesn’t have to be boring.

We shall start at the very beginning where all the trouble started – apparently. As we all know under the Command of Jan van Riebeeck, was instructed by the Dutch East Company to create a Refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope. Its main purpose was to serve as a half way mark for sailors traveling on the Spice Route. It was to provide fresh food and water to sustain passing ships and the station.


The Arrival of Jan van Riebeeck to the Cape of Good Hope (Charles Davidson Bell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The winemaking process by Jan van Riebeeck was mostly an experimental one. He was curious if the soil and climate in the Cape will be good enough for producing wine. He imported grapes from France, Spain and the Rhineland and planted  the vines at the very first fort at the Cape of Good Hope.

In the end,  the Table Bay area was not suitable for planting grapes. He also had a problem with the Free Burghers that they were not too keen on producing wine. Instead, they planted the vines as pergolas to shade their stables and homes. 

Jan van Riebeeck endured and planted vines which are known today as the Wynberg Area. 2 February 1969 is a very important date in the South Africans wine history. Why?

On this very special day was the first time wine was produced in the Cape. Okay, not huge volumes, in actual fact only a meager 15L. This wine was produced from the Muscadel Grape. Jan van Riebeeck must have been so elated! He even recorded this historical event in his diary: “Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed for the first time from Cape Grapes”.

This had paved the way to expand his vineyard away from Table Bay. He planted about 1000 vines in what is now Bishopscourt. This proved to be a fantastic location, just before Jan van Riebeeck had to return to Europe his vines were producing a few good hecto-litres of fine wine.


After Jan van Riebeeck had left in 1662, the wine-making industry had come to a total standstill. For almost 20 years there was no further developments in wine-making. All of this was about change when Simon van der Stel had arrived in 1679 and appointed as the new Governor of the Cape Colony. 

Unlike Jan van Riebeeck, who had very little knowledge of wine-making, Simon van der Stel, on the other hand, was a well cultured and traveled man. He had first hand experience on growing vines in Europe. This new Governor had improved local farming and viticulture.

South African History of Wine
Portrait of Simon van der Stel (Pieter van Anraedt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Simon van der Stel had a personal effect on the quality of the wine in the Cape. He found the wine at that time to be extremely harsh. No body like a harsh wine. The Free Burghers excuse was that the wine could not be improved. (Really...Did they even try??) The Governor was to prove them wrong. Van der Stel proceeded to planted just over a few thousand vines of Pontac and Muscat de Frontignan.  Rewards were definately reaped, as his vineyard produced excellent wine.

The Governor also not only set the example to the Free Burghers of making fine wine but also encouraged them to produce a far better quality wine. He encouraged them to press the grapes only when ripe. Apparently, to deter the birds from attacking the grapes when ripe, they harvest when the grapes was unripe.  Van der Stel was very anti this practice to the point that he set up a special committee. This committees sole purpose was to check on the vineyards making sure the correct level of ripeness had been achieved.

Should a vineyard failed in this matter they received a huge fine. He also improved the cleanliness of the cellars and casks. Taught them to fining the wine. Fining the wine is a method of cleaning the wine. Back then it was either done with ox blood, (gross!) egg white or a gelatinous extract from a sturgeon’s air bladder.

Upon his arrival van der Stel made one of the most important contributions to the Cape Society. After his inspection tour in the Hottentots-Holland area, he decided to explore a long and lush valley. After resting on the banks of the river which ran through this valley, he dreamed up what he felt would be a great place for agriculture and a new settlement, he even thought up a name for this new settlement.  And this my friends is where Stellenbosch was born. November 1679, was the first time the name Stellenbosch appeared in Simon van der Stel’s journal.

The main goal of this new colony, was to create a new colony away from Cape Town. It was to be a “Free Burgher” town, and from day one, wine producing was to be the major factor.


Painting of Stellenbosh By Samuel Davis (1760-1819)



Van der Stel needed more colonist for his new settlement. His answer to his prayers was found when King Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This led to the persecution of French Protestants. Many of the Huguenots (coming from the word “Eedgenoot”) had fled France to all parts of Europe. During 1688 – 1689 with the help of the Dutch East India Company about 150 Huguenots made their way to the Cape via Holland.

Well it turned out to be what was France’s loss became the Cape’s gain! Many of these Huguenots was extremely hard working and had many skills. As most of them came from the South of France they had the knowledge of the wine making methods and procedures. The knowledge of these new settlers wine-making skills was added to the Free Burghers limited knowledge and experiences. The French Huguenots quickly settled and was given land grants along the Berg River, a valley called De Olifantshoek which is now called Franschhoek. This becomes their domain.

By the 1700’s the Drakenstein area became more suitable for viticulture than wheat farming. This region was so fertile in wine-making that is was producing far more wine than the Cape and Stellenbosch together.

When Simon van der Stel retired in 1699, his eldest son, Willem Adriaan van der Stell became the new Governor of the Cape. He was pretty much a douche. He was arrogant – overwhelmingly arrogant and lead a martinet administration.

Don’t get me wrong, he did contribute a little to the development of viticulture in the Cape. He was passionate about horticulture and agriculture. He also encouraged further immigration and opened up a new settlement – “Land van Waveren” which is now called Tulbagh. Sadly, he allowed the temptation of self-interest to consume him.

In 1700 against the wishes of the directors of the Dutch East India Company he acquired 344ha of land. It was situated on the upper course of the Lourens River (close to modern-day Somerset West) Within a few years, he developed this piece of land into a prestigious and model farm. Adriaan van der Stellplanted about 400 000 vines, which was a quarter of the vines planted in the colony at the time. Not only did he plant vines but he also planted groves, orchards and corn fields. Van der Stell then later illegally acquired another 525ha of land.

Amongst all the corruption and illegal acts, he also monopolised the meat and wine market. This cause a lot of tension amongst the Free Burghers. Under the leading colonists of  Adam Tas of Libertas, came to an open rebellion against Willem Adriaan. A game of bluff and counter-bluff ended in the Governor’s humiliating exile back to Holland. His farm, Vergelegen was then divided into several farms and sold on public auction. .


For about 200 years Constantia wine remained the Cape’s best and most desired wines. When Simon van der Stel passed away in 1712, Constantia was divided into several farms. Constantia wines were made only from two of these farms, Groot Constantia and De Hoop op Constantia. The owners of De Hoop of Constantia had put Constantia wines on the map and made it world famous. Their wines was made from Red and White Muscat de Frontignan grapes. Smaller quantities was made from Pontac and white Frontignac grapes. Due to their very unique characteristics, Constantia wines was highly popular among wine enthusiasts locally and internationally. These wines was so popular it was drunk by Kings, Emperors, Statement and Merchant Princes. 

Sadly during the mid 1800’s the Sweet Constantia wines started to decline. The biggest factors for the decline was the outbreak of Oidium (vine disease) and the destruction of vineyards caused by the phylloxera root louse. Consumer’s also started to prefer the natural drier wines than sweet wines.

Towards the end of the 1800’s 90% of wines made was made from the Semillon grapes. This wine was called “Madeira wine”. We also so the development of wine made from the Hanepoot grape and Chenin Blanc.


South African Wine History
Constantia as of today – By JessyAM (Own work)



Something really interesting that I would like to share with you. I thought it was pretty interesting. So during the 1880’s the dreaded pest phylloxera which is a root louse had a huge impact on the wine industry world wide.

It arrivd in France in about 1861 via some American vines. It destroyed the French vineyards and from there it spread like wild fire. In South Africa Phylloxera arrived in 1886. Farmers had to destroy millions of vines. This of course as you can imagine caused massive financial losses.

The only way to combat this pest was to replant vines with a phylloxera resistant american root stock. This saved the Cape vineyards from complete destruction. This practice still continues to this day. If you go to any vineyard and had to pull out out vine, you will see the grafting scar on the vines.


South African Wine History
Phylloxera vastatrix



Charles WH Kohler founds the “Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika Beperk” in other words KWV was founded. The main purpose for KWV he purpose of KWV was to create unity among the wine farmers of South Africa and to ensure continuous improvement in the quality of South African wines and brandies. To achieve its goals all wine farmers had to become members of KWV and to solve the problem of instability.

Prefessor Perold he is my hero in the wine industry. Why? Well because he created one of my favourite wines that is why? He created the Pinotage grape which is a cross between and Pinot Noir and Hermitage (Cinsaut). We will still discuss this one day in more detail.

Stellenbosch Farmers Winery Ltd was founded as a public company. This company is known today as Distel. Distel is the founding member of WIETA in 2002. WIETA is South Africa’s agricultural ethical trade initiative. Distel becomes a leader in Africa, opening up new wine markets on the continent which was dominated by the French, Portuguese and the Spanish.

Introduction of cold fermentation – a whole new break-though in the wine technology. This was Pioneered by Nicky Krone from Twee Jonge Gezellen Estate in Tulbagh. He was honoured in France and become a world authority in cold fermentation.

Liberstein launched a semi sweet natural table wine. This changed the drinking habits of South Africans.

Liberstein sales reached 31 million litres. This became the worlds largest selling branded wine.

Wine of Origin legislation instituted. We will still discuss this one day in much more detail.

Stellenbosch wine route was established

ARA was established (Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use)

Cape winemakers Guild was established

The first Veritas awards was held

New Wine of Origin Seal was introduced

As apartheid was abolished, this lead for the Overseas markets to open up.

Wines of South Africa (WOSA) was established to promote South Africa’s exports
South Africa Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS) was established

Vinpro was established

BWI(Biodiversity and Wine Initiative) is established. The main purpose of this initiative is a unique partnership between the conservation sector and the South African Wine Industry, wine producers are setting aside hectares of natural veld for conservation.

Wine and Spirits Board introduces the first ever Integrity and Sustainability Seal. (This we will also discuss in future)

Was a record year for the South African Wine Industry. South Africa exported 523million litres of wine.

So my friends, I hope you enjoyed reading the history of South Africa’s wine-making. Please feel free to comment if you have questions, or there is something you would like to share. Remember, don’t forget to sign up so you don’t miss another article. I do plan to share some amazing recipes… so watch this space!

Chow now!



1 thought on “MKB Second History Lesson: The South African Wine History

    • Author gravatar
      It's so interesting reading this history and putting it together with things you already know. For instance, you know that Franschoek is a French area, but you didn't know why. Learnt some cool things ;-)

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