As you sit down to enjoy your favourite label, whilst swirling the wine in your glass, holding it up against the light and savouring the aroma, do you ever wonder where it all began?
When researching 355 years of winemaking in the Cape, Groot Constantia seems to be quite high up in the ranks on Google, which is very appropriate, considering that we are viewed as the pioneers of winemaking in South Africa and have just hosted the industry’s annual blessing of the harvest event at which the coveted 1659 Medal of Honour award was presented at a lavish ceremony.
As the oldest wine farm in South Africa, Groot Constantia was privileged to, once again, host this event where the medal was handed to Jan Scannell, Retired Managing Director of Distell, for his essential contribution to the industry.
So what is the 1659 Medal of Honour all about?
- Well, you might want to thank Spatz Sperling (owner of Delheim wine estate) who received the Medal of Honour for his life-long pioneering marketing initiatives in the wine industry in 2012. As the co-creator of the country’s very first wine route system in 1971, to attract visitors to the wine farms in the Stellenbosch region, he changed the face of winemaking tourism forever.
- Previous winners of the esteemed 1659 Medal of Honour include Nelson Mandela, former KWV chairpersons André du Toit and Ritzema de la Bat, as well as esteemed winemakers Günter Brözel, N.C. Krone and Sydney Back.
But seriously, who would have guessed that Jan van Riebeeck’s humble vineyard, at the foot of Table Mountain, would spark an industry of winemaking, large corporations and thousands of jobs in the Cape?
Although the history is quite long, we’ve highlighted a couple of dates that you could try to remember the next time you enjoy your favourite wine:
- In 1685 Simon van der Stel were granted and transformed Groot Constantia into a model wine estate. He also reorganised the local farming community by introducing crop quotas and established Stellenbosch, the first settlement inland from Cape Town.
- Willem Adriaan van der Stel succeeded his father as the Governor of the Cape in 1699 and made a useful contribution to improving the vineyards in the Cape.
- Groot Constantia wines was enjoyed by the rich and the famous, including Frederick of Prussia (who imported it) as well as famous novelist, Jane Austin. Whilst imprisoned on St. Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte was even known to have “yearned for it”.
- The French Huguenots, after arriving in the Cape in 1688, brought with them their culture and knowledge of vineyard and cellar practice. They settled in the Franschhoek Valley, were the names of the farms reflect this rich French history.
- In 1885 disaster struck and a devastating epidemic of louse-like aphids, commonly called Phylloxera, took its toll on the South African and European wine industries. The vineyards of the Cape slowly restored, which led to an uncontrolled overproduction of millions of gallons of wine that literally had to be poured down the drain. Many destitute farmers were left bankrupt and migrated to the towns.
- In response to this problem the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika Beperkt (KWV) were formed in 1918. The organisation handles about 70% of South African wine exports and represents 4 919 producers. Its objectives are to ensure the long-term stability of the industry and to maintain a rewarding return for both the producer and the organisation.
- In 1935, the largest of the producing wholesalers, Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (SFW), was founded by American doctor, William Charles Winshaw.
- The second biggest producing wholesaler, Distillers Corporation was launched in 1945.
- In 1979 the most important merger in the history of wine occurred. One which restructured the liquor industry as a whole. Distillers, SFW and its imported product subsidiary, Henry Taylor and Ries merged and became co-subsidiaries of a holding company: Cape Wine and Distillers (CWD).
- In 1980, the newly formed Cape Wine Academy began courses for the trade and the public.
- KWV was dismantled into a commercially driven venture in 1997 and, together with other players, formed the South African Wine Industry Trust in 1999 to promote transformation of the wine industry.
- Distell was created in 2000 by the merger of Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (SFW) and Distillers Corporation.
Have you recently heard someone say: “You haven’t tasted wine until you have been to the Cape Winelands?.” The largest wine producing region in SA, divided into six main wine regions, it is here where the climate and topographic conditions simulate those of the old wine countries and the continent’s finest wines are produced.
Wine Tourism in South Africa Today
Although the industry bears a long and rich history, it was only after the Apartheid era that the South African wine industry was able to reconnect with the global wine industry and started to thrive into becoming the quality brands we know today.
From grape stomping at harvests, to festivals, wine & food pairings, cellar tours, wine tasting and picnics – enjoying wine and all the experiences it has to offer – is now as much a part of the South African culture as koeksisters and mieliepap.
But it is no longer enough to simply purchase the wine at your local supermarket. The enjoyment and cultural significance is most certainly heightened by going back to the point of production and making the sensory encounters and beautiful settings that a wine farm has to offer part of the wine drinking experience.
Or as Groot Constantia so aptly likes to put it: “Time should be taken to first understand and then consume our award-winning wines.”
We can’t wait to welcome you to our estate to let you experience the journey of our award-winning wines, culminating from a rich history, old world grandeur and best practices when it comes to the wine making process. Visit our website for directions, operating hours and more information.