Today in 1685 Simon van der Stel, the Dutch East India Company’s commander at the Cape, was granted his request for a farm, signalling the birth of South Africa’s first and still pace-setting fine-wine growing area. Joanne Gibson reports.
If anybody’s looking for me today, I’m picnicking on the lawns of Groot Constantia where they’re celebrating the 330th birthday of Constantia, source of South Africa’s still most-celebrated wines: the costly and coveted desserts of the 18th century.
At the height of their fame, Constantia’s sweet wines were the toast of Europe’s courts and salons, beloved by Frederick the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and Baudelaire.
The timeline begins a century earlier with the granting to commander Van der Stel of 891 morgen, about 2,400 hectares (“morgen” being the amount of land that could be ploughed in a morning), of what turned out to be premier farmland.
The Deed of Grant read as follows: “Having taken into consideration the good and faithful services evinced by Simon van der Stel, Commander here under the Honourable Company, respecting agriculture, and in order to encourage more and more his so salutary zeal thereto, we […] hereby allow, grant and give to him in free and full property a certain piece of ground situated behind the Table Mountain at or near the Steenbergen.”
Encompassing virtually the entire valley, the farm was the size of Amsterdam at the time – about 15 times larger than the normal land grant. Van der Stel called it Constantia.
The name has puzzled wine historians ever since. Some have speculated that it was the name of his wife (incorrect: she was Johanna Jacoba) or daughter (also incorrect: she was Catharina). A mistress? A ship? A trait (“constancy”) that he admired? Perhaps simply a statement of intent to stay at the Cape permanently?
Whatever the case, Van der Stel soon planted 10,000 vines on the slopes of the Steenbergen (today called the Vlakkenberg) and, in 1691, the year of his promotion to the rank of governor, built a grand house surrounded by gardens and orchards.
Feedback about Cape wine from Dutch East India Company headquarters in Batavia (modern-day Djakarta) had never been good, the Council declaring that it “didn’t know what to do with the Cape wine”. But in 1692 Van der Stel received more encouraging comment: “The wine from Constantia is of a much higher quality than any sent out so far, but obviously only obtainable in small quantities.”
The rest, as they say, is history – remarkable history that I’ve researched in detail over the past couple of years on behalf of Klein Constantia. Click here for a sneak preview of the as-yet-unpublished book I’ve written for them; the chapter that scooped me the prize for long-form Wine Writer of the Year at the Franschhoek Literary Festival 2015).
Following Van der Stel’s death in 1712, Constantia was split into three. The portion that became Groot Constantia (including the original homestead) was sold to captain Oloff Bergh on auction in 1716. There since have been countless sub-divisions, from the formation of Klein Constantia in 1823 to the exciting debut since 2000 of newcomers such as Constantia Glen, Eagles’ Nest and Beau Constantia.
But this is where it all began, back in 1685, and today there’s no place I’d rather be.