Jan van Riebeeck landed in 1652 on what became the Cape of Good Hope. His mission was to provide fresh produce for ships of the Dutch East India Company on their way to and from the Indies around Africa. Ostensibly because wine was supposed to help scurvy but perhaps for a quiet tipple on the side, he planted the first vineyard three years later. And on the 2nd of February 1659 he was able to proclaim: “Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed from Cape grapes for the first time”. By all accounts the wine was pretty foul, not too surprising given the level of expertise around at the time.
But van Riebeeck was succeeded twenty years later by Simon van der Stel, an interesting if contentious character, who did know about wine and saw the opportunity for a guilder or two to come his way also. He was the son of Adriaan van der Stel and Maria Lievens, the daughter of a freed Indian slave woman, which made him “coloured” in the racial parlance of the previous South African government. Needless to say this was not a feature emphasized in the history text books of the day!
The Cape peninsular has a climate not too different from that of southern Europe with winter rainfall and moderate temperatures. It is the area of South Africa which most reminds people of Europe with streets lined with gnarled oaks and the genteel shrubs and flowers that thrive in the “old country”. Van der Stel carefully selected a large wine farm for himself along the southern slopes of the Cape peninsular, actually testing the soils and choosing an area cooled by winds from the sea. He called the estate Constantia, and he did very well indeed.
But the wines that made Constantia famous came later when Hendrik Cloete moved from Stellenbosch (named after the same van der Stel) and bought a portion of the Constantia estate. He planted new vines and specialised in a wine made from grapes ripened almost to raisins on the vine, matured in vats and fortified. The wine was called simply Constantia and it held its own with all the choice sweet wines popular with the rich and famous of the day. All this came to an end late in the nineteenth century when the phylloxera plague devastated the vineyards. Still, a few bottles survive to this day. A wine-writer friend of mine was fortunate to taste one some years ago and pronounced it still luscious after more than 100 years.
In 1980 a new estate named Klein Constantia (part of the original van der Stel estate) decided to try to recreate the famous 19th century Constantia wine. It was to be a sweet desert wine in the late harvest style – not botrytis – with the berries hand-selected. The venture was a stunning success and celebrated in the name – Vin de Constance – and in copies of the old Constantia hand-made bottles which the estate uses for the modern wine. It IS available outside South Africa – a friend in Australia has a good selection of vintages, and I had a bottle in a restaurant in New York once. If you like dessert wines, this one is worth trying if you have the chance. And you can imagine you are sharing the bottle with Bismark or Napoleon or King George. Works well at Chrismas too!