Most of you know me as a defender of Old World wines, but you probably don’t realize that I am very fond of the wines of South Africa. I’ve always enjoyed them because I believe that they consistently offer an intriguing blend of new world fruit with just enough old world earthiness, structure (think acidity, tannin, etc…), and complexity.
I do, however, struggle to place South Africa in the “New World” wine category. Why?
1659…the first harvest of grapes in the Dutch Cape Colony (present day Southwest South Africa).
1685…the establishment of the Constantia vineyards in the Dutch Cape Colony by Simon van der Stel & the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV
1688…about 200 or so French Huguenots settle in the Olifantshoek Valley (named after the elephants that once roamed throughout the valley), today known as the Franschhoek (‘French Corner’ in Afrikaans) Valley, a valley bearing witness to their settlement.
“Their vineyards have been established over an area of more than 75 English miles, yet they still have their eyes on large pieces of virgin soil before them. In this district they farm with livestock,…establish vineyards and improve everything conscientiously for their greatest benefit….Their vineyards, which they have multiplied to a large variety of cultivars, can now also provide the passing ships…”
John Ovington, English Pastor (1653 – 1731)
Impressions from his visit to the Dutch Cape Colony
Viticulture was present in South Africa before those French emigrants arrived and there are many other factors that have led to South Africa’s success in the wine world. The fact of the matter is that without French know how the nascent ‘wine industry’ (if one can even call it that) of the Dutch Cape Colony would not have matured. Wine production would most likely have remained isolated to Constantia (s source of wonderful cool climate whites & deliciously sweet dessert wines) and had it spread may have simply remained a novelty. They laid the foundation of fame and quality for today’s South African wines. Plenty of wineries in the Cape still have French names, which serve as a reminder to the contribution of the French to South Africa’s now famous wine-making industry.
What is the significance of Dank die Here vir die Franse? Thank God for the French! Dieu merci, pour les Français! Without them could we enjoy South African wine ?