The name Constantia is irrevocably linked to the most famous wines to be made in South Africa. It is the birthplace of the wine farming industry and as you drive through the beautiful historical valley it is no wonder the first Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, chose this situation for his farm, Constantia.
Mother Nature smiled when she prepared the Constantia Valley for the winemaker. She bestowed on him the influence of the sun, wind, oceans and fertile soil and then challenged him to plant vineyards and make excellent wine. The owners of Constantia have answered positively for more than three centuries, producing one of the world’s most famous sweet blends and today continuing this tradition, creating a range of quality wines.
Jan van Riebeeck first brought vines to the Cape in the early 1650’s and planted them in what is now the Company Gardens in central Cape Town.
On Sunday 2nd February 1659, van Riebeeck, then 40 years of age, wrote in his diary: "Fine warm weather...Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes, namely from the new must, fresh from the vat. The grapes were mostly Muscadel, and other white round grapes, very fragrant and tasty."
Van Riebeeck then set about planting grapes on Greenpoint Common but this venture was not successful; when he was granted a farm near the upper reaches of the Liesbeeck River he planted thousands of vines. The area surrounding this farm was called de Wynberg, the Wine Mountain. At this time, in the middle of the 17th century, Constantia lay outside the Cape Colony, and was known only as "woeste veld", or wild bush - a place devoid of farms or homesteads. By the time he left the Cape for Batavia in 1662, one of van Riebeeck's significant contributions to the future of the colony was the introduction of vines, and the modest beginnings of a winemaking tradition.
Constantia owes its position as a world famous wine-producing area to Governor Simon van der Stel, who chose the Valley for his own farm in 1685 and was the first to recognize the potential of the Cape as more than just a half-way station to the East. What he desired most was a farm of his own, and when permission was granted in 1685 he immediately ventured off to uncover the most favourable area. Men were put to work, digging up baskets of soil along the length of the southern slopes from Table Bay through to Muizenberg with each sample sent to the Castle for testing. Eventually satisfied that the decomposed granite soil from the sheltered valley facing False Bay, bound by the sea on both sides, was the most favourable of all, he claimed it and called it Constantia.
Van der Stel probably named Constantia after Constantia van Goens, granddaughter of the Dutch East India official who had agreed to grant him the farm, which measured 891 morgen - almost the entire valley. He built a fine house surrounded by gardens and orchards, and by 1709 at least 70,00 vines had been established, many of which were imported from Germany and elsewhere. These were mainly "steen-druif", the blue Muscadel of Catalonia, white Muscadel, and the kristaldruif.
Van der Stel died at Constantia in 1712, having embarked on a winemaking tradition which would soon achieve international fame. As none of van der Stel's family remained at the Cape, Constantia was divided into thirds and sold.
Constantia wine was coveted across the globe. Limited volumes were made and it was so expensive that it was exclusively bought and consumed by the aristocracy of the world. Members of the British Royal House, Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis Philippe of France, Frederick II (The Great) of Prussia, the Lords Seventeen of the VOC, governors, admirals, captains and other dignitaries coveted the Constantia label and treated their special guests to it.
The demise of one of the world's greatest wines
As the 19th century drew to a close, the fungal disease oïdium was discovered in the vineyards. This was shortly followed by phylloxera which caused devastation throughout Europe and the Cape. Bankruptcy and ruin ensued for many old winemaking families.
Groot Constantia was sold to the Cape Government, and the famous Constantia wines, which had brought delight and pleasure the world over, disappeared. However, the legend lived on, immortalized in poetry and prose, and still vibrantly alive in many old bottles which lay forgotten in the cellars of Europe's great wine collectors.