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First wine and oldest vine in Cape Town - Friday story time with David Bristow

We know pretty well when the first wine was made at the Cape, because on 2 February 1659 Commander Jan van Riebeeck wrote in his diary: “Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes.” Although some sources have him write: “Today - praise be to heaven - for the very first time the grapes of the Cape were pressed for winemaking” (you’d think they could all read).

But what is the Cape’s oldest vine?

For many years the Perseverance Tavern in Buitenkant Street claimed to house the oldest vine in the Tavern of the Seas. It was planted in the 1830s but perished in the 1990s, so at any rate their claim stops there. But they were as wrong then as they would be now, because an even older vine is growing still, and indeed still bearing fruit. In summer it shades the courtyard of one of the very most favourite places in Cape Town, the Heritage Hotel in Heritage Square – the city’s first archaeological restoration (the next most significant being the saving and restoring of the Chavonnes Battery in the V&A Waterfront precinct, to which we shall venture in good time).

Van Riebeeck, a ship’s doctor, believed wine could cure scurvy, scourge of sailors of the day. So among his first tasks after arriving at the Cape in April 1652, was to plant vines. He had cuttings of indeterminate type from the German Rheingau wine area. A year later more stock came from Bohemia, the Canary Islands, France, more from Germany, and Spain. Among them were Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains or French Muscadel and Muscat D'Alexandria, also known as Hanepoot (it’s thought it was really called hane kloot, or hen’s balls, but the name was euphamised by the stiff Calvanists). It’s thought the commander made his first wines from French Muscadel, but it was by all accounts rather rancid.

The vines of The Company Gardens did not survive very long before wine making moved to Constantia, and thereafter Franschhoek, Paarl and Stellenbosch. But it was common for people to plant vines and make some wine in their own gardens. The one at Heritage Hotel was planted in 1771 or thereabouts. In 2008 – 237 years later – the hotel had four magnums and 12 750 ml bottles of wine made and hand bottled on the premises. They were named 1771 and sold on auction. Apparently they tasted pretty good.

And the grapes?

They are what we used to call Cape Riesling. However, it was no Riesling but actually Crouchen Blanc, the same kind that made Paarl and Theuniskraal Rieslings popular quaffers back in the 1970s and 80s. Whatever you call it, there is good claim that this is not only the oldest vine in South Africa. More impressive is that is likely the oldest producing vine in the southern hemisphere.

That’s good reason to go and have a glass of wine at Caveau bistro next door to the hotel in this wonderfully restored old city block; it was, after all, Jean-Yves Muller and Brendan Crew of Caveau who suggested making the 1771 wine.  

Stay in Constantia

Dendron is set amongst old oak trees of the historic Constantia Valley, with unsurpassed views over the vineyards of the famous Groot Constantia Estate and surrounding mountains. A peaceful paradise for nature lovers and within easy reach of beaches, restaurants, shops, wine estates, vineyards, golf and forest walks. 

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About the blogger

David Bristow, aka The Storyteller, has been a committed traveller since the age of 14. Few people have travelled South Africa and indeed Africa as extensively as he, and written about it – to date some 20 books and uncountable travel and nature magazine features.

While editor of South Africa's leading travel magazine his colleagues dubbed him "the walking encyclopedia". When not travelling and writing, The Storyteller co-runs Racontours which offers hand-crafted, peronalised tours of the Cape.