Groot Constantia, a vineyard which was founded in 1685, is the oldest wine brand established in South Africa. This historic enterprise has operated successfully for over three centuries in South Africa and it is well known internationally. The company has a strong identity; its logo depicts the iconic old colonial Cape Dutch gabled homestead, which is easily recognisable. Wine tourism at Groot Constantia started in the 1700s and nowadays the estate receives about 300,000 visitors per year. The history of the estate (colonialism, slavery and wine making) has been intrinsically woven into the brand narrative.
Viticulture was first introduced to South Africa soon after arrival of the Dutch. The Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) established a permanent settlement and victualling post in Cape Town in 1652, with Jan van Riebeeck (1619–1677) as the first Commander. He immediately requested thousands of vine cuttings from overseas and viable stocks started to arrive by yacht in 1655 and were planted in Wynberg. Van Riebeeck made an entry in his journal on 2 February 1659, where he noted that wine was made for the first time in South Africa on this day:
“To-day, 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. The Spanish grapes are still quite green, though they hang reasonably thickly on several vines and give promise of a first-class crop. These grapes, from the three young vines planted 2 years ago, have yielded about 12 quarts of must, and we shall soon discover how it will be affected by maturing.”
Nowadays, South Africa produces 10,826 hectolitres of wine, which is over 4% of world production, so the country is currently ranked as one of the Top10 wine producers in the world according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. South African vineyard surface area amounts to 125,586 hectares, mostly situated in the Western Cape.
Simon van der Stel’s beloved Constantia
Simon van der Stel (1679–1712) is known as the founding father of the wine industry in South Africa. In 1679, van der Stel was appointed the Commander, then later the first Governor of the Cape Colony, by the VOC. He was born in Mauritius in 1639 and his mother was of Malay descent. Prior to his appointment to the Cape, he was stationed in Amsterdam where he worked for the VOC and owned two vineyards just outside the city (in Muiderberg), which produced wine and brandy. Van der Stel’s instructions were to expand agricultural production in the Cape Colony and in this regard, he explored the Stellenbosch region, which later became a renowned home of winelands. Here he gave grants of land to free burghers and immigrants, and many of these new owners established wine farms, became very wealthy and formed the rural aristocracy of the Cape. Van der Stel also provided long term loans and farming implements to those who had nothing, like the Huguenots, whose viticulture skills enhanced the wine industry in the Cape.
Having conducted extensive testing of soils, Van der Stel coveted lush land behind the Table Mountain in the District of Wynberg for himself, as he found it most suitable for a vineyard. In 1685, he was granted a plot of 891 morgen (about 763 hectares), which he named Constantia. When van der Stel died in 1712, ownership of Constantia returned to the VOC, and the company divided it into three separate properties (Bergvliet, Groot Constantia and Klein Constantia) and sold it in 1716.
Becoming Groot Constantia
In 1716, a wealthy Swede, Oloff Bergh, purchased Constantia on auction. He did not contribute significantly to the vineyard and when he passed in 1724, his wife, Anna de Koningh, inherited the farm. Anna de Koningh was the daughter of the enslaved Angela of Bengal, who, along with her children, was freed in 1666. Anna de Koningh was the first woman and the first woman of mixed descent to own a wine farm in South Africa. She, however, had no interest in viticulture and neglected the farm.
The farm changed ownership a number of times over the years. In 1798 Hendrik Cloete (senior) purchased Groot Constantia and it stayed in his family for many generations. Groot Constantia was divided again when in 1823, the widow of Hendrik Cloete (junior) divided it and sold portions to her sons. The larger portion was sold to Jacob Pieter Cloete, and this is the portion that retained the name Groot Constantia from 1824 onwards. The company thereafter suffered many setbacks that ravaged the wine industry, including the abolition of slavery in 1834, a fungal disease in the 1850s, reduction of the import duty on French wines imported to Britain in 1860, and vine disease in 1866. After a series of devastating setbacks, Groot Constantia went on auction and was purchased for a low sum of £5275 for the Cape Government in 1885.
Constantia wines immortalised in popular consumer culture
During the Napoleonic wars, the British re-annexed the Cape from the Dutch in 1806 and introduced preferential conditions for the export of wine to Britain, with the result that the majority of wine produced in the early 1800s was exported to Britain. Those were the golden years for Groot Constantia and the wine industry in the Cape Colony because demand exceeded production.
Constantia wines cemented its place in consumer culture, when it was referenced in a complimentary manner in poetry and popular fiction. It was first mentioned by a German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock in 1795. In his ode Der Kapwein und der Johannisberger, Klopstock bemoans his unpatriotic taste for preferring “daughter Konstanzia” with her bridal blush and scent of rose oil to wine of his homeland.
In 1811, Jane Austen published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility. In the book, Mrs Jennings offers Elinor a glass of Constantia wine to give to Marianne and she then refers to it as some of the finest old Constantia wines:
“My dear,” said she, entering, “I have just recollected that I have some of the finest old Constantia wine in the house that ever was tasted, so I have brought a glass of it for your sister. My poor husband! how fond he was of it! Whenever he had a touch of his old colicky gout, he said it did him more good than any thing else in the world. Do take it to your sister.”
Constantia wines received a favourable mention in 1870 in Charles Dicken’s novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as well as in a French novel by Joris-Karl Huysman in 1884.
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte highly esteemed Constantia wines, and Groot Constantia used to deliver at least 30 bottles of wine to him a month when he was exiled to St Helena during 1818–1821. Linking the Constantia brand to the iconic Napoleon’s personality increased the demand for the Grand Constance wine that the emperor drank.
In May 2021, an unopened bottle of Grand Constance 1821, purportedly prepared by Groot Constantia with the Napoleon’s monthly order in mind, was auctioned off for R420,000. In September 2021, another remaining bottle of the same wine went on auction and was sold by Strauss & Co. for a record breaking R967,300.
The multi-award-winning Grand Constance was relaunched in 2005 and a 375 ml bottle of 2018 Grand Constance will set you back R815.00 if you buy directly from the estate. This brand is marketed as an exclusive wine using the historic narrative of it being a choice of royalty and nobility. The bottle design and symbolism maintain its status as a luxury brand in the mind of a connoisseur. The artwork is the same as was used on the bottle of Grand Constance produced in the 1800s. It invites modern brand-conscious consumers to reminisce about that bygone era of historic battles, grand dining affairs and leisure pursuits enjoyed by the wealthy and titled.
Cultural-historical legacy of the wine industry
Groot Constantia was declared a national monument in 1984, and it is a living museum recognised for being the origin of the wine industry in South Africa. It is managed by the non-profit Groot Constantia Trust, which acts as an ambassador for the wine industry and wine tourism in South Africa. The Groot Constantia Homestead and Wine Museum has been operating as a museum since 1969 and the exhibitions include displays about rural slavery, which was prominent at the time.
Recently, Groot Constantia applied to interdict Boschendal’s application for a trademark, which included the words “a Cape icon since 1685” and would be used on its wines. Boschendal, one of the oldest wine estates in South Africa, is an operating farm that sells wines and offers accommodation, restaurant and conference facilities, as well as other tourist activities. In 2015, the High Court dismissed the application and ruled against Groot Constantia, holding that Boschendal was entitled to use the trademark. Even though Boschendal did not produce wine in 1685, there is evidence that Simon van der Stel granted the original farm to the French Huguenot Jean le Long in that year. In addition, the court held that Boschendal had reached its iconic status, having been proclaimed a national heritage site and fitted the trademark that they had applied for.
Daniel, L. 2021. A bottle of Napoleon’s favourite wine just sold for almost R1 million in SA – setting a new record. News24. https://www.news24.com/news24/bi-archive/most-expensive-wine-sold-in-south-africa-2021-9
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Groot Constantia Trust v DGB (Proprietary) Limited (52287/2013)  ZAGPPHC 1086 (23 September 2015). https://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZAGPPHC/2015/1086.html (retrieved on 3 November 2023)
Hattingh, S. 2020. The grapes of wrath: A history of farm worker struggles in the wine sector. Cape Town: International Labour, Research & Information Group.
Thom, H.B. 1958. Journal of Jan van Riebeeck. Volume III 1659-1662. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema.
van Graan, A. 2005. Winemaking at the Cape: the architecture of wine. VASSA Journal, 13, 2-9. https://www.vassa.org.za/vassa-journal-vol-13
www.grootconstantia.co.za. Accessed 28 October 2023.