What do Napoleon, Charles Dickens, Frederick the Great of Prussia, King Louis Philippe of France, Count Otto von Bismarck, and Lady Jane Franklin (2nd wife of explorer John Franklin) have in common? Wine. They shared a passion for the sweet wine produced at Groot Constantia, near Cape Town, South Africa.
Established in 1685 by Simon van der Stel of the Dutch East India Company, it’s South Africa’s oldest wine-producing estate and a national monument. Already experienced in the art of wine and brandy making at his vineyards in the Netherlands, van der Stel had arrived as Governor at the Cape supply station six years earlier, accompanied by his children and sister-in-law. After his initial grant of 763 hectares chosen for its favourable soils and mountain slopes gently cooled by ocean breezes, he continued to buy up neighboring land. By 1709, there were 70,000 vines producing 5,630 litres of wine.
Ownership of the estate changed many times over the centuries, along with its fortunes. During the eighteenth century the wines received international acclaim for their superior quality and began to fetch extremely high prices at auctions in many European cities. They soon rivalled the sweet wines of Europe.
Leaders and nobility from across Europe ordered vast quantities. While exiled on St. Helena, Napoleon had 30 bottles a month shipped over to make life more tolerable. The wine even made it’s way to America. In 2004, a piece of glass discovered on a Delaware beach was inscribed, “Constantia Wyn”. Historians traced it to the Severn, a British supply ship that sank in Delaware Bay in a 1774 storm.
A sure sign of its cultural distinction was its mentioned by leading author’s of the day, like Jane Austen, whose character recommended it as a cure for a broken heart in Sense and Sensibility.
Over the years, pestilence and fire all threatened the prosperity of Groot Constantia, but the lineage and legacy has prevailed. Today’s owners, the Groot Constantia Trust NPC RF, are committed to maintaining and restoring this national monument. The 17th century Manor House in the core of the estate is the finest surviving example of Cape Dutch architecture in South Africa. A fully operational farm, it’s one of South Africa’s most popular tourist attractions.
Renedian can organize an easy trip to the vineyards if any riders have a spare day in Cape Town before or after their motorcycle safari.