We came to Constantia to learn more about this lovely Valley’s place in the history of South African table grapes. We were looking for Hanepoot, the oldest South African table grape and we found some along the winding tree-lined country lanes which bisects the luxury estates which arose in what was previously prime agricultural land.
Believe it, 359 years after the first reported harvesting of Cape Hanepoot, a table grape variety which has always been grown in South Africa as a table grape, we found the grapes on the old road through the Valley. There they were on the side of the road, neatly displayed in cartons of the farm Sonnestraal (literally meaning ‘sunbeam’). Golden Cape Hanepoot with its flavoursome muscat taste – still a favourite amongst many South Africans.
During the early parts of the last century Constantia was South Africa’s leading table grape region – and white and red hanepoot dominated the vineyards of the Valley. That was despite the fact that Groot Constantia, the oldest farm in South Africa, which was established by Simon van der Stel, has always been known as a wine estate.
Around it, at the time, there was a thriving table grape industry and the Hanepoot from the Valley was known as the finest grapes one could buy on the famous Old Covent Garden market in London. Indeed, some of the earliest vines which were planted by the famous Cape Orchard Company (COC) in the Hex River Valley, where made by a man who lived at Tokai at the far end of the Contantia Valley.
Sonnestraal lies on the left when you drive over Wynberg Hill on the freeway towards Muizenberg. On the right of the road are the wine vineyards of Nova Sonnestraal and the grounds of the famous Alphen Hotel and the whole narrow valley played an important role in the South African table grape industry.
Sadly, it seems as if the farms in this region forgot about the art of growing table grapes, and as the wine revolution gripped South Africa over the past three decades, the table grape vineyards were removed one by one in favour of the stuff one buy in the bottle.
But, the Cape Hanepoot heritage is still alive here and every summer on finds the Sonnestraal table grapes being sold along the road. Let’s immediately confirm that the table grapes you will find on the shelves of Woolies and other retailers do look spectacular, but we will guarantee that they will not provide that rich muscat flavour that one finds in the golden brown berries of the Cape Hanepoot.
Those early Cape Hanepoot from 1659, which incidentally was also pressed with the Steen variety to make the first wine at the tip of Southern Africa, were also found on the tables of homes of the young colony. In 1893 when the first South African table grapes were exported to the United Kingdom, it was almost certainly Cape Hanepoot. In 1916 the South African Trade Commissioner in London enthusiastically sang the praises of Constantia’s Hanepoot as being the best the UK trade were receiving from the Cape.
So it is time that the grape growers of Constantia, whether they are now solely growing grapes for wine, or if they live at Sonnestraal, start celebrating this rich heritage. It was indeed a great feat for those growers 125 years ago to pack their grapes in wooden boxes, take them by horse cart to the docks in Cape Town and then ship them to the UK. There they would arrive 14 days later to be off-loaded in Southampton and then trucked by rail to London to delight British consumers in the same way as South African table grapes continue to delight consumers around the world today.
The only difference is that today South Africa has a very modern table grape industry which ships around 65 million cartons of grapes per year to the world’s markets. It is an industry with export products with a value of at least R13 billion and which sustains a vast community in mostly the rural regions of South Africa. It is something to be proud of.