SA Wine and the French Link

Despite its dependence on the keeping of record, it has always been amusing to see how different generations itch to change history. Some wine industry commentators have been especially keen to change the history of the local industry.

Most common are the pinko liberals who would have it that the South African wine industry only really got going in 1990 when Nelson Mandela stepped out of prison and eventually allowed the country’s wine to step into the international limelight. Ask them what characterised the industry before then, slavery and the dop-stelsel seem to be the only features that come to mind.

Being of Huguenot descent, the denying of the role played by the French Huguenots in the South African wine industry has always been a little prickly. In recent years a set of commentators emerged hinting that the Huguenots, most of whom landed in the Cape in 1688, had no real knowledge of viticulture or viniculture. The supposed early French influenced, they say, is some pure romantic marketing ploy abused by various wineries with French sounding names, doing nothing more than leading to a cloak of pretentiousness in the winelands. Blah-and-blah.

I was therefore pleased to recently find myself in the company of one Jennifer Oculi from the University of Toulouse. A Masters student in history, Jennifer was in the Cape winelands to do research for her thesis on the French Huguenots in the Cape.

“All my research in France and other parts of the world shows that the Huguenots coming to the Cape were selected for their experience in winemaking,” she said during a stroll through the winelands of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl.

“In fact, part of my research stems from the fact that the Dutch East India Company’s Lords Seventeen in 1685 specifically ordered that the Huguenots coming to the Cape should have experience in and culture of wine-making, as well as brandy distillation. And specifically to raise the standard of wine and brandy at the Cape.”

Tracing the steps of various Huguenot families, she found that a strong knowledge of and commitment to the French wine culture was evident. “It must also be recognised that many of the Huguenots coming to South African had been denied vineyard and viticulture practise in France because of their faith. They therefore set their sights on a new land for their wine passion, which was South Africa.”

With her thesis to be completed by mid-2011 one hopes that the record can be set straight, once and for all. For now, the role of the Huguenots in creating a strong wine culture in this country is definite, strong and real.

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