Jan van Riebeeck and the Wine Letters

The South African wine industry celebrated its 365th anniversary on 2 February this year. 2024 also coincides with the discovery of correspondence between Jan van Riebeeck, the VOC’s commander at the Cape during the first wine harvest, and his winemaker Barend Steenman. Documents have been translated from the original Dutch.

3 February 1659

Dear Commander Van Riebeeck                                                                                                                

Congratulations on presiding over yesterday’s first wine grape harvest at our small colony and making that incredible speech which, I am sure, will be quoted centuries from now. The words: “Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes” hit the spot, especially as it was a Sunday and some of the less eager workers were miffed at having to graft under the sweltering sun on our Christian day of rest. I see these words of yours resonating for at least a hundred years!

We Dutch might not be known for winemaking – yet – and like you I am truly tired of being teased by the French and Spanish for our supposed lack of vinous acumen. So, despite you, Commander, ensuring the first wine is made at this maritime pit-stop in Southern Africa I foresee our Commander as also playing a profound role in the birth of the Dutch people’s reputation for vinous greatness.

But most of all I want to thank you for entrusting me to vinify these first Cape grapes into a wine that will please not only your palate, but those of our VOC masters back home. Accept my gratitude. And sorry to be brief, but I must return to the cellar to monitor the progress of the juice’s journey into wine.

Yours faithfully

Barend Steenman

5 February 1659

Good day Barend

I actually decided to get those grapes in on a Sunday so to be out of Maria’s hair. My wife and I have been at the Cape for over five years now, but she uses each moment of my week-end down-time to complain about the circumstances within which we find ourselves. If it is not the south-easter wind tugging at here wig, it is the lack of gardening know-how from the local Khoi who can’t get her damn tulips to grow. She crapped on me last Friday for grilling crayfish for our supper saying that if she had to once again eat a “sea-cockroach” she is climbing aboard the next vessel returning to the motherland – even if she must withstand the approaches of a crew of randy sailors. Believe me, I pity the sailors more than her – she hasn’t put out since last year Easter.

Thus, being in the quiet of the vines on Sunday with you and your team was a much-needed respite. I didn’t really want to go all religious and precious about those first few bins of grapes that came in, but as you said, the words will hopefully be noted for some time to come. This will possibly give the name Van Riebeeck a bit of respect, something my legacy sorely needs. I can already see the future woke crowd only remembering me as some long-haired leader of a pack of colonisers. My little wine interlude should, however, ensure a touch of a respectable legacy. In any event, how’s that stuff doing in the cellar?

Respectfully yours, Commander Van Riebeeck

8 February 1659

Dear Commander Van Riebeeck

Apologies for only reporting back now after your letter written in such appealing forthrightness. Good luck with Madam Maria. If the problems persist, let me know and we can always have her exiled to that island in Table Bay where the Cape’s loose ladies hang-out with the penguins and seals. In any event, the reason for my late writing is that we appear to have a stuck fermentation in the cellar. Yes, the juice from those first lovingly harvested grapes does not want to get going into the magical fermenting process, despite me shutting down the cooling in the cellar. I added some bread-yeast, rusty nails and toe-nail clippings to the juice, but the sugar is not moving down, staying sweet and syrupy and at this stage, just juice with no wine-thump.

But Commander, I suppose that this is a new challenge, working with grapes growing for the first time at a geographical location with which the vines know not a semblance of familiarity. I have appointed Malbal and Baby as my cellar-hands who suggested some non-traditional methods to get the juice to ferment. This includes their beating a sheep-skin drum while dancing around the barrel singing “ferment, jou dwis, ferment” in perfect harmony. I know not the meaning of this expression, but they are adamant that the ancestral spirits with whom they associate will lead to the necessary starting of the engine required to turn the sap into wine.

Nothing further to report, Commander, but as soon as something happens my inked quill will be put to parchment.

Sincerely yours, Barend

10 February 1659

Greetings Barend

I did not find your note about the stuck fermentation disconcerting as we are, as you rightly say, treading a new path. Please allow Malbal and Baby to assist in any way, as much as possible, as it is vital that our BEE credentials remain above reproach. As for the problem with the non-fermenting juice, why don’t I send Maria over? I am sure a few choice words from her acrid tongue will get the stuff fermenting like the clappers, possibly leading to an unexpected Champagne-style wine.

And I confess, perhaps I should have waited for a few more days before ordering the grape-picking to allow the fruit to reach a more desirable level of ripeness, with more sugar to urge the ferment. By the way, did you allow a bit of skin-contact? Being white grapes, skin-contact is – I believe  – in much vogue currently, according to a journal I received from back home.

Accept my complete faith in your cellar knowledge, and good luck. Remember we are not making wine, but also history. Remember to send Malbal and Baby to my fort with their drum. Maria is a keen dancer and with all the fat she is garnering from her perpetual eating of the local koeksisters she needs the disposing of energy.

Yours faithfully, Commander Van

13 February 1659

Dearest Commander Van Riebeeck

O joyous heavenly God, the juice has started to ferment. I put Malbal and Baby on double dancing duty, also ordering the increase of volume in their primal chanting, which now also includes our Dutch word “poes”, although I do not know what a cat has got to do with it all. Perhaps something with a fermenting wine having nine lives.

Off the stuff went the day prior to yesterday, bubbling and oozing aroma that is heady and hanging above our heads in scented pools. No, I did no skin-contact, as I believe the Commander’s first offering of wine from our colony should be clear and clean, presenting accurate varietal profile as well as true taste of terroir. If you would like to venture into the realm of hipster wine, I shall from now grow a beard, work in bare feet and partake in carnal pleasure with Baby. Just say the word.

The wine-in-progress is still heavenly sweet, but that beguiling flavour of lemony, bitter-orange pungency is showing, and I am sure we will have a most suitable wine. On your order to further involve Malbal and Baby, I am allowing them generous tastes of the alcohol-bearing juice, something they really seem to be adept at, showing great appreciation in this elixir they have never tasted. As to their experience with our new wine, I can state that the alcohol content is firm and present seeing as Malbal has now taken to playing his drum at all hours while Baby keenly screams a hotch-potch of phrases at him. She appears to have an obsession with reminding Malbal of his mother’s cat, which I find most strange as the mother nor the feline I have seen. There was one of her lines asking Malbal if his mother “pumps elephant pills” which did not go down that well, leading to a light physical tussle between the two, something I prevented from going further by offering them each two more tastes from the barrel.

If the Commander allows me to stay on as Company Cellarmaster I suspect my tenure will be filled with much more excitement than those anal French and Italian winemakers have been experiencing all these years, what with the Monks and stuff.

Yours appreciatively


17 February 1659

Dear Barend

Congratulations on your fermenting of the first grapes at the Cape, the result of which I am anticipating with an expectation the vastness of which is unbeknownst to me. As soon as Maria and my coach-driver have returned from their trip to the Table Mountain underground spring and I have executed him for adultery, I am getting on that coach and heading to your cellar.

In the meantime, please advise as to the number of bottles you require for filling as Table Bay harbour is currently a model of inefficiency and I’ll have to get the order in way in advance. Also, I know it is your wine to treat as you deem fit, but I would prefer cork to screw-cap – we have some Portuguese off-loading a few migratory workers from Angola in July, and I would like so to remain in their good-books. And perhaps the Porras will stay long enough to teach Maria to cook a decent chicken peri-peri, something I have not had since we pillaged Cape Verde on the way down south in 1652.

Also, on account of your experience with our first wine at the Cape, and your way with words, I request you to please draft the necessary tasting-notes for the first vintage of this pioneering wine. Once that’s done, I’ll send it to the local PR company to compile a press-release which will be distributed throughout the colonised Dutch world.

The more I think about it, the more I think that you and I have a good thing going here. Imagine three centuries from now and a crowd of people donned in smart-wear celebrating and honouring what you and I did on 2 February 1659? Impossible, incomprehensive….I know. But what worth is a dream if there is not hope in the heart?

See you later, Big Guy.

Regards Jan

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