South Africa’s first vineyard was planted in 1655 in the Dutch East India Company’s garden, today the Botanical Gardens in downtown Cape Town. Just two years later the first wine was immortalized in the words of Governor Jan van Riebeeck, who recorded in his diary on February 2, 1659: “Today—God be praised—wine pressed for the first time from the Cape grapes…” That first harvest yielded just 3.8 gallons.
Today, Cape Town is the vibrant “mother” city of South Africa; the land from the harbor to the lower slopes of Table Mountain is covered with houses rather than vineyards—except for one tiny plot in the area known as Oranjezicht, where locally-based French winemaker, Jean Vincent Ridon has planted 0.44 acre of Shiraz for his Signal Hill brand.
In a country where the winelands generally are described as “stunning,” this setting is dramatic in its beauty, featuring the world-renowned Table Mountain as its background. “It is also ideally suited to Shiraz,” says Ridon, noting the warm, north-facing site with its deep, red soil. And isn’t there just something in the photo that reminds one of the northern Rhône in the steep slopes, low terraces and vines trained on individual stakes?
If it’s unusual to find a vineyard surrounded by urban housing (the plot itself belongs to one of the neighbors), so is the fact that the vines are grown on their own roots. Ridon prefers it this way, though the vines are in danger of falling prey to phylloxera, the louse that decimated Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century. He claims they produce fresher, more complex, better-balanced wines.
Presently, though, birds, as well as the occasional poisonous Cape Cobra snake are the major problems Ridon encounters with his inner-city vineyard. “I have to use netting to ensure the birds don’t get my share of the grapes. But with a Rabbi and the Finnish Embassy as neighbors, I can’t take more dramatic action!” Ridon quips.
His “share” in his first 2005 harvest amounted to less than a ton of grapes. These joined Cape Town’s morning rush hour as they made the short journey to Ridon’s new, central business district cellar. This too has its own individual character, being housed in historic, former business premises now also converted into up-market apartments and a shopping precinct; it’s all part of the current inner-city revival. Ridon is no stranger to winemaking in the center of a busy city; in 2001, at the invitation of the Mayor of Paris, he made wine from grapes grown on the Ile de France, the island in the middle of the Seine.
The maiden 2005 vintage of Signal Hill Clos d’Oranje Syrah—modern-day Cape Town wine—is due for release at the end of October. Coming in at 600 bottles, it’s a tad more generous than Jan van Riebeeck’s first vintage 346 years ago.
Angela Lloyd, Cape Town-based freelance wine writer and wine judge, has contributed to John Platter’s South African Wine Guide for 21 years and is also the South African contributor to Oz Clarke’s various publications. She was responsible for the South African entries in Dorling Kindersley’s Wines of the World and Delmar Learning’s About Wine.
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