The young chaplain of the Dutch East India Company was clearly impressed: a “princely mansion” two storeys high with a run-up of seven or eight lanes of oak trees. A view that was “unequalled with rare trees, colourful vineyards and other crops, plants and shrubs”. At the southern tip of remotest Africa.
During his vast travels within the far-reaching kingdom of the Dutch trading company, Francois Valentijn saw many places, but his diary entries after a visit to Groot Constantia in 1705 were filled with absolute praise.
Governor Simon van der Stel had indeed turned the untamed soils of Kaap der Goede Hoope into a liveable and tillable landscape. Any visitor would be impressed.
In his Beschrijvinge (in the fifth part of his magnum opus Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indiën written in 1726) Valentijn also reports on how good the estate’s wine is. “Only a sensitive tongue would be able to differentiate it from a Tuscan wine.”
This wine was only possible because Van der Stel – who had started experimenting with grapevines even as a youngster – meticulously designed the first viticulture and cellar technology in the young colony.
In contrast to the free burghers who since Van Riebeec’s first attempts at wine were plodding along, the ‘Goewerneur’s wine’ was the first, shall we say, ‘professional production’.
After acquiring the first acres of Groot Constantia in 1685, Van der Stel continued over the next few years to design the style of the first typical Cape wine farms. With regards to the layout of the vineyards and the premises, and especially in the architecture of the homes, cellars and other buildings, Groot Constantia leads the pack as the face of the South African wine culture to date.
It is of course a joke that it was actually Van der Stel’s hubris and cunning that led to the imposing initial design of Groot Constantia (similar to what his son Adriaan did with Vergelegen).
One can only wonder how different ‘classic Cape Dutch architecture’ would look if it weren’t for the Van der Stels’ penchant for a haute bourgeois status of that era.
Groot Constantia has changed quite a bit over the centuries. It was mainly Hendrik Cloete (1725 – 1799) who designed the current historical building, which includes the spectacular Rococo wine cellar built in 1791 by Thibault and Anreith.
These buildings represent and symbolise the strongest Baroque image of the Cape-Dutch wine estate farmhouse.
It’s here where you will find the design marker of the Cape wine architecture. Many followed in this style including the beautiful wine farms of Meerlust, Vergenoeg, Zevenwacht and Schoongezicht.
If snide remarks are dropped about the ‘outdatedness’ of the Cape-Dutch image of South African wine culture is, they’re usually related to Winelands politics. One could point out the imitations of the style that featured on many wine farms later, referred to as kitsch architecture. Imitation isn’t necessarily always good.
Although there are many excellent, modern and original cellars designed by architects, there are still those with an elegant nod in the direction of the old Cape ‘white wall’ style. Befittingly.
Apart from a few European exceptions, South Africa’s wine tradition is the only one that can boast its own idiosyncratic architecture.
But design isn’t just about architecture.
A more in-depth look into the history of wine reveals the use of the design concept.
When Jan van Riebeeck made his first wine in 1659 from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, it was to protect the heath of his sailors. By 1770 Groot Constantia and Hendrik Cloete’s sweet wines were designed in such a way that they would fill the cellars of the European gourmands. (All that remained of the little bottle of wine that was discovered in the Count of Northumberland’s cellars, hanging around its neck, was a card that read ‘Constantia 1791’ – a legendary place and a renowned vintage year. Just imagine how important that little card was.)
In the 1990s when South Africa’s wine industry could join the international export arena after decades of being isolated during apartheid, both vineyards and cellars were redesigned – or renewed – to provide sufficient wine. The same happened to the wines for the new markets.
We could therefore apply the word design as a metaphor for the history but also the contemporary awakening of the local wine industry.
Design is a concept that is indicative of the present. It is an argument for individuality, a prominent identity. Appearance and format, form and treatment play dynamic roles to hold and demonstrate the unique and individual.
To be able to compete in the larger global market of our current increasing wine consumption, this becomes a core aspect of success or failure. More simply: if your wine isn’t taking up space in a memorable and characteristic way on the shelf, if your product isn’t easily distinguishable, you are facing an upward economic struggle.
This is where the classic motto of the unique selling proposition/point (USP) reverberates. Rosser Reeves initiated the USP at the famous advertising company called Ted Bates, in 1942. When applied to South African wines it is sensible to identify that aspect, generally and specifically from producer to producer. Design, within the broader context stated above, is therefore a leitmotif. And it would make sense to use it in such a way to achieve the maximum effect.
It is almost a cliché to say that packaging plays a vital role in this case.
Have a look at the bottle that you have selected for your guests. Take a really close look.
A wine label alone can be the epitome of temptation. Temptation in the essential but also poetic sense of the word: if you like wine; if you believe it to be a special gift from a place and person.
The label on the bottle is the invitation, but it is also a statement: one of promise, content, experience, and best of all, remembrance.
It is a lot to ask of or expect from a small, usually square piece of paper, but the long history attests to it, and the most modern industry confirms it.
Long before the concept of the tense graphic design profession known as Design took off, the label was of the utmost importance. How else would anyone know what is in the bottle? How long it had rested in the cellars? And who had created this promise of vinous delight?
In the history of the South African wine industry, which spans 355 years, the bits of parchment or paper represented on the thousands of dark bottles aren’t just markers of identity but in fact simulacra of the culture itself.
And yet, besides the nostalgia of an exceptional bottle of Zonnebloem from the 1940s made by John de Villiers or a renowned Groot Constantia from the 1970s – should either make an appearance in good company – very little has been recorded and even less researched about South African wine labels. It is an empty archive.
It is a pity, but perhaps also understandable.
As opposed to postage stamps (yes, who remembers those?) that serve as pictorial pieces of evidence on saved envelopes of times gone by and map the progression of time and trends, the humble wine label does not enjoy the same status. And yet.
The reason is simple. Design.
To start with the concept itself: it is undeniable that the idea in its graphic, artistic sense belongs to the modern art of marketing. It is this industry, alongside the advertising industry, that formulated the importance of the ‘right appearance’ and the ‘effective message’. Or, if it has always existed, it has been refined to the hyper modern subject that it is today.
And it’s not all about pretty, precise and prominent. It’s about that ‘tempting’ factor that speaks to the psyche.
Nowadays experts in the industry speak of ‘neuro-marketing’. In 1990 psychologists at Harvard University in the United States developed the technology to map and activate the unconscious part of the human brain.
This space of design expounds on the meanings of the word.
Local art critic Sean O’Toole recently wrote in the Mail & Guardian in relation to Cape Town as the Design Capital of 2014 that “regeneration is a more comprehensive term than design”. His argument expands on the theme of the Mother City’s plans for the related projects and innovations to be beneficial to the community.
One could argue that design – in the last-mentioned definition – has played a central role in the development of the South African wine industry.
To what extent it has done so within the complex social spaces around viticulture remains an open but meaningful question. One could maintain that a variety of innovative thinking has taken the South African wine industry beyond merely the production process.
Identity in place and kind – the terroir the French refer to – is a playing field for design; to hone the process of winemaking in such a way that every wine can stand proud within its own uniqueness and status.
“Like a work of art,” said Ernest Messina, president of Groot Constantia’s board of trustees, on a bright but chilly night in February this year. We are standing under the gable of the old Cloete cellar with its impressive Anton Anreith pediment, but we are talking about the wine in the glasses between us; about the design of the new labels on the bottles, which revisit the famous design from the 1970s.
Around us, groups of guests are dressed to the nines.
The harvest day celebration taking place has its own charm and meaning, and each year festively captures the three-centuries-old wine culture at the southern tip of Africa. It’s a ritual that pays tribute to the somewhat mysterious manner in which wine has designed and manifested a social bond with man.
Messina’s loyalty to this place and its history is contagious. We joke about what it really looked like that day when the 39-year-old chaplain set his eyes for the very first time on the lush wine palace of Simon van der Stel.
With his thorough plans, his garden almanac, his access to the experts within the VOC, and yes, his slaves, the governor had everything at hand to realise his ambitious design of an unprecedented wine farm.
“Indeed the blueprint of our South African wines,” Messina admits. “But let’s be honest. It’s the wine in our glasses that matters most at the end of the day.”
Groot Constantia’s glorious wines then and now. Created for the needs of the era back then and now. Designed like a work of art.