Tuesday 24 September 2019

Constantia and its Nest of Homesteads

CAPE TIMES – 1933, April 1  
Only those who traverse its many winding roads, its sunken farm lanes, its avenues of oak and pine – stumbled on in unexpected places – who ascend and descend the billowy ridges of well-ordered fertility, can realize and memorize the true meaning of Constantia.
Sliding slowly down from Constantia Nek to the lower levels, one obtains a very satisfying impression of the valley, but that is not the true Constantia, nor is the fine panorama that is outspread below the upper road and the Nek itself.
Constantia effectively conceals its beauty; it does not flaunt its vernal splendours. Only those who traverse its many winding roads, its sunken farm lanes, its avenues of oak and pine – stumbled on in unexpected places – who ascend and descend the billowy ridges of well-ordered fertility, can realize and memorize the true meaning of Constantia.
You have to get out of that car. You will for an hour or two have to leave that unromantic “tarmac”. You must give yourself time, not only to see the things that are hidden from the majority but to allow the full effect of 270 years of civilized settlement in South Africa – concentrated and developed in farm pursuits and farm architecture – to sink in. In no valley is there so striking a South African atmosphere to be found.  “South African” is the wrong term to use. Perchance the atmosphere of Constantia is the atmosphere of “the Cape,” that old historic term that we in the South should never relinquish, for, as the Cape, its place in history is no insignificant one. Nor among the charmed and chosen valleys of the world is Constantia the least. But not until those three interesting roads have been traversed, has the full bosomed fruitfulness and graciousness of the true Constantia been revealed to those who search for her.
The difficulty of attempting to describe all that Constantia holds, as a link in a chain of wine and fruit-producing areas, one struck me when Witte-boomen, humming with activity, forced its claim insistently. We pulled up. Just below, there was the “nest” of the Constantia homesteads, Groot, High, Klein, and Hoop Constantia. Over the hill – and the silver leaves tempted me to take that road through the Witteboom – lay Glen Dirk, Hohenhort, and a dozen other desirable farms and residences, amidst scenery that is, in my opinion, the finest in the valley. Away under the mightly hills, where the pine forests of Tokai lay like a dark cloud with the grey peaks above, there were the wine farms and the estates of the Lategans.
Lower down in the valley, above Alphen, the Brommers Vlei Road carried, in its memories, its own temptations. A valley crowded like a hive before, swarming, over-flowing with luscious fruit and wines. The blame for any omissions – and they are inevitable – must be laid not on me, but on Constantia. The rare vintage of autumn in that wonderful valley cannot be compressed into an aum; it needs special cellar-age, and time to mature. Lacking both, one is compelled to treat Constantia in the abstract, a remarkable corner of the Cape Peninsula which by the persistent genius of men and women, has been developed until it is not only the most delectable spot, but on its output and the unfailingly high standard that is maintained, the most valuable agricultural land in the Southern Hemisphere.
Having decided, then, to skate over thin ice, and to try and treat Constantia as a complete entity, we moved on to the appointed task. High Constantia differs from all other homesteads in the Cape. It is reminiscent of all old French chateau, as the published impression from the angle at which we saw it, will reveal.
Pausing, but for a moment to watch the purple grapes being poured in a never-ending stream into the insatiable maw of the presses, and to snatch an impression of the most profile and probably the oldest pear tree that can be recalled, we left the pleasant home of the Bertrams, where everyone was making full use of the precious moments. As in duty bound, we paid inevitable call on Groot Constantia.
I am afraid the custodian of our national treasures will number us among the vandals of that particular day, for we ignored the restored homestead. We looked out across the valley over the vineyard wall, marked the fine impression created by the enclosed court at the back of the homestead, raised our hats to the classical pediment and the memory of Anton Anreith, and admired the luxuriant vegetation that is filling up the deli. Then we hunted, unsuccessfully, for “Jock” van Niekerk, who occupies his time even in the football season in making high-quality wines of the one-time Government Farm.
The pressing-house a Groot Constantia is so spotlessly bright and clean. Not an acorn or even a leaf falls but it is promptly removed. Admirable, perchance, but there have been so many new buildings built on the old ideals of late that one would leave this historic spot without that feeling of veneration if it were not for one thing. The old block of farm buildings that flanks the main approach have been admirably maintained, not restored or rebuilt.
There are today just as they were when originally erected, and – that is precisely as Adrian van der Stel, when Governor of the Cape, desired them. This restored the balance somewhat. But autumn at Groot Constantia, without the rustle of the fallen leaves as the wind stirs them, or without the crunching of acorns underfoot must be most unsettling to the kindly spirits of its founders, though there is compensation in the full maintenance of that great industry which first made Constantia known throughout the world.
Now the problem had to be faced. There were forty farms in the valley, all producing fruit for export, with 50% of them making quality wines. It was obviously impossible, in such circumstances, to visit all of them. So, the line of least resistance was taken, and choosing the hours when likely to be least inconvenienced or to inconvenience anyone, a complete tour of the valley was made, and every intersecting lane traversed. The one road on which we lingered long was that at the back of Alphen, that leads over the hills, through plantations of oaks, with vineyards at intervals, to Hohenhort.
Even at the risk of estranging the friendship of those living on the other side of the valley, this opinion is held that this is the Constantia, that, in future years will live in song and story. It lends itself to poetic inspiration. It is the ideal wine country of the Continent, but it is enclosed in a priceless setting of mountains unchallengeable for colour and beauty anywhere, and over all is the beneficent sunshine that is rarely absent. Fold after fold, ridge after ridge -for this is the reverse slope of Wynberg Hill – the country rises and falls in a succession of verdure clad rollers, each wave crowned with its homestead or chateau.
This is, indeed, the Wine Mountain. Peculiarly it is the one part of the valley that 90% of those who visit Constantia never see. At Hohenhort wine pressing and grape packing, with apples to follow, were in progress, giving employment to a little village which has arisen on the estate. A circuit was made of the centre flower garden, and our departure was as swift and as unceremonious as our arrival, just as it was at Alphen, ten minutes later.
Alphen and Hohenhort are recognized as homes of good wines, of which they were among the pioneers. Alphen’s wines are mentioned in the archives; their quality, in the great wine age, has been testified to by many famous travelers. But these facts are so well known that beyond this reference, and to the delight experienced in circumnavigating that tree-shaded courtyard with a hundred casements looking out on us, nothing more need to be said.
Fruit, flowers and a delightful sense of being deep in the heart of a woodland country, is the prevailing impression conveyed by the Brommers Vlei Road, that turns off the main highway after Alphen has been left behind. It leads right up to the head of the valley near Klassenbosch. By farm roads it is possible to cut right across the valley, passing Constantia churchyard – once hidden deeply among the pinewoods. But pear and peach have superseded pines, and Constantia is the richer, though much of the glory of her tall timbers has departed.
Eventually wandering here and there, we came out at the head of the Tokai valley, having marked on the way, the great oak at Buitenverwachting, the old-world appearance of the Hoop op Constantia and looked out over that portion of Constantia where the Lategan estates range to the forests. In our time, in the time of the present generation actually, the family of the Lategans has brought in half of the hillside, and much of the country that no one thought anything of, and made it – Constantia.
Those who can recall Tokai before the forests were planted, will remember the white wind-swept sandy waste it was, sloping upward to wild heather-clad lands, ridges and dells that ran into the Steenberg.
“Not much good for anything,” was the general opinion. Yet, today, on the land where the Imperial Field Artillery in the opening of the century, and frequently later, used to fire live shell, to the detriment of none – are to be found some of the finest fruit farms in the world. On the spot where the guns used to be parked prior to “battle” practice, are the finest vineyards of Mr. W H Lategan, whose table grapes were the envy of all who saw them at Rosebank this year. Nor is he actually at the head of the valley on that side; there are others now above him, climbing upward, just as they have done at Stellenbosch. If they go on much further, it will be necessary to grow the grapes in trellises, as is done in Madeira and on the banks of the Rhine.
The one great fact remains, that within the last quarter of a century, Old Constantia has been supplanted by a new, virile and vigorous Constantia, which has expanded its boundaries until it is almost impossible to find an acre of soil that is not producing to capacity, north, south, east and west. The success of those who daringly farmed on the Tokai side, is one of the best examples of the value of applied knowledge in fruit and farm enterprises that can be put forward. The South-Easter sweeps across those ridges so fiercely that the first proposals were dismissed as impracticable. But the veteran, Mr. W H Lategan, who held the outermost boundary, had sufficient confidence to “carry on.” He has won through in no uncertain manner.
From the farm “Uitsig,” it is possible to look across to the fruitful holdings of the other members of the same family, and to know that in breaking new ground as he did, he has left an indelible impress for good on the valley of Constantia. From this corner pour the wines of Constantia that make cheerful the heart of man in a never-failing stream.
The success of this part of Constantia in fruit production is such that there may be a temptation on the part of the authorities to emulate these achievements at Tokai. But the probability is that the forests at Tokai have alone made possible the splendid achievements in that corner of New Constantia that have not yet attained to full maturity.

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