Although I enjoy drinking wine, and Stellenbosch is the in the middle of one of South Africa’s finest wine regions, that’s not the reason we took the Stellenbosch wine tour. I went because we would have an hour and a half free time in Stellenbosch “for shopping.”
Stellenbosch was the first rural farming areas settled by the Dutch in 1679. It’s the second oldest European settlement in South Africa. It was founded just 15 years after New Amsterdam became New York and some of the farming areas in New Netherlands became New Jersey. I was raised in an area with Dutch names, Tappan, Bergen, and Hoboken and some of my neighbors in Ridgewood traced their roots back to the Dutch, Van den Handel, Van Emburgh, Van Poshen, and Kooy. When I was a kid my school was built on the grounds of an old Dutch cemetery and we watched, fascinated, as workers exhumed bodies so they could build our school, which the older kids told us was haunted.
But the main Dutch features of North Jersey were the Dutch colonial farm houses and churches. Bergen County has tract housing built largely on the same plan. But every mile or so there would be a bigger, gabled, Dutch brownstone farmhouse that was approaching 300 years old, or there would be the foundations of a Dutch mill, or, most prominently, a steepled Dutch Reformed Church.
Stellenbosch was been built just a few years after some of the New Jersey houses. And when the Brits came the Dutch didn’t stop building. The Dutch Church in Ridgewood is from the early 1700s.
Stellenbosch has a museum of Dutch Colonial houses. I never got into it. Instead I became engaged in a conversation with a Deacon in the Moedergemeente Dutch Reformed Church (founded in 1686, see separate post). That with our walk through the town ate up our time.
Stellenbosch houses are more urban in feel than the farmhouses where I grew up. They are stone but whitewashed. In the Ridgewood area they are unwashed brownstone. The chimneys are similar but the houses in Stellenbosch, even the farm houses, are more embellished, some with false fronts enhancing the gabled roofs. The roofs of some of the Stellenbosch houses are thatch while in New Jersey they are slate. In Stellenbosch replacement roofs are often corrugated metal.
The town is a nice mix of Dutch Colonial, Victorian and modern. One intriguing building from 1777 looks like a church but it’s a powder magazine. The Dutch and Brits had an agreement not to attack each other’s churches so the wily Dutch built this chapel, complete with bell tower but, tellingly, with few windows. The Brits didn’t attack it. Now two cannon are mounted at the entrance to give you an idea.
One similarity between Bergen County, New Jersey and Stellenbosch is the large number of oak trees. North American oaks were brought here for the wine industry to make barrels. But the trees loved the climate and grew too quickly, too quickly. The grain was not tight enough to hold the wine in the barrels. Today oak trees line the streets and are protected. One shopping center was built with an open space in the middle to conserve the oak growing there.
Outside Stellenbosch we visited the Blaauwklippen winery. It was founded in 1682, four years before the church. At the church we learned that some pastors were censured for “liking their tipple” But apparently that was not a universal feeling. Cape Town did supply wines for passing ships on the way to the East Indies, including fortified wines. We tasted 5 wines. We learned three interesting things about wine during the tour. The vintners are expecting 2017 and 2018 to be exceptional years. The drought means smaller grapes and that means better wine, less of it but better.
They plant a rose bush at the end of each row of vines. If the roses show signs of sickness that means there is some fungus or pest that will ultimately hurt the grapes. The roses are the vintners canary in the mine.
Finally, the wine farmers take their second grade wines to a co-op which blends them to produce box wines, or what the Brits call “plonk.” The wine makers call it “card-Bordeaux.”