History of Groot Constantia

The history of the farm dates back to 1685 when it was granted to its first owner, Simon van der Stel. He arrived at the Cape in 1679 to take over the post of Commander, later upgraded to that of Governor.

Van der Stel was very keen to acquire a farm and in 1685 a piece of land of more than 2454 hectares was granted to him. He named it Constantia and, probably in the same year, built a double-storey house on it. Vegetables and fruit were grown on the farm, in addition to the practice of viticulture and the production of wine. The produce was supplied to ships which called at the Cape. Van der Stel also specialized in cattle-breeding on his leased land. He died in 1712. In 1716, Constantia was divided into three portions before being sold. Two parts became known as Bergvliet and Klein Constantia and the third part on which the Van der Stel house stood, became officially known as Groot Constantia during the mid-19th century.

The history of Constantia from then on became the story of mainly three families. Oloff Bergh was the second owner of the farm. After his death in 1724, his dynamic wife of slave descent Anna de Koningh, became the owner. She owned the farm until her death in 1734. Agriculture and viticulture continued on Constantia during this period.

The following two owners, Carl Georg Wieser and his stepson Jacobus van der Spuij, respectively owned Constantia from 1734 - 1759 and from 1759 - 1778. Wieser had a good knowledge of viticulture and enlarged the vineyards. Van der Spuij on the other hand did not trouble himself with wine making. He owned a slave who acted as cellar master and wine maker. In 1778 Jan Serrurier bought Constantia from Van der Spuij, but eleven months later sold it to Hendrik Cloete, owner of the farm Nooitgedacht near Stellenbosch.

Constantia remained Cloete property from 1778 - 1885 and the Cloetes gave a new lease of life to the farm. Hendrik Cloete gave the farm a new look by having a new wine cellar built, situated at the back and on the same axis as the entrance to the farm and the manor house. He also had the original house adapted by structural changes such as adding gables, sash and new casement windows, and a higher and more pitched roof. Cloete also expanded the outbuildings in front of the manor house. He improved the vineyards and introduced his own wine making methods to the farm. His wine became world famous.

He died in 1799 and his oldest son, also Hendrik, became the new owner. He maintained the standards set by his father and died in 1818. His wife Anna Catharina Scheller, became the next owner, with their oldest son Jacob Pieter Cloete acting as farm manager.

During this period they acted as wine supplier to the exiled French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte on St. Helena. In 1823 Jacob Pieter bought the farm from his mother, and continued the highly established viticultural standards. During his ownership the farm officially became Groot Constantia. Jacob Pieter Cloete died in 1875 and he was the last private owner of the farm. The farm remained in his estate and his son Henry acted as farm manager. The vine disease phylloxera urged him to leave for Europe to study methods for treatment, and during his absence his two sons were left in charge. Henry returned in 1885 and it was decided to sell Groot Constantia by auction.

It was bought by the Master of the Cape Supreme Court for the Cape Government which used it as experimental wine farm, and during this period, in 1925, the manor house was severely damaged by fire. Restoration was done under supervision of the architect F. K. Kendall and from 1927 - 1952 the house was refurbished with items donated and bought solely for this purpose by the art collector A. A. de Pass. To this day, the De Pass Collection still forms the nucleus of the exhibition in the manor house. In 1969 the South African Cultural History Museum became responsible for the house and its collection, while in 1976 the Groot Constantia Control Board became responsible for the viticultural functions, previously the responsibility of the Department of Agricultural Technical Services. In 1993 the Groot Constantia Trust which owns and represents the farm in its entirety, was established.

A project to restore the architectural nucleus of the farm, which includes the manor house, started in 1993 and was completed in 1994.

The wine cellar houses a Wine Museum exhibiting wine making equipment, especially wine storage and wine drinking vessels.