Tour Locations | Museum Audio Guide: Home to South African Wine
LOCATION 3 | Museum Audio Guide: Home to South African Wine
Manor House Entrance: Five Chapters
Narrator: Can you see her up above, stretching out from the gable? She’s Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck.
Fortuna hasn’t always been there. In fact, most of the house you’re looking at wasn’t built by Simon van der Stel. But like all the other arrivals at Groot Constantia, Fortuna’s was important. We’ll get to her in a moment.
First, let’s use the manor house as an easy guide to different chapters of the farm’s history.
To appreciate the first chapter, you’ll need to turn around and look up the gravel driveway.
Can you see how it slopes up, so that the gate at the end of it is on a small hill? That’s intentional.
Turn around again and look through the door. If you have good eyes, you’ll see another door at the far end of the house – the back door. We’ll go through it later. For now, take my word for it when I say that if you open the back door, you’ll find yourself looking straight across a courtyard at yet another door.
Are you picking up a pattern?
From the gate onwards, Groot Constantia’s historic buildings are laid out along a central axis. This was van der Stel’s doing. He even man-made the hill to ensure that new arrivals started out high enough to properly appreciate the perfectly straight line he’d carved into the wilderness.
When van der Stel died, Constantia was divided into three farms – groot and klein, large and small, plus another down below called Bergvliet, which is now a suburb.
That’s Chapter Two.
Then Groot Constantia was sold. And sold again. Over the next 62 years, it had six different owners. It’s wine started to earn a modest reputation, but things didn’t change much – including the manor house – until 1778, when Hendrik Cloete bought the farm.
This is Chapter Three.
Cloete had money to spend. He decided that the manor house was run down beyond repair and demolished large parts of it. This included raising the building significantly. The ground floor in front of you now is at roughly the same level as van der Stel’s second floor.
The single, elaborate gable above you was the cherry on Cloete’s very fashionable cake. Van der Stel’s house had three front gables.
Cloete also put the Fortuna up there, to keep an eye on things. She arrived after a particularly good harvest, and you might think old Cloete was celebrating. But this farmer and businessman would have understood that lady luck can be bad just as easily as she can be good.
Cloete Senior passed the farm onto his son, Hendrik Cloete Junior, and this established a pattern. For generation after generation, this was the Cloete’s farm, and they ushered in Groot Constantia’s golden age, when its wines were the toast of Europe.
But the family’s luck eventually ran out. Two successive plagues destroyed their vines. When they were already on the ropes, Henry Cloete left for France to find a remedy for phylloxera, the second of the two plagues.
There is some evidence that Henry tested Fortuna’s limits at the gambling tables of Europe, and by the time he came home, the family was out of money and out of luck.
The Cape Government bought the estate next. This is Chapter Four. In the years that followed, governments in South Africa changed, but their attitude to Groot Constantia didn’t. The estate was neglected. In 1925, this led to disaster. A fire burnt the manor house to the ground, destroying the art and antiques inside it.
It was quickly and perhaps a little clumsily rebuilt. The government’s efforts at winemaking on the estate during this period were clumsy too.
Then, in 1993, at the dawning of a new South Africa, Chapter Five began. The Groot Constantia Trust was established and became the sole owner of the farm. They started on the job of restoring its historic buildings to their best almost immediately. The end result is the Manor House you see today.
Groot Constantia’s tradition of excellence in the cellar was also revitalised and the estate has regained its reputation for producing some of the world’s finest wines.
Let’s go inside now. If you haven’t bought a ticket for the Visitors Route yet, you can do that just past the door. It includes entrance to the Manor House and the Cloete Cellar, where this tour ends, as well as a wine tasting served only metres from our last stop.
Once you have your ticket, carry on through the entrance hall into the large dining room straight ahead. Play track four when you get there.