ABOUT US (MACRO-CLIMATE) AND OUR HISTORY
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Steenberg was there even before Simon van der Stel built his great house in the heart of a valley, giving it the name Constantia. Steenberg, Mountain of Stone, has a romantic ring, but the original name was more beautiful still, for it was called Swaaneweide – The Feeding Place of Swans.
Whether swans did indeed fly down to drink and swim in the cool clear waters of the farm, or whether the first owner, Catharina Ras, looked back with nostalgia to her former home in Lubeck, on the Baltic coast of Germany, is hard to tell. Herewith were the beginnings of Steenberg or, Swaaneweide, named rather ignorantly perhaps, because unbeknowingly, Ras had named the farm after swans. Swans are however not indigenous to the country and today you will still find a large population of spur-winged geese at Steenberg.
Catharina Ustings Ras was one of the most daring and controversial figures ever
to settle at the Cape. Life was not easy when she arrived, only ten years after Jan van Riebeeck landed, for 1662 was far from being the age of rights for women, and yet his indomitable woman had boarded a sailing ship and made the perilous journey to the furthest tip of Africa.
What she found was certainly no land of milk and honey. It was a fierce, wild place with laws to match. Keel haulings, hangings, lashings and brandings were normal occurrances. This being no place for a lone widow of twenty-two, she immediately found herself a second husband, Hans Ras. He was not a particulary eligible catch; he was a soldier and free burger with a penchant for the female slaves, but he had a house on the Liesbeek River which he had bought from Jakob Kluten, founder of the famous Cloete family, whose name would dominate Constantia for more than two hunderd years.
Once the wedding knot was tied, Catharinas life seemed to take on the dramatic overtones which marked its course from that day forward. Two wagons left the ceremony, with the groom and bride in one and the guests in another. Lit from within by good Cape wine and overcome, no doubt, by the spirit of the occasion, the drivers decided to race one another back to Rondebosch. While the guests clung fearfully to their seats, praying to heaven with truly Protestant fervour, the wagons vied for position and as the road was rough and narrow, a collision soon occurred. Enraged at this conduct on his wedding day, the bridegroom jumped down from his seat and soon became entangled in a fight, receiving a knife thrust which almost proved fatal, the weapon breaking in two between his ribs. Though he survived and lived to father several children, he came to an unfortunate end, being eaten by a lion some years later. Legend has it that, like Annie Oakley, Catharina courageously fetched a gun, leaped on her horse and gave chase finally shooting the lion herself, but this may well be a case of historical embroidery!
Fate had a good deal more in store for the girl from Lubeck however, for her next husband was murdered by a Hottentot and his successor was trampled underfoot by an elephant. Seemingly no less endowed with energy than Henry VIII, who surprised all Europe with his impressive total of six wives, Catharina then took unto herself a fifth husband, a hardy German named Matthus Michelse.
In 1682 Catharina Michelse, also known as The Widow Ras, asked Simon van der Stel for a portion of ground at the foot of the Ou Kaapse Weg and he agreed to lease 25 morgen to her. After he became the owner of Groot Constantia in 1685, she asked him for a legal title deed and a mandate was granted to her in 1688 to “cultivate, to plough and to sow and also to possess” the farm below the stone mountain.
She was a fiercely independent woman, “riding bare-back like an Indian and her children resembling Brazilian cannibals”, according to Baron von Rheede tot Drankenstein, who visited the farm and was served a luncheon of “radishes and freshly baked bread and beautiful cabbages”.
In 1695 the farm was bought by Frederik Russouw. There to witness the deed, were Henning Huising (owner of Meerlust and uncle to Adam Tas) and Hugo Goyes. Russouw was a powerful and wealthy member of the Burger Council and it was he who built the new U-shaped house in 1695. He also made the first wines at Swaaneweide.
As time passed, the Dutch East India Company decreed in 1741 that from May to August each year, Simons Bay would be the official winter port, because “the north west winds in Table Bay had been causing untold damage and loss of life” Swaaneweide was exactly one days journey from Table Bay and one days journey from Simons Bay. This meant that many travellers would be obliged to overnight at the farm.
Christina Diemer (the widow of Frederik Russouw) became the recipient of a highly profitable business of supplying hospitality to travellers and provisions to the fleet.
When Christina Diemer died it was her youngest son, Nicolaas Russouw and his wife Anna Maria Rousselet who inherited the farm, as the oldest had received his share at an earlier stage and had relinquished all claim to the estate. Nicolaas and his wife had the farm from 1765 to 1801. It was Nicolaas who had the fine new “Holbol” gable built in the front of the house, the only one of its kind in the Cape Peninsula.
When Nicolaas died, his son Daniel bought the farm in 1802 from his mother, Maria. Due to difficult times and unfortunate circumstances, he sold it to Johannes Adriaan Louw of Fisantekraal (a brother-in-law) and Frederik Anthon Olthoff. The Deed of Sale is legally phrased and cut and dried and a letter appeared before the Master of the Supreme Court in August 1842, stating firmly that the sale to his two sons-in-law had been legal. All Daniel Russouws children were paid a cash share and signed acceptance of such a share.
The Russouw blood still flowed in the Louw childrens veins. Nicolaas Louws greatest passion was STEENBERG. He went straight from school into farming. His three children, Andrew (architect), Jean and Nicolette inherited the property jointly, when he died in 1976.
Steenberg remained property of the Louw family until 1990 when it was purchased by J.C.I (Johannesburg Consolidated Investments), and then re-developed into the glorious vineyard that it is today. As the new kid on the block, Steenberg underwent extensive soil and micro-climate analyses before a complete replanting programme was begun. There are about 70ha under vines, 60% white mostly Sauvignon Blanc, followed by Chardonnay, Semillon and Muscat de Frontignan – and the rest are red varieties, a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Shiraz. The farm is also one of only a handful in the Cape to have invested in the Italian variety Nebbiolo.
The Constantia valley is generally accepted as the supreme wine growing region of the country, and wines from this region are sold as “top of the range” of wines.
The cellar currently produces about 40 000 cases of wine under the Steenberg label, which is 75% of its potential production and increasing steadily. Cellarmaster, Nicky Versfeld, anticipates all vineyards to be full in production by 2003.
Steenberg white and red wines are excellent food wines due to the uniqueness of the terroir which guarantees varietal fruit expression, firm acidity and longevity. Sauvignon Blanc, currently considered the farm flagship, kicked off with a 4-star rating for maiden 1997 and has performed consistently well ever since. The unwooded Semillon – of which two different styles are produced – and the Merlot are also 4-star achievers. The state-of-the art cellar was built in time for the 1996 vintage.
Located in the heart of the Constantia valley at the southern tip of South Africa, the farm is one of the most historically significant landmarks in the country and comprises of a total farm area of some 203 ha, perfect for both the establishment of a premier wine estate and for the development of a golf estate in the areas containing low potential soils.
Planting density is varied depending on soil, clone and rootstock vigour. Ranges vary from approximately 2 700 to 10 000 vines per ha, and are planted mostly in a north-south row direction to ensure maximum sunlight exposure and protection from the afternoon sun. Vineyards are trellised with only supplementary irrigation applied at critical periods.
THE BELIEF IS THAT STEENBERG CAN CAPITALISE ON ITS UNIQUENESS DUE TO:
A) Macro-climate: Mild temperature, cool breeze from the sea, reliable winter rainfall, good exposition to sunlight.
B) Meso-climate: Southern-eastern slopes, variety of altitudes ranging from 60m to 160m, proximity to ocean.
C) Micro-climate: Moderate plant growth, canopy management, soil ranging from low vigour to high potential types.
D) Geographic Placement: Close to the city and harbour.
Steenberg is in the wine business primarily to produce the best quality and the most exclusive red and white wines. The philosophy is that the “wines are grown in the vineyard and then cared for in the winery”. Special attention was therefore placed in obtaining the very best and latest known clones and matched to the correct soils and slopes.