The idea that the French Huguenots made a great contribution to the Cape wine industry in the late seventeenth century is, sadly for romantics, a myth. No repeater of this nonsense has been able to find evidence of even a shred of Gallic flair that these wretched fugitives from religious persecution in Europe brought with them to the foot of Africa. No trace of French culture in any field – compare the contrasting legacy of the Malay slaves, for example. Substantially adding to the power of white Protestantism – ah yes, that’s another thing, but better wine was being made by the unflairful, stolid Dutch, especially at Constantia, while the French were rapidly absorbed.
We’re left with a lot of French names, of course, both of farms in the Franschhoek area particularly, and of any number of Afrikaners. One family name that has acquired a totally un-French pronunciation is that of the du Toits – although Mont du Toit, the wine estate founded some fifteen years back by Johannesburg lawyer Stephan du Toit (right), is usually pronounced in a way that the Huguenots might have recognised. So we can with some pleasure speak of the du Toys of Mont du Twah.
The estate is at the foot of the Hawequas Mountains in Wellington – a rather unfashionable growing area, but one with pockets of real interest to wine-lovers. Boekenhoutskloof Shiraz, for example, comes from a vineyard on the Schalk Burger property, as do some good wines under the Burgers’ own labels.
In 1691, when the founder of the local du Toit dynasty planted the area’s first vines (not on the present farm), it must have been a wild and scary place for a displaced Frenchman, full of implausible and dangerous animals (and people!) in a strange landscape and under strange stars. The pioneer bravery demands awed respect, though they had little choice, and we can hate the effectively violent appropriation of the land from its Khoisan inhabitants and transformation of them into servants and labourers.
It was, however, a Teutonic rather than French influence that Stephan du Toit invoked when he returned to his Wellington roots. Rather oddly, perhaps, he took Bernd Philippi and Bernhard Breuer, makers of brilliant German rieslings, as consultants for his warm-country reds (Breuer died a few years back). The wines were pretty good, notably a pair of blends, Mont du Toit and the more pricey Le Sommet.
More exciting, however, is a series of wines they’ve recently released under the Les Coteaux label (the name means “the hillsides”, or “slopes”). Some of their excellence is surely to the credit of local winemaker, PJ Geyer, who came in in 2009 after making some very good wines with Frenchman Alain Moueix at the sadly now defunct Ingwe.
Most remarkable of all about the Les Coteaux wines is, happily, their prices, which reflect the depressed market more than their ambition or quality; they retail at a modest R60-R70. The Merlot and the Shiraz are both good, with rich and ripely sweet fruit, poised and beautifully structured. Finer still are the Cabernet Sauvignon and the fragrant, lovely Selection (the latter from 2006, the others all 2009). Both have elegance as well as power, and I’m confident they can’t be bettered at this price. Costing double, in fact, they wouldn’t seem absurdly expensive. A much-delayed triumph for the Huguenot influence.
Postscript: Coincidentally, just after writing the above, I was reading about an ancestor (presumably) of Stephan du Toit, with the Dutch version of his first name: Stephanus. This was in Hermann Giliomee’s magisterial and fascinating book called The Afrikaners: Biography of a People. Reverend Stephanus Jacobus du Toit was, apparently, a highly significant figure in the history of the growth in social weight of the Afrikaans language at a time when it was under severe threat from English in the Cape Colony, and who promoted it “as the vehicle of a new political consciousness”. He was born in 1847 “on the Paarl wine farm that had been in the family’s possession since the arrival of the Huguenots”.
That last decades of the nineteenth century were a difficult, complicated time for Afrikaners in the Cape Colony, and especially so, it would seem, for Stephanus. After various political adventures, Du Toit, says Giliomee wrily, “ended up as a British supporter in the Anglo-Boer War.”
This is an extended version of the article that appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 1-7 October 2010