Nearly 300 years ago, his Cape Town ancestors built, then abandoned, a small winemaking estate. Now one South African-born writer revisits the place and discovers an incredible legacy.

By Food & Wine
Updated March 31, 2015

You get to the estate called Boschendal by passing through the sleepy little university town of Stellenbosch, just 40 minutes or so from Cape Town, and by traversing Helshoogte (Hell's Heights) Pass, a twisty road that's not nearly as fierce as its name implies. Once over the crest, the road dips down toward the distant valley and the town of Franschhoek (French Corner).

This is how my ancestors got here after they debarked in Cape Town more than 300 years ago and were granted their farm lots in these golden valleys, surely among the most beautiful landscapes on earth. They arrived in 1689, refugees from religious tyranny in France, and made their way into the valleys of the Drakenstein mountains by oxcart. Then they settled into their assigned farms, clearing the bush and fighting off leopards and the ever-destructive baboons, over the years building a number of the gabled Cape Dutch mansions that still stand. Among them is Boschendal, one of the grandest of them all.

Last March I stood on the front steps of Boschendal's manor house with my mother, the sun slanting low over mountains that seemed made of soft purples and mist, looking past the whitewashed walls of the household garden to the geometric rows of vineyards beyond, the originals planted three centuries ago by long-forgotten workers. I was trying to pretend the estate still belonged to our family, who bought it in 1715. No matter that in the early 1850s my direct ancestor, Luttig de Villiers, fled what he regarded as the intolerably bureaucratic Cape for the endless emptiness of the African plains, where he raised sheep in the arid interior instead, leaving Boschendal in the hands of his cousins, who eventually sold it. "Well, let's buy it back," my mother said. Boschendal's current owners, the Anglo-American Corporation, a successor to Cecil Rhodes's gold and diamond conglomerate, had put the old place up for sale, together with its 850 acres of vines and thousands of fruit trees. My mother leaned against the front door in a proprietorial way. My sister and I rolled our eyes, but Mother has always been an optimist, and it didn't faze her at all that the rumored asking price of $50 million was about $49.9 million more than we could afford.

Still, it was a tempting idea, from a historic as well as personal perspective. The South African wine industry has recently broken with its stultifying past, and this new creativity, combined with infusions of money from abroad, has changed it dramatically. Sauvignon Blancs and Shirazes, among others, are winning awards in the United States, Britain and France (even Australia, a Southern Hemisphere rival, has condescended to be impressed).

There was a cool breeze coming down from the mountains. The view past the vineyards seemed endless. Damn, it was tempting. Who wouldn't want to buy the place?

The first governor of the Dutch-owned Cape colony, Jan van Riebeeck, planted the first vines in South Africa. He recorded in his diary of February 2, 1659, that "today, praise the Lord, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes." But winemaking wasn't firmly established until French Huguenots, fleeing anti-Protestant atrocities, reached the Cape via Holland. Among the immigrants on the vessel Zion, which docked at Cape Town in the spring of 1689, were the brothers Jacques, Pierre and Abraham de Villiers. They carried with them a letter from the Dutch East India Company's governing council, which referred directly to the brothers thus: "We are informed that these persons have a good knowledge of laying out vineyards and managing the same, and thus we hope that the Company will acquire their good service. You are recommended to give them a helping hand."

This letter still lies in a dusty cabinet in the Cape Archives in Cape Town, and I have a tattered copy of it somewhere, but in the family we have always suspected that this auspicious beginning was, not to put too fine a point on it, something of a benign fraud. There is no evidence that any of the three brothers had ever made wine before; they seem to have latched on to the idea as a way of securing their passage, somewhat exaggerating their credentials in the way that immigrants have done for millennia (and still do). No matter: It seemed to be enough that they were from France, and to the Dutch therefore bibulous—the national stereotype in this case seems to have served the family well.

And so make wine they did. Not very good wine, probably—in its early days the colony was better at distilling brandy, though it did plant Chenin Blanc and made some luscious sweet wines, including a sweet Muscat from the Groot Constantia estate that became one of Napoleon's favorites in his St. Helena exile. Wine was often stored in hogsheads previously used for brandy (or, worse, for pickles). No one kept records of what the very first wines were like, or the varietals from which they were made. Nevertheless, the De Villiers and their colleagues the Du Toits, the Du Plessis, the Bassons, the Jouberts and the others—French names persist in the South African wine industry—stayed involved in winemaking.

Jacques de Villiers, my direct ancestor through eight generations, bought Boschendal in 1715. The present manor house—meticulously restored and now a national monument, its original cellars a restaurant—is not so old; it was built in 1812 by my great-great-great-great-uncle Paul, and his initials and those of his wife, Anna, are twined into the plaster over the main gable. Paul seems to have been a man of some cultivation, for an inventory in his will mentions "mahogany-framed mirrors, a grandfather clock, cabinets with silver inlay, paintings with gilded frames." Within a generation the De Villiers family spread out through the Drakenstein Valley, as the farm names in the area changed from the nostalgic French to the local Dutch: Lekkerwyn (Good Wine), Rust en Vrede (Rest and Peace) and Wolwekloof (Wolf's Cliff) among them.

In 1879, the last family owner, Jan Jacobus de Villiers (usually called Jan Paul in the historical records), sold Boschendal for £3,700 sterling and retired to the nearby town of Paarl, where he became a figure of Cape society best known for his sartorial eccentricities, being wont to show up at society balls in exotic silk dressing gowns and knotted nightcaps with fancy tassels.

Another branch of the family remained on the estate called Landskroon, on the slopes of the Paarl mountain, where they still make wine, including a delicious Shiraz named after Paul de Villiers (not the Boschendal Paul—there was also a Landskroon Paul). Yet another branch founded L'Ormarins estate, now in the hands of the Rupert tobacco dynasty, while the lovely Franschhoek estate called Mont Rochelle (named after the French town of La Rochelle, from which the De Villiers brothers escaped to Holland) was until recently owned by Graham de Villiers. Two years ago, he sold it to a telecommunications entrepreneur from the Congo, who at once announced his intention of spending whatever it will take to make world-class wines (the estate's Chardonnays are already among the country's best). And near the town of Paarl is De Villiers Wines, owned and managed by a fellow called Villiers de Villiers, and you can't get any more family than that. This year, as we do whenever I spend time in the Cape with my family, we consumed a ceremonial bottle from each of these places. Tough ritual.

For much of the 20th century, wine farming in South Africa was a quasi fiefdom of the KWV (Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging, or Cooperative Winegrowers Union), which was more an agent of government than a union and was charged with regulating the industry. This it did with formidable bureaucratic efficiency, assigning growing and selling quotas, controlling varietals and even exports. As a result, South Africa produced small seas of drinkable but undistinguished wine, and steadily lost the public relations battle to Australia, which planted fewer acres but encouraged quality. Just as many things changed when apartheid ended, so did the wine industry. The KWV rules that prevented experimentation among farmers fell away. Growers turned their attention to soil and microclimate and improved grape clones, beginning the mapping of varietal to landscape that still continues.

Today, apart from South Africa's own curious mix of Cinsaut and Pinot Noir called Pinotage, virtually all vineyards in the country are planted with the classical European varietals. Boschendal, for example, ripped out two-thirds of its vines within the last decade and replanted them with superior types, then hired highly respected growers and winemakers. Now the Sauvignon Blanc is a marvelous blend of acid and fruit, the Bordeaux-style Grande Reserve will last for decades, and the Merlot is perfumed, silky and sophisticated.

So whenever I visit family in South Africa, I can't help but feel an atavistic longing to belong. "Come on, boy," my mother urged. "If this place really is for sale, let's put in an offer." My sister rolled her eyes again and laughed. But why not? It's not right that Uncle Hugo (the sixth—or is that seventh?—generation of De Villiers farmers at Landskroon) should be left waving the family flag for quality wines all by himself. If the folks at the Anglo-American Corporation don't want the place anymore, why shouldn't I help them out? So if anyone will kindly advance me the $49.9 million, I'll take it from there.

Marq de Villiers is the author of Sahara: A Natural History.

Insider Tip

The Vineleaf restaurant at the Protea Devon Valley Hotel has the finest wine list in the Cape (Devon Valley Rd., Stellenbosch; 011-27-21-865-2012).