The story of how wine grapes conquered the world is shared by the work of churches and monastic orders, many of whose exploits are now well-known.

Viticulture in Burgundy is typically associated to the work of Benedictine monks; think Dom Pérignon, for example. Chateauneuf du Pape of the Rhône is so named for the involvement of even the Pope – then, a Frenchman of the 1300s. Wine was introduced to New Zealand by missionaries in the 1800s. Jesuit missionaries brought viticulture not only to South America in the mid-1500s, which later migrated north where the Mission grape is said to have defined Californian viticulture until the mid-1800s, but they also laid a foundation for a wine industry in China too.

Cultivation of wine grapes in South Australia was first trialled by English settlers and the German Lutherans who soon followed. Even vineyards in Namibia were first planted by German Roman Catholic priests at the end of the 19th century.

But what of South Africa? The starting point of wine here is confidently assumed to be with the import of vines in 1655 and Van Riebeeck’s diary entry of 1659: “Today, praise be to God, wine
was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes …”

As a result, a myriad of questions arises about these men of the cloth and their viticultural
enterprises. Missionaries arrived in earnest at the Cape of Good Hope from the mid to late 1700s. They came from all over and in 1852 even included 106 Mormons from Salt Lake City. Explorer and medical doctor David Livingston was one too, arriving at the Cape in 1841.

If missionaries planted vineyards, what was their extent and what happened to them? Why was the Dutch East India Company seemingly first to the post where the vine was concerned?

It has already been established that in their pursuit At the base of the Riviersonderend mountains lies the town of Genadendal – or dale of grace, roughly translated . There can be little doubt that the settlement was named by early missionaries. of service of the physical as well as spiritual, missionaries proved adept at farming. One record exists of a mission in the Eastern Cape reporting in the late 1800s, its status of directing “9 000 acres [3 642ha] cultivated land, 419 ploughs, 2 carts, 160 waggons …”. And achieving that while dealing with all that was associated with that era like wild animals, wars, disease, rudimentary implements, and isolation.

In general, missions that planted grapes did so to combat scurvy and supplement their income, but also for their own uses as winemaker Bruce Jack points out in a recent article for the annual Jack Journal about the Agulhas Wine Triangle where he farms. The area is also home to Elim, a town founded by missionaries.

“[Moravian Missionaries] prized personal piety and abstinence, but sacramental wine, music and education were all part of the non-sectarian spiritual journey,” he writes. “And, of course, for ‘nagmaalwyn’ (Eucharist wine) you must grow grapes and be able to make wine. So, grapes are not at all new to the Agulhas Wine Triangle. They were first planted at Genadendal and Elim in the 1700s.”

At the former Apostolic Union mission station of Pniel, in the shadow of Stellenbosch’s Simonsberg mountain, one might have expected a flourishing vineyard. There may well have been, but it would have preceded the station when one considers the latter was established on
farmlands donated in 1842 as a home for newly freed slaves.

Long-serving trustee of the Heritage Trust Matthew Cyster says the local school had been housed in an old cellar until it had to be demolished. He points out that early missionaries applied strict rules for anyone wanting to live in the town. “Parties and drunkenness were not tolerated and to this day Pniel has no liquor store. But make no mistake; drinking still happens onder die kombers [beneath the blankets], as they say.”

Further north, there were Trappists. In addition to brewing beer, these monks of KwaZulu- Natal had vineyards in the hills around Dundee, says well-known guide Nicki von der Heyde who authored a book on the province’s 22 missions. The monks arrived in the country in 1880, landing at Port Elizabeth and then migrating northwards.

Although they succeeded in self-sufficiency through expanded agriculture, evidence of winemaking is in short supply. It took Nicki two years to assemble enough material for her guide
and she can only point to barrels, kept at the museum at Mariannhill, and reliefs in the famous monastery’s architecture.

The contributions of missionaries to viticulture, if indeed any, are clouded by the mists of time. Scouring the popular works on the wine industry more often provides anecdotes of missionary
indiscretions than clues to their agriculture.

There is however a starting point that cannot be avoided when investigating the topic – a point that is made by one of the most prolific academics and authors of books in the field of the economic history of the Western Cape, especially the agricultural branches and mainly the history of the wine industry.

“Without basic research it leaves you with speculation which is unacceptable when judging past events,” says Professor Dirko van Zyl.

“Based on my research over decades there does not exist any historical evidence that mission stations played a significant role in the development of the Cape wine industry.”

Highlighting a few of the factors, Professor Van Zyl says that being financed from overseas
headquarters, mission stations were not dependant on income from the wine.

“In their case, wine production would have been only a sideshow.

“In the case of bona fide wine farmers, they struggled for decades since the beginning of the 18th century till today with over-production. As a result, they often received prices lower than production costs.”

He says mission stations that may have produced more than their private consumption would have been compelled, like the bona fide wine farmers, to sell their wine to the KWV as required
by regulation of the period.

To boot, he hasn’t come across a single mission station as shareholder of a nearby wine cooperative, the first of which was established round about 1940.

One might have hoped for perhaps a trace of those ancient vines among members of South Africa’s Old Vine Project, but manager André Morgenthal knows of none. The trail it seems may have gone cold, if indeed there ever was one at all.