The Morgenster Estate History

For over 300 years Morgenster has attracted and inspired people through its blend of beautiful surroundings, excellent terroir and a manor recognized as one of the great houses of the Western Cape. It is inspiring to look back on the people and periods of history that created this marvellous place and to appreciate their contribution.

The stage is set
South Africa was first colonised by the Dutch in 1652 when the Dutch East India Company, established to develop the rich spice trade, set up a half way house refreshment station for its ships at what was to become Cape Town. Originally called the “Cape of Storms” by the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz, the area was later re-named the “Cape of Good Hope” when the sea route around Africa from Europe to India and the East was opened.

By 1685 world events were sending people down paths that eventually converged at Morgenster. In October of that year King Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes and deprived the Huguenots of their religious freedom. Many were killed or imprisoned and hundreds of thousands fled to other countries where they were welcomed for their farming and winemaking abilities, artistic craftsmanship and technical knowledge. In that year the Dutch East India Company in the Netherlands decided to encourage French Huguenot refugees to emigrate to the Cape of Good Hope and offered incentives of free passage, land and provisions.

In 1685 too, the Commander of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, began establishing a local winemaking industry on a farm he had been granted by the Dutch East India Company. His son Willem Adriaan van der Stel succeeded him as governor in 1700 and continued his father’s interest in horticulture and agriculture. With the whole country at his disposal, Willem Adriaan chose the most beautiful, fertile and best positioned area for himself. He persuaded an official of the Dutch East India Company to grant him land on the slopes of the Hottentots Holland mountains. He named his farm Vergelegen – meaning Remotely Situated - since it was a three-day ox wagon journey from Cape Town.

However, his misuse of the Dutch East India Company’s staff and resources to develop Vergelen into a prosperous farm as well as the unfair advantage he derived from having his wagons loaded with fresh produce waiting on the beach before anyone else whenever ships arrived, enraged the other farmers. The bell that his slaves would ring from their lookout on a hill to alert the farm below that ships had entered False Bay is now in the garden of Morgenster. For these and other complaints brought against him by the burghers, Willem Adriaan van der Stel was found guilty of corrupt practices and the Dutch East India Company ordered him back to the Netherlands. Vergelegen was sold and divided into four portions, one of which would become Morgenster.

1711 – 1885. Intertwined M’s – Morgenster, Malan and Morkel
Jacques Malan was in his early twenties when he arrived at the Cape in 1688 in a group of other Huguenots. His family had originally come from the valleys of Piedmont in the north west of Italy but had later settled in the Luberon region of Provence. He set to work and became prosperous, to the extent that within 20 years he was recorded as buying and selling farms.

On 28 May 1711 the purchase of a property in the Hottentots Holland area was registered to him. He named his new farm De Morgenster – Morning Star - and farmed there for 14 years before transferring the property to his only surviving son Daniel. Morgenster seems to have done well under Daniel’s care and by the time of his death there were numerous outbuildings, a wine cellar and a large H-shaped house which was no doubt necessary to accommodate his 13 children.

Morgenster then passed to Daniel’s son Jacobus who married Catharina Morkel. He was only 26 when he died, and his bereft young widow placed an intertwined MM and the date 1779 in plaster relief on a gable of one of the outbuildings. Opinions differ. Is this merely a commemorative monogram of Jacobus Hermanus Malan or a poignant reminder of the marriage between Jacobus Malan and Catharina Morkel?

Catharina, owing money and with three young children and a farm to run, remarried a year later. Her second husband Rudolph Loubscher had considerable wealth and together they constructed Morgenster’s famed six gables. Graham Viney in his book Colonial Houses of South Africa describes them as being “six of the most beautiful gables to be found at the Cape. The holbol or concavo-convex style may here be seen at its most elegant...”

With two short exceptions totalling eleven years, Morgenster then stayed in the hands of the Morkel family until 1885.

1885 – 1992. Destruction and restoration
Phylloxera caused widespread destruction of the Cape’s vineyards in the mid 1880’s and the then owner, Daniel Morkel, was obliged to sell Morgenster to his brother-in-law, Alexander van der Byl. Thereafter the farm passed to van der Byl’s nephew whose daughter subsequently sold it in 1958 to Mrs Leonard Hawkins.

Mrs Hawkins, known to her friends as Dinkie, was the daughter of Sir Thomas Cullinan from whose Premier Mine the biggest diamond ever found had been extracted. Realising the potential of the decayed house and outbuildings, Mrs Hawkins engaged a local firm of architects, Bruce, Gibbons and Tomlin, to start the enormous task of restoring Morgenster. Her daughter Mrs Shirley Bairnsfather Cloete continued the work with the help of Cape Town based architect Revel Fox.

Shirley’s son Pieter then took over the farming and restoration of Morgenster until its sale in 1992. Shirley was entitled to remain on Morgenster which she did until her death in November 2010, living and creating in her chosen medium of glass in an extended studio which had once been the coach house.

1992. Destiny brings another settler from Piedmont
The purchase by a new owner in 1992 saw Morgenster once again flourishing under the potent mix of Italian and French competence and culture. When Giulio Bertrand first saw Morgenster he said it was love at first sight. “I have never felt so attracted to a place like I was with Morgenster.” He had been searching for a house in the Cape Dutch style to which he could retire.

Born in Biella, an important wool processing and textile centre in North West Piedmont in Italy, Bertrand’s coming to Morgenster had astonishing echoes of Jacques Malan whose ancestors originated in the valleys of Piedmont. After attending university Bertrand joined the family textile business, being the fifth generation to do so. His yarns and fabrics were sold to fashion designers and he was acknowledged as one of the leaders of Italy’s fashion industry. His links with South Africa strengthened from1975 when he began coming to the country four times a year to oversee his factories in the Eastern Cape. A few years later he bought a game farm bordering on the Kruger Park.

But, I’m not ready to retire
After moving to Morgenster Bertrand preserved and restored the historic buildings and manor house. He was helped in this by interior designer Graham Viney and architect Revel Fox. One project was the careful uncovering in the entrance hall of layers of wall painting to display five different decorative periods.
While doing so he fell under the spell of his farm’s beauty and the hill in his back yard which reminded him of Italy. He undertook a systematic mapping of the terroir and learnt that he had bought exceptional land that could produce wine and olives of great quality. Putting retirement on hold, and with a lifelong philosophy of producing only the best, he set out to produce world class Bordeaux-styled wine and the highest quality Italian-style extra virgin olive oil.

Ties to Cheval Blanc
In 1997 Bertrand travelled to Bordeaux to source the winemaking expertise he needed. Accustomed to working with only the best, he met with Pierre Lurton of Château Cheval Blanc and enticed him to Morgenster. Pierre too fell under the spell of its magic and has consulted to the Estate ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors and visits the farm at least once a year to influence critical decisions together with the local winemaking team. Bertrand’s brief to Lurton was to emulate the best of Bordeaux wines, that age well, with tannins as smooth as the cashmere he was so familiar with. Blessed with a superb terroir which seamlessly blends elevation, climate, soil and cooling winds off the nearby Atlantic Ocean, Morgenster’s vineyards are planted mainly to Bordeaux varieties and smaller quantities of Italian cultivars.

A unique vintage collection
Few wines are cellared for decades, so Bertrand took on this responsibility to showcase his wines after the benefit of ageing in pristine conditions. Now he has a unique offering: a vertical collection of several vintages of his two red Bordeaux blends, Morgenster Estate Reserve and Morgenster Lourens River Valley, providing customers with both volume and continuity.

The Italian Collection
Bertrand realised his dream of producing wines from Italian cultivars in South Africa by importing superior Italian clones of Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Vermentino. He and his winemaker visit and stay in touch with the best Italian producers of these wines, learning how they think and work with the grapes. Names of his Italian Collection wines reflect his great love for opera. Nabucco is 100% Nebbiolo; Tosca is a Super Tuscan blend, Caruso is a 100% Sangiovese rosé and Vespri is 100% Vermentino.

World class extra virgin olive oil
While it is part of Italian culture to produce fine wines and olives together, the concept was an innovation in South Africa at the time. To enable him to produce the highest quality Italian-styled extra virgin olive oil, Bertrand built a long-term partnership with the Olive Oil Research Institute of Italy and imported 17 olive varieties, each with discernible attributes and a reputation for producing exceptional quality olive oil, selected from regions stretching from Liguria to Tuscany, Lazio, Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia. These 2000 bare root plants he put into quarantine in his nursery under the guidance of the Department of Agriculture, propagated them, then began planting his olive groves. This process continued over the years until Morgenster today has 50 hectares of olive groves.

Bertrand marketed his first oil in 1998 after thoroughly briefing the local media. Morgenster extra virgin olive oil was a resounding success. As a result, he received approaches from people working in other agricultural sectors who wished to acquire olive plants and oil extraction technology. This presented an opportunity to expand his nursery and market a limited range of his Italian varieties. Some 4.3 million of the 5 million trees planted in SA since 1994 originated from the 2 000 trees he imported. For 10 years Bertrand was the only supplier of Italian cultivars into the South African market then other producers began selling their own mostly Italian varieties which they had originally bought from Morgenster.

Bertrand continues to import the world’s most up to date olive tree cultivars and production technology.
As an agent importer of Pieralisi extraction technology he also provides expertise and equipment to South African farms to create a healthy local olive oil industry. In August 2012 the SA Olive Association honored Giulio Bertrand with its Life Time Achiever Award in recognition of his contribution to the building of South Africa’s new olive industry. He effectively transformed an archaic system into a vibrant, modern industry so that South Africa is internationally becoming recognized as an olive oil producing country, with local olive oils being internationally acclaimed.

“Where there is quality there is no compromise”.
Bertrand’s guiding philosophy has always been “Where there is quality there is no compromise”. As a result of his careful investment in the best technology and expertise, for over 10 years his Morgenster extra virgin olive, made from a secret blend of 14 Italian varieties, has consistently been judged as one of the best olive oils in the world. (For accolades see click HERE )

Morgenster’s wines too are acclaimed internationally, and continue to garner significant awards. The Estate’s wines and olive products are exported around the world. On their labels they feature the Morning Star as depicted on the front gable of the manor house.

The Morgenster visitor experience
Visitors to Morgenster can enjoy the area which so captivated Willem Adriaan van der Stel all those years ago. In the stylish Revel Fox designed tasting room they can savour vertical tastings of early vintage Bordeaux- style red blends, a white Bordeaux, ranges of Italian Collection and single varietal wines, as well as a delicious bubbly made in the Methode Cap Classic style. An extra virgin olive oil and olive tasting of intriguing complexity adds a distinct highlight to a Morgenster visit. Next to the tasting room, looking out over a beautiful dam, the 95 At Morgenster restaurant offers delicious dishes paired with the finest wines. Morgenster Boutique Hotel and Spa will be opening towards the end of 2018.

Morgenster Estate