Babylonstoren: A Historic South African Wine Farm and Bountiful Garden

Photos by Babylonstoren ~ 

Babylonstoren. The name evokes romance, splendor, and the legend of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the ancient Middle Eastern home of King Nebuchadnezzar II. Babylon’s Toren, or Tower of Babel, refers to the hill or koppie that rises on this South African wine farm.

Backed by the Simonsberg mountains, the werf, or farm, lies in the Drakenstein Valley. Just a short hour’s drive from Cape Town, the estate borders the Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Franschoek wine regions.

While referencing its beginnings, the word “farm” doesn’t encompass the whole of what Babylonstoren is today.

Its Dutch history begins with The Dutch East India Company (1602-1799) which spread Dutch economic and political power around the world, including in South Africa. In 1652, The Company’s Garden was created in Cape Town to provide ships sailing to Asia with fresh fruits and vegetables.

European settlements were encouraged, including those of French Huguenots fleeing Catholic France. A monument to these settlers in Franschoek shows their cultural symbols: Bible, harp, wheat, grapevine, and spinning wheel. These settlers brought winemaking knowledge to the less-experienced Dutch.

Babylonstoren was founded in 1692 from a land grant given to Pieter van der Byl. He planted the first grapevines on the property in 1692. The plentiful fresh water on the farm proved to be a distinct advantage over coastal settlements.

“Farm” is too simple a term to describe what has grown into a world-class tourist destination amid this beautiful landscape. The garden itself is exquisitely designed and highly productive. Its output supplies the on-site restaurants and the many natural products produced on the estate.

The Manor House hotel, built in 1777, has been carefully preserved and exhibits traditional Cape Dutch architecture. Other original buildings have also been adapted for modern use.

Karen Roos, a former editor at South Africa’s Elle Decoration magazine, purchased the property in 2007. She wanted to create a garden inspired by The Company’s Garden and hired French architect Patrice Taravella to design it. He designed the intricate and renowned garden Prieuré Notre Dame d’Orsan in France. She opened the estate to the public in 2010.

The formal 12-acre garden, with 15 different sections, is famed for its botanical diversity. The freshwater stream provides water for the garden, wild olives, and lily ponds. When preparing the land for the garden in 2009, workers discovered shards of Dutch Delftware pottery. The property’s design elements include Delft’s blue and white colors.

While Pieter van der Byl planted the first vineyard, future owners expanded plantings. Grapes were sold for wine and later brandy production.

Phyloxera, a grapevine’s insect nemesis, didn’t spare the Cape’s wine lands. It appeared in 1886 and wiped out 80% of the vineyards by 1890. As a result, many wine farmers shifted to fruit trees.

In addition, Napoleon’s war with England and the Boer war both benefited and impeded the wine industry, which was stabilized with the founding in 1918 of the country’s large wine cooperative, KWV.

While Babylonstoren is considered a New World winery, history is omnipresent. Guests travel through the history of wine from Roman times to the present. Tastings take place in a modern underground tunnel.

The estate produces 10 wines from 13 grape varietals planted across 346 acres. Babylonstoren is an ancient name, a modern estate, and a careful custodian of a special land. Dallas visitors are welcome, and the estate hopes you enjoy a bottle of this historic elixir soon.

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