Jean Imbert and his friend Jacques Theron arrived in the Cape as Huguenot refugees in 1688. Both came from the south of France, not far from the historic city of Montpellier, the birthplace of Jean according to some sources. It is therefore not surprising that Jean Imbert called his farm Montpellier, when the 50 morgen of fertile alluvial land was granted to him in 1714 by the then governor of the Cape, Maurits Pasques de Chavonnes. Jean’s friend, Jacques Theron, was granted the neighboring farm, Le Rhône.
In those early years the farm was used exclusively for grazing cattle. The first vineyard was planted soon after a homestead was build by Jean and Jacques Theron, working together. This first vineyard, together with a fruit-tree orchard, was meant for domestic usage. Only in the late 1890's the first commercial vineyards were laid out on the farm.
After the death of Jean Imbert in 1723, Montpellier had many owners. In 1778 it was acquired by Jan Theron, a descendant of Jacques Theron. It later passed out of the Theron family's hands, but was reacquired in the 1880's by three Theron brothers, Hendrik, Jan and Gawie. The farm stayed in the Theron family for the next 100 years.
In 1884, Hendrik Theron bought out his brother’s share of the farmland started planting the first commercial vineyards, which consisted mostly of Sémillon, Riesling, French grape and Cinsaut. For the next 50 years Montpellier produced a certain amount of wine without any real distinction.
In 1945 De Wet Theron inherited the farm and took over the management with a vision of creating quality wines. He then ripped out the Cinsaut, as he believed that the farm was suitable for only white wine production. He replaced the Cinsaut with Clairette blanche, Colombard, Riesling and Chenin blanc.
In 1954 a wine merchant brought a German wine expert, Gerhard Kreft, to South Africa. In order to produce a high quality white wine Dr. Kreft began experimenting and installed the Geisz system which was a huge success in Germany but a failure in South Africa. The wine produced with this system tasted flat and didn't mature well.
In 1958 De Wet Theron conducted experiments to reduce the heat given off during fermentation. He used cold running water to cool the tanks during fermentation.
The results of his tests were the following:
- Oxidation can be minimized if CO2 is used to replace oxygen
- Grape juice must be cooled down
- Fermentation temperature must be regulated.
The farm also started using 20 kg 'plukkissies' (boxes) to reduce the handling of the grapes and also to get the grapes in as quickly and as cool as possible to the cellar.
In 1967 De Wet imported active dry yeast into South Africa to produce his wine. Karl Werner didn't use SO2 during his wine making process as was done originally. He only used SO2 before bottling. On December 2, 1967 this wine was bottled. Only 1000 bottles of Riesling were hand-bottled and corked before it was laid down for maturation.
During the first four years none of the bottled wine was sold but it was still kept to find the maturation potential of the wine. The Riesling that was bottled in 1971 was matured for 18 months before it was sold. It was also the first wine to get a Gold Superior classification.
De Wet wanted another three cultivars to put on his wine list.
- A Gewürztraminer (bottled in 1971, it also received a Gold superior classification)
- Rhine Riesling
- Chenin blanc
In September 1969 a devastating earthquake shook the Tulbagh valley, bringing down the beautiful old Cape Dutch homestead on the farm. De Wet Theron restored his ancestral home and it stands today as a witness of good workmanship and fine finish, characteristic of the Montpellier wines. .
In 2001 a Johannesburg advocate, Lucas van Tonder, first bought Montpellier de Tulbagh and later also acquired Constantia Du Sud. He transformed the old homestead into a guesthouse, built a chapel for weddings and brought in 6 thoroughbred horses for guests to ride when enjoying the magic of Montpellier. There are now 10 horses on which guests can enjoy horse trails.
The Cape Dutch architecture as it is known, manifests itself "in the traditional Cape house, with sleek mole-brown thatch, a beautiful symmetry of façade and above all its proud gables, and is both architecturally unique and an aesthetic delight", according to Phillida Brooke Simons, in her excellent book "Cape Dutch Houses".
The old homestead on Montpellier is an excellent example of the Cape Dutch architecture. Built between 1815 and 1820, it replaced the original dwelling built for Jean Imbert. The spacious homestead is T-shaped with an extra wing halfway down the tail end. There are three casement windows on either side of the front door and above it is the handsome "holbol" gable decorated with a charming variety of motifs. Inside the house is furnished with delightful but sturdy Cape Dutch furniture and fitted with more modern amenities. The house is a National Monument.
The old homestead is currently serving as a guesthouse and visitors are welcome to stay and experience the ambiance of a traditional Cape Dutch home.