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With just 11 vineyards, the Constantia Valley outside of Cape Town is the smallest of South Africa’s lush wine lands. But it is also the country’s most rooted in history.
The area became a British colony in 1814, but earlier Dutch colonists introduced vines to the Constantia Valley in 1685, making it the oldest winemaking region in the world outside of Europe. At the time, production was limited and bottles were so expensive that they were mainly bought and consumed by the aristocracy. Members of British royalty, Napoleon Bonaparte, King Louis Philippe of France, Frederick II of Prussia and other dignitaries all drank wines from Constantia and served it to special guests in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
South Africa has been making wine for more than 350 years, said JD Pretorius, the winemaker at Steenberg Vineyards, South Africa’s oldest wine-producing farm dating back to the late 1600s. But even with its history, the region is still considered a New World wine producer. The Old World wines from the valley’s counterparts in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal contains less fruit flavour, more tannins and requires more aging. In contrast, New World wines from Australia, New Zealand, the Americas and South Africa are more fruit forward, are made in very expressive styles and are drinkable without needing to age very long. “So we have a bit of both going for us — old world charm and new world flair,” Pretorius said.
A 20-minute drive south of Cape Town, the Constantia Valley is located at the top of the Cape Peninsula and spans the southeastern slopes of Table Mountain National Park. The area’s mild Mediterranean climate and cool sea breeze allows the grapes to stay on the vine two- to four-weeks longer than other regions of the country, which leads to better ripening and balance, said Pretorius. The valley is best known for white wine varietals, such as sauvignon blanc, and sweet wines made from Muscat D’ Frontignac grapes. Interestingly for the vines’ history, Constantia’s sauvignon blanc tends to have the mineral characteristics of similar Old World varietals, but with greater tropical notes than New World wines. The result is a style of sauvignon blanc unlike any in the more than 12 wine-producing regions in South Africa — and the world.
Eight vineyards in the Constantia Valley are open to the public. Step back in time by visiting the most historic ones, plus one new boutique winery that is winning awards over the more established brands — and take home the best bottles from each.
Steenberg (which means “Mountain of Stone” in Afrikaans) is set against the slopes of Steenberg Mountain with views over False Bay. The estate’s buildings date back to 1682 and have since been restored and recognized as a national monument. Today, the property features a luxury boutique hotel, residences, a golf course, two restaurants, a wine tasting bar and lounge and the newly-opened bubbly bar, Gorgeous. Throughout the vineyard, 17th Century Dutch manor buildings contrast with 15 contemporary steel sculptures by South African artist Edoardo Villa.
Slide up to the contemporary oval wine tasting bar underneath a chandelier that resembles thousands of dangling red and white grapes. If you have time to linger, settle in for a night at the tasting lounge on big couches by the fire, or step out onto the terrace and sip while taking in the ground’s reflecting pools and tranquil indigenous gardens.
Bottles to buy: Steenberg was the first vineyard in South Africa to make nebbiolo, a red Italian varietal that is medium bodied and floral, with hints of strawberries, rhubarb and cherries. Twenty years after its first planting, the vineyard has mastered the art of cultivating cooling the grape using the terroir of clay-rich soil and cooling ocean air. Steenberg Estate sauvignon blanc, with tinges of flint, citrus and passion fruit, is the brand’s top seller. It grows grassier and more herbaceous as it ages.