With just 11 vineyards, the Constantia Valley is the smallest of South Africa’s lush wine lands, but it is also the oldest winemaking region in the world outside of Europe.

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 Vineyards
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.

Groot Constantia Estate
While Steenberg Vineyards is South Africa’s oldest wine-producing farm, Groot Constantia is the country’s oldest vineyard. Founded in 1685 by then Governor of the Cape of Good Hope Simon van der Stel, Groot Constantia (which translates to “Great Constantia”) had a royal following from the start -- in the 17th Century, King Louis Philippe of France bought out the entire vintage. And one of Napoleon’s last wishes before he died in exile on St Helena was to have a glass of the brand’s sweet wine, Grand Constance. Between tastings, history buffs can explore the three Iziko Museums of Cape Town on property, comprised of a restored manor house furnished between the 18th and 19th Centuries, an orientation centre with artefacts from the early days of the estate, and the Cloete Cellar Collection which showcases historical drinking vessels, wine-making equipment and horse-drawn carriages.

After touring the vast property’s carefully maintained Dutch-style buildings, it might surprise you that the tasting room is little more than a gift shop with a seating area. Select tastes of white, red, sparkling and dessert wine at the counter and take your glass back one of the sets of low couches and tables.

Bottles to buy: Grand Constance is a sweet wine that is intensely amber-coloured and has notes of apricot, raisins, pineapple, honey and rose. Sauvignon blanc balances tropical fruit flavours with hints of green and mineral flavours.

Klein Constantia Estate
At Klein Constantia (which translates to “Little Constantia”), visitors can sample and purchase Napoleon’s favourite dessert wine, Vin de Constance, a very sweet tipple made with notes of honeysuckle, citrus peel and clove, which won the Constantia region international fame during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Like Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia supplied Napoleon Bonaparte with wine while he was in exile. Jane Austin and Charles Dickens were also fans of the drink — Austin included a reference to the wine in her book Sense and Sensibility, hailing its “healing powers on a disappointed heart”.

The sunken tasting room features a dark, sexy bar flanked by a simple display of early vintages of Vin de Constance, a ledger from the original winemaker Hendrick Cloete and a wall-hanging mural of the grape harvesting process called “Four Seasons of the Vine”. 

Bottles to buy: Vin de Constance. KC – a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot -- is the brand’s lower-priced red, but is approachable and ready to drink right now. It has blackberry and plum aromas, complemented by subtle oak spice.  

Eagles’ Nest
Unlike the valley’s historic vineyards, this small boutique winery does not offer cellar tours. Blink and you will miss the turn for the winery and the low-key tasting room, which looks like a nondescript house from the outside.

The vineyard’s origins can be traced back to 1836, when it was used as a refreshment station for ships travelling from Europe to South Africa to refill on food, water and supplies. But in 1984, land was purchased by its current owners and in the summer of 2000, the first Eagles’ Nest vines were cultivated.

Although Constantia is known for its white wines, Eagles’ Nest is set on the highest slope in the Constantia Valley, making it more suitable to red wines. The brand’s shiraz has even won awards from the International Wine and Spirit Competition, beating out the usual suspects from shiraz-famed Australia.

Bottles to buy: The brand’s award-winning shiraz is rich and tastes like plums and white pepper. White wine lovers should try a viognier, with peach, apricot and jasmine on the nose and crisp, velvety finish.   

Correction: A previous version of this article said that the Constantia Valley is located north of Cape Town. This has been fixed.