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
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
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.
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
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.
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.