History is always with us. In the world of wine, this means that the old and new make beautiful bedfellows. The Constantia valley – the oldest wine producing region in the southern hemisphere – is proof.
There are different ways to experience and enjoy the area’s wine farms. The leisurely, luxurious, no-expense-spared way would be to book a long weekend into one of Constantia’s fine hotels as a base for discovery. If you’re comfortable on a bicycle, pedalling around the valley is a great way to combine hedonism with exercise. Or take a walking tour – consider it a Camino-like pilgrimage to a small part of Cape history. Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with the area, as the locals will know where the wine farms are, and directions are easy.
If you have just a day, combine beauty and efficiency by sticking to Constantia Main Road, along which are four estates in convenient proximity. Near the bottom of the hill rising towards Constantia Nek, Eagle’s Nest and Constantia Glen are stone’s throw neighbours. Both trellis their vines to the steepest slopes bordering the Vlakkenberg hiking trail, seeking maximum sunshine for their grapes and aiming to eke out the benefits of the high-slope, sandy and rocky soil in which the vines struggle, intensifying flavours.
Both, too, create sought after, award-winning wines. But the experiences are contrasting: Eagle’s Nest’s tastings are conducted in a park-like garden near the roadside entrance, while Constantia Glen takes greater advantage of its elevation and offers glorious views. Its restaurant – one of few in Cape Town to feature flammekueche, a pizza-like Alsace specialty – is usually too full to get in without booking well in advance.
I’d advise bypassing Beau Constance at the summit of Constantia Main Road. Here, tour busses aggregate at numerous times of the day, year round, and the nook-and-cranny visitor centre and tasting area can feel constricting. The view are gorgeous, but just over the hill they get even more expansively stunning.
So, drive slowly as you crest Contantia Nek and head down towards Hout Bay, otherwise you’ll miss the entrance to Silvermist Vineyards. An alert for gourmands: La Colombe has relocated here. The restaurant was at the vanguard of South Africa’s fine dining innovation some 25 years ago, and is still one of the country’s absolute best establishments. (Depending on the weight attached to judging authorities such as the S. Pellegrino World’s Best, La Colombe may be nearing the world’s top-50.)
We associate wine with the classical, sophisticated strains of violins and pianos. Silvermist abandons this convention in favour of immersing the wine-tasting experience in an African drumming show, Drumstruck, performed by some of the continent’s most accomplished percussionists. Ten minutes in, and it’s clear why Drumstruck was an international success, including in the U.S. where it ran for 18 months off-Broadway. Does drumming tie in with wine tasting? Does it matter?
Silvermist is an organic producer, one of only about twenty in South Africa. Charismatic viticulturist, winemaker and estate owner, Gregory Louw, passionately explains the estate’s attributes and his winemaking vision: “If there’s a problem in a conventional vineyard, you spray for it. If there’s something that might be a problem, you spray for it. If you’re having a bad day, you spray for it,” he says. ‘Not at Silvermist!”
I’ve tasted, before, a number of wines made according to this admirable philosophy, but have been disappointed. Silvermist’s, however, are superb. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 is notably smooth, with mellow fruit and a slight pepperiness. The Sauvignon Blanc 2020 is a knockout. Pale straw in colour, there’s a gentle minerality on the nose, then a richer texture in mouthfeel. It’s a sauvignon blanc like few other, resembling an elegant chardonnay with a hint of spicy gewurztraminer.
Silvermist has transformed my understanding of what’s possible with organic methods.
Heritage and craft
If time is no constraint, it would be remiss not to soak in the area’s history. At the very end of Klein Constantia Road is the eponymously named estate. There’s an unwelcoming security boom, and it’s no longer possible to wander around the beautiful farm. But it’s worth visiting Klein Constantia just to taste the legendary Vin de Constance dessert wine, which has been winning plaudits since the late 1700s, enjoyed by, among others, King Louis XVI of France, Jane Austen, and Napoleon.
Neighbouring Groot Constantia is officially South Africa’s oldest wine estate. Ownership was transferred into a trust in 1993 to preserve its cultural and heritage status for all South Africans, so here access is unfettered and you can explore the entire farm at leisure, alongside trail runners, dog walkers and Sunday strollers. Many locals shun the touristy nodes, and aren’t even aware of the epicurean delights available at the two visitors’ centres.
Don’t make the same mistake. The main wine tasting centre is large enough to find a degree of privacy even in peak season, and the tasting experience is generous but unintrusive. Two red wines, the 2019 shiraz and the Cape-style Bordeaux blend Gouverneur’s Reserve 2018, are particularly impressive. The latter’s R525 per bottle price tag is a ‘gulp’ moment – but it’s justified, as it received a 95-points Gold in the prestigious Decanter Magazine’s 2022 World Wine Awards. “It has that X-factor, an indefinable pixie dust,” the judges noted.
Besides, tourists are interesting to chat to. The 35-ish looking couple a few tables down are also seriously impressed with the estate’s reds. I enquire where they’re from. “Konstanz. It’s a beautiful town on Lake Constance in Germany,” they reply. We all smile at the coincidence.
Two of Constantia’s wineries have a notably different character. Buitenverwachting and Uitsig are cultivating their images as destinations for both recreation and shopping. Buitenverwachting has a coffee roastery, a takeaway deli and a jewellery outlet dotted around its wine tasting and picnic area. Uitsig has a bike park which is popular as a kids party venue, and what used to be labourers’ cottages have been converted into a row of something-for-everyone eateries: ice cream, sushi, fish and chips, pastries. Bizarrely, too, there is a parking fee.
This doesn’t mean that Buitenverwachting’s and Uitsig’s wines have lost their allure. Buitenverwachting achieved a number of Veritas Silver medals last year, including for the ever-reliable Buiten Blanc, surely one of the country’s best-value sauvignon blanc-based blends. Even more impressively, five of Uitsig’s wines featured in the Decanter World Wine Awards, the Sauvignon Blanc 2021 achieving a 95-points Gold.
Head south, says Siri
A few kilometres further south, getting close to the False Bay coast, is Steenberg. Don’t be put off by the estate’s proximity to the infamous Pollsmoor prison; the vineyards, hotel and restaurants encapsulate the beautiful and harmonious aspects of life.
The tasting centre is a bright and breezy spherical counter, extending poolside and to a cosy alcove with a fireplace for winter sampling. The benefits of a counter seat include watching the tasting servers conduct their business, overhearing their banter with and explanations to other customers, and a sense of comfortable conviviality.
The Chardonnay Brut Cap Classique 2019 kicks off our tasting. It’s a Veritas Double Gold winner, unsurprising given that Steenberg is a sibling wine farm to specialist Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) producer Graham Beck. Besides its MCCs, Steenberg’s reputation is built on sauvignon blanc, comprising the major portion of its vineyard blocks. The Steenberg Barrel Fermented 2022 has less of the Granny Smith apple tang typical of sauvignon blancs, and more fragrant spiciness.
The standout wines are the Semillon 2021 and the Nebbiolo 2017. Only 2% of the country’s white grape vineyards are Semillon, but it’s still disappointing that so few estates produce a dedicated Semillon as opposed to using the varietal in blends. Nebbiolo is rarer still, with only a handful of South African labels. Steenberg’s is burgundy-rust in colour; the first sips are cherries and roses, later ones reveal leather and liquorice. The Platter guide has given Steenberg’s recent Nebbiolo bottlings either 4 or 4.5 stars, confirming my impression that winemaker Elunda Basson has mastered her craft involving this temperamental varietal.
Lunch beckons at the estate’s Bistro Sixteen82. On a late holiday season Friday afternoon the restaurant buzzes with cosmopolitan patter: Jozi accents, American Deep South drawl, animated Italian, brassy German. There’s more than a scattering of wannabe supermodels – male and female – among the patrons and waitrons alike.
The menu offers just the right number of choices: everything appeals, a few dishes intrigue, but its short enough so that diners can quickly settle on a tantalising favourite. Pulled beef and pumpkin gnocchi with red pepper ragu and smoked gruberg takes the humble Italian potato dumpling to new heights. The ricotta-stuffed lamb neck with aubergine parcel and sultana achaar is complex, the cumin jus balanced by the sultana’s sweetness and the whole infused with the perfect degree of fragrant mint to set off the melt-in-mouth richness of the lamb. It’s a dish that demands a return visit.
Discoveries off the beaten track
A couple of Constantia wine producers are easy to pass by without even knowing they exist.
Like Silvermist, High Constantia hides in plain sight. The only hint that wines are being made behind the flourishing agapanthuses, roses and olive trees is a tiny sign which is easily missed in the anticipation of approaching its big, doorstep neighbour, Groot Constantia.
But you may need luck to get to try the wines. On an early afternoon visit the cellar was empty – was that the sonorous sound of deep breathing, a worker napping behind a fermentation tank after lunch? My attempt later in the afternoon, an hour before closing time, was rebuffed by the sign: ‘Close’. I could only smile at the charmingly absent ‘d’, evidence, perhaps, that High Constantia is an authentic winery that prioritises the tasks that matter.
I hit the jackpot in my quest to find Constantia’s second-smallest producer. At the bottom entrance to the Alphen trail, circumnavigate a quaint traffic circle and swing into the appropriately named Vineyard Road. It seems a road to nowhere, but a few hundred meters past the Wolvekloof greenbelt sign, there it is: Nova Zonnestraal.
The farm slips under the radar of even longstanding local residents. Its sauvignon blanc bottlings carry the Constantia Royale label; they’re available at restaurants and retailers in the valley, but connecting label to vineyard, and then locating the farm, needs a bit of detective work. It’s worth the effort.
Viticulturist and winemaker Roger Burton enthusiastically shares stories of the Zonnestraal farm’s history. Intriguingly, he questions the chronicled claims of Groot and Klein Constantia. “Think about it. Why would a suburb be called ‘Wynberg’?,” he asks. His theory is that after Jan van Riebeeck made the first wine in 1695 from Cape grapes planted at the Castle, he was encouraged to extend vine plantings further south. Wynberg is in spitting distance from the old part of the Zonnestraal estate, so, Burton concludes only half-jokingly, Constantia Royale’s terroir is really the oldest South African vineyard – in the southern hemisphere, too.
His ambition testifies to the quality coming out of even Constantia’s smaller, lesser known cellars
Tastings at Nova Zonnestraal are conducted in “the tunnel,” Burton’s name for the subterranean connection leading to the original Zonnestraal farm on the Wynberg side of the M3 freeway. Weirdly, it’s rush hour above our heads, but it’s tranquil inside as we quaff three gorgeous sauvignon blancs, the 2020 and 2021 vintages, and the flagship 2019 Don Reserve. The latter is minerally and flinty, wonderfully rounded, diverse flavours emerging with each sip. Burton is only moderately pleased with authoritative international judge Tim Atkins’s score of 93 points. “I want to get 95,” he says.
His ambition testifies to the quality coming out of even Constantia’s smaller, lesser known cellars. A penny drops: my two favourite Constantia wines come from possibly the oldest vineyard, Nova Zonnestraal, and from definitely the newest, Silvermist – which, in making only organic wines, blends new knowledge with age-old techniques.
It’s an appropriate refrain for life: wonderful creations come from cherishing traditions and, simultaneously, embracing innovation.