I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s one thing to read about history, culture, politics, food, wine, maps… It’s quite another to experience South Africa, and to be entirely enchanted by this beautiful place.
It’s springtime. The days are warm, even with intense cloud cover the first day, and the nights are cool. Cape Grace Hotel is situated right on the Victoria & Albert waterfront with a full-on view of Table Mountain and the harbor from my room. It is lush and green and tropical, best understood by touring Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens right on the edge of the Cape Town flats. The history of South Africa is actually revealed in the story of indigenous vs. imported plants and trees. The mix, on property donated by Cecil Rhodes upon his death, is breathtaking.
There are no straight lines in Cape Town! The only way to know where in the city you might actually be situated is to keep a fix on your position relative to Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. Because the core area is flat, low-rise, dense and compact, you can see them from nearly every vantage point. In a matter of minutes everything changes from concrete to green, from flat to hilly to mountainous, and one can drive from easily from city to suburb to vineyards.
The Cape Quarter Neighborhood, District 6 Museum, Biscuit Mill Food/Craft Complex
How many wineries can you visit in one day? My previous record was seven in the densely packed and familiar Napa Valley. We visited six wineries on our first day of touring in Constantia. (It would have been seven, but one winery was closed. We learned when we visited the next day that it had been a private dinner party for a European royal.)
There are 10 significant wineries in the Constantia region (and a few garagiste options) just minutes outside Cape Town on the western peninsula. While the wineries aren’t exactly cheek to jowl, they are situated close enough to manage a marathon of visits in a single day — with a guide/driver, of course! Six of the wineries can trace their origins c. 1685 to the farm called Constantia which was assembled by charismatic Dutch Governor Simon van der Stel.
As you might expect, there have been many owners and transitions during the ensuing 325+ years. Although several of the wineries’ manor houses have been preserved (or rebuilt in cases of fire or neglect) in the Cape Dutch architectural style, just as many current owners have invested significantly in new, modern facilities for visitors as well as vines and wines.
Groot, Klein (pronounced “klane”), Uitsig (“view”) and Steenberg (“mountain of stone”) were each founded at about that same time. Buitenverwachting (which means “beyond expectation” and requires practice to master the pronunciation!) and Eagles’ Nest came along 110-150 years later, respectively. The others, including Beau Constantia which we also visited, are quite modern — less than 30 years old.
Groot Manor House and Museum, Eagles’ Nest, Bar/Tasting Room at Steenberg (old manor house/new addition)
Misconception #1: South Africa’s main cultivar is Chenin Blanc. Once touted as the grape’s second spiritual home (after the Loire), and still representing 20% of all vines, it has significantly declined in popularity and production. This is perhaps due to the reputation of South African Chenin Blanc which showed poorly on the international market until recently.
Misconception #2: Pinotage, which is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, is an important indigenous grape (since discovery in 1925). In fact, very few winemakers in Constantia (or elsewhere) make Pinotage wine.
Almost universal adoption of familiar international varieties and New World winemaking styles have clearly taken hold here. Very few winemakers in Constantia are experimenting with other grape varieties. Since South Africa’s new era of democracy launched with Nelson Mandela’s election in April 1994, Constantia winemakers have found their style footing in Sauvignon Blanc and red Bordeaux blends. With a couple of notable exceptions, the Sauvignon Blancs (SB) were acidic enough to tarnish the enamel on your teeth! After several tries, and hearing the “green grassy gooseberry” description perhaps one too many times, I found myself shifting to taste other things. I did not experience the (mostly) new releases of SBs as “refreshing” or “vibrant,” rather as too acidic. Only those winemakers who blended SB with Semillon (and perhaps a little Viognier), or permitted the varietal SB to spend a meaningful number of months on lees, continued to get my attention and vote of confidence in the category of white wines.
Red Bordeaux blends appear to have become the benchmark wine style. Every winemaker has one, some with significant portions of Petit Verdot, which is a fractional blending partner in most Bordeaux wines. Some were good, some not so much. Shiraz is a close second ubiquitous offering. Unless Pinot Noir made its way into Cap Classique, South Africa’s traditional method sparkling wine, it didn’t appear in Constantia wine offerings. In a few cases, the young wines showed promise for balance and complexity. But just as many did not, exhibiting chewy tannins whose future mellowing potential was quite difficult to judge.
Bottom line for me: love the blends!
It was also surprising that most wineries offer an extensive range of wines — too many, I would argue, to be really excellent at them all. I suspect this is a hazard of climbing up the global production ladder, which South Africa has done successfully with nearly 600 wineries and 8th position in world rankings.
My personal favorites (ranked):
1. Steenberg Nebbiolo
2. Klein Vin de Constance (Muscat, dessert wine)
3. Steenberg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc
4. Buitenverwachting Loose Canon (Chenin Blanc/Semillon blend)
5. Eagles’ Nest Shiraz
6. Beau Constantia Pas de Nom White (Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon/Viognier blend)
The lineup of 25 wines from seven wineries in order of winery visit (grapes listed in order of predominance in the blend):
Beau Constantia: Pas de Nom (“without a name”) 2013 blend of SB, Semillon and Viognier; Pas de Nom 2013 Blanc de Noir (still Rose) of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Shiraz; Pas de Nom 2011 Red blend of Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot; 2013 Viognier; Lucca 2011 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc; Aidan 2011 blend of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
Eagle’s Nest: 2011 Sauvignon Blanc; Little Eagle (non-vintage!) Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot; 2010 Shiraz
Constantia Uitsig: 2012 White Blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon
La Colombe Restaurant at Constantia Uitsig
Klein Constantia: 2012 Sauvignon Blanc; Marlbrook Red 2008 of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Shiraz; Vin de Constance 2008
Groot Constantia: 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, 2012 Chardonnay, 2013 Blanc de Noir (still Rose), 2012 Pinotage, 2011 Shiraz, Gouverneurs Reserve 2011 blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon
Steenberg: 2011 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc; Magna Carta Iconic 2010 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon; 2011 Nebbiolo
Buitenverwachting: Cap Classique NV Brut; Loose Cannon 2010 blend of Chenin Blanc and Semillon; Christine 2009 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec