Visiting Constantia, where South African wine began

South Africa is the only major wine producing country that can state an actual date when wine was first made there – recorded by Van Riebeek as  the 2nd February 1659. The country’s first real wine region established at the end of that century was Constantia just outside Cape Town. Today, after a revival starting in the 1980s and gathering force post-apartheid, the small Constantia Valley is turning out fine wines and some tasty wine tourism offerings too.

For anyone visiting South Africa with only a little time to discover the wine regions, Constantia is superbly positioned. Just a short drive from Cape Town on the other side of Table Mountain, it is at the start of the Cape Peninsula, close to attractions such as Hout Bay, Simon’s Town and the Table Mountain National Park, through which you drive to reach Cape Point, the south-western tip of Africa.

Klein Constantia

Klein Constantia vineyards with view to False Bay ©Mick Rock/Cephas

The vineyards benefit from this wonderful position too, and the Constantia wine region is known as one of the coolest regions in the Cape winelands. Many of the vineyards are on steep slopes, sheltered, but at the same time benefitting from cooling breezes coming from both False Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The soils, as in most of the Cape, are ancient and special too. The founder of the vineyards in Constantia, Governor Simon van der Stel ordered soil samples to be taken before he chose decomposed granite soil in which to plant the first Constantia vineyard in 1685.

The famous sweet wine of Constantia
The history of Constantia is incomplete without a mention of the legendary Vin de Constance, simply named Constantia back in the 19th century.  This sweet Muscat wine was appreciated throughout the Royal courts of Europe and notably by Napoleon. It was regularly cited in literature, enjoying fame as one of the greatest sweet wines of the world, with fabulous health-giving properties regularly cited. Sadly Constantia wine disappeared as did most of the vineyards by the end of the 19th century through disease and financial ruin, but the story has a happy ending.

Cape Dutch architecture at Klein Constantia

The manor house at Klein Constantia

In 1980 the now derelict farm called Klein Constantia, part of the original first Constantia farm was bought by the Jooste family and restoration of the property including the vineyards was undertaken. The family revived the tradition of making fine sweet Muscat wine and so Vin de Constance was born with its first vintage being 1986. Highly regarded, today’s vintages are not fortified as the old Constantia was, but instead made from part-shrivelled, nobly rotted grapes. I have tasted several vintages over the years, and the current 2005 Vin de Constance is a beautiful, elegant example that will last many years.

A compact wine route with elegant wines and dining
Great sweet wine is only one of the delights produced in Constantia. At most of the eight wineries in the Constantia Valley, the focus is on white wines, with Sauvignon Blanc being the most planted and successful variety. The relatively cool climate is ideal to produce stoney and limey characters in the Sauvignons with good, crisp examples in the valley made by among others Steenberg, Groot Constantia and Klein Constantia. The latter are also justly known for their delicious Riesling, a rarity in South Africa, but one which is well worth seeking out.

I found some lovely Semillon whites here too, especially from Constantia Uitsig, and decent Chardonnay is also produced in the valley, especially by the Groot Constantia winery, one of the other parts of the original Constantia farm from the 17th century. Eagle’s Nest winery are experimenting successfully with Viognier, planting it on the north-facing, warmer slopes.

Reds are not forgotten with most wineries focussing on Cabernet Sauvignon (an almost Bordeaux-like version from Klein Constantia), Merlot (Steenberg produces an elegant one) or Bordeaux blends like the excellent, long-established Klein Constantia Marlbrook or some very oaky, but promising new wines from Constantia Glen.  Again, Eagle’s Nest was an exception making a lovely, rich Shiraz from vineyards on steep, rocky slopes.

Bistro at Steenberg South Africa

Bistro 1682 at Steenberg

After all that tasting, you’ll need to eat, and no less than four of the Constantia wineries have their own restaurants, all with high reputations. We had the chance to eat a tasty lunch at Steenberg’s delightfully casual Bistrot 1682 next to their tasting room; they also have a smart restaurant named Catharina’s at their spa hotel. Years ago on an early visit to the Cape, I ate at the lovely Constantia Uitsig with its characteristic Cape Dutch building, now I discover they have a hotel and three restaurants – the Valley has really turned into a gourmet paradise. Buitenverwachting and Groot Constantia both have highly respected restaurants too.

Bays, penguins, views and the tip of Africa
A bottle of Buiten Blanc, a white blend from Buitenverwachting was waiting for us in the fridge of our room in the Hout Bay Hideaway, a lovely English-owned guest house we stayed in for a couple of nights off wine travels. The quirky little town of Hout Bay boasts what was the very first waterfront development in South Africa including the touristy, but full of history Wharfside Grill tasty seafood restaurant. Even if you don’t choose to stop in Hout Bay, a drive over the spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive is a must for the views, and one of the ways to link Cape Town with the Constantia Valley or with Simon’s Town.

African penguins

Penguins at Boulders Beach

Simon’s Town is famous for the nearby Boulders Beach where a colony of rare African Penguins have settled over the last two decades. The creatures are surprisingly happy to be watched and photographed by the many visitors in this protected area. To explore the magnificent array of flora and fauna on the Cape, one way is to drive through the Table Mountain National Park which will take you to Cape Point, and to the Cape of Good Hope too if you have the time. These experiences are simply unforgettable.

Constantia and its wines have come a long way in the 325 years since that first vineyard was planted. Whereas I love the bigger and better known Cape wine region of Stellenbosch too, I would strongly recommend anyone travelling to South Africa to spend a few days exploring the wineries of Constantia and the fabulous natural attributes of the Cape Peninsula.

Cape of Good Hope

View from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope

For anyone visiting the region this month, look out for the Constantia Fresh Festival, celebrating Sauvignon Blanc and white blends on 25th – 26th February. Note that our trip was partly supported by Wines of South Africa.

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One Response to Visiting Constantia, where South African wine began

  1. Karen says:

    This is an excellent reflection of what our beautiful valley has to offer.

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