The best Wine Route of South Africa!

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

A trip to Cape Town seems to systematically include at least a day in the vineyards, very often on exclusive wine estates around Stellenbosch or Franschhoek, about an hour away from the city. It is true that the quality of the wines combined to the beauty of the vineyards calls for an exploration. Stellenbosch can be overwhelming with its hundreds of wine farms. Franschhoek tends to oversell luxurious vineyard experiences rather than high quality wine tastings. Our favourite wine route is much closer, right in one of the most beautiful suburbs of Cape Town, in the cradle of South Africa’s wine making. Only a twenty-minute drive via Victoria Road lining the stunning Atlantic coastline, cooler climate award-winning wines are produced on about 400 hectares. Let’s explore this intimate wine route…

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The Constantia Wine Route

The wine history of the oldest New World wine country really started to be written in 1685 here, in the Constantia Region, a few kilometres from the refreshment station of the Cape of Good Hope.

Over the years, the land of Constantia Valley has been split and today, ten wine farms remain: Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Constantia Glen, Beau Constantia, Buitenverwachting, Steenberg, Constantia Uitsig, Eagle’s Nest, Silvermist and Constantia Royale. They all benefit from the close proximity of the Atlantic Ocean providing cool moist-laden breezes and cloud cover to mature the grapes perfectly and giving them delicate aromas in a country where warm weather predominates (e.g., Stellenbosch, Franschhoek or Robertson). If these farms are close to each other, the wide topographical variations of the area from high mountain slopes to flat valley floors, the diversity of the soils and the different orientations lead to high-quality wines, each with its own character, like the estates on which they are produced.

Groot Constantia

Groot Constantia is the oldest wine producing farm in the Southern Hemisphere.

Its iconic Cape Dutch manor house (even if the way it was renovated makes local historical architects jump), wine cellar designed by French architect Louis Thibault, and alleys planted with centennial oak trees hint at its rich history. 

It all started with the determination of the second commander of the Cape Colony: Simon van der Stel. He could convince the Dutch VOC to grant him some farmland – what will become the Constantia region – to thank him for his years of hard-work at the head of the colony. He did not ask for any farmland: over the years, he had studied the area and had gotten many soil samples in order to select the best possible terroir for a wine farm. The first wine produced here in 1685 was quite far from the quality of today’s wines, but after years of perseverance and innovation continued by subsequent owners and more specifically Hendrick Cloete, the Constantia wines became famous worldwide. More specifically, the sweet wines were enjoyed by Napoleon, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Louis Philippe, Queen Victoria and Baudelaire to only name a few.

Today, the land is owned by a non-for-profit trust in order to keep this heritage accessible to the public, and Groot Constantia is the most open farm of the area where it feels good to hang out, stroll under the oak trees or sit in the grass before enjoying a wine tasting.

Nine different soils types coexist and 90 hectares are under vines, making it the largest vineyard of the Constantia wine region. Many varietals are planted between 60 meters and 280 meters of altitude: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage and Shiraz accounting for 70% of the grapes for red wines, and Muscat de Frontignan, Chardonnay, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc for the white wines. All aged in French oak barrels, the wines of Groot Constantia remain a solid reference, and their majority is exported to Europe, the USA, and Asia.

What we love:

  • The estate with the Cape Dutch houses and alleys planted with centennial oak trees.
  • The interesting cellar visit.
  • The Grand Constance dessert wine and Shiraz.

Pay attention to:

  • It gets very busy on weekends, especially in the summer and this can ruin the experience.
  • The Hop On Hop Off bus stops there.
  • Overall, the wine tasting can feel less exclusive than on other estates.

Klein Constantia 

The estate of Klein Constantia is nested in the valley with the vines stretching up the mountainside. 68 hectares of the 146-hectare farm are under vine between 70 and 350 meters of altitude, leading to no less than ten different microclimates.

Alan Wickstrom, the Front House Manager who has been working on the estate for 22 years and has a real passion for it, describes the philosophy of Klein Constantia: beyond exceptional wines globally acclaimed by the most prestigious organizations, he and his team are devoted to “providing the ultimate guest experience”. After exploring the vineyard in an open Land Rover, we are sipping the Métis Sauvignon Blanc of Klein Constantia overlooking False Bay. The various patches where nine different varietals are grown cover the slopes: Sauvignon Blanc above us, and amongst others, Muscat de Frontignan below us. At Klein Constantia, white varietals are predominant with the south-facing slopes cooled by the ocean winds.

The Muscat de Frontignan is particularly important here as the estate is renowned for its sweet Vin de Constance (that scored 98/100 on Platter’s – see travel tips below). It is not short of a miracle that we can taste this elixir today. While the sweet wine of Constantia had been a favourite of European royals and intellectuals, in the mid-19th century, many winemakers went bankrupt. The abolition of slavery drove up labour costs, while the vineyards were hit by powdery mildew and phylloxera. Import rules to the UK also became more favourable to French wines and between 1880 and 1980, the Constantia wines were dormant. Luckily, by studying ancient text left by former owners, adapting to modern techniques, and finding by luck a 250-year-old Muscat de Frontignan on the farm from which the vines were propagated, the Vin de Constance got reborn!

As we walk between the perfectly pruned lines, we observe the grapes: the vine is not simply harvested, but the grapes are picked individually and workers have to come back 20 to 30 times onto the same vine during the harvest in order to pick the raisins when the ripeness is just right. Harvesting five kilograms a day is almost a record when picking for Vin de Constance! We carefully pick a few grapes to better apprehend the ripening and its impact on the flavours.

Combining this respect for the history of the farm to today’s state-of-the-art technology to track photosynthesis in the leaves to better predict the evolution of the bunch, using sustainable practices and carefully training its staff, Klein Constantia has been producing elegant and balanced wines. The young winemaker Matthew Day has a recognised talent and the tasting encompasses wines with a minimum score of 93 out of 100 on Platter’s!

What we love:

  • The very personalized experience.
  • The wine safari amongst the vineyards with its very hands-on approach to appreciate the wine making process better. 
  • All of the wines, and more specifically the Vin de Constance.

Pay attention to:

Constantia Glen 

As we are seating on the terrace of the restaurant overlooking the vineyards, the owner of Glen Constantia, Alexander Waibel, shows us the domain. In this cool climate for South Africa, the sun sets behind Constantia Neck and offers the 30 hectares under vine the most hours of sun of all of the estates along the Constantia wine route. In an area dominated by white varietals, and more specifically Sauvignon Blanc, this unique location creates the ideal conditions to perfectly ripen the red cultivars, representing two thirds of the varietals grown in Constantia Glen. When most of the country produces warmer climate wines, where the sugar content tends to overshoot the phenolic ripeness, this unique feature allows for long ripening times (up to 110 to 120 days) for the flavours to fully develop. The red Glen Constantia wines are elegant and complex wines in the Bordeaux style, praised by Alexander.

The winemaker Justin van Wyk humbly describes his role: “I’m the cook, the cellar is the kitchen, and what I make depends on the quality of my ingredients.” Here, the viticulturist and the wine maker work hand in hand to produce the best possible grapes to express the terroir of the vineyard. Knowing that a generation ago the estate was a pine forest with an acidic soil, it is quite an achievement to have turned this land into this vineyard from which only wines scoring 93+ are produced.

The passion of Alexander Waibel for wine is not foreign to such an achievement, nor is his commitment to impeccable quality: “being in the oldest, smallest, and coolest wine area of South Africa, we can craft very specific wines that are unique in the country, elegant and complex, and that can withstand the test of time”.

What we love:

  • The view!
  • The low-key restaurant amongst the vineyards with dishes designed to accompany the wines.
  • The simple portfolio: 2 red wines, 2 white wines named after the number of varietals in the wine.
  • The excellent wines from the domain, with a great aging potential.

Pay attention to:

Beau Constantia

As we are starting to taste the wines in the modern wine tasting room overlooking the highest vineyards of the Constantia region, we observe the workers making their way through the lines of vines. Today is the first day of the harvests in Beau. Starting with the white cultivars, they will make their way all across the vineyard in the next few weeks, once the winemaker Megan van der Merwe is satisfied with the sugar and acidity levels of the flavourful grapes. A wide variety of grapes are grown on this recent vineyard (9 different ones, 80% red) that was planted only in 2003 after a wildfire cleared the slopes of its fynbos. The first wines of this family-owned boutique vineyard – including an award-winning Viognier – were produced in 2010. With only 11.5 hectares under vine, the small production of Beau remains exclusive. Only 50,000 bottles a year on average are produced (grapes are also bought from elsewhere in the Western Cape more specifically for the Pas de Nom Creative Batch), and only 1,150 of the 100% Syrah Stella wine, the star of their range. This makes the wine tasting all the more exciting!

The highlights are the Pas de Nom Creative Batch that uses a wide variety of grapes bought in the Western Cape, and expresses the wild creativity of the winemaker with a fresh explosion of flavours, and the three elegant reds (Aidan, Lucca and Stella), hand-crafted with the grapes grown along these slopes and matured in French oak barrels for 18 months.

What we love:

Pay attention to:

  • Bookings are essential.
  • Parking is limited.
  • No cellar visit (Beau does not own its cellar at the moment and uses the one of Constantia Glen).

Constantia Royale

Originally part of the Alphen farm, grapes have been growing on the land of Constantia Royale for more than 300 years. In the 1960’s, the current owners purchased the land and today, the family-owned farm of 17 hectares has 7 under vine. The estate wine Sauvignon Blanc (blended with a bit of Sémillon) is produced in a close-by cellar, as a big part of the land focuses on stables with world-class installations for show jumping (Lynn Rowand, current owner, is a show jumping champion). Passing the elegant stables to walk along an olive groove and into the vineyards, a nice breeze cools us down despite the 150-meter elevation of the Constantia wine route’s lowest vineyard. Most of the Sauvignon Blanc is planted on soil characteristic of the Constantia area where granite boulders give the soil and the grapes their minerality.

What we love:

  • The no-fuss atmosphere of the non-commercialized wine farm.

Pay attention to:

Travel tip:

  • The Constantia wine area combines the experience to the quality of the wine in an area that is easy to comprehend, and very easy to reach from Cape Town.
  • To get the best wine experience if you are new to South African wines, check out John Platter’s Wine Guide. It is a renowned and competent guide for South African wines that are blind tasted and graded with a 5-star system as well as an out of 100 score (50/100 being the lesser possible score).
  • Only if the grapes are grown in the Constantia area, can the distinctive Constantia 1685 bottle can be used.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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