Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Day in Cape Town's Wine Cellars and Vineyards - Constantia Valley in South Africa

Pictures: View of Cape Town from Table Mountain and Poster of Constantia Wine Valley

On my recent trip to South Africa, I also spent a day in the Constantia Valley, just a few minutes away from Cape Town. The scenery in the Constantia Valley is magnificient: behind you, the hillocks and overhangs of Constantiaberg; in front of you an endless view towards Paarl and Stellenbosch; and to the right, False Bay unfolding into the horizon.

The dessert wine from the Constantia Valley was immensely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was exported to Europe. It was highly appreciated by the rich and famous of these days. Today, in terms of wine, the Constantia Valley has shrunk to 500 hectares of vineyards, with 8 wineries: Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Steenberg Vineyards, Eagles' Nest, Buitenverwachting, Constantia Uitsig, Constantia Glen and High Constantia.

The Constantia Wine Valley

It all began in 1655, with wine seedlings from Europe, ordered by the commander of the newly formed station of the Dutch East India Company - the largest company in the world at the time - at the Cape, the Dutch surgeon Jan van Riebeeck. He knew that for the long ship journey from Europe to India around the Cape of Good Hope, wine was better than water as the latter often got rotted in the barrels, causing the dangerous scurvey for sailers. Four years later, in 1659, Jan van Riebeeck made his first wine in South Africa.

20 years later, in 1679, the new Commander and Governor, Simon van der Stel, landed in the Cape of Good Hope. Van der Stel was offered land from the Dutch East India Company on which to farm. He chose an area situated behind Table Mountain totaling more than 2000 hectares, for its wine growing potential and magnificent scenery. He named his farm Constantia after Constantia van Goens, granddaughter of the Dutch East India official who had agreed to grant him the farm.

Picture: Map of the Wineries of the Constantia Valley

After van de Stel's death in 1712, the Constantia farm was subdivided and sold by way of auction. Captain Oloff Bergh bought the part on which the van der Stel buildings were situated and which became later known as Groot Constantia.

Today, part of the original van der Stel vineyard is now Cape Town suburbs. The remainder has been over time into 5 properties: Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Buitenverwachting, Constantia Uitsig and Eagles Nest. In addition, High Constantia and Steenberg Farmstaed can look back to an equally long history. Constantia Glen completes the list.

The Constantia Dessert Wine

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Constantia dessert wine was one of the world’s great sweet wines, but it disappeared with the phylloxera crisis in the late 19th century. It could count among its devotees in the great courts of Europe such luminaries as Napoleon Bonaparte, Bismarck, George IV and Frederick the Great. Some of the literary greats of the age were also so enamoured of its luscious taste that they immortalised it in their works – Charles Dickens singing its praises in Edwin Drood, for example, and Jane Austen recommending one forsaken heroine “try a little Constantia for a disappointed heart.”

The Constantia dessert wine is an unfortified dessert wine. The noble rot (botrytis) was not a feature of the original Constantia dessert wine, because it was not present in the Cape region at that time. But the grapes were allowed to ripen on the vines until they were almost like raisins.

Groot Constantia

Groot Constantia is the nucleus of the Van der Stel Estate, where the Van der Stel buildings were situated. Since 1685, the estate has had a history of an interrupted wine production. After van de Stel's death in 1712, Constantia was subdivided and sold by way of auction. Captain Oloff Bergh bought the part on which the Van der Stel buildings were situated. It became later known as Groot Constantia.

Groot Constantia had its high days, after it was purchased by Hendrik Cloete in 1778. Under Hendrik Cloete, Constantia soon earned a reputation across Europe for the quality of its Muscat based dessert wines, made from a blend of mostly Muscat de Frontignan , Pontac, red and white Muscadel and a little Chenin Blanc. However, after more than a century in the hands of 3 Cloete generations, the Groot Constantia was sold in 1885 to the Government and the great wine producing days had come to an end, until the most recent revival.

Picture: Groot Constantia Manor House

Today, only 100 hectares of the initial more than 2000 hectares of the van der Stel Estate are cultivated by the Groot Constantia Estate. Recognized as one of the world's oldest trademarks, Groot Constantia received the Platter Wine Guide nod too, scoring 5-stars with the Groot Constantia Gouverneurs Chardonnay 2009. Groot Constantia produces a range of wines, both red and white.

The Estate is owned today by Groot Constantia Trust, a company without gain, whose main objective is to preserve this beautiful and historic estate. The Manor House and the buildings grouped around it are unequalled examples of Cape Dutch architecture. Groot Constantia has nearly half a million visitors each year.

Klein Constantia

Klein Constantia Estate, with its historic Cape Dutch Homestead and superb views across the valley and False Bay, it has frequently been described as one of the world's most beautiful vineyard locations. The historic vineyards formed part of the original farm Constantia.

Today, Klein Constantia is owned by Duggie Jooste, who bought the farm in a rundown condition in 1980 and immediately initiated a restoration and replanting program. He and his son Lowell handle the day to day running of the farm. Winemaker Adam Mason joined the team in 2003.

Picture: Entrance of Klein Constantia

82 hectares are under cultivation with white wines accounting for 80% of the total, including the Vin de Constance. Since 1986 Klein Constantia has been making a sweet Constantia wine which they have labeled Vin de Constance based on the original wines that were made here. Since Klein Constantia released their Vin de Constance, neighboring estates have joined the game: Groot Constantia have their Grand Constance, and Buitenverwachting have their 1769. Klein Constantia is increasingly an organic approach to vineyard management.

The estate has a different feel to its larger neighbor of Groot Constantia, and does not cater for bus loads of tourists, which makes it a more personalized experience.


This beautiful farm on the east-facing slopes of the magnificent Constantiaberg originally formed part of the van der Stel Estate. Buitenverwachting changed hands often during its history. The German Richard Mueller bought the farm in 1981 – in a dilapidated state – and spent much time and money restoring it from an ailing strawberry farm. His son Lars Maack now runs operations.

Buitenverwachting means "Beyond Expectation". Buitenverwachting’s vineyard area totals 150 hectares. It produces mainly white wines (90%).

Pictures: Buitenverwachting Houses and Vinyards

Buitenverwachting is a charming privately owned estate, which boasts rolling landscapes and majestic vistas that are ideal for lazy Sunday afternoon picnics on manicured lawns. Its restaurant has been a mainstay hit over the years.

Constantia Uitsig

Constantia Uitsig means Constantia View. It is part of the initial van der Stel Estate. David and Marlene McCay took over the run-down land in 1988, replanting the vineyards in 1990, and it has since been restored to its former glory.

Andre Rousseau joined Constantia Uitsig in 1997 and is now fully in charge of the winemaking process. With 30 hectares under cultivation, the farm produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon, Bordeaux White Blend and Bordeaux Red Blend.

Picture: Constantia Uitsig Vinyard

The Constantia Uitsig Estate is also home to a gracious Country Hotel and three restaurants, which have been making waves of late: Constantia Uitsig, The River Cafè, and La Colombe. La Colombe was voted Best Restaurant in Africa and the Middle East and 28th Best Restaurant in the World in 2006 by UK Restaurant Magazine.

Eagles Nest

Eagles Nest was originally a section of van der Stel’s Constantia. Since 1984 it has been in the control of the Mylrea family. Following a devastating mountain fire in 2000, it was decided to move the farm’s focus to wine.

The first wines were bottled in 2005. Whilst the Constantia Valley is most famous for its whites, it was felt that Eagles Nest would be more suited to reds. The farm's objective is to produce two premium reds, a Shiraz and a Merlot, and a single cultivar white Viognier.

Of the total area of 38.4 hectares, approximately 12 hectares are under vine.

Steenberg Vineyards

Steenberg is oldest farm in the Constantia Valley and has been declared a national monument. In 1682, Catharina Michelse, asked Simon van der Stel for a portion of ground at the foot of the Ou Kaapse Weg and he agreed to lease 25 morgen to her. After he became the owner of the Constantia Estate in 1685, she asked him for a legal title deed and a mandate was granted to her in 1688 to "cultivate, to plough and to sow and also to possess the farm below the stone mountain." In 1695, Frederik Russouw bought the farm. It has been owned since 2004 by Graham Beck.

Since 1990, some 68 hectares have been planted, comprising the flagship variety Sauvignon Blanc as well as other grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz and Nebbiolo. The state-of-the-art cellar, completed in 1996, has the capacity to produce around 70,000 cases.

In addition to being a premier wine estate, Steenberg has been developed to include a 18-hole championship golf course. Steenberg is also home to a luxurious 24 suite Country Hotel and the top class restaurant – Catharina's.

High Constantia

Established in 1693, the High Constantia Winery began its historical journey as part of the Dutch East India Company outpost, originally called Wittebomen - because of the abundance of silverleaf trees.

In 1806 a section of this land, bordering on Groot Constantia to the north was granted to William Duckett. In 1813, this land was bought by the van Renen family and the van Renens soon established the reputation of his farm. High Constantia and Groot Constantia were the main competitors when it came to the Constantia dessert wine in the 18th and 19th centuries.

On a small corner of the original farm, David van Niekerk is now trying to restore High Constantia to its former winemaking glory. They are planting stocks and producing from their cellar – a structure that is reminiscent of High Constantia’s original home for wine.

Constantia Glen

Constantia Glen is the most recent Constantia property (60 hectares) to be planted to vines.

Constantia Glen produces only 3 wines, a Sauvignon Blanc and 2 Bordeaux-style blends. Last year saw the long-awaited release of the latter two; the 2007 Constantia Glen is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, while the 2007 Constantia Saddle is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. A state-of-the-art gravity-fed cellar was completed in 2007.

Constantia Glen was closed to the public until a tasting room was set up in 2009.

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