When the topic of wine regions comes up in conversation, talk usually drifts from Bordeaux to Tuscany to California to Australia,
with newly popular regions like Mendoza and Oregon making a brief but impactful appearance; rarely, if ever, does someone bring up South Africa, and that is truly a shame.South Africa is known for a great many things, like natural wonders and a tumultuous political history, but its foothold in the world of food and wine is tenuous at best, and with so much to offer, the country deserves a bigger, brighter spotlight. Take a virtual tour of all the grapey goodness South Africa has to offer, and you might find yourself enchanted enough to spring for an actual ticket.
There have been vines and wine in South Africa for more than 350 years. Representatives of the Dutch East India Company had their first harvest way back in 1659, crushing grapes into a drink meant to help sailors stave off scurvy as they shuttled back and forth along the spice route. In the several centuries since, the original vines withered as eager entrepreneurs turned to alfalfa crops and ostrich farming, but the 1900s brought resurgence in interest to the area, and vines were replanted. Still, Apartheid-related embargos continued to damage the industry, keeping South African wines from developing the following other up-and-coming areas have enjoyed. Now, with the world stage eager to embrace interesting varietals and oenophiles open to wines from non-traditional regions, it may just be South Africa’s time to shine.
Ask someone to conjure up an image of South Africa and more often than not visions of zebras and vast, sandy deserts will dance through their heads. Back in the real world, South Africa hangs out at the southern tip of the continent, draping itself into the warm currents of the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Summers here are marked by lots of bright sunshine and a dry, scorching heat (triple digits aren’t uncommon), while winters are wet and damp.
The terrain is varied, and includes snow-topped mountains as well as coastal regions. The wine-growing season is in line with other Southern Hemisphere regions like Australia and Argentina, with bud break occurring sometime in November and harvest beginning in April. Air currents sweeping in off the water help keep the heat and crop-destroying mildew at bay, but they also have the potential to damage fragile grapes. There is a decidedly Mediterranean feel to some parts of South Africa, while other areas are more like Burgundy, or even Napa, but really, South Africa offers up a terroir all its own that is best experienced region by region.
Some of the oldest wine estates in South Africa are in Constantia. Back when business was first booming a few hundred years ago, Constantia was known for producing dessert wines, but an attack of vine-destroying parasites put a sad end to that. Agriculture again flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with an emphasis on wine that continues to this day.
- Few wineries better represent Constantia than Groot Constantia, the oldest wine estate in the area. Established in 1679 by Commander Simon van der Stel of the Dutch East India Company, the estate has been through numerous ups and downs over the last three centuries but their wines have more than 66 gold medals over the last 10 years alone. They produce a dazzling number of varietals, and no visitor should leave the vineyard without trying their Chardonnay, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc and local specialties like Grand Constance and Pinotage.
- Klein Constantia is nestled in the upper foothills of the Constantiaberg Mountain, where visitors can enjoy the crisp, cool air and a view of the tranquil blue False Bay. Though Klein produces a laudable Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, the vineyard truly excels with its whites, which come in still, dessert, and sparkling options. The limited release Perdeblokke Sauvignon Blanc has been called one of the best single-vineyard whites in all of South Africa, and Klein’s Vin de Constance is a masterpiece of a dessert wine.
- Tourists looking for luxury in Constantia should book themselves into the Steenberg Hotel. The buildings date back to 1682 and have been declared National Monuments but fear not, they have all been restored and outfitted with plenty of modern conveniences. Add in an 18-hole golf course, a restaurant and the hotel’s very own vineyard and you have a one-stop-shop way to experience the best Constantia has to offer.
- The Alphen Boutique Hotel combines tons of historical charm with 5-star amenities to create a truly unique experience. Wander around the 11-acre estate or rest up in one of the 19 luxury suites until your stomach starts to rumble, then you can take advantage of the three delicious dining options.
- The Greenhouse restaurant at The Cellars-Hohenort is run by Chef Peter Tempelhoff, whose tasting menus emphasize local produce. The rundown of dishes like kabeljou tiradito with sweet potato and coriander, crayfish custard with sweet corn mousse and foie gras with apple and green roobois reminds diners what a melting pot of cultures South Africa truly is.
- If you’re in Constantia and are struck with a deep yearning for French food, stop by Pastis and sample classic cuisine in a brasserie-like atmosphere. There’s a bar, a patio and live music so you can enjoy yourself while you nosh on prosciutto wrapped melon, lamb chops, and grilled head-on jumbo prawns that would taste delicious with a glass of local Sauvignon Blanc.
Next page is a Stellenbosch guide…