South African wines leave some people salivating and some scratching their heads. For some Old World and New World wine producers, South Africa is an ‘also ran’ – sometimes ranking in the top 10 wine producing regions in the world. And for years, South African wine was essentially limited to the domestic market due to international boycotts. Those days are long gone. Now, oenophiles far and wide are recognizing the superiority of wines from the Rainbow Nation – exciting things are happening in the South Africa wine region!
The first South African wine region was Constantia – a massive vineyard located on the cool mountain slopes outside of Cape Town. Founded in 1679 by Commander Simon van der Stel of the Dutch East India Company as part of the resupply efforts for ships rounding the Cape Peninsula and Cape of Good Hope, South African wines quickly developed a worldwide reputation for excellence. Royalty in Europe were fond of the sweet dessert wines from Constantia, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen wrote of its marvelous character, and Napoleon even had it sent to him in exile.
“Clearly, the pleasures wines afford are transitory – but so are those of the ballet, or of a musical performance. Wine is inspiring and adds greatly to the joy of living.” – Napoleon
Today, there are over 60 specific South Africa wine regions (or appellations), based loosely on the French AOC system. From humid, warm weather microclimates resembling Tuscany to cool, wet regions that look like the Pacific Northwest, South Africa has something for everyone! We traveled to South Africa to explore and indulge in the latest vintages.
Constantia – Liquid Gold
The Constantia ward of the Western Cape Coastal Region District is South Africa’s oldest wine region. Founded by Dutch viticulturist van der Stel, the Constantia Wine Route has been long noted for its production of Constantia Wyn – a naturally sweet dessert wine grown from Muscat Blanc grapes. Constantia Wyn goes by several proprietary names at the various vineyards, however, the nine wineries in the ward produce many other exceptional wine varietals. Constantia has a totally unique terroir (thanks to the mountains) and a rich history. It is quite easy to see why a visit to the Constantia Wine Route is one of the top things to do while visiting Cape Town.
Founded on the original 1685 vineyard, Groot Constantia is South Africa’s oldest winery. In addition to producing Constantia Wyn (called Grand Constance), over 70% of the vintages produced are red wines. In addition to traditional wine tastings, Groot Constantia offers a unique chocolate and wine pairing (four small custom-crafted chocolates each designed to pair with one of wines – the Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Shiraz and Gouverneurs Reserve), which we thoroughly enjoyed.
At Groot Constantia, a highlight is the Sauvignon Blanc 2013 paired with tropical guava white chocolate. The Sauvignon Blanc is sharply acidic and had a remarkably long finish with overt kiwi notes, which is brought out by the chocolate. Not part of the pairing, but the Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 may well be my favorite Cabernet Sauvignon in a long time – lightly kissed with oak, delicate tannins and very fruit forward (lots of blackberries), but with a subtler blueberry bouquet. There is a lot going on in this wine. Of course, no visit would be complete without drinking the wine that made Constantia famous – the Grand Constance 2011 – a calmly sweet vintage with a pineapple bouquet and a light raisin finish. After drinking it for the first time, we can certainly see what the all the fuss is about!
Founded in 1817 when the original Constantia vineyard was divided into Groot (big) Constantia and Klein (little) Constantia, it traces its legacy back to the same 1685 plot. Klein Constantia quite simply produces elegantly balanced wines and excels in white varietals. We enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc 2013 – a floral, pineapple vintage with a brittle acidity and minerality. The Chardonnay 2012 is a moderately creamy and had just a hint of a buttery finish – more like a new world Chardonnay. However, Klein Constantia’s version of Constantia Wyn, called Vin de Constance 2008 is a near religious experience – a perfect marriage of raisin and vanilla notes.
The Steenberg (translated Mountain of Stone) farm is the oldest in the Cape Town region and the vineyard can trace its roots back to 1695. The ultra-modern and thoroughly comfortable tasting room was added in 2009. Steenberg focuses on environmentally-friendly production techniques and grows a majority of white varietals. This was also the only winery we encountered producing the Nebbiolo varietal. We picked Steenberg’s Bistro 1682, as a spot for a light, late lunch.
We loved a number of the wines at Steenberg, starting with the Steenberg 1682 Chardonnay Mèthode Cap Classique – a delightfully full sparkling wine with subtle notes of green apples. The Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2013 is a moody, unwooded vintage giving off a funky, earthy bouquet. If you can get past the asparagus fragrance, there is a huge minerality and complicated, herbaceous finish. This is a very complex wine. The Steenberg Shiraz 2012 is a passionate wine that blends anise, coriander, and cinnamon notes. We finished on the Nebbiolo 2012 with its sweet nose of strawberry and apricots and a lingering jasmine finish.
Stellenbosch – Boldness at Every Turn
The Stellenbosch district in the Western Cape is nearly as old as Constantia, tracing its roots back to 1679, with grapes being planted in 1690. This makes Stellenbosch the second oldest South African wine region, but it is first in production volume. In 1971, the Stellenbosch Wine Route was established as a popular tourist destination, linking 152 vineyards on five routes. The terroir of the granite and sandstone hills with is porous clay soil and the very dry, hot summers produce an almost perfect Mediterranean-like climate. The Stellenbosch Wine Route is known for vineyards specializing in bold red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Bordeaux style blends. However, the region also produces a number of other subtler wines like Shiraz and the Pinotage. In fact, Pinotage was created in Stellenbosch nearly 100 years ago through a genetic cross of Cinsaut and Pinot Noir grapes. We loved the bold vintages from the Stellenbosch wine region!
The self-proclaimed “Home of Pinotage,” Beyerskloof may well have legitimate claim to that title – we saw the Beyerskloof Pinotage on nearly every restaurant menu in South Africa. We visited on a weekend and found the winery packed with Capetonians out for a day of wine tasting. This was also the only winery that made us sign a liability waiver to enter the tasting room (we’re still not entirely sure what that was all about). Since Beyerskloof is the “home of Pinotage” that’s what we tried and found the Beyerskloof Pinotage Reserve 2013 much to our liking. This full bodied Pinotage with a blackberry bouquet is delicately oaked, easy to drink with a long, thin finish.
The boutique winery of Audacia produces only red wine varietals. We particularly enjoyed the Audacia Merlot – a lush, medium bodied red with supple tannins and rich berry notes. But, one of the highlights of the Audacia winery is the weekend Root44 Market – a weekend craft and farmers market on the winery’s ground. Root44 has a large tent with about a dozen food stalls serving local and international delights – including the Boerewors (the local South African sausage) which paired very well with the Merlot. We used this as our lunch spot during our Stellenbosch wine route tour.
One of the oldest wineries in the South Africa wine region, the Morgenhof Wine Estate traces its roots back to 1692. Morgenhof’s location on the Simonsberg Mountains actually puts it just outside the Stellenbosch district and in the Simonsberg appellation. The Morgenhof Estate features charming Dutch colonial architecture and a vast underground cellar room.
Morgenhof focuses on estate origin wines, including a delightful Chardonnay 2013 – an oak aged, crisp wine with a strawberry bouquet and pineapple notes. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 is delicious with light tannins and a slight blackberry fragrance. The estate is also well known for its Morgenhof Estate 2005 – a big, dry Bordeaux blend with heavy tannins and pungent earthy notes. The Morgenhof Estate vintage is a big, bold wine that will age well, but is still really young now.
Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley – Heaven on Earth
The Hemel-en-Aarde (literally translated Heaven on Earth) ward is patronized by those in the know, who come to buy arguably the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir the Western Cape has to offer as well as subtle cool climate Syrahs. The Hemel-en-Aarde is also patronized by people like us, vacationers who chance upon the cellars outside of Hermanus and feel like they’ve discovered a viticultural grail trail. If the wine weren’t enough reason to visit the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley appellation along the R320, it is also the most beautiful wine region we’ve visited anywhere in the world.
As the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley crests a ridge and flattens out, a stone castle is perched above a small pond with commanding views of the entire valley. The vines stretch out like a carpet beneath the towering mountain peaks. The terrace offers stunning views of the valley below. We arrived just before closing and had the run of the place.
Focusing on mostly single varietal wines, Sumaridge takes high marks for its 2010 Pinot Noir – aged 10 months, cellared for an additional year, and possessing delicious ripe cherry and cedar notes which balance both fruity and earthy qualities. I know the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is known for its Chardonnay, but I was also very impressed with the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc – lightly acidic with a crisp minerality, imparted with strong fig and tropical fruit notes.
Founded by Carolyn and JC Martin in 2002 on a virgin sheep farm in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Creation Wines focuses on distinctively elegant vintages. Beneath the towering Babylon Toren peak, Creation Wines could not be more idyllic. The Creation Wines tasting room was the most unique space in any of the South African wineries we visited. Creation focuses on the entire experience – melding the wine tasting experience with gourmet dining and stunning views of the mountains from its floor-to-ceiling windows. Creation Wines is quite simply one of the premier wineries in the South Africa wine region.
All of the wines at Creation were exceptional. We particularly enjoyed the Creation Viognier 2014, a heady aromatic white rippling with strong minerality and accents of fresh peaches. The Creation Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 – a meaty vintage with spiced clove and dried cherry notes. But the grand finale was the sold-out Creation Syrah Grenache 2012 – an absolutely captivating vintage brushed with a light smokiness and strong black pepper finish.
Exploring South Africa’s wine regions was only a part of our larger trip to the Rainbow Nation. Based on our explorations, we will absolutely be back to sample more great wine!