Recently a group of bloggers was invited by its marketing team to experience a part of the 18 km Constantia Wine Route, being Constantia Glen, Groot Constantia, and Steenberg. We had a very informative and wine-derful day, experiencing parts of an excellent wine route of ten wine estates on our Cape Town doorstep! It has been synonymous with sweet wines drunk centuries ago already.
The Constantia Wine Route PR staff Carryn Wiltshire and her assistant Hayley had kindly organized for us to travel to Constantia by Uber, much appreciated for the return journey in particular.
We met at the cellar of Constantia Glen, not visible to the public as one drives past it below Beau Constantia, a neighboring wine estate. Here we were welcomed by assistant winemaker Megan van der Merwe, young, dynamic, feminine, and informative about the brush cut pruning of their vines, which had just happened. She also explained that the grass in-between the vines keeps the soil intact, and will be mulched back into the soil in Spring. Family owner representative/Director Gus Allen took us to the cellar, where winemaker Justin van Wyk showed us around, and we were lucky that they started bottling their Sauvignon Blanc 2015 vintage on that morning, which we could observe. Gus shared that Constantia is the oldest wine-producing area in the country, having started 330 years ago. A large part of the area is a World Heritage site. Gus spoke a lot about their location, against a slope behind Devils Peak, which gives them extra hours of sun. The former Constantia farm was split into Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, and Buitenverwachting. There is good camaraderie in Constantia, and the youngish winemakers in the area meet regularly, to discuss serious issues, as well as to socialize.
Constantia sweet wine, now branded as Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia, has a history that extends back more than 200 years, when it was the favorite drink of Napoleon Bonaparte, who savored a bottle a day, even when he was banished to St Helena. Thirty years ago Constantia produced the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world, putting our country on the map for drier styles of wine. In earlier days the KWV dictated which cultivars were to be planted in which regions. Vineyards are being planted higher up the Constantia Nek to benefit from extra hours of sun, which has broadened the wine cultivars in the area. The Constantia Wine Route makes up 0,4% of South Africa’s total vineyards, and with Elgin is one of the coolest. The Constantia grapes are of the last to be harvested in the country, due to this.
Climate change has impacted winemaking, and the current low winter rainfall, only half of the annual average of 750 mm, is a concern, especially given that Constantia Glen does not have any dams. Constantia Glen was previously a cattle stud, and planted its first vines in 2000, and produced its first white wine in 2005, and its first red in 2007. They built their cellar in 2006. Gus shared that they comply with international wine standards to be able to export their wines, and spray their vines as little as possible. They do use sulphur however. They also release ladybugs to take care of harmful insects, protecting their crops naturally. Gus emphasized that their production is small, focusing on quality rather than quantity. They make the best wines they can from their terroir, he added.
In the cellar they bunch-sort, and then berry-sort the grapes. They use aerial infrared spectronomy to identify which grapes are best for picking. They hand-pick 8 tons per day. Their winery is gravity-fed, which means that they do not have to do any pumping. They use French oak, sourced from four or five coopers. They have one cement egg too.
The braver ones in our group walked across the vineyard to the Tasting Room, while we drove around to it, not having brought our walking boots. The original building was a dairy. They have kept the structure of the building, and added glass walls for their new bar, with a fireplace inside, and outside seating. We tasted:
* TWO 2014 Bordeaux-style white, with 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon. It has won International Wine Challenge Top White Wine, and was Wine of Show at the Vinimark tasting in Durban last month. (R200)
*. THREE 2011, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. There is no formula in making this blend, and they choose a blend recipe from the best of each vintage. (R180)
*. FIVE 2010, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. No fixed formula for the blend. (R300)
Constantia Glen has a second brand, Constantia Saddle, being easy-drinking red, white and Rosé wines at lower prices. Gus had a cheese platter brought to the table while we were tasting the wines, consisting of Gorgonzola, Brie, Gruyere, with a rooibos-infused butter, grape jelly, and home-baked baguette bread.
We were also told that Constantia now wins more awards for its red wines than whites, due to global warming, Merlot and Cabernet Franc in particular benefiting from the extra hours of sunlight on its north-facing slopes. Neighbour Eagle’s Nest has won Best Shiraz in numerous competitions. The fire earlier this year is not seen to have affected the grapes at Constantia Glen. Constantia Glen exports 70% of its wines, a large part going to Austria and other German-speaking countries, due to family connections of the owners, and to French Canada, the USA, and UK, the balance selling via the Tasting Room.
Gus came across as willing to share information not only about Constantia Glen but also the Constantia Wine Route, being its Deputy Chairman. He is the epitome of the gentleman wine farm owner. He said that they enter international wine competitions, being selective about the awards entered. They are working hard at achieving a 5* rating from Platter. They were named a SAWII Producer of the Year 2014,
We were transported to Groot Constantia by Constantia Wine Tours, and warmly welcomed by Karen Woodcock with their Cape Ruby 2013, a port wine of 17,5% alcohol. We were told that their dam size has been increased, and that they too are missing the winter rains, usually receiving 2200 mm per year, the highest rainfall on the Constantia Wine Route. Their production is 75% red and 25% white wines, and all the grapes come from the wine estate. Last month they celebrated their 330 th anniversary. Winemaker Boela Gerber has planted lots more Pinotage, we were told, and they are now planting Pinot Noir for their new Cap Classique 2015. They have addressed their baboon problem, a troupe of 84 having caused damage to their vineyards in the past. Groot Constantia does a wine and chocolate pairing, the chocolates being made for them by a company in Knysna.
We were introduced to Simon’s Executive Chef Grant Kennedy, formerly of Radisson Blu, who prepared a feast for us. The plate sizes were enormous, especially my Simon’s Prawn salad (R105)! The salad consisted of prawns, red onion, cucumber, fennel, and radish, drizzled with a Marie Rose sauce with an unexpected chili bite! Other starters include duck liver parfait (R58), Patagonian calamari (R58), and game carpaccio (R68). Salads include a Summer Strawberry salad (R78), and Caesar Americano (R88).
I enjoyed the pork belly, which was served with mash, mini apples, spinach, and tomato (R135). Burgers cost R75, steaks range between R120 – R150, and slow roasted lamb shoulder costs R145. Fish and chips costs R88, line fish R125, mussels as well as calamari R105, and Norwegian salmon and grilled prawns R175.
As the portion sizes were so large, we declined the dessert (all cost R45), but a bottle of Grand Constance 2012 was brought to the table, still made in the style of its origin in 1791, making Groot Constantia world-famous, Karen told us, and very similar to Vin de Constance of Klein Constantia. While the food was good, service was slow, but may have been due to our group size.
We were brought to Steenberg, the most southerly wine estate on the Constantia Wine Route, by Constantia Wine Tours, and were immediately welcomed with a glass of sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, made in a Prosecco-style (R90). Sparkling winemaker Jo Steyn joined us, and invited us to a walk around the property, turning out to be a brisk one, as it started raining just as we started off! Jo showed us where the fire earlier this year had threatened their wine estate, saying that their Semillon vineyard had been burnt, but that they were not using it in their winemaking. Steenberg GM John Loubser is the Chairman of the Constantia Wine Route. Jo is a young dynamic winemaker, and has been at Steenberg for almost a year, having moved across from Jordan.
We were told the history of Steenberg, Catharina Ras being awarded the farm and who led an ‘adventurous life’, with numerous husbands who all passed away under tragic circumstances. The last husband did outlive her however! The old buildings on the farm, where the hotel and Catharina’s restaurant are located, reflect the heritage of the wine estate, while the building in which the cellar and Bistro Sixteen82 are housed, reflects the modernity of Steenberg.
Sauvignon Blanc is the signature of Constantia, Jo said, and also for Steenberg. She echoed Gus in saying that the South-Easter is good for Sauvignon Blanc, the wind blowing the diseases away! The grape variety is hardy and just keeps growing. They don’t have Chardonnay on the wine estate, and their Pinot Noir vineyard burnt down ten years ago. Jo shared that they are making more feminine and elegant wines at Steenberg. Jo took us to the cellar, where we tasted wines straight from the tanks:
*. Klein Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2015: ‘sells like sweet cakes‘, Jo said.
* Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2015: their signature Sauvignon Blanc, with notes of lime sorbet and green herbs, and good natural acidity. The 2015 vintage was good, with its earliest harvest start ever.
* The Black Swan 2014: named Steen Reserve Sauvignon Blanc in the past, costs roughly R 150
* Shiraz 2014: matured in 500 to 600 liter American oak barrels, 30% being first fill. For the 2015 vintage they will change the name to Syrah. We were the first to taste the 2014 vintage.
We were also shown the riddling racks for their sparkling wines. Grapes for the MCCs come from their Robertson farm as well as from Darling.
We were told that Bistro Sixteen82 would be closed during this month, for an upgrade, something they do every year on both sides of the wine estate.
As if we had not tasted enough wine already, more Steenberg wines were presented to us in the Tasting Room lounge:
* Pinot Noir MCC 2012, which spent 24 months on the lees, described as juicy, lush, with strawberry notes.
* Sauvignon Blanc 2015: good for a hot summer’s day
* Black Swan 2013: the swan name comes from the former name of the Steenberg farm, being Swaneweide.
* Semillon 2013: barrel-fermented for nine months, a light wine with creamy and buttery notes.
* Magna Carta 2012: a blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Semillon, the acidity of the two varieties balancing well. They only produce the best, therefore it is only made in years when they can make a really good wine. (R525)
* Catharina 2013: a blend of 63% Merlot, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Shiraz
Commendable is that all the Constantia wine farms use bottles embossed with the ‘Constantia‘ name if the grapes are sourced from the area. The ten wine estates on the Constantia Wine Route are Silvermist, Beau Constantia, Constantia Glen, Eagle’s Nest, Groot Constantia, High Constantia, Klein Constantia, Buitenverwachting, Constantia Uitsig, and Steenberg.
In total we had tasted at least 20 Constantia wines during the day on the Constantia Wine Route, and as stated above, the Uber service was more than welcome for the journey back home after an interesting and enjoyable day. My battery level was very low by the time we arrived at Steenberg, and I had to save some battery power for the Uber booking, so Steenberg came short on the number of photographs I took there.
It was good to see that a Constantia Wine Route map has been printed, something we missed two years ago when doing a personal tour of the Wine Route. Not only does it list the ten wine estates, but also the accommodation options, as well as details of twelve restaurants in Constantia, despite not all of them being on the wine estates in the area.
Constantia Wine Route, Cell 083679 4495, www.constantiawineroute.com. Twitter: @ConstantiaRoute