Constantia, Where Old Meets New

By David Biggs

Photography by C&D Heierli

Even in the wine industry, not many people know Hout Bay is a ward of the Constantia wine area. There really are wineries there. Cape Town is unique in many ways. One of them is that it’s the only major city in the world with a whole wine route right in its centre. After exploring the wine routes of Robertson, Durbanville and Hermanus, I thought it time to find out about the delights almost on my doorstep.

I start my trip by cruising about in the lesser-known parts of the beautiful Constantia area and head my little Vespa up and over Constantia Nek towards Hout Bay. First stop is HOUT BAY VINEYARDS , where husband and wife team Peter and Cathy Roeloffze have carved a winery out of the mountainside, high above the valley. They planted their first vines in 2003. The place they had chosen for their vineyard was so stony they were unable to plant poles in straight rows, so they gave each vine its very own pole to cling to. The wine cellar is a work in progress, with staircases climbing up and down between floors of small tanks (previously used to hold flavoured syrups for a cold-drink factory), barrels, and cases of bottled wines.

Their first harvest yielded only 300 bottles, but theirs is a labour of love, and volumes are not important. Today they press two tons of grapes and make 2 000 litres of superbly dry Methode Cap Classique bubbly as well as 2 500 litres of Sauvignon Blanc and about 600 litres of dry “blush” wine. Cathy has even tried her hand at making port, and the result is excellent. It’s relatively dry and packed with dark fruitcake flavours. She obtained the port varietal grapes from a farm in Stellenbosch. Cathy has no formal wine education, but says she has been guided by experienced wine people such as Bertus Fourie and Prof Eben Archer.

Hout Bay Vineyards is not usually open to the public (even if you could find it, which is not easy. I got lost twice on the way there), but Cathy holds “open weekends” on the last weekend of May and November.

You can also buy their wines at the Spar down the road.

I head back down the bumpy road and over the “nek” to another relatively new wine farm, EAGLES' NEST. Owned by the Mylrea family, the farm has an interesting history and is probably the steepest wine farm in the country, with terraced vineyards climbing like staircases up the mountain slopes. Obviously this is not scooter country, but director Peter Steward wants me to see it all, so we pile into the farm Landrover and set off along the most hair-raising rocky track, which has been hacked out of the slopes. Peter’s other passion is surfing, and I can imagine him skimming along the face of a giant wave as he navigates the steep track.

“Hope you’re not scared of heights,” he says nonchalantly as his outside tyre “hangs ten” and sends a shower of small stones hundreds of feet down into the valley. The view from the top of the farm is incredible, with a vista that takes in the whole of the Cape Flats, False Bay and the mountains beyond.

Star of their wine list, for me, is their peachy Viognier, soft and fragrant and very more-ish. Top of their range is the Eagles' Nest Shiraz, retailing at a little more than R200 a bottle. For those on a tighter budget, winemaker Stuart Botha has produced a very pleasant red blend labelled “Little Eagle”. This Cabernet/Merlot blend sells for R75 and although it’s very drinkable now, it could repay a few years of maturation. 

Right next door to Eagle’s Nest is CONSTANTIA GLEN,  also relatively new as a wine farm, and fast becoming a popular lunch venue as well as a good place to buy fine wines. The first vines were planted on Constantia Glen in 2000 and the first grapes harvested in 2005. Winemaker Justin van Wyk uses only grapes grown on the estate and produces two red blends labelled simply Constantia Glen Five and Constantia Glen Three—the numbers refer to the number of grape varieties in each blend.

There’s also a popular and elegant Sauvignon Blanc packed with ripe, tropical fruit flavours.

From the terrace at the Constantia Glen tasting room guests can look down over the whole of Constantia and across the Cape Flats to the Helderberg mountains beyond. They serve winter soups, and in summer produce platters of cheese or charcuterie to enjoy on the terrace. 

Down in the more formal part of the Constantia wine area I decide to drop in on the “big guns”—Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Buitenverwachting, Steenberg and Constantia Uitsig. These historic farms were once all part of the enormous property called Groot Constantia and originally developed by Simon van der Stel. All have become popular tourist attractions.

GROOT CONSTANTIA  offers a peek at what life must have been like back in Simon van der Stel’s day. Wander among whitewashed walls and gables, great expanses of formal garden, wagon sheds, stables and the “jonkershuis” (today a pleasant traditional restaurant), where the young male members of the farm staff lived. Look down, as Van der Stel must have done many times, over the vineyards and across to the sea and the mountains beyond. 

In the historic wine cellar, winemaker Boela Gerber produces elegant wines under the flagship Gouverneur’s label. His Gouverneur’s Reserve Red is the sort of wine you lay down and keep for a very special occasion. 

Another of the portions of what was once the great Constantia farm is STEENBERG VINEYARDS , where they provide far more than wines. The estate boasts a restaurant (Catharina’s), a five-star hotel and conference centre, and a world-class golf course. Also, in contrast to the historic background, Steenberg is the first winery in South Africa to introduce its own “app” for smart phones. This allows users to find out about the estate and its products, keep up with the latest releases, and get suggestions about food-and-wine pairings.

Steenberg is one of the few Cape wineries to produce a Nebbiolo wine, perfect for those who enjoy Italian food. Another of their more spectacular wines is their Magna Carta, a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend that has won high praise from connoisseurs around the world.

BUITENVERWACHTING , which dates back to 1796, offers an up-market restaurant and has been producing award-winning wines under cellarmaster Herman Kirschbaum since 1993. Most of the vines planted are white wine grape varieties, but their most celebrated wine is their flagship red blend, Christine, made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. This wine is definitely worth keeping for very special occasions and will reward some maturation time. Most popular in restaurants in the southern peninsula is their Buiten Blanc, always a reliable companion to almost any food.

A wine that teams up perfectly with Indian food is their fragrant “G”, made from Gewürztraminer and billowing with wafts of Turkish delight and litchis.

Probably not strictly in the Constantia area, but it happens to be the closest winery to my Fish Hoek home, is CAPE POINT VINEYARDS , my all-time favourite place for watching the sun set over the Atlantic. High up on the Noordhoek mountainside they’ve created a peaceful and spectacular area for sundowners and evening picnics, among ancient pine trees overlooking the farm dam. There’s also a spacious Touareg tent in case the weather turns nasty. On summer evenings they provide cheese and cold meat platters, and families relax on the rolling kikuyu lawns, sipping Cape Point Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc while the children enjoy the safe play area fitted with climbing frames and jungle gym.

Winemaker Duncan Savage is faced with the problem of protecting his Sauvignon Blanc vines from the fierce Cape south-easter winds that rip through the valley just when the vines are forming bunches. Yields are usually very low, but the quality of the wines is renowned. His five-star Isliedh (pronounced eye-leh) is one of the Cape’s consistently great blended white wines, being made from Sauvignon Blanc with a dash of Semillon, and given a touch of oak for complexity. 

If their main wine list is a little rich for your wallet, try one of the Splattered Toad range. There’s a red and a white. These easy-drinking, everyday wines are named after the endangered Western Cape leopard toads, which often cross the highways at night during their breeding season. (And sometimes, alas, get only halfway across, hence the name.)

Part of the income from the sale of these wines goes toward protecting these rare creatures.

Of course, the Constantia area offers plenty of entertainment for those who are not devoted purely to the search for fine wines. Constantia Village is a magnet for anyone who enjoys shopping, while a smaller shopping centre at the entrance to the Groot Constantia estate offers several themed restaurants. The region also offers some of the Cape’s most attractive day hiking trails.

Constantia is an old-world place of centuries-old homes tucked away among oak trees, next door to ultra-modern “new-money” palaces. Here you’re quite likely to find a smartly dressed horse rider trotting along the main road on the way to the weekly produce market held near the grounds of the historic Tokai Manor House. Or a motorist in a Bentley.

For many, Constantia embodies the spirit of old Cape Town—a million worlds away from the rest of Africa.