Not only does wine making in South Africa go back a very long way but winemaking in the Cape actually has a birthday: 2 February 1659! On that day Jan van Riebeeck recorded in his diary “Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes.’
Sent by the Dutch East India Company in 1652, to establish a staging post to supply ships on their way around the Cape of Good Hope, Van Riebeeck lost no time on the important business of planting vines and making wine. Apparently was essential to the treatment of sailors with scurvy. Yet more historical evidence of the health benefits of red wine!
Constantia lays claim to have the oldest vineyards in the southern hemisphere dating from 1685 when Simon van der Stel, the Cape’s first Governor established a farm on the southern slopes of Table Mountain facing False Bay. False bay is of course a ‘real’ bay, it was just the wrong one from the point of view of sailors returning from India when they realised that they hadn’t quite reached the Cape Bay and still had to round the treacherous Cape of Good Hope.
Vin de Constance has since been revived by Klein Constantia and Groot Constantia also makes a sweet Grand Constance. However, the comparatively cool climate, elevated altitude and generous rainfall (twice that of London apparently) means that modern Constantia is now home to a wide range of red and white varieties.
Where Van Riebeeck’s relied on enthusiasm Van der Stel brought to bear some viticultural knowledge and his name is firmly stamped on the Cape winelands. Quite literally as he named Stellenbosch town after himself and the imposing back drop of Simonsberg mountain serves as an ever present reminder. The wines of Constantia attained international acclaim in the late 18th and early 19th C boosted by the war between France and England which made French wine hard to get hold of. Famously Napoleon’s suffering during his exile on St Helena was greatly eased by a steady supply of Vin de Constance. The wine at the time is thought to have been sweet and quite possibly fortified. Once there was peace and a trade agreement between England and France the market for Vin de Constance diminished and in the end the vineyards did not survive the onset of Phylloxera.
Groot Constantia (pronounce the G as if you are clearing your throat) is the largest part of the Van de Stel’s original farm. A trust now owns the estate and it is even a National Monument. The old Cape Dutch style farm house houses a museum which tells the story of the wine farm. Simon van der Stel’s mother was daughter of a freed Indian slave and after him Johannes Colijn, who heralded in the heyday of Vin de Constance in Europe, was also of mixed race. The exhibition gives a sobering understanding of the part that colonisation and slavery played in the history of the farm and Cape’s wider wine heritage.
An easy drive from Cape Town the history, wine, restaurants and beautiful setting make the estate well worth a visit.
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc made with minimal grape skin contact. Pale orange pink colour. Nose of honey dew melon. Nice balance, peachy notes and good freshness. Easy drinking in the sunshine.
Sauvignon Blanc 2022
Constantia has a reputation for fresh Sauvignon Blanc. Floral nose with elderflower blossom and a touch of grassiness. Again good balance, melon and tropical fruits flavour, fullish body but with freshness.
Smokey vanilla nose. Lemon, vanilla, spicy wood, full boded mid-level acidity and medium length. Tasty ‘new world’ style.
Gouverneurs Reserve White 2020
A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon partly aged in new oak Barrique.On the nose green pepper, hay, meadow flowers, herbs, tarragon. Fullish body, mid-level acidity, dry herbs, hay, grapefruit pith. Complex with very good length and a lovely citrus persistence.
Lady of Abundance 2018
A red blend of Pinotage, Merlot, Shiraz and Tannat.Mixed macerated red and dark fruit nose. Ripe plum, blackberry, clove and toast favours with soft tannin. Easy drinking.
A nose of classic plum and milk chocolate and a whiff of vanilla. Ripe capsicum, red fruit, soft tannins, medium length. Tasty.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
Initially mulberry, then a leafy green aroma. Touch of strawberry, dried cranberries. In the mouth more dried fruit, nice chalky tannins, medium body, good acidity. Reasonable length. Give it a year or two and this should round out nicely.
Baked dark plum with ferrous notes and a sprinkle of cake spice. Rounded full body but not flabby, more spicy baked blackberries, finishes with sweet fruit and is quite long.
Plush fine oaky nose, iodine and dried cherry. Good balance and length, dark cherries, hint of blood, good length. Firm tannins sit squarely on the tongue, this should age quite nicely.
Gouverneurs Reserve 2028
A Bordeaux blend. Plums, cedar wood, milk chocolate, nice furniture polish. very Claret like. Mix of red and black fruit, Black Forest Gateaux, great balance and a long savoury finish! Excellent.
Grand Constance 2017
Made from Muscat d’Frontignan the white Muscat is complemented with a small percentage of red Muscat.
Burnt orange colour. On the nose orange peel, ginger powder, dried apple, cinnamon, cake spices, furniture polish. Lusciously sweet but with enough lift to keep it fresh. A strangely a floral note, rose water or something like that and more dried orange. Very long.
Hemel en Aarde is known for growing Burgundian grapes and is divided into three areas: Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, closest to Walker Bay, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley further up the valley and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge the highest area in terms of altitude. Each area has different soils and micro-climates.
The received wisdom is that in the lower section clay soils produce broader more structured Pinots, the decomposed granite in the Upper part results in a crunchy, elegant style and due to the altitude and recurrence of some clay the Ridge produces something in between. That said many other wines are also produced here including some crisp Sauvignon Blancs and Rhone blends.
Overall the region’s proximity to Walker Bay, the cold Benguela current as well as the prevailing Southeaster results in a particularly strong cooling maritime influence. Hemel-en-Aarde also has higher than average rainfall.
Hamilton Russell was the first winery in the area, the eponymous owner was looking for land and was attracted by the cooler climate. A risky move back in the 1970s as the vineyards had no quota for wine making under the then restrictive rules and so winemaking was technically illegal. Having planted a wind variety of grapes including Pinot and Chardonnay they eventually restricted wine making to just these two varietals. The winery has spawned several other neighbouring wineries as successive winemakers have left to set up their own ventures in the valley, these include Buchard Finlayson, Creation and Storm wineries.
The Wine Village, Hermanus.
At the bottom of the valley in the whale watching town of Hermanus is the Wine Village store with is a treasure trove of South African wines and will ship overseas.
Stephen was on the counter and let me taste Hamilton Russell Vineyards’ 2021 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Both from the Valley were beautiful rich, structured, and perfectly balances wines with lashings of fine oak. Immediately pleasurable for such young wines which for me puts them in the New World but with a level of Burgundian understatement.
Newton Johnson Family Vineyards
Newton Johnson is located in Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley located in a beautiful spot with spectacular views.
75% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% oaked Semillon. Flinty nose, gooseberry, Semillon gives the wine a nice body, good length with a slight toasty finish. Very nice.
The first planting of this grape in SA were here at Newton Johnson. Made 20% in old oak barrels. Floral notes with sea breeze, a nice saline note in the mouth, fresh. A bit more breadth than you would find in a Spanish version but no shortage in bracing acidity.
Family vineyard Pinot Noir 2020. 13.5%
A blend of several vineyards including Sea dragon and Windandsea each bringing different characteristics to the wine. On the nose red soft fruit, some nice vegetal notes. In the mouth sweet fruit, more herbs, delicious rounded body, good freshness, and a lovely long finish.
Full Stop Rock 2020
79% Syrah and the rest Grenache grown in decomposed rocky granite. The wine is aged in 5% new oak barrels and the rest used for18 months. Blackberry, ripe fruit forward nose. In the mouth ripe sandy, rounded tannins, very approachable now. Long.
A blend of 75% Syrah and Mouvedre. Darker colour. Black fruit, meatiness, oxo cubes on the nose. A nice stoniness, more ripe black fruit and savoury notes. Full bodied developing some earthy notes.
Boekenhoutskloof have also started making a Chardonnay and Pinot under their Cap Maritime label from vineyards in the valley. See the full review of this winery posted separately.
Wines of South Africa podcasts
Finaly just a quick shout out for the excellent series of podcasts that Jim Clarke and the Wines of South Africa (WOSA) have made. Packed with regional information, interviews with winemakers and some really interesting historical background these and Jim’s book really are essential further reading. To access the podcasts click on the link below.