The name Constantia is today synonymous with luxury in South Africa; situated to the south of Cape Town, it has become one of the area’s wealthiest suburbs, complete with many fine boutique hotels, shops, and superlative restaurants. Yet, many visitors may fail to discover that Constantia actually saw witness to the first commercial vineyard in South Africa. The nation’s first wine estate was founded in 1685 by the Cape’s second governor, Simon van der Stel. It gradually grew in reputation as one of the world’s greatest dessert wines, produced from an extensive vineyard of over 1,800 hectares.
Divided into three parts
Following Governor der Stel’s death in 1712, the estate was split into three parts – Klein Constantia, Groot Constantia, and Bergvliet. The vineyards were subsequently purchased by Hendrik Cloete, a winemaker from Stellenbosch who was instrumental in forging the property’s reputation for its sweet wines, made from the Muscat grape – Vin de Constance soon found an adoring fan base in the aristocracy of Europe. Sadly, the onset of phylloxera in the 19th century all but destroyed the vineyards at Klein Constantia, and subsequent owners’ abandoned wine production at the estate until a revival came in the 1980s.
Today, this beautiful corner of the Cape Winelands producers some of its most distinctive wines. The vineyards are increasingly located on the steep slopes of Constantiaberg, situated on what is effectively a mountain amphitheater that opens directly onto False Bay below. In fact, they are among some of the highest and steepest in South Africa, reaching 400m above sea level. The vineyards, therefore, benefit from both the cooling effects of altitude and those all-important Atlantic and Indian Ocean sea breezes.
The soils in Constantia are generally deeply weathered, boasting a high clay content which retains water and helps to keep vines hydrated during the often bone dry Cape summers. However, as Constantia is – by South African standards – essentially a cool climate area, it is unsurprisingly white varieties that thrive in this once neglected Cape region. It offers a natural home for aromatic varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, which plays an important role in Constantia’s 420 hectares of vineyards. Indeed, Sauvignon represents just under a third of the region’s vines and produces generally excellent wines to rival the best from the Loire, Sauvignon’s original home. Semillon also grows successfully in Constantia, as does Chardonnay.