The sunny winelands of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek get the lion's share of wine-loving tourists in South Africa. But as a New Yorker I tend to seek out cool-climate wines whenever possible, and though Germans might scoff at what South Africa considers to be "cool-climate," many of the producers in these cooler regions are garnering critical accolades. I spent an afternoon exploring cloudy Constantia, which is turning out some top-quality wines just 20 minutes from Cape Town proper.
Groot Constantia was an obvious place to start: it's South Africa's first wine farm. Lovely inside and out, with Dutch colonial architecture and colorful artwork on the walls, the farm has a wonderful sense of history: it fueled Napoleon Bonaparte with the nectar of the gods during his exile on St. Helena. Sauvignon blanc is the shining star in Constantia, and Groot Constantia's version is ghostly pale with lovely flinty characteristics and just a whisper of lime peel. It’s a refreshing departure from the limey, resiny warmer-weather sauvignon blanc examples I’ve been drinking in Stellenbosch.
I couldn’t make a trip to Constantia without stopping at Buitenverwachting, both a darling of critics and well-known in South Africa for its outstanding commitment to housing and education for its workers. Offering elementary-level schooling for children of workers and some housing is standard practice for South African wine farms, but at Buitenverwachting, employees live in beautiful homes (rather than tiny huts or dorm-style buildings) and their children attend top schools at the expense of the company.
This approach is working – the only thing that doesn’t go down smooth about Buitenverwachting’s lovely wines is the name. (For the curious, it’s pronounced “buy-ten-fear-vock-tin,” with a nice rolled “r” if you want to sound intimidating.) Look for the farm in the excellent film Blood Diamond – several scenes were shot on the estate.
Buitenverwachting offers two 2009 sauvignon blancs: a more fruity style with lovely perfumey notes of lychee and raspberry, and a single-vineyard version called Hussey’s Vlei. The latter was outstanding, with beautiful acidity and a delicate nose of pebbles and shale.
Sauvignon Blanc isn’t the only cultivar that excels here; I tasted some wonderful reds including a 2006 cab franc with supremely franc-y lead pencil and pepper notes and their obligatory Bordeaux-style blend, 2006 Christine. A surprising highlight was the 2006 Rough Diamond, a blend of 60% petit verdot and 40% malbec: it had the fruity, warm spice nose of a typical malbec but also flavors of sardines and cured meat and grainy tannins which led to an elegant finish. Having never tried a petit verdot/malbec combo before I was impressed: it seems that serious, deep, no-nonsense petit verdot can force giggly, laid-back malbec to grow up, get a haircut and take some responsibility for its life.
We capped off our tasting at Steenberg with dinner at its renowned Bistro 1652 in mind, but the tasting experience was enough to make me forget about my rumbling stomach. Steenberg offers the best sauvignon blanc that I have tasted in South Africa, with only Buitenverwachting a close second. Our excellent server, who was unusually knowledgeable about vineyard practices and technical information, poured us a large flight which included three sauvignon blanc examples, and the range of flavors was amazing. The 2008 had fascinating flavors of bamboo sprouts and sesame paste – an ideal pairing for pad thai or sushi. The 2009, an entry-level sauv blanc, offered more of a fruity personality, and the stunning 2009 Reserve boasted a delicate pebbly nose, gorgeous mouthfeel, and layers of simply sensuous acidity.
Of Steenberg’s excellent reds, my favorite was the 2005 merlot. Truly in a class by itself, this merlot had an Italian-style nose of soppressata and herbs, with a hint of wild blueberry and some lovely menthol notes. I also enjoyed the powerful Catharina blend. I was thrilled to see nebbiolo on the list, but this one, a 2007, clearly needs a few years before it develops a distinctive character.
A fantastic meal of tapas and Steenberg MCC at the bistro capped off the day; I went home completely sold on Constantia as a region to watch in South Africa. “Cool-climate” may be a problematic term for this region; rather, I’d say this is some of the best of South Africa – maybe some of the other regions are just too hot!