Over the past few years South Africa’s wine industry seems to have been undergoing a bit of a makeover.
As smaller, independent wine producers have been popping onto the scene, bringing a breath of fresh air to an industry that long carried with it a measure of ‘stiffness’, the older, more classic estates have become almost a little passé.
However, after a recent visit to Groot Constantia, which is celebrating its 330th birthday this year, making it the oldest wine estate in South Africa, I was once again struck by its absolute natural beauty, historical gravity and architectural wonder.
So in honour of the big birthday, we’ve decided to take a look at a few of the oldest estates in three different regions of the Cape Winelands, why they are still well worth a visit:
Groot Constantia, Cape Town - 1685
On 13 July 1685, Commander Simon van der Stel of the East India Company (VOC) received the title deed for 763 ha of land in a fertile and picturesque valley in the Cape of Good Hope. Before undertaking the voyage to the southern tip of Africa, Van der Stel had gained solid viticulture experience back in the Netherlands, making it kind of a no-brainer that he would continue the trade in his new home down south. He named the piece of land Groot Constantia, planted a couple of vineyards and so doing established South Africa's very first wine estate.
What to do:
Groot Constantia is amazingly well-preserved and the entire estate has been declared a national heritage site, while still being a fully operational farm. Due to this unique blend of history and modern industry, it has a huge variety of activities for guests to indulge in.
A visit to the orientation centre and homestead, both national monuments and part of Iziko Museums, is an absolute must to gain historical insight and marvel at the array of antique artifacts. The homestead currently houses a selection of old Cape furniture that was famously evacuated earlier this year when a massive fire that affected the entire peninsula threatened the estate. Fortunately Groot Constantia suffered no harm and the furniture was returned safely once the coast was clear.
Get a behind-the-scenes view of Groot Constantia's wine production during a 45-60 minute tour through the ultra modern cellar. All tours end with a tasting (unless you'd prefer not to have one or are under 18) and there is even the option of a chocolate pairing! Tours happen 7 days a week every hour on the hour between 10:00 and 16:00.
If you're strapped for time, you could always skip the cellar tour and just head straight for a tasting. But a tasting MUST take place! Groot Constantia has been raking in the accolades with their wines for years now, with the latest being a 'Best in the World' for their 2013 Chardonnay at the Chardonnay-du-Monde competition.
The tastings and sales hall at Groot Constantia is home to a permanent art exhibition called Art @ Constantia, featuring some spectacular works by a number of South African artists. During the year exhibitions at Groot Constantia take place regularly with grand and exciting openings.
330th birthday celebrations:
While they have kept celebrations relatively simple - a breakfast here, a picnic there - you are bound to encounter some form of festivity during a visit in 2015. Throughout August therapists from the Mangwanani Spa will be stationed at Simon's Restaurant to offer guests free neck and shoulder or foot massages every Saturday. While mom sits back for some relaxation, there will be face painting for the kids. As September, also known as heritage month, rolls around, there will be a new round of celebrations to look forward to. Follow the #330GrootConstantia-hashtag on Twitter to keep up to date with the latest happenings.
There are two restaurants at Groot Constantia - the classic Jonkershuis bistro and then the light and airy Simon's Restaurant. Jonkershuis' menu is inspired by traditional Cape cooking, which means you will be treated to spicy boboties and rich curries, with the likes of freshly-baked milk tart for desert. Simon's on the other hand serves up more cafe-style meals, with firm favourites like fish-and-chips, burgers and salads making an appearance.
Both offer absolutely spectacular views of the vineyards and mountains, and you might even get a little peek of False Bay from afar.
Hop on the Red Bus:
If you want to make the absolute most of your experience, head to Groot Constantia with the Purple Wine Tour with City Sightseeing's famous Red Bus. This way you can taste to your heart's content and maybe even drink a glass or two of superb wine with lunch without worrying about how you will get home. The wine tour is a free extension of City Sightseeing's current Blue Mini Peninsula Tour. All you have to do is hop on the Blue Mini Peninsula Tour at Bus Stop 1 just outside the Two Oceans Aquarium and then switch buses at Constantia Neck.
The Blue Mini Peninsula tour costs R270 and you get a discount on all your activities at Groot Constantia. You also get to visit two other estates in the valley: Eagles' Nest Wine Farm as well as Beau Constantia.
More info: Head to the Groot Constantia website for further details on activities, tours etc
Vergelegen, Somerset West - 1700
Following in his father's footsteps as both VOC governor to the Cape and wine producer, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, claimed a 30 000-ha piece of land on the slopes of the Hottentots Holland Mountains in 1700. Since it took a full three days to reach the estate from the Dutch settlement that had been established around the Castle of Good Hope, he aptly named it Vergelegen.
What to do:
The question is really, what not to do at Vergelegen. As with Groot Constantia, the farm has been superbly preserved and boasts no less than four national monuments as well as the surrounding gardens that are considered a heritage site. Here are a few things to experience while you're there:
Heritage & Garden Tour:
As mentioned above, Vergelegen is home to a number of national monuments that seek to preserve the way people lived in the Cape in the 1700s. On the estate you can take a tour of the homestead, library, mill ruins and slave lodge, as well as the whopping 17 formal gardens that are intricately interwoven and surround the historic buildings. While each and every one of the gardens is gorgeous in its own right, the rose blooms are a firm favourite among visitors.
While the rest of the buildings on the estate may be centuries old, the cellar is a work of modern art designed by French architects in a manner that combined the old with the new. It's located on a little hill a few km away from the commercial hub of the estate and offers magnificent panoramic views of the Helderberg mountains, False Bay and way off in the distance, Table Mountain too. Apart from the spectacular scenery, the cellar tour will offer you insight into the complex process that is winemaking. You will also get the opportunity to taste wines in different phases of fermentation. Tours cost R20 per person, last about an hour and happen twice a day at 11:30 and then again at 15:00. Making a booking is recommended: 021 847 2122
Where the cellar is somewhat removed, Vergelegen's Tasting Centre is right in the hub of activity, overlooking one of the picturesque gardens. There are two tasting options - either you can go for the Flagship wines, which will cost you R10 or you can opt to taste 6 Reserve & Premium wines for R30. Either way you will have a knowledgeable and enthusiastic advisor to guide you through the process and help you make the most of the experience.
Vergelegen has three different dining options:
Camphors, Stables Bistro and picnic baskets. Lavish and classy, Camphors is Vergelegen's signature restaurant and offers guests a choice of either a 2-, 3- or 5-course option that you can mix and match from the a-la carte menu items. The sommelier will advise you on which wines compliment which meals. They are open from Wednesday to Sunday for lunch (12:00 - 15:00) and also for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays (18:30 - 21:00).
Stables offers a more relaxed dining experience. They are open daily from 09:30 - 17:00 (the kitchen closes at 15:30) and meal prices vary from R58 - R150.
Finally, between November and April you can enjoy picnics in the estate's mystic camphor forest for R199 per person (exl wine).
More info: Visit the Vergelegen website
Although not much is known about the farm's earliest history, it was owned by Huguenot Jean le Long and estimated that vines were probably planted in 1688. It was taken over by Abraham de Villiers in 1715 and remained in the De Villiers family until 1879. The Manor House was commissioned by Jean de Villiers in 1812, underwent restoration in 1973 and was finally declared a national monument in 1976. If you have a soft spot for Cape Dutch architecture, it's an absolute must-visit.
What to do:
Whether you're into history or the outdoors or food or, really, just wine, Boschendal has a huge variety of activities for guests to enjoy.
From November to March every year, you can get up close to the wonderful plants that provide us with wine and take in the splendour of these 300+ year old vineyards from an elevated vantage point. Tours take place at 10:30 and 11:30 every day and booking is essential.
Boschendal also offers cellar tours year-round, daily at 10:30 and 11:30 as well as 15:00. Both vineyard and cellar tours are followed by wine tasting
Wine & chocolate tasting
If you're looking for something slightly more exciting than a straightforward wine tasting, why not throw in some chocolates? A chocolate wine tasting costs R30 and takes place in the Cellar Door Wine Tasting Centre. Boschendal offers tastings on a daily basis between 09:00 and 16:30
Manor house tour
One of very few remaining traditional Cape farmhouses, during a tour of Boschendal's Manor House you will be able to admire the high yellowwood ceilings, antique furnishings, incredible architecture and intriguing painted friezes that were discovered on the walls during renovations in 1973. These paintings might have been the work of itinerant artists or resident slaves two hundred years ago. A self-guided tour costs R15 per person and one with a guide R20. The Manor House is open between 09:30 and 17:00 daily.
Horse and carriage rides
One of the latest additions to Boschendal's activity offering, is horse, pony and carriage rides. The horse rides take place on the estate's trails, while pony rides happen at the werf. Carriage rides take place in a 2 person cart drawn by a Percheron draft horse and could be a perfectly romantic experience. Call 021 870 4211 for bookings and enquiries
Apart from a wealth of ancient trees, Boschendal is also home to a gorgeous rose garden designed by Gwen Fagan, which features many of the original roses that were cultivated at the Cape and in the East Indies.
As with the other two estates, Boschendal has a variety of dining options to choose from. Die Werf, situated in the beautifully revamped original cellar of the Manor House, is however their flagship restaurant. It is open for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday (12:00 - 14:30) and also for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays (18:00 - 21:00). Reservations are essential and can be made on 021 870 4206. The Farm Shop & Deli is the more relaxed option serving breakfast, tea and lunch on a daily basis from 08:00 - 17:00 in the week and 08:00 - 18:00 over weekends.
If there's one thing, though, that Boschendal is famous for, it's their picnic baskets enjoyed on the lawns during summer. The tradition still stands and gets better every year! Picnics are R175 per person (excluding wine) and there are a variety of menu options.