On 2nd February 1659 Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch commander of the tiny Cape colony, wrote in his journal: 'Heeden is Gode loff van de Caepse druyven d'eerste mael wijn geparst.'
Or, if your High Dutch is a little rusty: 'Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes.'
From vineyards planted in Constantia and surrounds the wines of the Cape would, over the next two centuries, become highly sought-after. Napoleon sipped them during his lonely days in exile on St. Helena, while in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ Jane Austen suggested Elinore Dashwood sip a glass of Constantia for its 'healing powers on a disappointed heart'. Even Charles Dickens praised 'the support embodied in a glass of Constantia'.
An evolution of style
Through the 20th-century South African wines had a reputation for their bold, fruit-forward style, often full-bodied and high in alcohol.
But since the advent of democracy in 1994, South Africa’s winemaking landscape has seen a dramatic transformation as a new generation of pioneering cellar masters tap into global wine-making trends, and the unique local terroir, to craft elegant wines with an unmistakable sense of place.
Wine regions worth a visit
A fine example is the Constantia Wine Route, which has claimed Sauvignon Blanc as its star attraction. Cooling sea breezes off the Indian Ocean, and soils of decomposed granite, contribute to superb Sauvignon Blanc and Bordeaux-style white blends. Here you’ll also find Klein Constantia, home to the iconic natural sweet wine Vin de Constance.
The Stellenbosch winelands, a 45-minute drive from the city centre, is the spiritual heartland of the wine industry and home to the country’s oldest official wine route, founded in 1971. With a diversity of soils and sites the array of cultivars and styles is staggering, but it’s Cabernet Sauvignon that truly excels here. It’s also a fine place to seek out Chardonnay and Pinotage, the uniquely South African grape cross-bred from Pinot Noir and Hermitage/Cinsaut nearly a century ago.
Franschhoek – the ‘French Corner’ – lies just a 20-minutes’ drive further east, and proudly celebrates its French Huguenot heritage. It’s a valley acclaimed for both wine and food, and premium producers here are turning heads with their Syrah, Chardonnay, Semillon and Méthode Cap Classique sparkling wine.
Venturing north, towards Bushmans Kloof and the Cederberg Private Cellar, wine-lovers can discover the historic estates of Paarl and the genre-busting cellars in the Swartland, where a crop of adventurous younger winemakers are crafting remarkable expressions of Syrah, Grenache, Chenin Blanc and more.
Down on the southern coast of the Western Cape, the unique maritime climate of the Hemel-en-Aarde – or ‘Heaven and Earth’ – valley offers the ideal terroir for cultivating elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This scenic valley above the coastal town of Hermanus – famed for its whale-watching in winter and spring – is also home to our vineyard, Bouchard Finlayson.
Peter Finlayson, regarded as the pioneer of Pinot Noir in South Africa, founded the estate in 1989. In 2000, the Tollman family purchased the estate, and since then it has been a proud member of The Red Carnation Hotel Collection, widely regarded as the country’s flag-bearer for world-class Pinot Noir.
Do I need to book for tastings?
Most estates are open daily (though some are closed on Sundays) and welcome walk-in visitors. Smaller boutique estates typically offer tastings ‘by appointment only’. Tourist maps of the wine regions, available at most estates, will have opening hours and contact details.
Are tastings free of charge?
Most estates charge a nominal fee for tastings, or to taste premium releases. The tasting fee is often waived on any purchase of wine.
Is it okay to drink and drive?
No. South Africa’s blood alcohol limit allows for roughly one glass of wine before you’re over the legal limit, and enforcement is widespread. Rather select a designated driver, or opt for a guided tour.
Can I buy wine too?
Absolutely. All estates offer cellar door sales, and will usually arrange to ship to your home country if required.