An Oasis of Wine in South Africa ; History Intertwines with Storied Vineyards in Region Hear Cape Town

Article excerpt

A cycling tour -- with wine pitstops -- around Constantia south of Cape Town.

Breakfast is better with bubblies. I learned this shortly after waking up one crisp morning at the Steenberg Hotel and Vineyards, a storied South African property that seems to have emerged from the pages of a Jane Austen novel. Picture a 17th-century manor house against a backdrop of cloud-cloaked mountains, with Egyptian geese and guinea fowl poised picturesquely on the lawn. Never mind a cappuccino; my prawn and goat cheese omelet was perfectly paired with a glass of Steenberg's signature Graham Beck Brut NV -- the same one, incidentally, served at Nelson Mandela's inauguration.

After several days in Constantia, a suburb about 15 kilometers, or 10 miles, south of Cape Town, one may start to swear that, really, everything is better with bubblies. Or sauvignon blanc, or shiraz -- anything grown and bottled in the Constantia Valley, one of the Southern Hemisphere's oldest winemaking regions.

A 20-minute drive from the city, encircled by the Table Mountain range, Constantia beckons with a vista of oak-lined streets, vineyards and colonial mansions. The region's historical eminence and notable former residents -- including Captain Cook's botanist, Margaret Thatcher's son and Mr. Mandela himself -- are worthy enough, but you'll come for the sheer indulgence of it all: Some of Cape Town's most urbane boutique properties, top-rated restaurants and finest small-batch wines can be found here. What can't be found here, meanwhile, is anything excessively commercial, or even a proper "main street." Other than a small, upscale shopping center, Constantia's offerings are in and around historical hotels and houses.

For a week in November I luxuriated, lady-of-the-manor style, at the Steenberg. It's the Cape's oldest farm, dating to 1682 -- originally owned by a feisty German woman who went through five husbands. It boasts a spa; two restaurants; an 18-hole golf course; Eduardo Villa sculptures, added by its late owner, Graham Beck, a local entrepreneur and winemaker; a Mercedes minivan ready to chauffeur you, gratis, anywhere in Constantia; and Gorgeous, which opened last year as the first brand-exclusive sparkling wine bar in South Africa.

On my first evening I received an education there, courtesy of the ebullient bartender Zelda, well versed in the intricacies of bubble size, sugar content and vintage years. I snacked on oysters and ostrich tartar, and selected the feted prestige cuvee as my favorite sip.

The next morning I put on my wind-breaking jacket for a cycling tour through the hills and dusty brown roads surrounding Constantia's vineyards. I started at the source: Groot Constantia Estate, the country's oldest wine-producing farm, which dates from 1685. The homestead, with a cellar exhibition on wine history and an old swimming pool, is a lovely piece of Cape Dutch architecture, its graceful white arches cutting a striking figure against electric blue skies and jade vineyards.

"Pretty, but commercial," my guide, Eben Odendaal, declared as we cycled up. "We'll start tasting at the next one." He grew up on a South African wine farm, so I took his word for it and followed his lead, huffing, puffing and ogling my way through fairy tale-like landscapes: rose gardens, mountainside vineyards, goats and sheep, and some of the region's oldest houses. The white-wine grapes grow on the cool higher slopes, while the reds originate in lower, sunnier areas; Constantia's cool climate makes it especially suited for sauvignon blancs.

Our tour included Klein Constantia, a vineyard more than three centuries old, crowned by a remarkable Cape Dutch homestead, where I learned that the Madame Malbrook 2008 was buttery and smoky, and the eminent Vin de Constance dessert wine -- reputedly adored by Napoleon and written about by Jane Austen -- is far too sweet for my palate. …