“I recommend you rent a private car or take the red City Sightseeing bus. One is expensive, and one is not.”
This comment was the response of my accommodation host. He was answering the question, “what do you recommend for a day of wine tasting?”
The intention behind my question was more to gauge guidance on narrowing down the list of highly acclaimed vineyard vintages in the region. Little thought goes into “how” I would accomplish multiple touring sites. As a solo traveler, it should always rank high when considering an afternoon of carefree consumption. Typically, I resign myself to the costs of acquiring a safe and sober driver service as more than a suitable tradeoff.
I knew one thing for sure upon arriving after a twenty-four-hour trip from Seattle to Cape Town; sampling the vintages of the Western Cape was a required exercise. While grateful for the warming, yet blatantly nondescript, Merlot pulled from the drawer of the airline aisle cart at 35,000 feet — sipping it furthered my desire to level-up my wine intake once I hit sandy soil.
Whether one chooses to imbibe or not, all can agree and unite around the beauty of the winery landscape. Rolling hills of pleasingly symmetrical rows laid bare in climates that attract hours of sun-soaked basking. Of the renowned wine regions of the world, South Africa certainly holds its own. While the regional Pinotage claims most immediate associations, the vines here produce an impressive array of top-shelf tannins.
The way I saw it, less South African Rand (ZAR) spent on transportation would yield more for tastings, accompanying platters, and a bottle back at the homestay. It was time to roll the dice on the bus.
Well-versed travelers know the heavily branded open-air red sightseeing buses that roll between buildings and blocks of major tourist destinations. Honestly, I have been a reluctant holdout of the “hop-on-hop-off” tour trappings, concerned that it would unceremoniously dump me amid overcrowded spots devoid of any authentic local flavor. However, this ride had a clear mission and desired destination — a vessel with a clear purpose. For roughly $15, I climbed aboard at the Long Street office location and settled in for the journey.
I was visiting Cape Town in the early spring shoulder season, so crowds were light. As a result, I had my pick of the already blisteringly hot plastic seats exposed in the back half of the bus. As a photographer, unobstructed views often trump creature comforts. So this was not the first time I had sweated it out to avoid a spotted dirty window. The resulting farmer’s tan was worth it as the ride through District Six, Devil’s Peak, and the backside of Table Mountain grants gifted views all along the way. By avoiding the peak traffic period of mid-morning, we also stayed in mostly perpetual motion, which aided in providing a consistent breeze.
Passing the Kirstenbosch Gardens stop, you reach the exchange point at Constantia Nek. You ditch the double-decker for more modest shuttle service to the group of three wineries just up the road. The air conditioning in the heavily tinted shuttle bus blasted as two other budget-conscious enthusiasts, and I loaded up. The type of temperature transition where that dances between refreshing and “I’m not dressed for this.” Luckily, the short ride had us pulling up to our first stop just before the numbness set in on my extremities — we had arrived at Groot Constantia.
“Constantia” is a Latin term meaning constancy or steadfastness. Groot Constantia certainly lends credibility to the monicker, serving as the oldest wine estate in the entirety of South Africa. Founded in 1685, the farm and vineyards have withstood many ownership iterations and the distress of a massive fire in 1925 that destroyed the original Cape Dutch Manor House.
The estate grounds that remain today are pristine and sprawling. The revived Manor House framed by a canopy of overhanging trees that line the main entrance. Visitors can explore the different sections of the complex, including the vineyard rows. Pulling myself from the sweeping views of the backside of Table Mountain as it sloped down to Hout Bay, it was time to follow the signage to the winery dessert course: the tasting room.
Ironically, dessert wine is Groot Constantia’s most lauded varietal. Their Grand Constance is an award-winning amber pour of dense caramel and toffee notes, paired with hints of apricot and peach. In reverse fashion, I kicked off my tasting with a half-pour of this beauty. The tasting specialist offered up a handful of complementary pieces of dark chocolate that assisted in the blossoming both flavor and aroma.
I followed up with the proverbial flight at the recommendation of Julie, my tasting chauffeur. The highlights included a Sauvignon Blanc heavy with melon notes and the ruby red Pinotage — the latter smacking me in the face with black cherry and creamy oak. A day earlier, I had made a trip to the historic Mzoli’s for cooked meats on the braai. I could see a glass of this Pinotage sitting correctly on the palate alongside. However, it would also garner many an odd look from the restaurant’s strictly working-class crowd.
Off to a strong start, I cut myself off to make way to the next winery down the road: Eagles’ Nest. Unsure when the next shuttle arrived, I decided to walk the roughly one-mile distance down Constantia Main Road. Knowing that Eagles’ Nest was a modest estate where the tasting would be the main attraction, a stroll would allow for a forgiving gap between the two sessions.
Despite the more humble acreage, the winery quickly became a favorite. Even by winery standards, a clean, farmhouse-style tasting room opens onto a sloping grass hillside with spaced picnic tables and umbrellas. 75 ZAR (roughly $4.50) nets four healthy pours of their signature vintages. I chose to pair it with a fresh-baked loaf of multi-grain, local biltong, and rosemary olives. The setting pleasantly sets among overarching shaded limbs. The welcoming vibe is accentuated by, at the time of my visit, the presence of at least three lounging dogs.
Repurposed barrels make for serviceable tables, and, honestly, it was hard to depart without a full pour of their excellent Viognier. However, there was one final stop on tour, and I remained determined to complete the trifecta.
Halfway across the gravel parking lot, I spotted the shuttle bus slowly approaching around the bend in the road. Summoning up all the buzzed and hazy awareness left in me, I made a half-hearted attempt at trotting to the shuttle stop. Being sure to wave my hand as if the last chance off the island was circling overhead.
The shuttle rolled slowly to a stop and I boarded half out of breath. The driver smiled at me, “I must stop regardless.” Managing a winded smile, I replied, “sure, but I feel like I have earned it more this way.” He chuckled in a way that signaled he was not quite sure if I was sarcastic or honestly proud. Given the over ten-thousand miles of cultural distance between the two of us, I clarified I was poorly attempting oxygen-depraved humor.
Our final stop was Beau Constantia, located at the top of Constantia Nek. The winery sits atop a slope overlooking False Bay and the Stellenbosch Mountain range. It was late afternoon when I arrived. The light was already softening, casting a warmer hue over the mix of greens and browns that striped corduroy across the mountainsides. Sitting at the highest elevation of the regional vineyards, the views surpassed any to this point.
The winery is a relatively new one, yet already produces roughly forty-five thousand bottles annually. By the hour of my arrival, the tasting room and outside patio was already busier than the other stops. I grabbed a table in the shade and ordered a flight of four wines for a steal of 65ZAR (a little less than $4).
Expertly aged variations on Malbec and Petit Verdot and a red blend that went down smooth started my journey. However, their “Cecily” Viognier knocked me back. The peach and notes of Herbs de Provence noticeable — like a muted tart that balanced both savory and slightly sweet in liquid form.
The setting sun and comparatively flush cheeks signaled it was time to pull up stakes and head back to the bus. I made one final stop in the wine shop to pick up a takeaway bottle of “Cecily” — the last item on an auspicious day’s punch list.
Migrating from the shuttle bus back to the tour bus at the base of the Nek, I grabbed a now much cooler seat and hugged my bottle tight with the setting sun at my back. The ride back into town is a treat unto itself. Unobscured views of Camps Bay, Bantry Bay, and Sea Point allow one to stare out into the vastness of the most southern tip of the Pacific Ocean.
I marveled at what may be the best wine tasting deal going in my accommodation’s living room. That such a day could be enjoyed for the price of a single mid-tier bottle of wine back home is truly exceptional. A few minutes later, I got a text from my host.
“How was the day? Did you rent a car or take the bus?”
“It was incredible. Took the bus.” I replied.
“Smart man.” He answered.
In celebration of choosing the right door, I opened my bottle of “Cecily” to celebrate. Cheers!