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Drinking Before Noon In South Africa

The five wine samples ready for tasting.

The five wine samples ready for tasting.

WINE TASTING AT GROOT CONSTANTIA | Darrin Henry

The sight of helicopters dropping hundreds of gallons of water onto the fires ravaging the Cape Town hillsides is an unlikely backdrop to our very first wine cellar tour. South Africa is responsible for 3% of wine produced in the world and today we’ve come to visit one of their most prestigious and oldest wine estates, Groot Constantia, to have a taste.

I’ve always been sceptical of wine connoisseurs who poke their noses in a glass of wine and claim the hints of summer have been detected, along with fruity and spicy aromas. But, it’s difficult to ignore the romantic intrigue of wine appreciation, so I’ve decided to put it to the test during this visit to South Africa.

Groot Constantia wine estate is found a short drive from Cape Town; a quilt of vine rows covering the lower valleys of the Constantia suburbs, behind Table Mountain. ‘Groot’ means ‘great’ in Afrikaans.

The beautiful scenery where Groot Constantia wine is made.

The beautiful scenery where Groot Constantia wine is made.

Helicopters fighting the wildfire near the estate.

Helicopters fighting the wildfire near the estate.

The vineyards of Groot Constantia.

The vineyards of Groot Constantia.

Our tour guide is Chantelle and the first surprise is that we head upstairs and not down into a cellar as I had expected.

The basic process of wine making is explained first, before we move into the large, warehouse-like, production room. From the raised gangway which spans the room, we gaze down on huge silver fermentation cylinders attended by a handful of workers.

It’s all very clean and tidy and efficient looking. Our group of five taking the tour discover the time old method of ‘treading’ the grapes has been mechanised – another silver cylinder thingy, this time lying side on, one for red wine, one for white.

Inside the wine making warehouse.

Inside the wine making warehouse.

French oak barrels waiting to be filled from the large silver fermentation tanks.

French oak barrels waiting to be filled from the large silver fermentation tanks.

The grapes are crushed in the two horizontal tanks.

The grapes are crushed in the two horizontal tanks.

The tour includes seeing and touching some of the 'ingredients' used in the wine making process.

The tour includes seeing and touching some of the ‘ingredients’ used in the wine making process.

Quality control is key, as you’d expect and the detail throughout the entire process is fascinating. The grapes are harvested in the early morning due to optimum sugar content which varies during the day. Rose bushes are planted throughout the estate which acts as an early warning system for crop disease and pest control.

We exit the warehouse via one of the huge temperature regulated storage rooms containing over 300 barrels of red wine which are completing the final maturing phase before bottling. Temperature control is critical in the room or the wine will be spoiled. The barrels are specially imported French oak.

Rose bushes are the early warning system against crop pests and diseases.

Rose bushes are the early warning system against crop pests and diseases. Note the smoke in the distance from the wildfires.

A freshly picked trailer of grapes being unloaded at the processing plant.

A freshly picked trailer of grapes being unloaded at the processing plant.

The bottle cork is imported from Portugal.

The bottle cork is imported from Portugal.

Sharon checking out the oak barrel samples.

Sharon checking out the oak barrel samples.

Over 300 French oak barrels filled with wine in the temperature controlled storage room.

Over 300 French oak barrels filled with wine in the temperature controlled storage room.

Finally our tour party is seated in a plush presentation room. Five glasses of wine samples are on the table before each of us; two white and three red. Sharon’s eyes have opened wide and she’s wearing a big grin.

Skeptical as I have been about wine tasting, the tour has been extremely interesting and I’m really up for giving this a go. I pay attention as Chantelle introduces the characteristics of each of the wines.

I learn to hold the wine up to the light at an angle to check the colours; this apparently can tell you a lot about the age of the wine.

We then learn how to ‘swirl’ the wine – the special tasting glass is bulb shaped to hold in the aroma.

It's quite technical this wine tasting business!

It’s quite technical this wine tasting business!

Chantelle helping us through the process.

Chantelle helping us through the process.

Sharon sitting up front.

Sharon sitting up front.

Uncultured as I am, when the tasting begins I swig and swallow rather than sip and absorb the taste. Chantelle notices I jumped the gun and tactfully explains how it should be done. This time I take a small sip and let it roll around on my tongue allowing my taste buds to discover the wine.

Chantelle is describing a smoky, spicy flavour and, you know, for the first time I think I can actually taste the ‘character’ of the wine! I say as much and Sharon rolls her eyes at me, convinced I’m joking around. But I’m dead serious. I wouldn’t say I could join a wine discussion, but perhaps now I’d feel confident enough to nod in the right places.

Afterwards there’s an opportunity to purchase beautifully packaged bottles at reception, which we take; they’ll make great gifts for some friends we are visiting next week.

Our wine from the gift shop.

Our wine from the gift shop.

If you’re visiting Cape Town I thoroughly recommend a visit to Groot Constantia wine estate. The first tour starts at 11am and it lasts the best part of an hour. If you’ve been a wine sceptic like me, keep an open mind, and you might be pleasantly surprised – like me. If you already have an appreciation for good wine then this is certain to be a treat. Groot Constantia’s quality wines, red in particular, are rated quite highly including Shiraz, Merlot and their Gouverneurs Reserve.

The distinguished list of Groot Constantia wine consumers is impressive. As a Saint I’m pleasantly surprised to learn Napoleon Bonaparte, while exiled on St Helena, ordered it by the case-load. The estate information leaflet mentions that as Napoleon lay dying, his last request was for a glass of Constantia wine. I’ll have to check if they know this back home!

The wine is mentioned in Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and Charles Dickens also wrote about it.

The mansion.

The mansion.

Aside from the cellar tour, the beautiful estate itself is something to see. The centre piece is a Cape Dutch style manor house dating back to the late 17th century, which was extensively restored after fire damage in 1925. It is now part of the South African Cultural History Museum.

The Groot Constantia wine cellar tour costs R50 (South African Rand), (£2.70 or $4.00) per person. It is included on the ‘City Sightseeing’ bus tour route (Blue Peninsula) which runs from Cape Town. Present your ‘City Sightseeing’ ticket for R5 discount.

Groot Constantia wine estate is a beautiful place to visit.

Groot Constantia wine estate is a beautiful place to visit.

A note about the Cape Town fires mentioned at the start. The Cape Peninsula wild fires that burned on the hillsides from late February to early March 2015 burned thousands of hectares of vegetation. eNews Channel Africa reported more than a dozen homes were badly damaged and one helicopter pilot involved in fire suppression was killed when forced into a hard landing at Cape Point. Residents in the Cape Peninsula are used to wild fires in the summer periods.

Note: Currency conversion is based on early March 2015 exchange rates.

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