In expanding my knowledge base, I made it a point on all my trips to South Africa to learn as much as I could about wines. I’m not a sommelier by any description but fundamentally I can evaluate a good wine, from a bad wine and the chef in me knows what to pair with what. Sauvignon Blanc is the Queen of the white wines, and though the varietals may be as colorful as the South African flag, there is only one Queen of Queens, the Primes Inter Pares – Groot Constantia Sauvignon Blanc. Walk with me for a while, let’s talk about wine.
The history of South African wine goes back to 1659, and they are proud of it. Every winemaker you visit will work it into a conversation, but rightly so. South African wines are pretty damn amazing. I’ve been to South Africa quite a few times, first in 2014 and as recently as 2019 educating myself about their arsenal of regional witwyn – white wine in Afrikaans. After more than a dozen different tastings, I still don’t consider myself any kind of expert, but I do know a good wine when I taste one.
The first winery I ever visited was Raka Wines in 2014, in the Western Cape, not too long of a drive from my friend Tobie’s parents’ house. They were hosting me at the time as I’d elected – with an admittedly high amount of rebellious adrenaline – to spend Christmas in Cape Town; summer in the southern hemisphere. Raka is set back on large undulating valley just outside of the town of Stanford. The main building is what I think is called a Cape Dutch style estate. I may stand to be corrected.
That was my first taste of a South African Sauvignon Blanc. Chilled just enough that the condensation on the glass didn’t begin to collect and drip down your hand, I think I must have tasted this exquisite wine and stared back at the glass for about 5 minutes in complete shock. I’m going to do my best to describe this flavor profile as dramatically, and romantically as possible.
Take a fresh green pear. The smell of the first bite; ripe and fragrant, combined with balmy clean winds of the Cape blowing off of the sea and as though guided by GPS, through the valley and into your senses. There’s no obstruction so you’re tasting purity. It’s not over, it becomes a Draw 4 Uno card for your palette when and you pick up peaches, the acidic bizzang of strawberries, freshly sliced and squeezed Pomelo, kissed by a light drop of clemengold. It brings you down gently, tasting almost purely, like a summer time nap – you feel refreshed and ready for the next sip almost immediately.
The second winery that comes to mind is perhaps the most modest, though they produce an outstanding sauvignon blanc. At the base of the Constantia Nek; the pass over the domineering and iconic Table Mountain range, you find yourself arrested by the scenic landscape. The drive up the winding road to the main chateau is equal parts beautiful, and pleasantly suspenseful like opening a gift wrapped in shiny paper. The Cape Dutch façade prevails with the modern touch of broad automatic glass doors at the main house, and practically panoramic view of the Constantia Valley.
I am now about to go over the top with the description of the wine again. Brace yourself.
Their sauvignon blanc if represented as a molecular diagram would have perfect structure and acidity. An unwooded wine – not aged in oak barrels like its counterparts – its mineral rich profile is inimitable, delicate and as balanced as a ballerina. It’s like picking the right apple, just tart enough, just sweet enough.
That primary flavor profile expounds to really show its stuff; it crescendos from ripe apples, we climb to a slice of fresh pineapple; the wine is seemingly seasoned by the tropics. The flavor melody builds and the bridge is composed of an intermingling of freshly picked white flowers; jasmine for example. Jasmine, folds into the sharpness of a nectarine before ending the score with the kind of tart you’d expect from a cherry, somehow.
Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for I guess. What’s the best sauvignon blanc in South Africa?
I may have only mentioned two, but I’ve tried dozens; Fat Bastard, Iona Wines, Steenberg just to name a few. Wine making though is an art, and an art like any skill or thing which an individual might study diligently and practice consistently – requires time to master. Remember, the history of wine in South Africa dates back to 1659. There is only one name that can boast a presence so old that they’ve likely reset the benchmark of what distinguishes a sauvignon blanc from a good sauvignon blanc. Enter, Groot Constantia.
Groot Constantia has been around since 1685, making them the oldest wine producing estate in South Africa. The entrance to the estate has a massive – I presume model as opposed to once used – oak barrel at the front of the estate Again, the Cape Dutch influence is prevalent in the architecture on the estate. The interior is tastefully decorated with wooden tables, bookshelves and bottles of wine of all sizes on display.
The tasting room at Groot Constantia is what a candy shop for adults should be like – you get a bar of chocolate, and a glass of wine, and then a different bar of chocolate and a different glass of wine. None of the other wines mattered, the sauvignon blanc is what you’re here for – nothing else. I will say that it was paired with a decadent white chocolate bar but the taste of the chocolate is neglible (in fact, skip the damn chocolate and just drink) to the taste of the first sip of the damn wine. This is the last time you’re going to have to take this colorful journey of adjectives with me, but I promise it will be a most magical climax (there’s a great joke in there, but I’ll leave that to you).
Let’s say Jesus, a Unicorn, and a Mermaid came together with the finest elixirs from their respective lands, and sea. They mixed the elixirs with pure rain water from clouds formed only over Table Mountain. They then added the essence of passion fruit and the lightest touch of some green herb, like a freshly torn basil leaf. Honey dew melon lags behind showcasing a glimpse of the wines depth before the expected acidity of a sauvignon blanc makes it way to the end of the sip.
It is baffling that this wine isn’t on more wine lists in the world’s finest restaurants. If anyone from The Ledbury is reading this – this wine would pair excellently with your scallop and leek dish, just saying.
I am not trying to put down any other wines, but in every race there must be a winner and the clear winner is Groot Constantia Sauvignon Blanc, hands down.
Seriously though, get the Groot Constantia Sauvignon Blanc.