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A Bottle of the Best: On Tour in the Legendary Constantia Winelands

It may seem strange that South Africa's oldest and most venerable wine-producing valley is paradoxically also the one with the lowest profile. While the Cape's rolling Winelands, which are made up of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl, vie for attention - and thus get a lot of the acclaim - Constantia treads a quieter path, secure in the knowledge that two of its estates date back to 1685, making them the oldest in the country. For nearly 330 years, Groot (Great) and Klein (Small) Constantia have been harnessing the unique terroir and cool, crisp climate that lies between the Atlantic Ocean and Table Mountain range to create magnificent wines, including one of the most hailed of all time: the legendary Vin de Constance.

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The original manor house at Groot Constantia is now a museum while the tasting room stocks an excellent selection of vintages.
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The meandering drive into Groot Constantia leads you through centuries-old vineyards.

To taste what all the fuss was about - and find out why eminent Europeans from Jane Austen to Bismarck, and Frederick the Great to Napoleon himself praised Vin de Constance as the finest wine of its time - we recommend undertaking an organised wine tour. Not only does this allow you to hand over the car keys to someone else to ensure a completely safe trip, it also allows you to devote yourself totally to tasting, eating and more tasting (Constantia is also home to several fine-dining restaurants, including The Greenhouse at the Cellars-Hohenort, Jonkerhuis at Groot Constantia, La Colombe at Constantia Uitsig and 5 Rooms at the Alphen Hotel).

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A smaller, more intimate tasting room adjoins the cellar at Groot Constantia - be sure to ask about a wine and chocolate pairing!

Ask your guide to draw up an itinerary that focuses on your special interests: if you're a 'red wine person', then seek out estates that focus on varietals like Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and South Africa's own unique cultivar, Pinotage. This tannin-rich red was first created in 1925 from the coming together of Pinot noir and Cinsaut. If you like whites and roses - which have shaken off its second-rate reputation and become a sought-after 'summer' wine South Africa's hot climate - then you are equally spoilt for choice.

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All the wine at Groot Constantia is matured in French oak barrels only, smoked to suit the acidity of the particular grape.

There are at least nine estates in the area, all within easy driving distance, which means you have time to take interesting cellar tours and have leisurely tastings (not to mention shopping sessions). Most estates will happily make shipping arrangements for you, so your selection of favourite wines is waiting for you when you arrive home from Africa. Groot Constantia goes a step further: not only will they take you through their impressive cellar, which is laden with French oak barrels valued at an eye-watering R10 000 each, they will also pair your favourite tipple with a suitable handmade chocolate, the ultimate holiday indulgence combination.

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The age of a wine can be determined by looking at its hue against a white backdrop.

If you want to shrug off cosy cellars and designer tasting rooms in favour of gorgeous views across the vineyards down to the Atlantic, ask the folks at Klein Constantia to arrange a picnic for you. Laid out on a hillock at the edge of the farm, you'll enjoy the same tranquil panoramas that the first owner - Commander Simon van der Stel - did in 1685. Ask really nicely and you'll also be able to taste Vin de Constance, which is literally a taste of history. Although it may seem sweet to the modern palate, which is used to drier and flintier wines, it is also a fine indication of the changing way in which wine has been used at our tables. In the past, wine was not paired with food or taken with the meal but rather enjoyed as a type of liquid dessert. Sugar was also not nearly as ubiquitous as it is now and so sweet items were expensive and highly prized, and houses were also much colder and thus room temperature actually meant very slightly chilled. Lightly cooled and enjoyed with cheese, nuts and figs, you could easily pass an afternoon sipping on Constance before its time to head home to Cape Town in the care of your driver.

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There is nothing small about either the wines or the cellars at Klein Constantia, which is steeped in history.
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Vin de Constance is arguably Klein Constantia's flagship wine and has garnered continual praise for two centuries.

That's the other major benefit of the Constantia Wine Valley: in addition to being steeped in history and very compact, it is also an effortless 15-minute drive from the Cape Town city centre through the leafy neighbourhood of Newlands. On the way, you'll pass the classic facade of the University of Cape Town and the soaring crags that make the lush backdrop to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Shuttle busses are very spacious and guides are both courteous and knowledgeable.

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When you're in the safe hands of a knowledgeable guide, you can truly throw yourself into savouring the region's many fine tipples.

So if you prefer a path less-travelled but infused with noble history, the Constantia Wine Route will tick all your boxes. Close to Cape Town, compact, historical, beautiful and with internationally awarded wines, it's everything a wine tour should deliver in generous quantities.

Photographs by Sophie Smith. Connect with her on Google+.

Written by Angela Aschmann. Connect with her on Google+.

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