Constantia South Africa’s Steenberg Wine Farm, would be our Valentine’s weekend getaway. An hour-plus Uber ride from Franschhoek ended with a climb through vines heavy with fruit to the 5-star Steenberg Hotel and Spa. Nestled on the grounds of the Cape’s first farm, this welcoming luxury retreat fills three white-washed Cape Dutch buildings, including the original manor house dating back to 1692. The black spur-winged geese that roam the manicured grounds are a living link to the past. It’s said that the farm’s first owner, the gutsy widow Catharina Ras, originally named the estate Swaaneweide when she mistook them for the black swans of her native Germany.
Our spacious manor house room was flooded with light from the building’s original tall paned windows and warmed by a fireplace. The bath with tub (yes!) and shower repeated the room’s soothing gray and cream palette, echoed in the luxurious linens. A vintage armoire easily housed our mounds of luggage. Short walks brought us to the new pool and to the hotel’s fine dining restaurant Tryn with its broad patio for al fresco cocktails, breakfasts and dinners. Along the way, colorful steel sculptures by Edoardo Villa, the Henry Moore of South Africa, gleamed in the sun.
In May 2019, the hotel closed for four months to remodel its suites, carefully maintaining historic facades and interior details. These art-filled accommodations with up to three ensuite bedrooms welcome families or friends seeking a shared getaway. The largest offer kitchens, dining rooms and private heated pools and patios complete with grills for weekend braais (pronounced brys), the traditional South African barbecue. A private 18-hole golf course, rejuvenating spa and world-class winery all on site make this an ideal all-in-one Winelands vacation retreat.
Two Constantia Tastings
The steep slopes that comprise Constantia Glen Winery have been grazed and tilled for more than two centuries but it wasn’t until 2000 that the current owners, the Waibel family, turned the focus to grape growing and quality wine making. Now half of the farm’s 150 acres undulate with vineyards cradled between two imposing mountains that channel sun and cooling breezes. Slow ripening and small crops limit production of the winery’s signature crisp whites and complex red blends to under 100,000 bottles annually.
South Africa-born wine maker Justin van Wyk has shepherded vintages here since the second harvest, working with a farm team with decades of experience on this challenging site. He took a break from harvest chores to share a tasting with us in Constantia Glen’s Tasting Room restaurant, home to picturesque views as well as delicious wine country fare, including flammkucken (German thin-crust pizza) from the wood-fired oven.
After a quaffable classic sauvignon blanc, we savored the winery’s signature blends that Justin identifies by the number of varietals combined. Constantia Glen Two, for example, blends sauv blanc with semillon, lacing tropical and citrus flavors with hints of oak from barrel fermentation. Their flagship Constantia Glen Five is an elegant red Bordeaux blend. The 2015 vintage earned 91 points from Wine Spectator as well as numerous South African honors.
For the past couple years, Justin also creates wines for his own label, Van Wyk Family Wines, with grapes sourced across the Greater Western Cape and bottled at Constantia Glen. Named after his daughter, Olivia Grace blend showcases four white grapes while his red blend, Rebecca May (another daughter), is Rhone inspired. All are available for tastings and purchase at Constantia Glen.
A scenic 15-minute drive separates Constantia Glen from Steenberg. After checking into the hotel, we hopped aboard the complementary golf-cart transport to Steenberg Winery’s tasting room and casual dining destination Bistro Sixteen82.
While the white-washed Cape Dutch hotel buildings are steeped in history, the winery complex is boldly contemporary, a striking glass and steel beam structure that opens on to sunny patios, infinity pools and rolling grounds. The chandelier above the tasting bar sets the tone for fun times here – a glowing circle of almost 3,000 hand-blown glass grapes – or maybe they’re bubbles in honor of Steenberg’s much lauded sparkling wines in the French-style known as Methode Cap Classic (MCC) in South Africa.
Here our host was Steenberg’s new cellar master, Elunda Basson, an awarding winning MCC specialist, who joined the farm-cellar team only a few months earlier and was in the midst of her first harvest. After touring us through the state-of-the-art wine-making facility and barrel room, we settled in for a tasting in a sunny room lined with comfy banquettes and a stylish wall display of Lady R sparkling wine, a pinot noir-chardonnay blend named for Steenberg’s founder.
We started with three outstanding single varietal bruts that cost less than $25 a bottle. Sips of Steenberg’s flagship wines – Black Swan Sauvignon Blanc, Catharina Red Blend (merlot, syrah and petit verdot) and fruity Nebbiolo – followed as Elunda shared her aspirations to build on the winery’s stellar reputation. Harvest called her back to work, but we lingered on the lively patio, clinking glasses and people-watching the Valentine’s weekend crowd.
We would return another day to lunch at Bistro Sixteen82, making hard choices from the Asian-influenced menu by chef Kerry Kiplin that also showcases ethically sourced seafood and seasonal produce. Shared starters – tempura prawns perched above a spicy noodle salad and goat cheese fritters with honey-dressed greens – both paired with Steenberg’s sauv blanc – gave us time to relax in the chic room accented with natural wood and stylish florals. We could have shared one of the two mains we ordered – a very popular ginger and sesame sirloin salad (judging by plates on nearby tables) and an open-face steak sandwich rich with hollandaise and crisp chips. And we should have skipped dessert, but our waiter tempted us with a trio of rich chocolate treats that capped this exceptionally tasty meal.
Bistro Sixteen82 also serves breakfast and evening tapas, small plates to share as the sun drifts behind the mountains. Vegetarian and kids menus are available too.
Be My Valentine
A brief evening shower didn’t dampen our mood as we skirted puddles on the short walk to our Valentine’s Day celebration at Steenberg’s newly updated signature restaurant, Tryn. For 20 years, this was Catharina’s, another salute to the estate’s founder, that earned fans for upscale dining on linen-clad tables beneath a flock of white origami swans suspended from the ceiling. In keeping with updates across this property – and trends in dining, the lounge, bar and restaurant were reimagined in 2019. Tryn, Catharina Ras’s nickname, suits the new contemporary decor – and menu, also the work of Kerry Kiplin.
Natural wood tables, plush banquettes and modern lighting now brighten the main dining room. Steps away is the new marble-based bar and an eclectic mix of orange and jade seating for pre- and post dinner cocktails. The atmosphere is modern, grownup and just edgy enough. Boundary-pushing Catharina would be pleased.
Chef Kerry spiced up the menu too. Like Bistro Sixteen82, Asian and Middle East accents enliven lamb rack, beef fillet and other traditional mains. Fish wrapped in eggplant, for example, surprises with coriander, harissa and rose water accents. Look for the same flavor explosions in starters and desserts. And for sheer indulgence, nibble on the truffle fries.
On Valentine’s Day, a special three-course dinner menu awaited celebrants like us lucky enough to have Tryn reservations. Dressed for the occasion (lots of romantic red!), couples old and new toasted with the Steenberg bubbles served with the amuse bouche – a ruby-red beetroot tataki. A delicious pawn starter spiced with wasabi and ginger and cooled with cucumber ribbons came next, matched with the winery’s aromatic Rattlesnake Sauvignon Blanc.
Palate cleansing berry “popsicles” allowed a relaxing pause before the main course – an expertly cooked beef fillet plated with cauliflower puree, a mushroom arancini and luxe port and truffle jus. We toasted the kitchen on this exceptional dish, with Steenberg’s fine 2016 syrah. Of course sweets followed – deep caramel-chocolate mousse circled with raspberries, cake and citrusy creams and paired with glasses of golden noble late harvest zin.
We never could have guessed all those decades ago that we would celebrate 31 years together in South Africa. In the Winelands. In this historic hotel. At this exceptional restaurant. Back in our room, one last surprise awaited. The dimmed chandelier shown down on the bed strewn with red rose petals. More petals formed a heart that framed a plate of truffles with a message in chocolate – “Congratulations.” We were touched. Same time next year? We wish we could make our Winelands adventure an annual affair. But the distance from our California home is formidable and travel is tricky in times of pandemics. So holding on to wonderful memories, we can make one heart-felt promise: See you soon.