Original wine touring experiences and great food in South Africa

October 27, 2011

Words by Wink Lorch, Pictures by Brett Jones

For anyone who is used only to travelling in European wine regions, a visit to the winelands of South Africa is simply a revelation. Increasingly the country offers an example to other wine producing wine countries as to how comprehensive and varied, and frankly downright welcoming and unforgettable, the wine travel experience can be.

Whereas there are compact areas to tour like Constantia, Swartland, Robertson or Hermanus that can be covered in a day or two, the offering from the larger Stellenbosch and Paarl regions is simply so huge that it is seriously hard to choose which of the many wineries to visit. On our wine tour of South Africa last January, part press trip and partly on our own, a couple of wine tourism offerings really stood out for their originality.

Warwick wine tour

Safari ready at Warwick ©Brett Jones

The Big Five Wine Safari
Warwick Estate is one of the many Stellenbosch wine farms that lies in a drop dead gorgeous location, surrounded by its vineyards with views to the dramatic mountains of the Western Cape. Owned by the Ratcliffe family since 1964, the farm was named Warwick by a previous owner of the estate who had been a general of the Warwickshire Regiment in the Anglo-Boer War. The farm has a red wine focus with its two most famous wines being blends: the highly acclaimed Trilogy, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, made in Bordeaux style to age; and the more approachable Three Cape Ladies from Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage with a splash of Merlot and Syrah, depending on the year.

As at nearly all wine estates here, there is a bright tasting room and shop, complete with wine accessories, books, T shirts, aprons and more. Warwick also offer various, smart, but relaxed picnic areas for lunch in the grounds, where you may indulge in their delicious gourmet picnic baskets, best reserved in advance. The other innovation at Warwick is the Big Five Wine Safari (not run in May-August, the rainy season). The web page states “not for the faint hearted” but in our press group we were not warned, and some of us girls did our fair share of yelling as the safari Land-Rover took us up and down their spectacular vineyards at some quite hairy angles. It was worth it though for the amazing wide views from the top, and it is a great education to be right up there in the vineyards discovering the different grape varieties and soils. This is how Warwick explain their Big Five:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon – Lion
    Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of red grapes and the lion is the king of the jungle, like a young lion fighting for dominance in the pride Cabernet Sauvignon is aggressive when young but softens with age.
  • Cabernet Franc – Elephant
    Like an elephant Cabernet Franc has a very thick skin. Elephants love to wallow in mud and Cabernet Franc has a very earthy flavour profile. Single variety Cabernet Francs are very rare so when you try one you always remember it, the elephant also has a very good memory.
  • Merlot – Leopard
    Merlot is a very shy and elusive grape just like the leopard. Merlot is very difficult to spot in a blend, and the leopard is the hardest of the big 5 to spot.
  • Sauvignon Blanc – Rhino
    The Rhino is the easiest animal to identify in the wild because of its distinctive nose, Sauvignon Blanc is the easiest grape variety to indentify blind also because of its nose. Rhino horn is also an aphrodisiac but Professor Black Sauvignon Blanc is a better and more environmentally friendly aphrodisiac.
  • Pinotage – Buffalo
    The buffalo is a very aggressive and unpredictable animal; Pinotage is also unpredictable and has very aggressive tannins.

Up close and personal with the goats
Keeping on the animal theme, just up the road into the Paarl wine district, not far from the town of Paarl, is Fairview Winery. It is known for a big range of wines from in particular Rhône Valley grape varieties, and also for its goats’ cheese produced from a herd of 800 goats, a few of which you will see enjoying its quirky goat tower! Fairview is owned by the highly respected Back family, who have farmed here since 1937, with their first Fairview wine label in 1974 and a cheese factory created in 1985. Fairview welcomes 200,000 visitors to their tasting room every year, and like their wine range it has expanded greatly since I first visited this lovely winery and cheesemaker in 1998.

Fairview Goat Tower South Africa

Fine billy on the tower ©Brett Jones

Although you cannot do a cellar tour here, the choice of tastings available is very good, with education being the key. The main Fairview tasting room today has wooden pods with well trained staff to take you through six selected wines, with cheeses being available at separate pods – a more expensive, but still excellent value option allows you to enjoy a sit-down tutored tasting in a dedicated, more formal room next door. The whole atmosphere is both buzzing and relaxed, and the range of wines remains as it has always been, innovative and good quality at every price level from the Goats do Roam range with its amusing labels and stories, to the interesting Spice Route range and the most serious Single Vineyard Fairview labels such as my favourite Beacon Shiraz.

The on-site Goatshed restaurant continues the relaxed feel offering a casual bistro atmosphere for daytime snacks or lunch. There is an emphasis on fresh Mediterranean-style food, with plenty of bright-coloured vegetables, great bread and of course, a chance to sample the goats’ cheeses once again.

Wine tasting room at SimonsigFine dining with a view
Some of South Africa’s finest restaurants are in the wine regions, and the quality of meals we were able to enjoy in the more serious winery restaurants in South Africa’s winelands was astoundingly good. We were lucky enough to sample excellent meals at the Cuvée Restaurant of Simonsig, the Bodega Restaurant of Dornier, Terroir Restaurant at Kleine Zalze and the Jordan Wines Restaurant, all in Stellenbosch, as well as at La Motte in Franschhoek. At all these restaurants you can enjoy wines by the glass or by the bottle, with very good food. Each restaurant was enjoyable and impressive in a different way, but all were constructed to make the most of the local architectural heritage and the landscape, with views from the terraces and large windows, and with menus concocted to make the best of the wines. Most of all, for those who enjoy fine food and wine, I think that any of these could be indulged in for a really special dressed-up occasion, or simply on a much more relaxed holiday visit, perhaps after visiting some of their excellent tasting rooms.

Stellenbosch view

Evening view from Jordan's Restaurant ©Brett Jones

For more information about visiting South Africa’s winelands, start your research with the Stellenbosch Wine Routes and the Franschhoek Wine Valley websites.

My thanks go to the wine producers and restaurants who kindly hosted us. Our trip was partly with a group from the Circle of Wine Writers and was part-sponsored by Wines of South Africa.


South Africa makes it easy for Wine Tourists

July 28, 2010

By Wink Lorch

Stellenbosch wine tours

Stellenbosch Wine Festival picnic and tasting ©Stellenbosch Wine Routes

It’s nearly ten years since I’ve visited the Cape winelands of South Africa, but the images are still clear in my mind, for this part of the world is right up there on the list of most beautiful wine regions. What’s more, even ten years ago, it was clear that the South African wine industry was getting wine tourism right.

Back then, touring around in the surroundings of the dramatic mountains, combined with the distinctive Cape Dutch architecture, I could see old wineries re-building, architect-designed wineries emerging, winery restaurants appearing; Cape Town had well-stocked wine shops that offered shipping back home; and most importantly of all, the wine producers were generous with both their time and their ever-improving wines, wanting the world to learn about and experience the best they had to offer. Since then, wine tourism has gone from strength to strength.

As we saw from the recent football World Cup, South Africa is well geared up for tourism, and the country’s main vineyard areas are all in easy reach (20 minutes to two hours) of Cape Town, which is a keen member of Great Wine Capitals.

One of the most amazing ‘complaints’ I read about the World Cup was that some visitors were disappointed by cool and rainy weather, having not taken into account that this was winter and South Africa is not equatorial! The very fact that the Cape in particular has cooling winds coming in from the Indian and Atlantic oceans is a key to why they produce some excellent wines. Combine this with a wide range of suitable vine-growing soils, micro-climates influenced by the surrounding mountains and an expertise in matching grape variety with terroir that has developed greatly in the past 20 years, and the potential is huge.

Stellenbosch South Africa Wine Routes

South Africa has had designated wine routes for many years, and by far the largest in terms of winery membership is Stellenbosch, which is also the oldest, dating back to 1971. Stellenbosch is the name, not just of a well-known University town, one of the earliest towns to have been settled in South Africa, but also of the country’s best known wine region. Today for tourism purposes, Stellenbosch is divided up into five wine routes, sensibly not by appellation, but by routes that are logical for wine tourists to follow. (Something dear to my heart, as we’ve taken that brave step with the way we divide many of the French wine regions on Wine Travel Guides).

Pincushion Protea ©Erica Moodie/WOSA

Over 140 wineries are part of the Stellenbosch American Express® Wine Routes programme, gaining both in public relations terms and in cellar door sales. The programme also helps encourage visitors to indulge in other attractions wineries offer, such as restaurants, specialist non-wine products (e.g. cheese or olive oil) or complementary activities (e.g. bird watching, fly-fishing). Nearly all the wineries charge a small amount for tastings, reimbursed on purchase and they will organise shipping overseas. Gardens alongside the vineyards are gaining in popularity to support the wine industry’s laudable initiative to set aside more areas as non-planting land for vineyards, encouraging South Africa’s natural biodiversity. In this area known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, the emphasis is on planting only native species and encouraging the re-introduction of local fauna and flora.

The best time of year to visit the South African winelands is between November and May, with spring (November) and Autumn (April/May) being not only the cheapest time to travel but also the most interesting times to see the vineyards and wineries too. If, however, you do like the idea of wine touring during the Northern Hemisphere’s main summer holiday period of July/August, don’t worry, the wineries keep their doors wide open, and what’s more Stellenbosch holds a huge, annual 4-day festival normally towards the end of July. In 2010, it was brought forward to early July to coincide with the World Cup and to attract international tourists. Instead of being held in the town, it became a travelling festival, with shuttle buses taking visitors between 60 wineries. Next year this great wine event will once again be held in one venue in the town from 28 – 31 July 2011.

As with all travel, advance planning can make all the difference and there are excellent resources available to research your trip both on-line and in print. Do check out Wines of South Africa’s very informative website, and also the Stellenbosch Wine Routes own website, which is very comprehensive and easy to navigate. Thanks are due to these last organisation for the photos on this post.

When I travelled a decade ago in South Africa, I was always armed with the latest annual edition of John Platter South African Wine Guide, although the book has always been notoriously difficult to find until you’re out there. It remains an excellent guide to wines and wineries and has some decent wine touring information too.

More detailed information for wine tourists travelling all over the Cape wine regions can be found in The Essential Guide to South African Wines 2nd edition by Elmari Swart and Izak Smit, published in 2009. Attractively laid out, the heart of the book divides the wine regions into ‘Pockets’ according to their terroir, again another way of splitting up regions in a logical way for visitors, not necessarily by appellation. Wineries include most of the well known names, although the publication sought sponsorship from these to help with costs. A few pointers to local restaurants and accommodation are included. There are clear maps and in an innovative move, GPS information can be downloaded to your SatNav from the publisher’s website. The book includes useful and well-written introductory background chapters about the history, climate, geology, grapes and wine styles, plus some good basics on wine tasting and what to expect when wine touring in South Africa.

At least if you plan your wine tour in the beautiful wine country of South Africa next year, you are more likely to hear the sound of exotic bird song than of vuvuzelas.

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