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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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Champagne – Off the Beaten Track

May 6, 2009
Rolling landscape of the Aube

The rolling landscape of the Aube

If you drive south through France from the UK to the Alps or the Mediterranean, chances are you’ve sped past the vineyards of Champagne. Many people decide to stay overnight in Reims, but once you’ve driven past the exits to Reims, Epernay and Chalons-en-Champagne, chances are you thought that’s it – we’re done with Champagne, it’s onwards to Burgundy. Next time, stay alert and a good hour later you might notice one of those French brown tourist signs on the motorway stating ‘Vignobles en Champagne’ – it’s almost as if the sign is in the wrong place. Look to your left and you will see a slope of vineyards in the distance, in fact it looks quite pretty seen from the rest place or ‘Aire’ just there on the motorway. Better still, arrange time to break your journey.

A couple of years ago in spring, we did just that, driving north on the way to some wine visits in Reims and Epernay, we stopped to explore this southernmost region of Champagne which is called the Aube, named after a tributary of the Seine. The region seems in the middle of nowhere, and really it is. The only town of note – and it is well worth a visit in its own right – is Troyes, about half an hour to the west of the vineyard areas. The other terribly famous landmark for the French (which also merits its own brown motorway sign) is the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, the burial place of General Charles de Gaulle. The whole area is sleepy but with attractive rolling countryside, interspersed with vineyards that are currently gaining attention.

The Drappier Champagne House in Urville, near Bar-sur-Aube

Drappier in Urville, near Bar-sur-Aube

Not only are these vineyards the source of excellent grapes especially Pinot Noir for several big Houses based in Epernay and Reims to the north, but in the Aube itself you can find a growing number of interesting Champagne producers to visit, who offer an excellent product at a comparatively reasonable price. We visited the well-established house of Drappier, still family owned and exporting Champagne around the world – it’s open to casual visitors for tastings and sales, but you must make an appointment for a cellar tour. You taste in a rather grandly furnished room and the whole visiting experience is much more like a visit to a mid-sized wine producer in another regions of France than to one of the famous big Houses up to the north, that’s the family angle for you.

Three generations of the Drappier family

Three generations of the Drappier family

Afterwards we headed off back to the motorway near Troyes via a walk near the vast Lac d’Orient, one of several large lakes in the Champagne region, which are havens for wildlife – this one is in the vast region park, the Fôret d’Orient.

Wine writer and Champagne specialist Michael Edwards has just completed a thorough update of our three travel guides to Champagne originally written by that other great Champagne specialist writer Tom Stevenson. In particular he’s added details on several family-owned producers making so-called grower Champagnes. In editing the three updates I was struck by the Aube guide in particular. Although still quiet, there are increasing numbers of hotels and restaurants in the region, which range from the sumptuous Hostellerie La Montagne (a recently refurbished starred restaurant and hotel near Colombey) to the modest en-suite cabins of Domaine des Foolz up the road from Bar-sur-Seine, where you can eat reliably at the Hotel Restaurant u Commerce. At last there’s an alternative to staying in Troyes for a visit to the Aube, although we also detail some fine-sounding recommendations in Troyes.

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Twitter Quiz No. 12 – Ysios in Rioja

April 22, 2009

The most famous wine region in Spain – Rioja – has become recognized in recent years not just for the quality of its wines, but for the number of architecturally spectacular wineries in the region – almost certainly more of note than in other wine regions of Europe. The region is dominated by fairly large wineries, typically more New World size, rather than the boutique, family-owned wineries characteristic of most French and Italian wine regions, so these larger companies are more able to fund these fantastical structures by famous architects.

Ysios winery in Rioja

Ysios winery and vineyards in Rioja with the Cantabrian mountains behind.

The best-known architect-designed project in Rioja is Marqués de Riscal’s new winery building and hotel, designed by Frank Gehry, who also designed Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum just a couple of hours up the road. But, before that was opened, an extraordinary building could not fail to catch your eye driving through the vineyards of Rioja, the winery of Ysios, near Laguardia and owned by the giant Domecq wine group.

Tom Perry, an American resident of Rioja, who writes our two detailed micro-region travel guides to the Rioja wine region explains about Ysios:

The inspiration for the name of this winery was Isis, the Egyptian goddess of magic, and it is truly magical when you see the place for the first time, with its undulating aluminium roof against the stark backdrop of the Cantabrian mountain range. When you approach the winery, the roof reflected in a pool looks like a row of casks. Inside, architect Santiago Calatrava has created a simple yet functional design to make winemaking as easy as possible, with the movement of wine directly from one end of the winery to the other.

Congratulations to Katie of Chicago who magically came up with the right answer and wins a PDF guide of her choice.

Do follow me on Twitter for random notes about wines I’ve tasted, places I’ve been and updates to the Wine Travel Guides website. You might also want to check out our Facebook page – especially if you haven’ t yet participated in our poll as to which country we should focus on for our next guides. Please do make a comment on this blog or join in the conversation on Twitter or on Facebook  to discuss anything about travel in wine regions. A bonus: all Facebook fans and Twitter followers are eligible for discounts on subscriptions to the guides. We’ll do another twitter quiz soon.

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