IT’S AFRICA, THOUGH NOT AS you’d imagine it. Lush valleys fringed by mountains. Scenic towns and villages of white, Dutch-style houses. A Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and cool, damp winters. And vineyards, lots of vineyards. Welcome to the Boland — the Highland — of South Africa’s Western Cape.
Thanks to the abundance of vineyards, this clement region is more commonly known as the Winelands, in turn subdivided into a patchwork of districts familiar to wine buffs the world over from bottle labels: Paarl, Constantia, Franschhoek, Klein Karoo and — most famous of all — Stellenbosch.
Wine has been produced in this region since the 17th century. Although there have been challenges along the way, few have been as severe as the current three-year drought, which left nearby Cape Town almost entirely without running water and also affected the grape harvest, expected to be 15 percent below average this year.
Ironically, the harsh conditions are likely to make for an unusually good vintage. The current extremes of temperature add flavor to the grapes, while the lack of rain reduces the threat from pests and disease. For connoisseurs, 2018 is shaping up as an exceptionally good year for South African wine.
You can taste it for yourself by taking the wine route through Stellenbosch, just a 45-minute drive from Cape Town. Dozens of wineries open to the public for tours and, more importantly, wine tasting. Many also offer accommodation, which overcomes the tricky issue of selecting the designated driver. Alternatively, join an organized coach tour out of Cape Town or Stellenbosch. With so many wineries competing for visitors, most expanded beyond standard tours and tastings to offer additional attractions.
One of the oldest estates is Spier Wine Farm, established in 1692 and currently owned by the billionaire Dick Enthoven, who also owns Nando’s fast food chain. Located a 15-minute drive southwest of Stellenbosch, Spier occupies an area of about 2,700 acres, which visitors can explore by Segway. In addition, the farm maintained an eagle rescue center since 2001 and offers the chance to see these magnificent birds of prey in flight and even to handle them. The dancing barn owls are a particular highlight.
The main attraction remains the wine tasting. At Spier a fee of approximately $3 (in some other wineries, tasting is free) includes three signature wines and two premier wines. Children are catered to with a grape juice tasting.
Tastings of food and wine pairings have become a recent trend among the wineries. At Spier you can taste the wine in combination with artisan chocolate. At the Avontuur Estate, wines are paired with fudge and nougat. Sample wine at Somerbosch alongside the homemade red wine ice cream. And Delheim offers wine tasting in combination with wild mushrooms.
The Delaire Graff Estate, owned by diamond tycoon Laurence Graff, occupies a spectacular position above the Helshoogte Pass, with clear-day views across to distant Table Mountain. While many estates are child-friendly, Delaire Graff’s sideline attractions are more grown-up, centering on a spa, a world-class art collection (including a famous painting, Chinese Girl, by Vladimir Tretchikoff) and four boutiques (including one selling diamonds).
Tasting at Delaire Graff takes place in a dedicated copper-roofed wine lounge. For wine newbies, there are wine tutors on hand to steer you through the experience, from whites to reds to rosés to sparkling wines.
Back on the family-friendly route, Blaauwklippen Vineyards (another of the original 17th-century estates) has a wealth of diversions for children, including pony rides, habituated goats and alpacas and a jungle gym. Every Sunday the estate holds a family market that features a range of stalls offering food, arts and crafts and antiques. Tastings at Blaauwklippen usually feature five chosen wines which can be paired with macarons, chocolate or canapés.
DeMorgenzon Estate, 20 minutes west of Stellenbosch, is one of the most eco-friendly of all the wineries (though most have dedicated environmental programs). Approximately 10 percent of the estate has been set aside for the restoration of one of the world’s most endangered habitats, the Renosterveld, dominated by a unique shrub, the renosterbos (“rhinoceros bush” — before the vineyards, rhinos flourished here). The estate’s vineyards are painstakingly tended; recorded Baroque music plays among the vines during the day to aid the growing process. The DeMorgenzon tasting room is open every day 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
With so many wineries to visit, the historic university town of Stellenbosch is all too easy to overlook, which is a shame because it’s an attraction in its own right. The town is full of remarkably preserved Cape Dutch, Georgian, Regency and Victorian architecture. The Village Museum, a complex of restored houses, provides an overview of the different styles. The living essence of Stellenbosch can be enjoyed by taking a stroll along leafy Dorp Street, lined with historic buildings housing quirky shops and cafés.
As ever in this region, you’re never far from the next alcohol tasting. Just outside of town is Van Ryn’s Distillery and Brandy Cellar. Tours, which should be booked in advance through the company website, include the chance to sample various brandies. As with all the tasting opportunities in and around Stellenbosch, be sure to pace yourself. Overindulgence could impair your memories of this unique and beautiful corner of Africa. Moderation adds to the glow.
Stellenbosch Info to Go
International flights arrive at Cape Town International Airport, 10 miles east of downtown Cape Town and 18 miles west of Stellenbosch. Most visitors combine a tour of the Winelands with a stay in Cape Town. You can get to Stellenbosch by self-drive (which, of course, restricts the amount of wine you can taste) or by bus tour; several companies run guided group tours from Cape Town. The downside is you’ll only get to visit the wineries on the itinerary. Perhaps the best option is to self-drive and to overnight at a winery or two, enabling you to fully participate in the afternoon tastings.
Where to Stay in Stellenbosch
DELAIRE GRAFF ESTATE “The vineyard in the sky” has four separate lodges available to rent, each accommodating two to four people. One features an estate view, the others overlook the spectacular valley. Helshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch $$$$
SPIER HOTEL Set within the estate of the same name, the 153 rooms are housed within a village-like cluster of buildings. Spier Wine Farm, R310 Baden Powell Drive, Stellenbosch $$$$
THE STELLENBOSCH HOTEL One of the best options in the town of Stellenbosch, the hotel occupies a lovely 19thcentury Dutch building within walking distance of the main attractions. Corner of Dorp and Andringa streets, Stellenbosch $$$
Restaurants in Stellenbosch
BASIC BISTRO Pastas, sandwiches and burgers if you want, but for some local flavor, try the Cape Malay chicken curry. 31 Church St., Stellenbosch $$
DELAIRE GRAFF RESTAURANT Rated one of the region’s best restaurants, the sophisticated menu incorporates local, seasonal ingredients. Delaire Graff Estate, Helshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch $$$$
MONT MARIE Chef Pieter Vlok conjures a fusion of global influences “with a South African personality.” Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Blaauwklippen Road, Stellenbosch $$$
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