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Grape escape

Published: 30/08/2013 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2013 » September 2013 » Lifestyle » Home » Features » Home »

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The wine regions of South Africa deserve at least a week, perhaps two. You could drive from Cape Town to George and on to Plettenburg Bay and Port Elizabeth, perhaps stopping off for a boat trip along Knysna Lagoon to the Knysna Heads, or to take a trip to the Tsitsikamma Forest. Fabulous food, superb scenery and a benign climate would all be part of the marvelous attraction.

For those visiting Cape Town for a few days on business, however, a more realistic aim is a full- or half-day tour. We booked through Viatour, which can combine a wine day trip with a Cape Peninsula tour. Other options include a helicopter tour of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, a “Jazz Safari” and cage diving with great white sharks.

We went for a Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl Valley Wine tour. The experience differs depending on the time of year and which wineries are open. We visited in the winter – July, when one day of heavy rain was followed by crystal-clear blue skies. Driving out of the city, the road had seemingly been scrubbed clean by the downpour and there was a slight chill to the morning air.

Our first stop was the KWV co-operative in Paarl. KWV – or Kooperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt, to give it its full name – was set up in 1918 to control wine market prices after disastrous fluctuations.

It’s well laid out for visitors, with an established tour. The highlights of this are the Cathedral Cellar – a room large enough to host banquets and classical recitals, with carvings on the casks illustrating episodes from African history – and a room of even larger barrels, five of which are the biggest vats in the world. Built in the 1930s, each holds more than 52,000 gallons and is so huge that if you emptied it at a rate of one bottle each day, it would take 750 years. The tour ended with an informal tasting of six products, ranging from a dry white to a Bailey’s-like Wild Africa Cream.

KWV and many of the vineyards we visited are passionate about the landscape and are members of South Africa’s Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, which works to protect the indigenous habitat in and around the vineyards. In the case of KWV, it means that more than a third of the land on the estate is given over to conservation projects.

The Art of the Vineyard

I have visited several wine regions around the world and though they have been fascinating, and the wines as lovely as you might expect, the regions themselves can sometimes be a bit of an anticlimax. Vineyards are located according to vagaries of soil and climate, little regard is given to the scenery when creating wine, and depending on the time of year, the view can be nothing more than stunted vines in rows across flat landscapes.

That’s not a problem in the Western Cape. Towering granite mountains (most famously Table Mountain, but also the 12 

Apostles plunging into the Atlantic Ocean), ancient vineyards (the first grapes were grown here in the mid-17th century), the unspoiled landscape – organic farming is practiced widely here – and fabulous restaurants dotted around the Dutch and French-origin towns and villages mean it would be hard to find a better introduction to wine tourism.

After lunch in Franschhoek, we headed for Stellenbosch, the second-oldest town in South Africa and the heart of the country’s wine growing region. There are hundreds of vineyards within reach of Cape Town, including the oldest – Cape Constantia – as well as Paarl and Stellenbosch. Having jotted down the names of a few producers that are widely available internationally, we had chosen three wineries – KWV, Boschendal and Neethlingshof – as ones we’d like to see, and since the other participants on the tour seemed happy to go wherever the minibus took them, that’s where we visited.

We tasted well-known grapes including Chardonnay, Sémillon, Shiraz and Pinotage, as well as some lesser-known ones – to me at least – such as Crouchen (also known as Cape Riesling) – although it was the blends of the various grapes that I found most interesting; wine makers tweaking their creations for the best results.

By the afternoon, the weather had warmed to the point where we could discard jackets and sit out under a 200-year-old oak tree at Boschendal for a tasting, the snow-dusted mountains adding a magical touch. We tried five wines here – a Chardonnay, a rosé-style Blanc de Noir (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz), Le Bouquet (semi-sweet, with Morio Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc), Lanoy (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec) and a Shiraz.

At Neethlingshof, the by now familiar whitewashed Dutch-style buildings housed a modern winery and tasting center. Here our favorite was the Caracal red blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot), named after the rooikat – red cat – indigenous to the area.

We strolled back to the minibus, glad that we had left the driving to someone else, and snoozed our way through the early-evening journey back to our hotel. That night, the wine list in the restaurant had some familiar names on it and we were tempted by something other than the house options. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Wine region tours from $80 per person; visit 

— Tom Otley

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