Hospitable South Africa.
You’ll have seen from my recent post about South Africa that I was blown away by my trip there. A large part of this was due to the fantastic hospitality. Wine tourism here is a refined art; you can’t help but get carried away with the wine-makers passion and enthusiasm.
Tourism is booming, with a weak Rand, wonderful countryside, great weather and a sophisticated wine and food scene. We bumped into California hikers, South American honeymooners and lots of European food and wine lovers. Often considered a Safari destination, it’s worth making a visit to the winelands a destination, rather than making it just an ‘add on’.
I only scratched the surface in 10 days visiting Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Constantia but the array of terroir was huge and the beautiful topography, with those crazy mountains, adds the variable of elevation to the mix. Take the time to explore and to understand, they are only too happy to help.
Like all major wine regions, they are gaining a deeper understanding of their terroir and adapting to a block-by-block planting and precision viticulture. To get to grips with how the place affects the taste you need to get amongst the vines. At Jordon we tasted a range of their wines in the plots where they were grown. Hurtling about in an adapted Range Rover, we not only enjoyed beautiful views but gaining an intimate understanding of the difference in soil, sun exposure and breeze affecting the personality of each wine; a real wine safari.
Most of the vineyards were excited to share this with us; Warwick Estate offers a similar experience ‘The Big 5 Vineyard Safari’. You can go tearing around the vineyard with a guide showing you the different terroirs that go into their range of award winning wines. Liberated from legislative constraints, they are free to experiment with new terroirs and grape varieties. It may appear confusing from afar and perhaps hinders a clear vision of the personality of each region but close up, it becomes clearer how each wine fits into the range, expresses the place and appeals to different sectors of the market both at home and abroad. 60% of South African wines go to the export market.
Although cellars visits aren’t always part of the classic tasting experience here, ask for a peek; just like Bordeaux, as the plots or blocks are getting smaller, so are the vats and micro cuvees, such as the different Sauvignon Blanc from Klein Constantia, are on the rise.
The wineries are also terrific showcases for local produce alongside the wines; from biltong to honey and from face cream (Klein Constantia giving Caudalie a run for it’s money?) to diamonds. On the decidedly chilly morning we visited Warwick, they were doing a roaring trade in windcheaters and sweat shirts (went there, got the T-shirt – well a very fetching wind-cheater).
And the art on display too, the wineries really showcase everything that is great about the country: the food and arts and crafts – again this underlying pride in their country. It’s a very eclectic experience.
And were would wine be without food? The food culture draws on historical European influences, both French and Dutch, African traditions and local produce creating an innovative food scene. Most wineries showcase their wines, and often those of their neighbours, in in-house restaurants, from relaxed tapas tastings to top end gastronomy.
In and around Stellenbosch, you are spoilt for choice for lunch. Haskell has a restaurant, The Long Bar, as does Ernie Els but as I was there Monday and they were closed, so Rianie Strydom from Haskell took me over to the other side of the valley to Jordan. (No relation to the Alexander Valley, CA Jordan). Where both their restaurant and bakery were open. Tasting the food alongside the wine by the glass selection on a deck overlooking the small reservoir was perfect. If you are jealous and in London you can sample it closer to home; they also own their own restaurant, High Timber, in the city, showcasing South African cuisine and wine.
You are spolit for choice at nearby Delaire Graff Estate. As well as the elegant tasting room that offers snacks, there are two restaurants; a bistro overlooking the valley and the award winning Indochine restaurant with an Asian African fusion theme which is well worth a detour.
We also enjoyed a spectacular tasting menu with a ‘by the glass’ wine pairing in the very elegant dinning room of Grand Provence. Although it’s a great place to start, the food scene is not just at the wineries. The local hotels showcase the local food and traditions. Le Quartier Français is the French translation of the name of the picturesque wine town of Franschhoek. It is also the name of the hotel where chef Margot Janse in her Tasting Room Restaurant creates daily tasting menus designed to match local wines to local produce. We had two different 8 course tasting menus on our table of 4 with a total of 13 wines and 1 beer between us – quite an introduction to the diversity of the region. The food was a performance – a unique experience, but the delicious breakfasts were worth surfacing for too.
Ernie Els has a more relaxed but elegant restaurant in Stellenbosch; The Big Easy, also the name of one of his wine ranges (see previous post). It is in one of the oldest buildings of the town ‘la Gratitude’ dating from the late 1600s, carries almost 200 wines from the surrounding vineyards and there’s a branch in Durban too.
Where to stay? Again spoilt for choice. We stayed in one of the beautiful lodges on Delaire Graf Estate over looking the vineyards and the valley down to Stellenbosch. Just the walk past the Dylan Lewis cheetah sculptures on the way to breakfast every morning alone was worth the stay. Many wineries have cottages of guest rooms, la Grande Provence, Haskell, Jordan to name a few.
If you are just passing through Cape Town and really can’t make it to the wine country, help is at hand. Stay at the Ellerman House high above the Bantry Bay waterfront; it is a perfect example of the passion for the country and the desire to share that passion that we felt everywhere we went.
The owner of Ellerman House, Paul Harris, uses his hotel as a showcase for both art and wine from the country, elements that seemed intrinsically linked throughout our visit
The wine cellar is more of an art installation than just a place to store wine. It’s a unique showcase for South African wines – the only non South African exception being a unique collection of Dom Pérignon – worth making an exception for. In a modern annexe to the 1900s villa the entrance to the cellar, opened in 2013, is hidden behind spectacular granite boulders.
Geology has long been part of SA identity with its history of minerals. This theme has been explored by sculptor Angus Taylor showcasing the importance of place in wine making with the Terroir wall. Soil cross-sections of 100 different South African wineries are each framed on the wall and, identified by name and by GPS location, show the rich diversity of the soil types in the vineyards. The vine is represented by a spectacular bronze casted sculpture of an old Pinotage vine and the theme of vine tendrils continues in the giant spiralling carbon fibre corkscrew that houses a selection of 1500 of the 7500 bottles that make up the cellar. Resident Chilean sommelier, Manuel Capaballo, hosts wine dinners, lunches and tastings at the granite bar illustrated by films of the wine makers explaining their vineyards. After dinner you can retire to the brandy lounge, another important South African product. Glass in hand you can gaze upon the brandy sculpture, where hand blown glass holds different ages of brandy showing the evolution from white spirit to dark barrel aged brandy.
A perfect end to a perfect trip.
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