Taste and Beauty: South Africa’s Winelands
We can thank homesick seventeenth century French settlers for having the idea of planting grape vines in the region that is known today as the Cape Winelands. Stretching inland and northwards from Cape Town these rugged uplands are now home to a patchwork of vineyards where some of the best wines in the world are cultivated. In fact, there are up to 200 wineries within a day’s drive from Cape Town all situated on beautiful estates in an area of stunning natural beauty with a climate similar to that found in the Mediterranean. From large estates to boutique wineries, a tour of the region is a vintner’s dream and offers a unique and unforgettable cultural experience. This area is a photographer’s canvas, with majestic mountains, historical buildings on oak tree lined streets, acres of vineyards and spectacular vistas.
The best place to start a tour of the Winelands is the town of Stellenbosch 50km from Cape Town, where the French Huguenots planted the first grapes in the fertile soils of the wide valley in which the town lies. This is South Africa’s 2nd oldest town. Today Stellenbosch is the epicenter of South Africa’s wine industry, which produces over a billion bottles annually, yet despite the buzz of this university town it has retained its colonial charm and numerous examples of fine Dutch architecture are to be found along its sedate oak tree-lined streets.
Traditionally, the most common grape variety grown in the region has been the white Chenin Blanc, which provides a neutral palette for the vintner’s expression, and is also much used in sparkling and dessert wines. More recently Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have become popular cultivars, with the best place to sample the former being found in the cooler climes of the Elgin, Constantia Valley and Hermanus areas. There are also numerous reds to sample, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz being the most prolific, not to mention the fortified wines and brandies of the Worcester region.
In fact, one of the best ways to experience the delights of the region is to drive around and stop off at whichever vineyard takes your fancy. There are literally hundreds to choose from, and most offer free tastings and have their own restaurants and lodgings. You can also have a picnic lunch, visit a cheetah sanctuary, go cheese tasting or wander through the World Heritage buildings in Stellenbosch showcasing the world of the original settlers.
Another Winelands town to visit is Franschhoek, which dates back to the 17th century arrival of the French Huguenots. You can still see the French influence in this town. Set in a picturesque valley, this small town has the atmosphere of a village and yet provides some of the best dining experiences in South Africa. Gastronomic delights aside, Franschhoek is a centre for arts and crafts and makes a good base for exploring the surrounding countryside on foot – which might be a good idea considering the number of wineries you will encounter. You can also take a Cap Classique route visiting 9 cellars, showcasing the methods of making this champagne.
Nearby Paarl is another stop on the Winelands tour. Less touristy than Franschhoek, Paarl is so-called because of the nearby mountain nature reserve where three prominent boulders are said to glisten like pearls in the sun following a rainfall. Visit the magnificent Cathedral Cellar, with wine vats and vaulted roof, showcasing the history of the wine industry in the Cape. Travelling between the two towns you might visit Drakenstein Correctional Centre, where Nelson Mandela spent the last two years of his incarceration.
Close to Cape Town city centre, in the Southern Suburbs, is the Constantia Wine Route. This is home to some of the oldest farms in South Africa, dating back to Simon Van Der Stel in 1685. This area stretches from Wynberg Hill to the Silvermine mountains. Groot Constantia was bought by the Cape Government and is still managed by the Groot Constantia Trust. There are some fine restaurants to complement your wine tasting experience.
The West Coast Wine Route winds through the West Coast and Swartland districts, from the hills of Paardeberg to the Berg River. Visit historic charming towns of Darling, Malmesbury, Riebeek Kasteel and Riekbeek Wes. There are many farms offering tourists different settings to taste the different vintages on offer. There are also olive farms in this area, so be sure to taste a few on your way!
Route 62 meanders between Cape Town and Oudtshoorn. This road travels through dramatic crags and cliffs, indigenous flora, winelands, orchards, lakes and rivers, game reserves, quaint towns, hot springs and over spectacular mountain passes. Route 62 is also considered to be the longest wine route in the world. Wind your way through Route 62 stopping at award winning wine farms, selling a wide variety of red and white wines, and Champaign.