STELLENBOSCH, South Africa’s Glorious Wine Country
When you think of South African wines, what comes to mind? We recently returned from South Africa’s Western Cape province, renowned for its beautiful rolling hillsides, dramatic mountain ridges, and magnificent seaside routes with their breathtaking views. The heart of this strikingly beautiful province is known as the Cape Winelands, and for good reason. It produces some of the most awesome wines in the world.
Would you be interested in a very diverse and unique wine tasting tour, featuring both varietals and blends, from reasonably priced table wines to the vin extraordinaire you want to reserve for special occasions? Or how about some enticingly fruity sparkling whites or deep, bold aged brandies? For the South African wine experience, you could take the world’s longest wine route, an impressive 850km along Route 62 east from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, or you could do what we did …
Take any drive that suits your fancy, making sure to get the awesome views and taking time to stop and admire any local wildlife you may find along the way. But before you are ready for some serious wine-tasting, book your tours and tastings at the wineries and make reservations at their restaurants in advance, hire a driver who is also a tour guide, and then go visit the wineries of Stellenbosch, arguably the most famous wine region of the Cape Winelands. Your wine experience will be unforgettable. It will stimulate your senses and may well leave you with the desire to make sure that South African Stellenbosch wine is in your personal collection at home.
Several principal factors have contributed to the impressive success of the Stellenbosch wine region. Endowed with the ideal Mediterranean climate for wine cultivation, including mesoclimates perfect for the cultivation of many types of grape varieties, and a diverse range of soils enriched by the surrounding mountain chains, Stellenbosch has a rich history dating back to 1679 when the town of Stellenbosch was founded by the governor of the Cape Colony which developed from the first outpost established on the Cape by the Dutch East India country in 1652.
Through the centuries, Stellenbosch has grown to become home to a charming melting pot of cultures that thrive together today, enriching the town through diversity and providing the perfect ambiance for housing one of South Africa’s two leading universities. The University of Stellenbosch, not too surprisingly, is renowned for its viticulture research … so in essence, the wine region of Stellenbosch feeds the university and the university helps nourish the wine region and the town.
While the town of Stellenbosch is undoubtedly as much an attractive tourist town as it is a thriving university town, it is first and foremost the heart of the Stellenbosch regional wine country. Home to many of the country’s best-known wine estates, the Stellenbosch wine region introduced South Africa’s first wine route oriented towards providing tourists with a rich and thorough experience of regional wine tasting back in 1971. Today, the Stellenbosch Wine Routes is an impressive network of over 150 wineries, each with its own unique cellar-door experience, allowing the savvy traveler to tune into the heart and soul of this quintessential South African wine region.
Our first experience was a dinner with wine pairings at Indochine, the fine dining restaurant at the magnificent Delaire Graff Estate. A Relais & Chateaux property, Delaire Graff Estate produces award-winning wines and features spectacular views of the surrounding Stellenbosch vineyards and mountain ranges while offering the epitome of elegant luxury and service throughout the property.
This was an evening extraordinaire in one of the best restaurants of South Africa and a most impressive introduction to the Stellenbosch wine region. Read our recent article on that memorable meal at: Delaire Graff Indochine in Stellenbosch South Africa.
The next day, after sleeping off the gastronomic experience of Indochine, we went to Spier Wine Farm., one of the oldest vineyards in South Africa. Established in 1692, this elegant family farm on a wildlife reserve is managed by one of the sons who left the hustle and bustle of investment banking in London to return to the “family business” with his wife and raise their family back in his beloved South Africa.
Love of the land, preservation of a clean, healthy environment, and devotion to healthy, organic farming are fundamental to the philosophy of Spier. Recognizing Spier’s devotion to the environment and to their employees, in 2011 Condè Nast awarded Spier Wine Farm and Hotel complex a World Saver Award in the category of “Doing it All'”.
Spier is also devoted to providing an idyllic place for families and visitors to come get away from it all and spend a day picnicking, enjoying excellent “healthy” take-away food from the Estate’s farm-to-table restaurant and deli, Eight. While the wine farm has several restaurants, Eight is also where we enjoyed a healthy lunch and sampled some of the Estate’s best-selling whites. Our favorite was the award-winning 21 Gables Chenin Blanc from the Estate’s top range. Not too surprisingly, Spier is perhaps best known for producing excellent wine at affordable prices so that drinking wine can be enjoyed by the many, and not just by the few.
We arrived at Van Ryn’s Distillery for a brandy Cellar Tour at 3pm in the afternoon. We left the warm sunshine and entered into the old world ambiance of this magnificently preserved historic distillery. Our timing could not have been more perfect … the cocktail hour was approaching and we were eager to taste this prestigious brandy. Van Ryn’s has been awarded the annual title of Worldwide Best Brandy in the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London an impressive five times! Plus, the distillery has also won the International Spirits Competition “Best Brandy” trophy three times. Awesome indeed.
Our tour guide talked to us about the history of this successful distillery which was founded in 1845, took us through the distillery and explained the process of making brandy, including how fine brandies are matured and blended. She also introduced us to a skilled craftsman who demonstrated the age-old art of cooperage, the making of barrels in which to age the brandy.
Then came the tasting. Van Ryn’s offers several types of tastings, from a basic Sip and Savour to Brandy Pairings with either artisanal charcuteries, Belgian chocolates, or Florentine cookies to abundant cheese platters. We chose the Belgian chocolate with three award-winning brandies.
Paired with the 12 Year Old Potstill Brandy is an espresso-flavored truffle, with the 15 Year Old a fynbos (heathland vegetation indigenous to the Western Cape) flavored truffle, and with the 20 Year Old, a rich deep dark chocolate truffle. As eager as I was to dive in, I listened to our brandy specialist explain the art of fine brandy tasting … first you enjoy the aroma of your brandy, then you take a sip and savor it, and finally you take a bite of your truffle, take another sip of the brandy and then savor the increased pleasure of the pairing as the flavors of the chocolate heighten your appreciation for the brandy. Which pairing did I enjoy the most? The 15 Year Old Potstill with the fynbos chocolate truffle!
The next morning we arrived at Die Bergkelder (“Cellar in the Mountain“) Wine Centre, a very charming yet state-of-the-art underground cellar built in 1968 and home to the award-winning Fleur du Cap wines. Renowned for abundant flavor and character thanks to the “regional excellence” focus on only the finest grapes and vineyards, Fleur du Cap is one of the flagships of the Distell Group, a top producer and marketer of fine wines and spirits in South Africa. In 1998, Die Bergkelder launched the prestigious reserve range of Fleur du Cap unfiltered wines, adding a new dimension of complexity and richness to the line.
But Fleur du Cap is more than an impressive business. It has a personality with flair that totally captivated me from the fascinating tour of this impressive business operation to the simply exquisite salt & wine pairing which followed. Imagine the five stars of the Unfiltered Fleur du Cap line, Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet and FDC Noble Late Harvest (Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnay), five small dishes of salt in front of them, and a big Himalayan salt block with little jars of food in front of you along with 5 wine glasses. Your mission is to learn how the flavor of the salt … one of the four basic tastes in nature (in addition to sweet, sour and bitter) … pairs with the wine to enhance both the flavor and the velvety texture of the wine. How do you do this?
You begin by smelling and enjoying the aroma of your wine, then you take a sip and savor it. Next you take a tiny taste of the salt paired with it and taste your wine again. You sense a subtle change in flavor and texture. The enjoyment factor jumps a notch. Then you take a small taste of the food paired with this wine which is flavored with this same salt …. and pop – your taste buds come alive!
Let me give you a few examples of the pairings. Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Chardonnay with Hawaiian Black Lava Salt in a Green Olive Tapenade where the lime zesty fruit of the wine ties well with the green olives … and Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Merlot with Himalayan Salt in a Chicken Liver Paté with Caramelized Onion where the sweetness of the onion lifts the tannins of the wine. Is it chemistry or gastronomy? I don’t know, but I will assume that it is most likely, both. What I do know is that my taste buds would love to re-live this unique sensory experience … and often!
We arrived at Joostenberg on the weekend in the middle of the day. This idyllic family farm which dates back to the 1600’s was full of activity celebrating a national holiday. Susan, one of the owners, came right over to us, showed us around, and introduced us to her husband Christophe who is French by origin. We were served some of the farm’s own craft beer and house-made sausage which Christophe was barbecuing en masse for the large crowd out enjoying nature and the good life with friends, family and great food & drink. Delicious – the perfect amuse-bouche.
As we visited this 5th generation family farm, we were impressed by the family enterprise run by four siblings and their spouses which includes organic vineyard farming and boutique wine production sold nationally as well as abroad, a small herd of grass-fed free-range cattle reared for beef, a very large “deli” which reminded me of an upscale specialty super market, a pork specialist butchery, and a bistro and events venue. Fresh farm grown seasonal cut flowers, herbs and vegetables are for sale at the market as is the beef of course. It is clear that the family takes great pride in the quality and authenticity of their products.
We enjoyed two of Joostenberg’s top-selling wines at the Bistro when Susan and Christophe took a break from their busy day to join us for lunch. As an aperitif Christophe and his sommelier offered us their Joostenberg Estate 2015 Fairhead which is produced annually in small quantity and named after the current matriarch and gardener extraordinaire, Gillian Fairhead. I love the fact that this wine is made and named to “honour the women of Joostenberg whose substantial efforts, in a male dominated society, have often been unrecognized.” The core of the wine is old vine Chenin Blanc which is blended with more exotic Roussanne and Viognier varietals. A fabulous blend of the old French traditions in the new world of South Africa! And we also were impressed with the touch of France that Christophe has certainly brought to the South African countryside.
Once we finished enjoying the Fairhead, we were offered the Joostenberg Chenin Blanc, a top-seller made for “family and friends”. We enjoyed this crisp, fresh wine with a platter of freshly-caught local fish sautéed in the French tradition with a light wine reduction. And we were left with a wonderful up-close-and-personal view of family life on one of South Africa’s extraordinarily beautiful wine farms.
Should I have the opportunity to return to this glorious region again, would I make the 20-plus hour trek again to get over there? There are so many more wineries, or “wine farms” as they like to say in Stellenbosch, to visit. In a heartbeat I would!
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