Published: January 1st 2010December 29th 2009
My first introduction to good South African wine was a Spier Reserve Pinotage 2006 I enjoyed in Virginia about a month ago, so I have been looking forward since then to having some good wine. South Africa is no California, France, or Italy but its wines are quite good and most importantly still very affordable for good quality product. We focused on Stellenbosch and Franschhoek area for our wine tour but be advised that the viticultural areas extend well beyond these areas and Paarl and include much of the area surrounding Cape Town and the Western and Southern Cape.
The drive from Cape Town is quite easy, but as you can see from the photos you discover on the outskirts of Cape Town how most of the people live here, particularly near the airport. Again, you do not feel unsafe in these areas and the roads are more highway-like through the shacktowns, it is well-worth seeing this and understanding this dimension of the city. Some other travellers have criticized the viewing of such "township" areas, especially via organized tours, as gawking at poverty. I think it all depends on the person of course - you have to just know that it is what it is and that is all. People there are happy in their little corrugated iron shacks and there is a certain measure of choice (I believe) in their being there. Opportunities to not lack in a country like South Africa, certainly there are large challenges but they are nothing like what we saw in Zimbabwe and Zambia. In those last two, the possibility does not even exist as it is not there in any shape or form. The agenda of both governments is to take-take-take, it is evidenced in every facet of the culture. It's easy for me to postulate these things sitting in the Executive Club on the 19th floor of the Westin Grand, but we have been here long enough that I think we have enough of a fresh perspective combined with sufficient local experience to understand this. The best example I will give is that the Chinese who are working on infrastructure here and there are not even using the local labor force, they are importing their own, not particularly skilled labor force. Enough of this, on to the wine.
The town of Stellenbosch itself is worth a visit, Franschhoek not so much. The first is a university town and has a lively center clearly divided with a black area to the north (which is not foreboding in anyway but is clearly what it is) and the more touristy southern area surrounding the historical monuments and a terrific European cafe street scene on several blocks. In fact this is the closest we came to Europe the whole time we have been in southern Africa, Cape Town and Swakopmund not too far behind. Many guides say that Franschhoek is wonderful as well and has all of this French charm, I see where they are coming from but I would advise Stellenbosch five times over Franschhoek as the last is a single dimensional town with a single main road running through it and a few arched passageways leading back to hidden arcade courtyards with cafes and shops. We were in Fransch later in the day but despite this we don't think it has the same vibrancy and character as Stellenbosch. Yes, I am saying the Dutch over the French.
Guide to The Wineries
AVOID Spier Winery. They are competent winemakers with what is probably the best accommodated winery for visitors in Africa. However this has created a Disney syndrome whereby the place is completely overrun and any charm and peacefulness that comes with enjoying a good wine is completely lost.
We also visited Tokara which is much less of a zoo than Spier and a very picturesque setting and well-designed building, but it is also much too crowded. Now continue down the dirt road to Thelema, a wonderful family-owned winery with some decently good wines at fantastic prices. Particularly good is their "The Mint" Cabernet Sauvignon which has hints of mint flavor in it due to the fact that the vines from which the grapes are cultivated are located near eucalyptus plants. You either love it or hate it. I am on the fence but have decided I like it. We also very much like their Sutherland Chardonnay which is actually not from the Stellenbosch region but grown near Elgin in the south, what are some of the most southerly wine growing regions in South Africa which we saw on our drive down to l'Agulhas.
After this we were pretty well sauced up and continued on towards Franschhoek, stopping at Boschendal which is famous for its old Huguenot French built structures, particularly the main home which is furnished with period pieces (18th and 19th century). After Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, and therefore made Protestantism illegal in France, many French Huguenots fled to South Africa on invite of free passage from the Dutch East India Company that was developing these lands and trade routes. With them these French brought their winemaking talents (as well as their cheese making talents I found in Stellenbosch). The visit is worthwhile and since the winery closed later than elsewhere, we went for a wine tasting here plus ordered some cheese plates. I highly recommend this stopover as the cheese is good and copious and is a good late afternoon snack before you hit the restaurants in Franschhoek. BE ADVISED that you HAVE to make reservations well in advance for wherever you intend to go eat. It seems restaurants are always quite busy (though not crowded in South Africa).