South African is beginning to lead the line in the New World revolution of wine production. Jayne Robinson finds out what exactly sets the country’s vineyards apart from the rest of the world.
You’re sitting at a table on an outdoor terrace, sipping a chilled, crisp Chardonnay as a well presented waiter sets plates of beautiful food down in front of you. Across the lake and lush vineyards of the Stellenbosch Valley, the last, warm rays of the evening slowly kiss your skin as the sun sets behind Table Mountain, turning the sky a dusky pink. You gaze out across the lush vineyards as you savour the flavours of the award winning wine in your hands – the wine which was grown right there on that very estate.
You’re in South Africa’s Western Cape – a land known for its stunning scenery, warm climate, distinctive Cape-Dutch architecture and, of course, for its wine. As one of the leading territories in New World wine movement, South Africa has much to offer the wine lover – and where better to enjoy South African wine than amongst the very slopes and valleys that the grapes were grown.
A wine tasting holiday in South Africa offers the perfect blend of sightseeing, relaxation and wine tourism, with the relaxed attitude of the country’s many wine estates making it an ideal destination for wine novices and experts alike.
South Africa may fall under the New World mantle of wine production, but the Western Cape has actually been famed for its wines since the 17th century. Indeed, the world renowned Constantia Estate on the outskirts of Cape Town – the country’s first wine farm – has been producing wine since 1659, and came to prominence in the late 18th century when Vin de Constance found fame as Napoleon’s favourite tipple. In fact, it’s reported that on his deathbed in 1821, Napoleon refused everything except a glass of Constantia wine.
After going out of favour for a few centuries, Vin de Constance is now very much back on the map thanks to Duggie Jooste, who bought the Klein Constantia estate in 1980 and now produces a new version of the historical wine, made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains.
Of course these days, the Cape Winelands extend far beyond Constantia. As one of the top 10 wine producing areas in the world, South Africa’s Cape is also home to major wine regions such as Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschoek, Wellington and Overberg, with Stellenbosch alone boasting over 140 wineries to explore, along five designated wine routes.
One of the most popular wine estates in South Africa is Morgenster on the outskirts of Cape Town – a favourite with Michel: “Whenever I’m in South Africa I do try to get to an estate,” he explains, and when probed for particular favourites, he’s decided. “Oh Morgenster for sure. They also have olive groves and you can do a tutor tasting of the wines and the olive oil, which is wonderful.”
Morgenster is one of the Cape’s most visited wine farms, with a rich heritage that dates back 300 years to when it formed part of Cape Governor W.A. van der Stel’s larger farm. Today it’s owned by Italian-born Giulio Bertrand who, inspired by the hills above the house which reminded him of his Tuscan birthplace, decided to plant olive groves alongside the vines and now produces olive oil to rival the best in Italy and wines to rival the best in France.
The estate’s steep, stony vineyards benefit from the cooling sea breezes, with well-structured soils that lend themselves perfectly to classic Bordeaux varieties. As well as the wine and olives, Morgenster boasts a 40 seater restaurant named Sofia’s (after Sofia Loren, naturally), giving visitors the opportunity to enjoy high quality dishes matched to the Morgenster wines – all whilst enjoying views of the estate’s vineyards and olive groves.
Many wine estates in South Africa are now celebrated for their food offerings as well as their wine, with some of the country’s leading restaurants belonging to the wine farms – and food connoisseurs visiting the region especially to try the innovative tasting menus and food and wine pairings. Food is usually homegrown or locally produced, with menus changing frequently to reflect the different produce received by the kitchen on different days.
Despite the extremely high standard of food on offer, service is often relaxed and the atmosphere informal – ideal for holidaymakers looking for a more laid back – yet high quality – culinary experience.
Michel is just one of the many renowned chefs to have dined at South African wine estates in recent years, and he notes that the country’s food offering sets it apart from other wine producing countries, such as France. “In France it’s pretty unusual [to serve food at wine estates] but in South Africa it’s almost the norm,” he explains, “which is great, and I think it makes it more of a family day out. You can go out and take the kids on a weekend, enjoy a glass or two of interesting wine, get to know the vineyard properly, and have a bite to eat – like some charcuterie or beautiful salad – very often actually grown on the farm itself. I think it’s very convivial, and a great way to learn a bit more about the farm and the wines.”
One of the region’s leading restaurants – and one which has been rated in the top three restaurants in South Africa – is Jordan Restaurant, on the Jordan Wine estate in Stellenbosch. This idyllic farm is well worth a visit for its stunning setting as well as its award-winning food and drink, with guests being invited to dine on the terrace, which boasts panoramic views of the Stellenbosch Valley and Table Mountain.
The estate is owned and run by Gary and Kathy Jordan, who took over the 146 acre estate in 1992 and have spent the past two decades making a name for Jordan on the global wine market.
Speaking about the Jordan Restaurant, which is presided over by world class chef George Jardine, Gary Jordan proudly explains: “We think we’ve got one of the most ideal settings for a restaurant anywhere in the world on our estate – we’re surrounded by the most amazing vistas. You can sit on the terrace looking out over the valley, tasting these great wines, and you’ve got some personal attention from a chef who’s cooked for the rich and famous all around the world.” And you only have to look at the photos to see exactly what he means. It’s as beautiful a setting for a restaurant as you’ll find anywhere, and, as Gary points out, “there’s no better place to really get your teeth into the wines than on the estate itself.”
South Africa is currently producing some of the top wines in the world – at exceptional value for money when compared with French or even Californian wines. And thanks to a consistent climate, South African wines don’t tend to experience such vagaries in vintages as their European cousins – with grapes growing in the same environment every year, unaffected by extremes in weather. Production is split fairly evenly between white and red, with the whites traditionally dominated by Chenin and Sauvignon and the most common red being Cabernet Sauvignon, though Merlot and Shiraz follow closely behind. Recent years have also seen the world sit up and take notice of South African Chardonnays. Indeed, Jordan Wine Estate recently beat off stiff global competition to win the coveted prize for the world’s top Chardonnay for their 2010 Nine Yards Chardonnay, at 2012’s Decanter Awards. It’s a prestigious accolade, and one which shows how far South African wine has come in the past two decades. Michel agrees: “They [South Africa] have suffered with reputation over the years by over-wooding certain Chardonnays, and methods used to produce their wine has maybe been not quite the way the French do things. Now I certainly think that that’s in the past, and there are some beautiful wines that are being wonderfully produced, that are readily available now.”
But of course Jordan are known for so much more than just their Chardonnay. Indeed, as the only farm in the region with north, west, south and east facing slopes, vineyards lying at differing altitudes between 160 and 410m above sea level and a variety of soils ranging from well-drained clay-loam to gravely and sandy duplex soils, the estate is unique by nature’s design and lends itself to the production of many varieties of wine – with their 2009 Cabernet and Riesling also contributing substantially to the estate’s list of accolades.
It’s not difficult to see why South Africa is such a popular destination for wine lovers looking to broaden their knowledge in a relaxed yet informative setting. With many of the estates located within an hour’s drive of Cape Town, it’s possible to take a cab out to the Winelands and spend the entire day learning about the wines, the grapes and the geology – or simply just stop by to enjoy an excellent lunch.
While the prospect of a wine-tasting tour may seem daunting to wine novices, the relaxed attitude of South African farms mean that all levels of expertise are welcomed and catered for. It’s this that, in Michel opinion, sets South Africa apart from other wine producing countries from a visitor perspective. “I think they’re definitely more laid back in South Africa,” he says. “In France sometimes they can be a little bit too serious, especially if you’re going for pleasure and you’re not a wine expert. Then the French can be a little bit daunting. Whereas in South Africa and even Australia, they’re far more welcoming to people who are not experts – and that’s what’s so wonderful.”
Gary Jordan of Jordan’s Wines agrees: “We get a real mix of visitors. There’s so much to do – whether you’re interested in the geology, the wines… you can spend as long as you like. People come for an hour or they come for a full day.”
Visitors to Jordan’s can take a trip with Gary himself out to the slopes in safari style Land rovers, where he enjoys sharing his wealth of knowledge acquired from his background in geology to explain how the different soils impact on the grapes and the taste of the wine. “When you can see the soils and see the rocks, you taste the wine in that vineyard, it’s so much more of a wonderful experience for people.”
Thanks to the Western Cape’s temperate climate, there isn’t really a bad time to visit the Winelands – with different seasons offering different experiences for visitors. Bear in mind that summer in the UK is winter in the Southern Hemisphere so temperatures are cooler, though the wineries keep their doors open to visitors all throughout their winter months, and there’s even an annual wine festival in Stellenbosch – usually held at the end of July. But saying that, many UK tourists do prefer to escape the harsh British winter and enjoy wine tasting under South Africa’s summer skies. And who could blame them.
A wine tasting experience in South Africa can be whatever you want it to be. Whether you’re a seasoned expert looking to test your palate on the region’s many wine routes, or a holiday maker looking for an enjoyable day out – or even just a good quality meal – the wineries of South Africa are welcoming, friendly and inspiring places to visit, no matter what your level of interest or expertise. And with the country currently producing some of the most beautiful wines in the world – in some of the world’s most beautiful settings – there really isn’t a better time to visit.