In focus: South Africa’s wine tourism hotspots
Our gallivanting gadabout, Geoffrey Dean, finds the South African wine industry is upping its game to give tourists the best possible experience post-pandemic.
The wine tourist who makes it to South Africa in the next year or so will have never had it so good. The range, excellence and value-for-money of the western Cape winelands’ accommodation, cuisine and cellar doors continues to reach new heights. And you’ll be hard-pressed to receive a warmer welcome, such is the gratitude felt towards visitors since the pandemic.
Being one of the fortunate few from overseas to have spent time in the western Cape in January and February this year, I can vouch that very strict adherence to anti-Covid procedures is being observed in wineries, hotels and restaurants.
Entry into them is only permitted after a temperature test; hand sanitisers are everywhere you go and masks, which are compulsory in all public places, are worn much more fastidiously than in the UK.
This is especially the case in Constantia, on the Cape Peninsula – the obvious place to start an exploration of the winelands. The Vineyard Hotel is something of a misnomer, being situated in the southern suburb of Newlands rather than in the midst of any vines, but it is an ideal location from which to explore Constantia’s wineries.
It is also a wonderful place to stay, being four-star but nearer five in quality. Its rooms look out over eight acres of gardens, with Table Mountain behind them. The former managing editor of the Daily Telegraph, Jeremy Deedes, likes The Vineyard so much that he and his wife spend every January and February there.
Those wanting to stay outside Cape Town on the Cape Peninsula should look no further than Steenberg Hotel & Spa, which is situated in the middle of Steenberg Vineyards. The hotel, very much a five-star, has 24 spacious rooms that are exquisitely furnished as well as three suites and two villas suitable for a family.
The historic old manor house, a 17th century national monument, can also be booked and sleeps ten. The hotel has a pair of outstanding restaurants – Tryn and BistroSixteen82, the latter named after the year the farm was first settled.
Throw in a popular tasting room, where Steenberg’s full range of notable wines can be tasted, as well as a challenging golf course that is available to guests, and you have all the recipes for a self-contained wine tourism holiday.
There are, though, a number of wineries on the Cape Peninsula that shouldn’t be missed. The two southernmost are Cape Point Vineyards and Trizanne Signature Wines. The former’s cellar door boasts not just world-class Sauvignon Blancs, notably the Isliedh label, but also marvellous views of the white sands of Noordhoek beach below it.
Trizanne Barnard’s boutique setup is tucked away on the edge of Kommetjie, but her wines are well worth making the necessary appointment to taste. Her reserve Syrah is among South Africa’s best.
A quartet of leading Constantia wineries boast both excellent cellar doors and restaurants. The Jonkerhuis eatery at Groot Constantia, the oldest wine farm in South Africa, serves a savoury ‘estate tasting plate’ and scrumptious pavlova. Opposite it lies the magnificent manor house, built in 1685, now a museum and well worth a visit.
Klein Constantia, reached down the prettiest of winding drives, is a place you can happily spend half a day, with its welcoming tasting room and delightful new bistro, through whose deck a pair of jacaranda trees protrude.
The long list of wines, made by talented young winemaker Matt Day, needs time to taste through, and includes several top Sauvignon Blanc labels (such as Block 382, Clara and Perdeblokke), an aristocratic Bordeaux blend and South Africa’s finest sweet wine, Vin de Constance – a favourite of Napoleon.
Made from Muscat de Frontignan, the regally unctuous 2017 comes in at 165 g/l of residual sugar: that and older vintages can be tried with an afternoon cheese platter at the bistro. Chef Graham Davies produces ambrosial lunches to pair with Klein Constantia’s superb wines.
Neighbouring winery Buitenverwachting is another scenic old estate with impressive tasting and eating facilities. Beau Constantia, whose vineyards are the highest in Constantia at 362 metres, makes full use of its brilliant location.
Its restaurant, Chefs Warehouse, enjoys jaw-dropping views over False Bay while serving some of the best cuisine in the region. Chef Ivor Jones conjures up food of great flavour with a strong Asian influence, while Megan van der Merwe makes enticing wines to partner his dishes.
Culinary delights also abound in Stellenbosch, a number of whose wineries offer outstanding accommodation options. Not to be missed is Jordan Wine Estate, a few kilometres west of town, which has half a dozen luxury suites overlooking the vineyards.
Very nicely furnished, these are a short walk from the winery’s bakery and the celebrated Jordan Restaurant, where Scottish-born chef George Jardine fashions cuisine that is as stunning as the views from it of the Simonsberg, Helderberg and Stellenbosch Mountains. Try the aged Chalmar sirloin and the honey and poppy seed soufflé.
Another leading chef, Nick van Wyk, prepares outstanding fare at the Kleine Zalze restaurant, next to the winery. A tasting of Kleine Zalze Wines’ full range, which is produced by top cellarmaster Alastair Rimmer, is a must.
As many as seven of their labels were awarded five stars in the latest edition of Platter, the national wine guide which selected it as its top performing South African winery for 2020.
What is one of the western Cape’s most impressive winery brands (featuring 75 SKUs) is complemented by the comfortable De Zalze lodge and golf course. The latter is recognised by golfers as one of the best in the western Cape.
The Delaire Graff Estate superior lodges, meanwhile, rank among the most luxurious accommodation options in the winelands. Perched on the crest of the Helshoogte Pass, each lodge’s stylish and spacious interior spills out onto a private terrace and plunge pool with memorable views of Stellenbosch Valley below and Table Mountain in the distance.
Delaire Graff’s fine range of wines, made by the able Morne Vrey, is available for tasting, while chef Virgil Kahn cooks delicious Afro-Asian food at the hotel’s Indochine restaurant. Two wives of Stellenbosch winery owners oversee lunches in the most atmospheric of venues.
Elena Dalla Cia produces pasta that melts in the mouth at the Pane e Vino Food & Wine Bar at Bosman’s Crossing in the centre of town. Her husband, George, and father-in-law, Giorgio, the former Meerlust winemaker, craft a superb range of wines and spirits under the Dalla Cia label. Their grappa is among the best found outside Italy.
A few kilometres north of Stellenbosch at Muratie, one of the most characterful wine estates in the district, Kim Melck directs a kitchen whose quality and value-for-money lures visitors from far afield.
While the traditional old tasting room is a splendid nod to history, her husband Rijk has installed modern shower and changing facilities in a converted stable for cyclists and hikers who tackle the 26km of trails on the Simonsberg Mountain behind Muratie. A delightful cottage by the Muratie vineyards is available for short or medium term lets.
The beautiful 5,000-acre Boschendal estate in the picturesque Drakenstein Valley near Franschhoek also has a varied collection of desirable cottages for rent. These include the flagship Cottage 1685, and the secluded Trout Cottage, both of which are found in the private part of the farm, and the lovingly-restored Orchard and Werf farm cottages.
Traverse the estate on foot, mountain bike or horseback, and you come across caves to explore, dams to swim in and even the former set of Homeland, the American espionage TV series, some of which was filmed on Boschendal. The Werf restaurant offers sumptuous cuisine in a glorious setting, while cellar master Jacques Viljoen’s extensive range of Boschendal Wines is well worth tasting through at the homely cellar door.
Not far from Boschendal in the Franschhoek Valley is another big and very old Cape Dutch wine farm with five-star accommodation: Babylonstoren. The hotel section’s thick whitewashed walls, elegant gables and hearty fireplaces provide for an authentic farmstay experience, albeit in considerable luxury.
Another option is the estate’s lovely Fynbos Cottages, set well away from the celebrated eight acres of gardens and main buildings. These include one of the biggest underground cellars in South Africa, which is a special place to taste Babylonstoren’s range of wines. The hotel’s Babel restaurant has deservedly won a very good reputation, drawing almost exclusively on farm produce.
A twenty-minute drive from Babylonstoren takes you to the picture-postcard town and vineyards of Franschhoek. Accommodation options are numerous but the three places I stayed in made for a pleasing contrast.
The Rickety Bridge manor house, a refined old Cape Dutch building situated by the winery of the same name, has the sort of relaxing, ultra-comfy feel to it that makes you want to come back again. Paulina’s Restaurant at the winery is first-class, as are Rickety Bridge’s wines, notably The Pilgrimage Semillon from 1905 vines.
For sheer splendour and luxury, not to mention artwork, nothing beats La Residence. Tucked away in 30 acres of vines, olive groves and plum trees, this is one of the most opulent hotels not just in Franschhoek but the whole of South Africa.
The eleven huge bedrooms in the main building, as well as five vineyard suites, were all designed individually by owner Liz Biden, who has furnished them with consummate taste. An avid art collector, she has hung paintings and works from 29 artists throughout the hotel.
With its dramatic mountain views, world-class cuisine and incomparable levels of comfort, this is a rock-star hotel. Indeed, Elton John regularly stays there, with a signed photo of him left in his favourite room.
Those looking for a charming hideaway in Franschhoek would do well to try Akademie Street Boutique Hotel, named after the quiet road it is located in, a short walk from the town centre. A heritage building and former guesthouse, it was bought by an Irishman, Paul Kinney, in 2014 and refurbished to a very high standard.
Its eight suites are popular with British visitors, while a romantic cottage attracts honeymooners. The sizeable and tastefully-furnished suites have wood-burning hot-tubs on wide balconies. The breakfast around the main pool was the best I had in the western Cape, and included irresistible smoothies and a 12-fruit plate.
For lovers of sushi, GlenWood serves some top-class fare at its winery restaurant, several kilometres west of the town. Its wines, made by DP Burger, are also excellent, and can be sampled either at the handsome cellar door or at the ‘Nature’s Window’ tasting-room high up the mountain, a 20-minute walk from the winery. The vistas from there are spectacular.
When it comes to the sea views across Walker Bay towards Cape Peninsula that Grootbos boasts, you run out of superlatives. This fabulous five-star lodge, set in a private nature reserve of 6,000 acres that is home to 800 plant species and three milkweed forests over 1,000 years old, is conveniently close to the wards of Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Elim, Napier and Stanford Foothills.
It is ideally situated to take in many wineries, but wine connoisseurs may not want to stray too far beyond its boundaries, for it has one of the finest cellars in South Africa. Owner Michael Lutzeyer has, over many years, stocked it with over 30,000 bottles from 50 top Cape producers, buying multiple cases of hard-to-obtain Cape Winemakers Guild wines. The cuisine at Grootbos matches the high quality of the wines, with the springbok shank being a personal favourite.
Grootbos lies half an hour east of Hermanus, where anyone wanting to explore the local wineries from a heavenly seaside base should stay at Birkenhead House. Perched on a promontory next door to Voelklip Beach, over which it has fine views, it contains eleven stylish rooms and is luxuriously open-plan. Its cuisine and wine list are both first-rate.
Tasty lunches also await visitors to the Sumaridge winery, which boasts gorgeous views from its restaurant down the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley to the sea. British owners, Holly and Simon Bellingham-Turner, have worked hard to give visitors a special experience, while their winemaker, Walter Pretorius, fashions a wide and impressive range. Sumaridge’s well-appointed estate lodge, which sleeps eight, is available for hire as a whole.
Just as Birkenhead House stands out as the most desirable place to stay in Hermanus, so does another boutique establishment in Robertson, in the beautiful Breede River Valley region. If it has an unusual name – the Robertson Small Hotel – that is only because it has ten rooms.
Tucked away down a quiet residential street, it is a converted manor house that is now a national monument. Everything about it oozes class, from the deluxe rooms to the bar, restaurant and gardens.
Although the scenic Robertson wine district is slightly off the beaten track, it enchants many who get there, containing not just well-known wineries such as Graham Beck, De Wetshof and Springfield but also some hidden gems.
While those big three offer enjoyable experiences for the wine tourist, and should not be missed, much smaller setups like Arendsig Handcrafted Wines, Kranskop and Kleinhoekkloof are a joy to visit.
The Arendsig winery’s location by the Breede River could hardly be more idyllic. Owner-winemaker Lourens van der Westhuizen, who offers choice cottage accommodation near the river, produces single vineyard labels of note. Newald Marais, the former Nederburg cellar master, also fashions appealing wines at his Kranskop farm, with his Tannat standing out.
Tasters can enjoy his range over a cheese platter on a deck with a great view of the Langeberg Mountains. Kleinhoekkloof, being the highest winery in the district at 420m, possesses even more panoramic vistas. Owner Theunis de Jongh is an engaging host, providing a tasty charcuterie platter from his farm pigs that goes well with his appetising wines.
This spirit of enterprise is widespread through the western Cape. Leading Stellenbosch producer De Toren have just completed a revamped drive-up facility at the winery, with booking recommended for their new one-hour tour that includes a walk through the vineyard, cellar, barrel and maturation rooms followed by a tasting of their exemplary wines.
Kevin Arnold, cellar master at another top Stellenbosch winery, Waterford, has started three-hour vineyard safaris through the estate’s 450 acres of vines in the majestic Blaauwklippen Valley. Two stops with tastings in prime spots are included.
The drives, which are limited to ten people, take place twice daily in a game-viewing 4×4 vehicle procured from a national park. Waterford’s example epitomises the imagination that the South African wine industry is employing to give wine tourists the best possible experience post-pandemic. Those who do get to the western Cape will be amply rewarded.