Summer in South Africa's Winelands
Every couple of metres, distinctive brown signs with wine barrels indicate yet another wine farm open for tastings - 84 to be precise, on the Stellenbosch Wine Route, the heart of South Africa's wine industry.
This is but one of a number of wine routes that extend from Cape Town itself through the many valleys of fruit and flowers that carpet the mountainous Western Cape. Although Cape Town is a mere 45 minutes away, an extended stay is required in order to explore the fine food and wine, the scenery and history of the Cape Winelands. Sleep-over options include 19th Century manor houses, working wine estates evocative of the past and the oldest inn in the country.
Today South Africa is the world's 10th largest wine producer and according to Maureen Thomson, spokesperson for another of the Cape's major attractions, the V&A Waterfront, 'Wine is considered the third most commanding reason that international tourists visit South Africa, after Cape Town itself and the country's wildlife.' For the past 5 years, the wine industry has been growing in South Africa at a rate of 20% a year. Tourism is keeping up the pace and the combination is proving enticing, especially to visitors from the UK whom surveys show are Cape Town's biggest fans.
The harvest begins, by hand, at the end of January after the winemaker has decided that the grapes are optimum. Harvest season runs from February to April and is the best time to see the wineries in action. Along the ox-wagon wide streets of Stellenbosch, tractors are a common sight at harvest time, pulling open trailers heaped with grapes. The wineries offer cellar and vineyard tours in addition to their wine-tastings as well as fine and al fresco dining in surroundings far removed from the urban frenzy of the modern world.
The vineyards wear a look of summer sleekness, their elegant farmhouses reminiscent of an earlier, more gracious age. The low-slung homesteads with their gabled facades, whitewashed and often thatched are ubiquitous throughout the Western Cape. The homesteads have been restored to a glory that was absent in their first incarnations as the modest, hand-hewn homes of the early settlers. As grapes replaced grain and the farms prospered, so the original structure was added onto and separate dwellings were built to house the eldest sons.
The farmers' cosmopolitan origins informed their architecture and medieval Holland, Huguenot France and later the islands of Indonesia contributed to a style of building that has become known as Cape Dutch.
With the gable came the grape. Wine was introduced to the southern tip of Africa through the enthusiastic exertions of a Dutchman by the name of Jan van Riebeeck. He was charged by the Dutch East India Company to set up a way-station at Table Bay for the provisioning of its trading ships. Upon his arrival at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, Jan van Riebeeck soon realised that the wet winters and dry summers of his new home were akin to the Mediterranean grape-growing regions of Europe.
Van Riebeeck asked the Dutch East India Company to send him vine cuttings and with them he began a 300 year old wine industry. Jan tapped into the first Cape wine barrel seven years after landfall. A triumphant van Riebeeck recorded in his diary - 'Praise the Lord, today the first wine was pressed from Cape grapes, 2 February 1659.'
By 1679, Simon van der Stel was the Company's representative at the Cape. An unassuming man, who bequeathed his name to several urban and geographical landmarks in the region, van der Stel had been looking for a place to settle wheat and wine farmers. He determined that the fertile land that bounded the Eerste (First) River would be the site of the second settlement at the Cape. Free burghers were ceded land on the understanding that 10% of their crop went back to the Company. He named the fledgling town Stellenbosch in 1687.
The following year, van der Stel invited French Protestants fleeing Catholic persecution to the Cape where he settled them in the outlying areas of Franschhoek and Paarl. The French influence is today apparent in the names of the estates and the fine wines they produce. Initially 8 families were settled and then in 1692 a large grant of land was distributed to 40 families. Many of the wine farms visited on the Stellenbosch wine route today are these early bequests to pioneering farmers.
Neetlingshof Estate was one such farm, although its first vintage was produced over a century later, in 1804. The elegant gabled manor house which today houses the Lord Neetling Restaurant was built a decade later by the French Huguenot, Charl Marais. The farm lies in the valley between the Helderberg mountains and the sea. Winds from False Bay cool the vines, 'making it the little blue chip in viticulture that it is,' as Chief Public Relations Officer, Katinka van Niekerk puts it.
The Estate was named Wine Producer of the year for 2002/3 at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, because of its high-scoring Pinotage and Cabernet Franc. My favourite, however, was the 1998 Shiraz with its firm wood and smoky smoothness.
Another original van der Stel concession, Spier is not just another wine farm. Aptly describing itself as a 'Lifestyle Experience,' this luxury hotel boasts five restaurants, an open-air amphitheatre for theatrical performances, a wine centre with over 200 of the region's wines on sale, an equestrian centre, an 18 hole golf course, wildlife encounters and a vintage train with renovated carriages dating back to the 1950's that transport the visitor from Cape Town to the many unexpected pleasures of Spier.
There is more to Spier, however, than at first meets the eye. The farm was bought by a South African businessman in 1993. Dick Enthoven had left the country because of apartheid and returned under the new dispensation determined to make a contribution to the new South Africa. As Spier's marketing manager, Stephen Laivaux, explained: ''It's important for the country that a business like this has a positive impact on the people that live around it.' Thus the farm labourers have been ceded land on which they practice organic farming methods, a new school has been built for the farm children and skills development is actively practised.
Ecological best practices go hand in hand with the concept of 'responsible spending' at Spier. The farm workers enjoy ecologically designed housing developments. The guests bathe, unbeknown to them, in water heated by solar power, and stroll through indigenous gardens which attract an abundance of birds, including fish eagles which haven't been seen on the farm for years.
The sun's last rays glint off the vines, highlighting the peaks of Stellenbosch's Jonkershoek valley. A cool wind rustles the oak leaves as the mountains turn russet, magenta then plum as the sun dips lower. At the far end of emerald lawns, a long white façade with impressive gable and two leopard statues guard the entrance to the 5 star, Lanzerac Manor. The effect is only somewhat marred by the signs warning guests not to walk on the grass.
Guests' rooms with private patios are set across from the vineyards, which lie beyond a border of blue agapanthus. Inside the lacquered, fretted doors of the cupboard is a bottle of odourless insect killer and a note from management. 'Dear Guest, ...we are situated on a working wine estate and therefore subject to insects of nature...should you require assistance from housekeeping please contact reception.' I'm happy to say that I managed to expel an invading cricket without having to resort to reinforcements. A red tractor trundles through the early morning vines outside my door.
Much in evidence on the popular cellar tours are the 300 litre barrels of French oak which house South Africa's annual harvest of 900 million litres. Simon van der Stel had had the prescience to bring with him some European acorns as it is only oak from which wine barrels can be made. The oaks that line the historic streets of Stellenbosch are van der Stel's leafy legacy to the town that bears his name.
Unfortunately, in the South African climate, northern hemisphere oaks grow too fast and thus are not dense enough for use in the wine industry. Thus, the oak staves are imported from France where they are harvested from trees at least a hundred years old. They are assembled in South Africa by coopers who use traditional tools in a time-honoured trade that can be seen in action at the Van Rijn brandy cellar. Here the rhythmic beat of the cooper's tools echo through the cellar as he coerces the steel rings around the staves.
The large tasting room at Nederberg in the Paarl Valley boasts a long curved bar of oak staves, salvaged from old wine barrels. Few tipplers would suspect just how old! One of the foremost wine farms in South Africa, with a 22% market share of the premium wines in the country, Nederberg's annual Auction is one of the five main wine events in the world. The Cape Dutch manor house was built for the German immigrant family, Wolvaart, and was completed in 1800. I was treated to lunch outside on one of its side patios overlooking the lawns with their islands of sunburst orange day lilies and the vineyards beyond.
Roses picked fresh from the garden accentuated the crisp white linen tablecloth on which appeared an unusual and delectable interpretation of traditional Cape Malay cuisine, courtesy of Nederberg Chef, Norma Kann. A mixed green salad, replete with slivers of pinkish roast lamb and onion, marinated mushrooms, pine nuts and dried fruit was washed down with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and followed by a fruit platter of fresh berries, mango and nectarine. Before embarking upon a winelands sojourn, I suggest a strict diet so that neither guilt nor girth will prevent you from enjoying the year-round bounty of the Cape.
By © Lauriann Claase 2003