As a wine country, South Africa boasts some seriously gorgeous views of vineyards and rolling hills in the Cape Winelands. We had some really excellent wines during our trip that it's a pity South African wines do not have a greater presence in the U.S. wine market.
With the number of very good vineyards and wine estates, a visit to the winelands warrants at least a day. Another popular option is to spend a night or two in the winelands. We figured that a trip to the winelands would not be complete without having a professional wine tour guide who could explain to us in detail the origins and process of wine making, as well as why different grades of wines exist. Together with another British couple, we spent the day at different regions in the Cape Winelands with Willem, the owner and operator of Cape Wine & Leisure Tours, who really loves his wine and channels his passion into what he does. In conversation, he told us that he once said to his dad, "Life is too short to drink bad wine". Born a white Zimbabwean, Willem moved to South Africa a long time ago and owned a farm before deciding to get into what he is currently doing. There can never be enough of interesting locals for T and I to meet and get to know.
We spent a large part of our day at Stellenbosch, the oldest town in South Africa which is one of the very popular towns that is home to many great vineyards. The area of Stellenbosch was originally used for vegetable farming after it was founded by Governor Stellen who was looking for farmlands, hence the name Stellenbosch (bosch is the Dutch word for forest; again, we see the strong Dutch influence in the country). Gradually people realized that the land was suited for grapes which led to Stellenbosch becoming a red wine region.
Listening to Willem on a little bit of history, wine originated from Persia, now known as Iran. In fact, Shiraz wine was named after the city of Shiraz in Iran. Wine was gradually introduced in Egypt followed by Europe. Today, South Africa is the oldest country outside Europe to produce wine.
How the Dutch began planting grapes in the Western Cape is an interesting historical piece in itself. As mentioned in this earlier entry, when the Dutch settlers arrived at the Western Cape and set up the East India Company for trading, they never intended to stay forever but eventually they did. The journey by sea from Europe to South Africa is a long and arduous one which took 3-5 months. The lack of fruit and vegetable aboard the ship led to the deficiency of Vitamin C and subsequently the scurvy disease in many of the Dutch settlers. This prompted the Dutch settlers to plant many fruit and vegetable trees when they arrived at the Western Cape. We were told that the saffron pear tree planted 350 years is still here today. In the midst of planting fruit trees, the Dutch thought that since there was Vitamin C in grapes, there would be Vitamin C in wine which could be carried easily in bottles. However, they did not realize that Vitamin C would be lost during the fermentation process. Fortunately, that did not stop them from producing wine.
At Stellenbosch we visited Rusternburg vineyards. Old buildings that once housed the Dutch and their slaves working on the vineyards are preserved until today. The slave bell, once used to wake the slaves up in the morning, also remains standing at Rustenburg as a way to remember its historical past. The old buildings all spot the Dutch gables which was a functional design for a specific reason. If the building caught fire, people living inside the building could escape and run out through the main entrance without the roof falling on their heads.
At Rustenberg, we sat on the patio and had our wine tasting of several different wines. When we were finished with a taste of one wine, the people working at Rustenberg poured us a taste of another wine. We also went with the optional cheese tasting which was a wonderful complement to the wines.
When we were finished with the wine tasting at Rustenberg, we visited the bottling facility before strolled along the well manicured garden.
Another nearby and very popular town in the wine region is Franschoek, borrowed from the French language. Back in the days when France forced its people to become Catholics and with non-compliance resulting in bad treatment, the people fled the country and many of them took up the offer of settling in South Africa. The Dutch who had settled in the Western Cape took the French to this once remote region that was filled with wildlife at that time, and then told the French to make wine in this region. The town was then named Franschoek which translates to French corner. The French then tweeked the process of wine making and the hot climate of Franschoek lends itself to red wine.
At Thelema vineyards, situated between Stellenbosch and Franschoek, we learned a great deal about what determines different wine grades. Thelema offered us a different and more personal experience where we spent our entire interactive wine tasting session standing by the wine counter and tasted about 10 different types of wines.
We learned that older vineyards have more nutrients in the soil which produces better quality grapes although with less juice. Newer vineyards with younger plots of land have less mature nutrients which produces a lower quality of grapes but with more juice. At stores and restaurants, we often see some bottles labeled Reserve and these bottles are always priced higher than the non-reserve wines and it is with good reason. Reserve wines are produced from grapes grown in the most fertile vineyard which produces grapes with superior quality. Red wines result from the color of the grape skin that comes in contact with the grape fruit.
Besides the fertility of the vineyard, another determining factor of wine grade (and pricing) is the aging process done in oak barrels. Unlike vineyards that mature with better soil from increase usage of the plot of land, oak barrels that are used for the first time for the aging process produce superior quality wine compared to oak barrels that are used for the third time to age wine. New oak barrels have the richest in oak quality which gradually decreases during the aging process. Therefore, oak barrels reused for a second time produce less superior wine quality, and those reused for the 3rd and 4th time respectively produce wine of lower quality.
We also stopped to look at the vineyards with unending rows of trellis that had cotton tied around different sections of the trellis to prevent ants from crawling up to the grape juice.
We visited another nearby town called Paarl and had the most unforgettable scenic lunch ever. With very hot climate and a lot warmer than other wine regions, Paarl also lends itself to red wine. We visited Glen Carlou wine estate which also houses a restaurant. The restaurant overlooks the gorgeous and surreal view of the rolling hills of Paarl which made our delicious lunch accompanied with wine tasting even more perfect.
To start off we were given an amuse bouche prepared with beef biltong, a South African cured meat, served on toast. I was told that my braised pork belly was one of the popular choices among diners and it wasn't difficult to see why. The pork belly was very well prepared resulting in a very tender piece of meat. The meat was served on a bed of potato puree with fennel salad, glazed apple and honey soy jus.
While I did not get any starters for myself but instead ordering just an entree, T took a completely different route and ordered 2 starters for himself and no entree. His Asian glazed roasted duck came with slices of Granny Smith apple and the dish was dressed with hoisin. The Waldorf salad which he also got was served with sliced pear poached in red wine, sliced fresh apples, pomegranate seeds, walnuts and blue cheese dressing.
The food was very good with the wine tasting ranging from white, red, to dessert wine, and having lunch overlooking the gorgeous vast views of the scenic wine region in plain sight really made it an unforgettable experience.
After lunch, we returned to Stellenbosch for yet another session of wine tasting (this time the final tasting of the day) and this time at Muratie wine estate which offered another very unique experience from the earlier ones. One of the oldest wine estates, if not the oldest, the vintage charm is maintained and preserved from the day it was founded.
There is so much history to this very old wine estate that comes with an equally beautiful story of its first owner. The original owner of Muratie wine estate was a Dutchman who fell in love with a woman slave named Ansela van de Caab. Slaves were only given first names and their family names were usually stripped away and replaced with the name of the place that they came from for identification purposes. In this case, van de Caab in Dutch means "from the Cape". The Dutchman often trekked for 3 days to see Ansela at the slave lodge while keeping the romance a secret. When Ansela was finally freed from slavery, they married and lived in where Muratie wine estate is still located today. Ansela went on to become the richest woman who was previously a slave in the 1600s. At present day, Muratie still produces their best selling and award-winning wine called Ansela Van de Caab which was named after her.
Staying true to its historic charm, everything at Muratie has been kept from the early days, including the cobwebs! Hanging along the windows are natural cobwebs built by spiders over the years and Muratie has no plans in destroying them. Muratie and the cobwebs have been living in harmony for years, a true Old World charm. The faded armchair and table lamps at the wine cellar have also been there for generations.
With each wine estate so uniquely different from each other and combined with the gorgeous views, there is so much to love about the Cape Winelands. Anyone can return to the winelands and get another whole new experience with other vineyards within the same region.