Leandro Manini Williams visits the winelands of South Africa.
Photo: Vineyards in Durbanville.
South African wines are hidden jewels for many South Americans. If someone hears “Africa”, he will probably relate it more to lions than to excellent wines. But truth be told, amazing things are being done here. In a two-day journey I made into the country’s vineyards the surprises never ceased.
Tradition & Modernity in Paarl and Durbanville
Working as a wine tour guide in Argentina, I know the importance of having someone with expertise when exploring unfamiliar territory. Luckily I met Douglas Swanson, a former internet engineer who now runs a wine tasting room. Knowing that he had been to 295 wineries of the 595 existing in South Africa, I felt I was in good hands.
Fairview, located outside the city of Paarl, is probably the winery with most visitors in the entire country. It was proudly founded in 1693, focusing on cheese – the Brie I tried was delightful. Friendly goats welcome you on the property. As you walk inside the winery, you can see a wide variety of different tasting room areas. I have never seen such a wide range of wine varieties in my life. They have only been producing wine since 1974, but they just keep expanding. From classics like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot you jump to Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre blends. Tannat, Tempranillo, Pinot Grigio, Barbera, Viognier, amongst others – some 15 varieties.
After stopping for a bite in the city, we go to one of the best known wineries in Paarl: the KWV Wine Emporium. It is one of the leading wine and spirits producers – check their brandy, and was founded as a winemaking co-operative in 1918 by wine makers from the Western Cape. I’m not a fan of big wineries, but this one was amazing.
My guide Douglas encouraged me to do the Pinotage Experience: four wines with different pairing. Being the only local variety of South Africa, I said, “Yes”, without any hesitancy. A Sparkling Rosé and the fortified wine Pineau de Labourie showed how complex this grape can be. My favorite paring was the Cathedral Cellar Pinotage, a wine full of berries, plum and black pepper aromas with sixteen months in oak. A black chocolate with red fruit elevated the red berry flavours while the tobacco complemented the oak, creating an opulent and creamy experience in the palate.
The trip continued to the Durbanville wine region. It’s an area that specializes in Sauvignon Blanc but red grapes like Merlot are winning more and more recognition. Durbanville Hills is the biggest winery, an industrial operation that buys grapes from its neighbours. I cannot remember having seen bigger stainless steel tanks in my life. They produce a Sauvignon Blanc using grapes from the other Durbanville wineries to create a wine named after the wine region.
The next winery, De Grendel, was 20 minutes away from Cape Town. This makes it an ideal choice for busy travelers. Owned by the Graff family, who actually live in the property, it is famous for its wines and restaurant. Charles Hopkins is the winemaker, well known not only for his rugby skills but also for his vast experience in the SA wine production. He told me he is not afraid to search for the best grapes in order to make the best wine, using grapes from Tygerberg and Witzenberg besides the ones from the farm.
The six wine tasting is a good idea but if you want the best of the best, you must choose the Flagship tasting. You will thank me after you tried the Koetshuis Sauvignon Blanc, the most complex white wine I have tasted in SA. And for the red lovers, keep your taste buds ready for the Shiraz, the Merlot and their heavy body and colorful Pinot Noir.
The restaurant itself makes the trip worthwhile. Although De Grendel is one of the oldest farms in Cape Town, the wine production started in 2000 – like the other wineries in Durbanville, and the restaurant opened in 2012. My favorite paring was the risotto of wild mushroom, Arborio, truffle, asparagus and grilled artichoke, with a buttery and creamy De Grendel Chardonnay 2015. The incredible view of the Table Mountain tops your experience.
The French Connection in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch
Next day I continued my journey through the Western Cape. One hour away from Cape Town city you find Franschhoek, one of the oldest towns in SA. Founded in 1688 by French Huguenot refugees, it’s probably the prettiest city I have been to, full of cafes and good wineries. La Motte is one example, with wide green spaces that welcome you. The different kinds of vineyards that you go through remind you of the importance of their grapes, mainly French varietals like Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Cinsault.
The area produces some of the country’s extraordinary Méthode Cap Classiques. The version by La Motte is not an exception. Their 2016 La Motte Sauvignon Blanc is also a wine to be proud of. Wines like the Hanneli R with forty months in new oak serves as an example of how seriously they take their wine production. That particular wine was named honouring the owner of the property and leading mezzo-soprano in the country, Hanneli Rupert. Douglas showed me their museum, where nowadays they are exhibiting the art of the remarkable artist JH Pierneef.
After a brief coffee in Haute Cabriére, a winery with a splendid view of Franschhoek and home of the famous Pierre Jordan sparkling wine, we traveled to Stellenbosch. Once crossing this vibrant University City, we headed to Rust en Vrede. Do not expect an astonishing view like the wineries in Durbanville or Franschhoek. They are famous for their wines and that’s what you should focus on. Stellenbosch is a great area for red wines. The first South African wine nominated to the Top 100 Wines of the World in 2000 came from Rust en Vrede.
We did a Single Vineyard Tasting of Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah that helped me understand why this was Mandela’s favorite winery. While my friend praised the Cab Sauvignon -”this is how a real Cabernet should taste like”- I was impressed by the 1694 Classification. It was a blend of Syrah – Cabernet Sauvignon (56%-44%) that ages eighteen months in French oak barrels, with a name that honours the foundation of the state.
The last winery was Avoontur State. Horses instead of goats welcome you as you enter the property. It is the home of “Fine Wines and Fast Horses” as they like to say. “Var” and “Oratorium” are two of their winning animals. The vibe is very easy going. The winery and the restaurant is a place to enjoy with friends and family.
The view of the estate is marvelous, and so is the food. The winery proves that good whites can be found in Stellenbosch. My recommendation is the Avontuur Estate Sauvignon Blanc, a fresh green aroma wine that pairs perfectly with a butternut, spinach, leek & ricotta roulade, grilled with crispy Parmesan served with tomato fondue.
If you are a traveller who likes to go beyond what is expected, the Rainbow Nation is the place to visit. Furthermore, if you are partial to a good wine, you will find it at the end of the that rainbow.
Photographs by Leandro Manini Williams