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South Africa’s Cape Winelands

By: James Bainbridge

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July 19, 2016 | Adventure Experts

Several hundred wine estates nestle among the mountains leading inland from Cape Town, producing wines from crisp Sauvignon blancs to mellow Merlots in the diverse terroirs of wind-cooled coastal slopes and hotter river valleys. In this sylvan landscape of vineyards and fields carpeting the rolling hills beneath rocky peaks and commanding ridges, the signature varietals are Chenin blanc and Pinotage. The latter, a robust red with an earthy, smoky and fruit-laden taste, was devised locally in 1925 by cross-breeding Pinot noir and Cinsaut.

Winemaking at the Cape dates back to the Dutch East India Company, which established Cape Town as a maritime refreshment post in 1652, and expanded into the unknown interior with the establishment of Stellenbosch, now the historic heart of the Cape Winelands. The Dutch realised the suitability of the Cape’s glorious Mediterranean climate for viticulture, but not without a few mistakes along the way: the oak trees shading Stellenbosch’s streets and wine-estate drives were intended to make wine barrels, but grew too fast in the African sun and produced porous wood.

Today, the grand results of this happy mistake contribute to Stellenbosch’s refined setting and buzzing university-town atmosphere. Tourist brochures call it ‘city of oaks’, but locals prefer the nickname ‘little Europe’ for Stellenbosch’s continental mix of plein aircafes, galleries and well-preserved Cape Dutch, Georgian and Victorian architecture. Irrigation channels burble between the region’s trademark Cape Dutch houses, with their whitewashed gables and thatched roofs; you can explore four historic homesteads and learn about life under the Dutch and British at the Stellenbosch Village Museum.

With its blue mountains plunging to patches of indigenous fynbos and wrinkly lines of vine-clad trellises, exploring the Winelands inevitably involves crossing a mountain pass. Driving from Stellenbosch to the upmarket town of Franschhoek takes you over the Hellshoogte (‘Hell’s Height’) Pass, which was forged by elephants and later named by weary ox-wagon drivers. The summit was once used as a lookout for farmers to spot hungry ships arriving in distant Cape Town, and its sweeping views can be enjoyed in style at Delaire Graff Estate. Like many of the prestigious properties lining the road as it descends into the Franschhoek Valley, this estate owned by British jeweller Laurence Graff has bolstered its exquisite vinos and vistas with culture and gastronomy. Delaire Graff’s gallery displays the world’s most widely reproduced and familiar artwork – not the Mona Lisa, but the kitschy Chinese Girl (1952) by Russian-South African artist Vladimir Tretchikoff.

With its gourmet restaurants and boutique hotels, Franschhoek’s name (‘French corner’ in Dutch) is a reference to the French Huguenots who settled here in the late 17th century, bringing their wine-making skills with them. Franschhoek’s appropriately elegant Huguenot Monument and Huguenot Memorial Museum celebrate Gallic contributions to South Africa, while the locals break out the berets, Breton stripes, food and wine at the annual Bastille Festival. Although the French language died out here, the Huguenots’ memory endures everywhere from Afrikaner surnames (FW de Klerk, Charlize Theron) to the names of local wineries such as Grande Provence.

Established in 1694, Grande Provence has a wine-making heritage older than many European estates, which you can experience beneath the exposed beams of its contemporary tasting room. Trying the local wines on beautiful Winelands estates gives the perfect opportunity to linger over the stunning landscape: swilling the grape around your mouth while the pourer explains the alchemic combination of terroir and aging that created the contents of your glass, which sparkles in the sun as you gaze at the mountains stretching away under the cerulean African sky.

From Franschhoek, the route to the town of Paarl passes Simonsberg mountain, its muscly sandstone flanks shrouded by a green haze of fynbos and renosterveld – indigenous flora protected by the Greater Simonsberg Conservancy. Like Stellenbosch, the mountain is named after first Cape governor Simon van der Stel; locals say its outline resembles the Stellenbosch founder sleeping off a long tasting. If you take Route 301 to Paarl, you will also pass a more recent piece of South African history: the Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison), where Nelson Mandela completed his 27-year gaol sentence after 18 years on Robben Island. A statue in the car park commemorates the great man and his famous ‘long walk to freedom’ from the prison gates in 1990.

Filling the narrow Drakenstein Valley basin, Paarl is majestically flanked by the Klein Drakenstein and Du Toitskloof ranges and the globular mass of Paarl Rock, one of the world’s largest granite outcrops. It’s easy to see why the town’s Dutch settlers thought the shiny rock formation resembled a pearl – hence its name. The needle-like statue clinging to this trio of hefty domes is the Afrikaans Language Monument, which was erected in 1975 to celebrate this Dutch-derived South African language. Standing high above the fertile Winelands tapestry of vineyards, fruit farms and Cape Dutch estates, the monument tells just one chapter in the fascinating 350-year history of winemaking at the tip of Africa.

James Bainbridge

Those looking to explore the Cape Winelands will be rewarded on our Best of South Africa Adventure, which includes two full days in the Winelands—staying at the incredible Franschhoek Country House!