“We’ve been making Cape wine for three centuries, since 1659, and we’ve been exporting it to Europe since 1761,” our guide Carl tells us. “Wine is now our number one agricultural export, yet ironically South Africans have traditionally been beer drinkers!”
We’ve just left Cape Town and are on our way to the Winelands to visit three wineries in three different wine-growing regions: Fairview at Paarl, Warwick Wine Estate at Franschhoek, and Waterford Wine Estate at Stellenbosch.
Home to 4,500 primary wine producers, Cape Town’s bucolic wine-growing region is so close to the city – Paarl is just 50 kilometres away – that it’s impossible to visit Cape Town and not go to the Winelands. The decision you need to make is how to go and how long to stay – do a day trip, a weekend, or a week or two. The next issue is whether to self-drive or do a tour.
As we had more than enough to keep us busy in Cape Town, we decided to limit our visit to a day (we could always return in the future) and, in keeping with our quest to travel more sustainably this year, we decided to opt for a small group tour (there were just six in our group, two Germans, two Americans, and ourselves), which we booked through our partner Viator.
Three round granite outcrops announce our arrival at Paarl – named after the boulders, which supposedly glisten like pearls after rain. We make a quick stop to take photos of the rocks, along with a Dutch gabled manor house that belongs to KWV, one of South Africa’s largest wine producers, and a Protestant church. The burgeoning wine area is producing some promising wines, we’re told, from a wide variety of grapes grown here, the most talked-about being the Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.
We’re visiting Fairview, an historic winery with pretty gardens, which is renowned as much for its award-winning gourmet goats cheeses as its wines, the French goat tower out front, and its quirky affordable labels with tongue-in-cheek names such as La Capra and Goats do Roam. We’re tasting the winery’s classic Fairview label and we can choose six to taste from 14 wines available. (If you’re going independently, note that there are 18 more available to try from the Goats do Roam and La Capra brands.)
Our tasting of six wines is conducted by Jessie, whose 11 years experience is quickly apparent. We start with a Sauvignon Blanc (R47), which is grassy and herbaceous in the way that we love our New Zealand Sav Blancs to be. Think: green melons, figs and gooseberries. It’s crisp and clean, and is a great way to start the day – it’s only 9.30am after all.
Next up is their Darling Chenin Blanc (R44). (Darling is another wine region.) It’s also crisp and light with tropical flavours but it’s a little too light for us. Chenin Blanc is the most popular white in South Africa. “This one is easy to drink,” Jessie says. “You can drink this with or without friends.”
Jessie pours us a Viognier, which he says was unknown in South Africa a few years ago, but is fashionable now. It has a fragrant nose, plenty of peach and apricot, and is medium bodied with a really nice mouth-feel. I imagine sipping this as I tuck into a prawn cocktail followed by cold crab or lobster salad – in the sunshine of course.
We move onto the reds next and try a Pinotage (R65). The native grape is to South Africa what Malbec is to Argentina and we’ve been drinking plenty while we’ve been here. “60% French Oak and 40% American Oak gives it a nice sweetness,” Jessie says. Think: vanilla, chocolate and banana. This wine has plenty of rich fruit and soft tannins. I’m bewildered as to why the tasting notes call it “brooding”. There’s nothing gloomy or menacing about it at all.
Terence is keen to move onto the Shiraz but Jessie insists we try their Mourvedre (R62), a grape from Spain that’s often blended with Shiraz. He calls it a ‘summer Shiraz’ and while it’s interesting, there are too many tannins. We’re not fans. Jessie pours us their Pinotage-Viognier (R65) to see what we think of that; he explains it isn’t a blend at all, but a result of co-fermentation, apparently a world first. Again, it’s interesting, but not to our taste.
Finally, we get to try the Shiraz (R65). Jessie says this is their benchmark red and we love it – it’s rich, with loads of berries, pepper and spice. We’re up to glass #7 but he’s not going to let us leave before tasting their Cabernet Sauvignon (R65) – and we’re glad he didn’t, it’s delish too, a classic Cab Sav with plenty of blackcurrant, mint, and beautiful tannins.
Eight wines later and it’s time to move on. We’ve gone overtime and we’re too late for a tour and the full cheese tasting that is included, so Carl leads me directly to their top cheese, which I quickly try, and then buy, along with a mixed cheese platter.
WARWICK WINE ESTATE, FRANSCHHOEK
On our drive to our next stop, Franschhoek, southeast of Paarl, we notice signs bearing French names: Grand Provence, Chamonix and Deux Dome. Translating to ‘French Quarter’ – ‘Fransch’ meaning ‘French’ and ‘hoek’ meaning ‘quarter’ – the town and region were named after the French Huguenots, Protestants who fled to the Cape in 1680 to escape persecution in France, who are credited with the flourishing of the Cape wine industry.
At the charming village of Franschhoek, we’re given 20 minutes to visit the Protestant church and its pretty rose garden, and do a quick lap of the main street, dotted with cafés and boutiques. On the drive back out of town we appreciate the splendour of the setting, a lush valley surrounded by majestic mountains. Carl explains that the valley is so green due to the streams that flow down from the high peaks when the winter snow melts; it’s also fed by Wemmershoek Dam.
At the attractive Warwick Wine Estate, our small group is guided in a joint tasting by Bridgette, who seems to have rehearsed her script well but doesn’t seem very engaged. After a short history about the Ratcliffe family and its pioneering women, we begin our tasting of four wines that have been selected for us by Bridgette. We start with the 2010 Professor Black Sauvignon Blanc (R95), which Bridgette tells us has lots of green aromas but which doesn’t seem all that grassy at all to us, though we do detect some peach. It’s too light and is not very impressive. Next up is the 2009 Chardonnay (R135), which has spent time in French barrels as well as stainless steel, and we prefer this drop though again it’s a light Chardonnay and we’re not in love with it.
The reds are up next. The 2008 ‘Old Bush Vine’s Pinotage (R95), Bridgette tells us, spent 15 months in French Oak and will be much better in 3 years. It’s not as memorable as the one we tried at Fairview. Finally, we try the 2007 Warwick Three Cape Ladies (R105), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinotage, which Bridgette says was in French Oak for 24 months and can age for 5-6 years. While the Warwick wines are undoubtedly drinkable, none of them really grab us.
Much more impressive is the picnic lunch, which Carl informed us about in the vehicle on the way to Franschhoek, and invited us to select either a cheese and charcuterie board or a picnic basket, which he had to phone ahead and order. We opted for the picnic basket, which is actually a picnic board, and it’s wonderful. Trust us, don’t even think about going here without having this. We get the cheeses and charcuterie the others get, along with chutneys, pate, smoked salmon, couscous salad, a chicken salad, pesto, hummus and sundried tomatoes, a baguette, and chocolate brownies for dessert. We order a bottle of the Chardonnay, which tastes infinitely better with the food.
The staff spread out bright-coloured picnic cloths under a big umbrella on the lawn by the lake, and we all sprawl out while we eat our lunch and chat about vacations (ah, if only they knew). A Canadian couple have just spent a few weeks on safari in Kenya and as that’s our next destination, we pick their brains. After an hour in the sunshine, chatting with our new friends, we actually feel like we’re on holidays.
It doesn’t take long to reach historic Stellenbosch, a university town as much as a wine town, boasting splendid examples of Cape Dutch architecture shaded by the colossal oak trees that line the streets – and yet another grand Protestant Church. We’re given 20 minutes to take a stroll of the town’s leafy streets, and as we wander by the charming whitewashed houses, including South Africa’s oldest, I’m wishing we hadn’t in a way.
Stellenbosch is buzzing, with pavement tables outside the cafés crammed with chatty locals, and the many boutiques and antique stores busy with customers. We note how many good restaurants the town seems to have, and we’re wishing we would have had time to stay a night or two.
We move on to Waterford Wine Estate, our final winery for the day, which is absolutely beautiful. The lavender, stone building with courtyard, and interior filled with antiques, is very French, and reminds me of Provence. Like Warwick, we’re presented with four pre-selected wines to try by a guy reading from a script and not the least bit engaged with his guests. We try the Waterford Rose Mary, a salmon-coloured white wine made from red grapes, a blend of Merlot, Malbec, Grenache, Sangiovese and Shiraz. Unfortunately the wine tastes nowhere near as interesting as the idea.
Next, we’re given the Waterford Estate Sauvignon Blanc, a crisp, fresh, dry, almost chalky white with loads of acidity. It’s fine, but not to my taste. The 2007 Kevin Arnold Shiraz follows, which we’re told by our guy is a serious red but for us it lacks the richness and spice of a great Shiraz. Finally, we’re poured a 2007 Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon, which has been in French Oak for 27 months, and this is good. Think leather, cedarwood, truffle, and mint. It makes me wish I was eating a big succulent, medium-rare steak.
Terence and I, like the other four in our group, are underwhelmed with the wines and we’re all wishing we would have bought some from Fairview. We buy a couple of bottles from Waterford even though they are the least impressive in our opinion, yet the most expensive. We’re wishing we had our own wheels so we could zip back over, pick up a case, and do that cheese tasting while we’re there. Of course, we’re not sure who would drive given that we’ve been tasting all day…
Our guide, Carl, was lovely and knew the area well, however, he wasn’t a specialist wine guide. He didn’t guide our tastings and was more a facilitator, leaving us at each winery in the hands of the winery staff. When the winery staff were engaged, as Jessie was at Fairview, the experience was so much more enjoyable. When they weren’t, it was a shame. In those situations, we would have benefited from having a guide who had more of an interest in the wines. If you’re only interested in wine and couldn’t be bothered visiting churches, then you probably need to find a different tour. If you’re stuck for time, can only devote one day to the Winelands, and you want to do more than taste wine, then this tour is perfect for you. The tour can be booked through Viator here.