I first visited South Africa in 2008, and our two tours in November 2017 revealed a wine scene that has developed massively. Particularly notable was the greater elegance and complexity of the wines we tasted, with considerably greater ‘old world’ influence. What had not changed was the immense generosity of our hosts – we met winemakers, vineyard managers, and winery owners who inspired us with their passion for what they do, and shared some truly wonderful wines. And the incredible beauty of the scenery, and the wonderful cuisine. We will definitely not wait another nine years to make a return visit.
Most of the people did both tours (including some enthusiasts who had come on tour in 2008!). The first week was based in Stellenbosch and the second week in Franschoek, which provided a great contrast in terms of their ambience, although both provided a winning combination of beautiful mountains in the background, and some lovely eateries for those who had enough room in the evenings. Every day we had a fabulous lunch either at a vineyard or local restaurant where we sampled the wines from a specific winery, generally hosted by a winemaker, and we also enjoyed opening and final night dinners on both tours.
This historic area provided a case study in contrasting approaches to winemaking.
To own vineyards or not? We visited two producers who chose to invest their resources into the winery, and ensure their relationships with growers delivers the quality of grapes they need. At the quirky and fascinating world of Blankbottle we met owner and winemaker Pieter Walser, who at the last count was making 42 different wines using just. He owns no vineyards and rents winery space on a farm near Somerset West. Pieter was eclectic, very engaging and very passionate and focussed on what he does and we sat rapt in attention in a Withnail and I setting within his warehouse, tasting through 8 amazing wines – extraordinary labels and weird and wonderful names – there was a story attached to every wine. For everyone on tour this was the first time to taste a wine called Orbital Frontal Cortex made from a blend of Clairette, Fernandez Peres, Grenache Blanc and Chenin Blanc.
At Le Riche Wines we met Yvonne Le Riche, a Cape Wine Master, and daughter of Etienne, the founder, who had been the winemaker at Rustenberg and is a founder member of the Cape Winemakers Guild. Yvonne explained how they have built up long term contracts with growers around Stellenbosch with a focus on Cabernet Sauvignon. We tasted through their range, progressing from ‘Richesse’ (blended with four other Bordeaux varietals), through Le Riche Cabernet to the Reserve. The highlight of the tasting was the 2007 Reserve, which was very special – beautifully balanced, loads of fruit and tannin and interesting flavour. Sadly no longer for sale, so we were lucky to taste it!
In the Upper Blaauwklippen Valley we visited the De Trafford estate, a premier league winery of just 12 hectares where owner and winemaker David De Trafford hosted our tasting. De Trafford make primarily red wines from their own vineyards but we kicked off with a stunning barrel fermented Chenin Blanc. A series of top class Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon followed – understated but extremely high qualitywith great potential to age.
Further up the valley, Keermont is a relatively new winery. Winemaker Alex Starey talked to us about the history of the property, was able to describe first hand the evolution of the estate from hobby vines, with wine made in buckets, through the conversion of an old spring water bottling plant into a winery, to the present with a growing range of wines which are having great success. We tasted through the range and all showed lovely fruit flavour and great structure. It was fascinating that both wineries are making sweet wines using ‘vin de paille’ and ‘cordon cut’ techniques, which rounded off the tastings beautifully.
The historic Vergelegen estate was the venue for one of our lunches. This is one of the most important wine estates in South Africa with its origins dating back to the 16th century. We enjoyed eight wines of superb quality moving from entry level up to their top estate wines.
At the family owned Scali winery we were warmly welcomed by the owners Willie and Tania de Waal into their beautiful traditional Cape Homestead. Willie took us for a walk through their certified organic vineyards and gave us a wonderful insight into their organic philosophy. We enjoyed a fabulous tasting in their elegant dining room tincluding an amazing sparkling Chenin made in the method ancestrale which involves sealing the bottle when it reaches 30gms/litre of residual sugar and then letting the natural CO2 from the rest of the fermentation create the sparkle.
The Joostenberg thatched property dates back to 1736 and owners Tyrrel and Annet Myburg detailed a fascinating history of pigs, cows and wine backed up with stories of illicit distillation, disgruntled employees and tax evasion from yesteryear. We rattled through a superb lineup of Chenin Blanc, Syrah and Cabernet blends and an unctuously gorgeous botrytised Chenin, and spent the afternoon at the bistro run by Tyrrel’s sister everything else the estate produces over lunch.
Mary-Lou Nash is a Cape Wine Master, co-owner and winemaker of the Blackpearl estate which is perhaps one of the smallest in South Africa. She has been shortlisted for South African wine maker of the year several times and her passion and joy in what she does was great to see. Under the awning of their patio Mary-Lou and her father entertained us with some wonderful family stories as we tasted their four wines – superb value and high quality. Just to cap it all, they had two gorgeous dogs and a large herd of pigs who roam the estate causing regular mayhem!
At AA Badenhost we met Adi Badenhorst, who has become a bit of a legend in South African wine making circles and certainly possesses a maverick, laissez-faire attitude when you meet him.
The farm is a wonderful 1930’s sprawling hotch potch of outhouses, barns, herb gardens and a huge traditional old kitchen. However, the real star of our visit was his mother Judy. She launched the Old Cape Farmstall back in the 70’s and was a pioneer in selling deli style food. She is also a renowned restauranteur and a fabulous cook – after the tasting she put on a delicious lunch of grilled chicken, amazing salads, focaccia and then the most sublime pavlovas.
The Le Lude winery is devoted to sparkling wines, with an extremely elegant estate modelled on Paris and Loire interiors and gardens.
Paul Gerber, the winemaker was our host. In the perfectly manicured lawns overlooking a seriously large walled rose garden he gave us the rundown of the estate, and in the Parisienne style tasting room we settled down to their excellent Brut Non Vintage, superb Rosé and then contrasted them with some Champagne Drappier.
At Chamonix winemaker Thinus Neethling took us through an impressive range of wines. Top class Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and a Bordeaux blend gave us a great insight into the elegance of Franschhoek wines, and our lunch at their restaurant Racine enabled us to continue to enjoy the wines and delicious food in a delightful outdoor setting.
Wine has been made in Constantia since 1685, which could qualify South Africa for Old World status!
Our first visit was to Klein Constantia, one of the original wine estates of Constantia and still the only maker of Vin de Constance, the famous sweet wine drunk by Tsars, Napoleon and even mentioned by Dickens! Our host Alan, whose job was best described as general factotum, introduced us to the estate in the winery, introduced us to winemaker Matthew, and after picking our way through a maze of scaffolding (a new tasting room was under construction) we arrived in the Vin de Constance cellar, overlooking the winery, where we tasted their Blanc de Blancs MCC (Méthode Cap Classique) fizz, four bone dry Sauvignon Blancs, and the Vin de Constance, made from Muscat de Frontignan, which was unctuously sweet, with great acidity, flavours of honey, raisins, tea, nutmeg and a superb finish.
At Constantia Glen, another exquisitely located estate, with vineyards climbing up the side of Table Mountain and views out to the ocean we enjoyed a fabulous tasting of their range of wines over lunch: their ‘estate’ range of fizz, white and red blends followed by a tasting of four of their ‘serious’ wines: a Sauvignon/Semillon blend, this time lightly wooded, a 96% unoaked Sauvignon, and two reds, a Merlot/Cab Franc blend, and a Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot/Merlot/Malbec blend.
Elgin and Botrivier
From Franschhoek we headed west and then south through the Franschhoek Pass, our driver Henry did a great job negotiating a hairpin heavy road as we admired the spectacular scenery. At the other side of the pass we drove beside the huge reservoir that serves Cape Town which is tragically depleted, a desolate site.
Our first visit was to Paul Cluver Wines in Elgin where we met Andries Burger, winemaker and husband of Inge, one of second generation of Cluvers who are running the estate, which was founded in 1987. Andries’s knowledge and experience were phenomenal, he has learnt from some of the most famous winemakers in the most prestigious estates in France, and he was passionate about the ecological work done on the estate: nearly half its area has been set aside to be part of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, a ‘transition area’ between mountains and coastal regions with unique vegetation and habitats. We learnt about the evolution of wines grown, as more was learnt about their characteristics on different parts of the farm. Their climate is the coolest possible – due to the tendency for clouds to settle between the mountain ranges, so their growing season is two months longer than in Franschhoek. This showed in the complexity of the wines we tasted.
At Gabrielskloof Wines we were greeted by Peter-Allan Finlayson, the winemaker, who led us through the first part of the tasting, and Grant Baxter, who hosted the rest of the day. We enjoyed more stories of wine families coming together, and of the evolution of winemaking on the estate. Botrivier is a very new wine region, between Elgin and Walker Bay, much more arid than Elgin, with a somewhat cooler climate. Gabrielskloof is another huge estate, set amid rolling hills planted with cereals, and there are plenty of opportunity to experiment on vineyard sites, and with olive trees – our day ended with an olive oil tasting. Before, during and after a superb three course lunch we tasted 15 wines from both Gabrielskloof and Crystallum, (made by Peter-Allan and his father, sourcing grapes from local growers across the Walker Bay region).
Our day in the Hemel-en-Aarde area started with another drive through the Franschhoek Pass, this time turning left at the end and heading towards Hermanus.
At Restless River we met Craig and Anne Wessels. In a very ‘Grand Designs’ adventure they designed and built a beautiful homestead amid some vineyards already planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Not content with the tribulations of a two year house building project they decided to have a go at winemaking, and ten years of experiments later they have got pretty good at it, winning many awards and now appearing on winelists in various Michelin starred restaurants in London as well as outlets such as Harvey Nicholls! Craig explained his journey from TV commercial director to winemaker and Anne hosted a tasting of their Ava Marie Chardonnay and their Main Road and Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon, which if anyone wants to take up winemaking offers fairly comprehensive instructions on the label!
Our next stop was Newton Johnson. The vineyard manager Dean talked to us about their approach to growing vines as we looked out from the deck of their restaurant across a block of Pinot Noir towards the bay at Hermanus, 13km down the valley. A philosophy of minimal intervention underpins their approach to vineyards and to the winery, which is part of the same building. A relatively benign climate with cooling breezes from the South East is assisted by releasing predator insects and adding to soil fertility by interplanting with oats, beans, radishes and peas. Our lunch displayed similar variety – a beautiful mixed salad of leaves and root vegetables, followed by a melting sirloin steak and a chocolate pudding – all prepared before our eyes in kitchens behind us. All the wines were lovely, and we were treated to more family history from Bevan (son of founders Dave and Felicity) who heads up Sales & Marketing. His brother Gordon and sister in law Nadia are the winemakers.
We finished the day in Hemel-en-Aarde where winemaking started – at Hamilton Russell. Anthony Hamilton Russell, son of the founder Tim, and his wife Olive were incredibly generous with their time, and we were treated to an introduction to the region and their vineyards in the old farm cottage by the dam. Hamilton Russell is the middle of three properties they now own, and the place that was originally purchased in 1975 to make cool climate noble varietals. Southern Rights to the south and Ashbourne to the north are where other varieties than the flagship Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of Hamilton Russell are grown. All three have north facing slopes rising up to natural vegetation on the clifftops above the ocean. Anthony hosted a vertical tasting on their Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, very much old world in style. We finished with their Southern Right Pinotage, which is actually their biggest seller – and surprised several of our group with its complexity and quality.
Our opening night dinner in Stellenbosch was at the famous 96, Winery Road restaurant, hosted by winemaker Richard Hilton who I met back in 2008 and is a boutique winemaker, focussing only on Viognier and Syrah, buying in grapes and using a private wine making facility in Stellenbosch University. Richard’s wines are made in very small quantities and sold on allocation to top South African restaurants and private clients. With his two Viogniers we kicked off with some perfectly crisp pork belly before moving on to beautifully slow cooked ribs to accompany his Syrahs. Having scared off the other diners we rounded off the evening with Richard’s Viognier based grappa!
Our final night dinner in Stellenbosch was at Tokara restaurant. We enjoyed a magnificent sunset before settling into a delicious meal. We compared Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays and Shiraz and finished with a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc.
In Franschhoek it was very pleasant to greet old faces from the previous week week and fresh arrivals as they strolled into the garden of Le Bon Vivant restaurant for a glass of fizz. Our opening meal was truly spectacular. A tasting menu, of glorious combinations of local fish, meat and veg presented in the most exquisite style. The courses included a trio of tuna – carpaccio, mousse in a soy lollipop, seared, and the most delicate quail. Accompanied by some lovely wines, the highlight for most of us being the Bellingham Pinotage which was fragrant, elegant and delicious with our kudu main course.
Our very final dinner was at the very grand Le Grand Provence hotel in Franschhoek, where we managed to slip Zinfandel onto the list of wines we had experienced. Final night speeches are generally concise on Tim’s tours, but it was very kind of Krysia Wood who with her husband Jim hold the record for the greatest number of tours attended (with 23 under their belts), to say some very nice things about how things have changed since the very first Champagne tour, with the important bits (good wine, great people, having fun) staying the same.
“Thanks again for two excellent tours, definitely up there with South America as the best we have experienced.” Jim Wood
“May I thank you for a wonderfully enjoyable and superbly organised tour over the last 2 weeks. There were highlights for me at Scali / de Trafford and Le Riche as far as the wine was concerned and regarding the people it would be Scali & Paul Cluver ….Of course what makes your style of day so good is the lunches at growers” John Stevenson