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Savouring South Africa’s finest

Su Xie
Su Xie • 8 min read
Savouring South Africa’s finest
An exciting time to discover wines and the Cape Winelands of South Africa
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Ranked as the eighth largest wine-making country in the world, South Africa may not come to mind as a wine destination. After all, there is Australia in our neck of the woods and better-known estates in France, Italy and Spain to visit in Europe; not to mention Napa Valley for American wines.

The thought association with South Africa is of wildlife safaris and diamonds than sipping Chenin Blancs in Cape Town.

All my preconceptions about South Africa were blown out of the water though, visiting Cape Town for the first time — with its amazing landscapes, wide blue skies and rugged mountains, crisp fresh air and searing sun in the day and cooler nights, and soil as old as time — which all add up to an excellent climate for wines.

Among wines that Alvi’s Drift is known for is its Bismarck, now served on Lufthansa flights, as well as its CVC which comprises Chenin Blanc (65%), Viognier (from barrels, 27%) and Chardonnay (also from barrel, 7%)

It was early Summer when we visited in the middle of November and there was a coolness in the air — especially in Franschhoek, named by the Dutch as the “French Corner” — which was our base for five nights in The Wine Company’s (TWC) itinerary to visit eight wine estates and cellars that supply them wine.

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TWC is one of the earliest Singapore restaurants to bring in South African wines and now has an impressive range of some 97 reds and 51 sparkling/whites at their Dempsey outlet. Thanks to the relationships TWC had built with the winemakers and owners for over two decades, we had the insider’s track to a handful of wine estates in the Cape Winelands.

Award-winning winemaker Tertius Boshoff on a tractor showing the difference in the leaves of the grape varietals at the Stellenrust Wine Estate

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The area of Franschhoek

Located about a 45-minute drive from Cape Town, Franschhoek is one of the most charming towns in the Cape Winelands — with its buildings of distinctive Dutch architecture with front gables and curved and curlicue sides and sloping roofs.

The houses with minimalist lines and plain white walls look impossibly chic in this town known as the gastronomic capital of South Africa, where fine dining and smart casual restaurants, boutiques and art galleries dot the main street.

Savannah plants, many with flowers, complete the charming streetscape. The house gardens had flowering trees and lusciously scented shrubs like lavender, rosemary and, surprisingly, star jasmine. These shrubs and flowers were flourishing throughout our boutique hotel.

This area is the French Corner because in the 17th century, the Huguenots who were protestants and had fled religious persecution in France were persuaded by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to emigrate to the Cape of Good Hope as most of them were highly trained craftsmen or experienced farmers who could contribute to the new colony there.

A view of Stony Brook Vineyards in the Bo-Hoek region for Stonybrook’s premium wines, now run by second-gen winemaker Craig McNaught

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Their lasting legacy includes the first grape vines they planted in the valley.

Over 350 years later, there are close to 400 wine cellars in the whole area called Cape Winelands of six main wine regions, each with its own unique microclimate, soils and terroir.

Top grapes grown in the region are Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Colombar, Chardonnay, and South Africa’s own red wine grape — Pinotage — cultivated from the cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault grapes in the 1920s.  

 

Family-run estates

One of the largest family farms with a private cellar in the Western Cape area, Worcester, opened its doors to us so we could get an incredibly informed insight into the award-winning wines of Alvi’s Drift.

It was a very windy day when we drove to the farm — a 7,000ha property with fruit trees and milk-producing cows that belongs to the van der Merwe family. About 6%, or some 410ha, of land is dedicated to wine production which Alvi runs with his wife Junel, a renowned wine master and Cape Wine Academy lecturer.

We were taken on a “masterclass tour” of the wine production area as Alvi, who had trained and practised as a doctor before, showed us around the cellar with its double-storied cement and stainless-steel glass tanks, explaining how wine is made and letting us taste the wines from the tanks at various degrees of fermentation.   

Stellenbosch Vineyards: Pig on the Braai for lunch

We were treated to a fascinating chemistry lesson as Alvi explained how every component adds to the flavour profile of the wines: The stems give the wine a peppery taste; skins added back to the fermenting wine make it more robust, plus adding a shade of colour to white wines. Potassium ions have to be taken out of the juice to balance acidity levels; then there’s wild cultured and commercial yeast used for fermentation to give certain flavours. Get the balance wrong — like that between sugar and yeast, and wine becomes vinegar.

“Oh, do you make balsamic vinegar?” Someone in the group asked enthusiastically.

“You can sell your cellar if you make balsamic! What winemakers do is to prevent vinegar,” he chuckled.   

The other important scientific nugget we learnt is that sulphur dioxide (SO2) is put in to protect the wine, as it’s commonly used as a food and wine preservative for its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.

It’s the safest antioxidant for humans and if you think you’re allergic to sulphur, then you’d be allergic to fruit juice as they contain four times the amount compared to wine.

Italian-owned winery Morgenster offers an olive oil tasting besides wines

The 20th-century Renaissance for independent winemakers

But while South Africa has over three centuries of winemaking, its current trajectory stems from the vast changes of the 1990s onwards, when winemakers could finally break out of the state-run winemaking industry after the repeal of apartheid and other political reforms.

When South African winemakers were allowed back into the international markets, the bulk producers rushed out to sell South African wines at the cheapest rates. “We still haven’t fully recovered from that,” says Richard Bradfield, Sales/Marketing Manager of Alvi’s Drift.

“We had inherited an old system from Apartheid and were confined to that system,” says award-winning winemaker Tertius Boshoff, co-founder of Stellenrust Wine Estate, a few kilometres south of Stellenbosch town. “So we’re only now starting to find our niches,” he says, and winemakers could finally start replanting the right grapes for the right areas. Stellenrust had changed the landscape of its vineyards completely in the past two decades.

What’s also little known is that the South African wine industry is very well self-regulated, and is ahead of the curve when it comes to fair labour laws and sustainability with the voluntary Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) scheme, where every part of winemaking can be tracked and verified – a scheme which Australia and Russia are trying to emulate.

When The Wine Company started in 2003, it commissioned Stellenrust Wine Estate to make its private label wines, Embrace. A white of 100%
Sauvignon Blanc with crisp acidity with a bouquet of yellow summer fruit, and a red of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with blackcurrant, berry and black cherry flavours

A wide range of experiences at wine estates

We saw the French method of Cap Classique in action at Simonsig Wine Estate, which was the first estate to produce this classic bottle-fermented wine, Kaapse Vonkel, in South Africa.

Taking a brief detour from wine-tasting at Morgenster, an Italian-owned estate; and tucked into “pig on a braai” at Stellenbosch Vineyards, which buys grapes from the growers within 20km of its location to produce private-label wines.

We also got a rich dose of heritage at Vergelegen Wine Estate at Somerset West, a grand 3,000ha property founded in 1700 and bought by mining giant Anglo-American in 1987.

Simonsig Wine Estate is family-owned and produced the first Cap Classique wines in South Africa in the early 20th century

We didn’t visit Vergelegen’s 117 hectares of vineyards in the hills, but ooh-and-ahh-ed our way through the formal boxed-herb gardens, the agapantha flowers, the rose garden with some 60 varietals, the bamboo gardens, and the flower-filled path to the house museum; with its row of jaw-dropping 400-year-old camphor trees at the back.

From what we learnt, South Africa’s wines and many of its estates are on par with those in Australia and Europe, though much more affordably priced and with an equally complex history and culture of winemaking.

With some 300 wineries in the Cape Winelands, there is no end to the wineries to visit there every year — now that we’ve had a taste of how delightful a wine estate-hopping holiday can be.

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