Wine-tasting in the Cape Winelands

by Peter Baxter  

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Vineyards of the Cape

The wine routes of the Cape are arguably the signature experience of the region, and certainly one of the principal tourist attraction in South Africa as a whole. Africa may conjure an image of big game, of the open plains and thundering hooves, and although in South Africa there is perhaps more of this than anywhere, South Africa is also a nation or rare accomplishment, of civil, legal and administrative sophistication, and of artistic, cultural and social maturity. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Cape, and in no phenomenon more dramatically than in the wine industry.

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While it is universally the case that vineyards and wineries are attractive, and usually situated in areas of some natural charm, nowhere is this quite as true as it is in the Cape. The signature Cape landscape of a brooding ridge of mountains shading a whitewashed Cape/Dutch homestead, itself set in a Constable like vineyard or farmstead, is ubiquitous. The formula is featured in local landscape art spanning 200 years. While some bucolic edges might have been smoothed off in recent years, the image of the Cape/Dutch homestead set in it’s mountain idyll, and served by neat rows of vineyards, is still the iconic symbol of the Cape Winelands.

groot_constantia.jpgHistory

Wine was first introduced to the Cape along with various other styles of husbandry and horticulture for the sake of provisioning ships of the Dutch East India Company as they broke their long voyages from Europe to the Indies via the Cape of Good Hope. The oldest winery on record is the Groote Constantia estate set in the Constantia Valley, situated between Cape Town and False Bay, that was established in the year 1685 by then Governor Simon van de Stel. The homestead was modified in the late 1700s by local French born architect Louis Michel Thibalut, and is currently managed by the Museums of Cape Town. The estate is known principally for its production of the red wines including fine examples of Shiraz and Merlot.

Regions

The Cape Wine regions extend north and north east of Cape Town to include the rustic rural communities of Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Paarl, Robertson and Wellington. Although there are others, these are the principal destination on the various wine routes, and some the region’s most august wineries are listed and can be visited and toured. Wine tasting is conducted at most, if not all of the open wineries, and most of the main labels have opened their gates in response to the growth of international wine tourism.

Hospitality

Associated with the wine route is the Cape hospitality industry which has grown enormously in recent years and completes the various wine tours with appropriate selections of local produce, local haute cuisine, and of course the genteel but wild and dramatic backdrop of the cape bergs and beautiful wine country.

Touring
Several companies offer tours around the Cape Winelands of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. If you have a rental car, you can book these tours on your own (just limit your tasting and don’t drink and drive), but for the full experience, hire a driver or a guide. If you know what vineyards you want to visit, you can hire someone to simply drive you around, but if you prefer to let an expert handle the details, hire a company like Tsiba Tsiba tours. The guide will do all the driver, arrange all the visits, cover any tasting fees, and explain each wine in depth. Hiring a knowledgeable guide can make for a better experience, and get you special perks and behind-the-scenes tours. Most visits take 30-60 minutes, so plan on no more than 6-7 wineries per day, less if you plan to stop for a long lunch.

When to Go

The Cape has a strong appeal year round, with spring and summer being the most active and varied, although temperatures can be high inland and in the Karoo region. The December school holidays in South Africa is usually a busy time, so advance bookings are advisable. There are countless tour operators and specialist outfitters who will either tailor a specific wine tour or slot you into an existing itinerary. There is therefore no particular time to visit, although seasonally summer is the more pleasant time, however seasonal variations are not so extreme in the region as to preclude a tour at any time of the year.

Climate

Climatically the region is variable, with conditions west of Cape Town tending to the arid Atlantic seaboard climate, while east of Cape Town conditions are milder, with an increasing tendency towards high rainfall and cooler temperatures. Inland the landscape is arid, and climate conditions are dryer and hotter.

At the coast the summer average maximum is 26ºC (78ºF) and min 16ºC (60ºF), with the winter average maximum 18ºC (64ºC) and min 7ºC (44ºF), with an average annual rainfall of 515mm

Inland summer temperatures can reach as high as 35ºC (95ºF), with as little a 400mm of rainfall annually. Winter temperatures average at a much more bearable 25ºC (77ºC)

More information about South African weather

Travel Warnings

Crime: The Cape shares the same general dangers of street crime and muggings as the rest of South Africa. Don’t be fooled by the atmosphere. Keep your wits about you and remember that South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. There are certain areas in the Cape that are more dangerous than others, although nowhere is particularly safe on the streets after dark, so seek and follow local advice on the matter of crime and general safety wherever and with whomever you go.

  • Leave important documents in a safe place. All hotels, lodges and hostels offer safe lock up facilities
  • Seek safety advice from you hospitality establishment wherever you are
  • Avoid walking anywhere after dark, particularly in urban areas, and particularly in the CBD of any of the larger cities and towns
  • Don’t leave anything of value in your car overnight
  • Incidences of car hijackings in South Africa are high. Always be aware of your surroundings, particularly at night
  • Don’t stop on any of the freeways for more than a few minutes, and in the instance of a breakdown, call for help

Health

AIDS: Any kind of casual sexual encounter in South Africa, as with anywhere in the world these days, is to be discouraged. South Africa has one of the highest infection rates on the planet, about 1 in 4 of the population, so obviously extra caution is necessary when visiting any destination on the sub-continent.

In most of South Africa tropical diseases are rare. The Cape enjoys a generally mild temperate climate so incidences of malaria are almost unheard of. As a matter of policy a course of anti-malarial drugs are advisable, particularly if you intend traveling north or up the coast.

Travel Doctor clinics are to be found in all the major centres where you can get health advice on malaria, yellow-fever, AIDS and any other tropical diseases, and acquire all the vaccinations and prophylactics necessary for your extended journey.

Tap water is usually safe to drink.

Sunburn risks are high so hats, long sleeved T-shirts and sun screen are a must.

Image: Thanks flickr -nele and jan

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