Big skies, big game, big adventures: there are a few very good reasons to plan a holiday to South Africa. While they are there, many people decide to spend a few days tasting wine. Good choice.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a certified wine nerd, or someone who just likes a cold glass of white of an evening and might like to sip one while watching the sun set in a blaze of orange over the southern Atlantic. I can’t think of any other country in the world that does wine tourism better than South Africa. And it’s not just that they present it well (though they do) – they also have
The energy and enthusiasm of winemakers in the Cape is almost palpable. They are making wines in regions you would not have heard of 25 years ago, such as cool climate Elgin (which produces most of South Africa’s apples), Hemel-en-Aarde (just north of Hermanus) and hot Swartland, with its fertile soils and vast plains. And they are making gorgeous wines not just from cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinotage, but also cinsault, clairette, and cabernet franc.
So where do you start? You could begin by looking at Constantia, to the south-west of Cape Town, where Dutch settlers made the first wine in the 17th century, then checking out a couple of places in Stellenbosch (the classic cabernet sauvignon area) and Franschhoek, before heading over to cooler climate Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde, and squeezing in a spot of whale-watching while you are at it.
Here is my pick of the wine visits.
The drive and views alone make it worth taking a trip to this hilltop producer, named after the Hebridean island that was the ancestral home of founder Andrew Gunn. To get here you climb through the sweeping valleys of Elgin, a relatively cool-climate region known for its abundant apple orchards (the area produces around 60 per cent of the country’s apple exports). There are two approaches; in each case, the last few miles take you along the red dirt of an unmade road, up to a restored Herbert Baker homestead and the tasting room. At the back of the property, brown chickens peck about the vines and there are panoramic views across to the Hottentots-Holland mountain reserve. In the grounds, there are sculptures made by Andrew’s wife, Rozy, an artist who is also an excellent cook and who has become a dedicated farmer.
Don’t miss Iona specialises in sauvignon blanc and the Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2018 is very good value – lucid and pure.
Practicals Tasting room is open Monday-Friday 9am-4pm; weekends and public holidays by appointment (iona.co.za).
Newton Johnson is perched in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde (heaven and earth) Valley, not far from the town of Hermanus where southern right whales and dolphins often swim in close to the shore. In this cooler climate, Newton Johnson makes some of South Africa’s very best pinot noirs. The ideal way to taste them is to book a table in Newton’s restaurant-with-a-view, and order a glass to drink as you eat. Two courses R295 (£16.50); three courses R370 (£20).
Don’t miss Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2017 is all cherry blossom and silky sinew. Even better is the Newton Johnson Windandsea, from a high vineyard that looks out across the sea.
Practicals The restaurant is open for lunch Wednesday-Sunday, noon-3pm. The tasting room opens Monday to Saturday, and Sundays in high season (newtonjohnson.com).
One of the oldest wine estates in the Cape, Klein Constantia can trace its history back to 1685 when Simon van der Stel, the Dutch East India Company governor of the Cape of Good Hope, was granted the rights to establish a large farm here. Its famous Vin de Constance, made from muscat de frontignan, is a modern interpretation of the sweet Constantia wine that was feted in Europe and drunk by Marie Antoinette and Napoleon a good 200 years before we began to talk about South Africa as a “New World” wine country. Klein Constantia now has international polish and expertise: it was bought in 2011 by Czech businessman Zdenek Bakala and Charles Harman (a vice chairman of JP Morgan Cazenove); the next year it merged with the Stellenbosch-based Anwilka owned by Bordeaux big-hitters Bruno Prats and Hubert de Boüard.
Don’t miss Book a 40-minute vineyard drive (R500pp; £28, for a maximum of eight people). Wine-wise, the Vin de Constance may be famous but Klein Constantia winemaker Matthew Day also makes some pretty smart sauvignon blanc.
Practicals A selection of tasting flights (R100-R500; £5-£28) available in the tasting room, open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 10am-4pm (kleinconstantia.com)
Philanthropist, conservationist and former neurosurgeon Paul Cluver planted Elgin’s first commercial vineyards in 1986 and the estate is now particularly well-known for its riesling (both sweet and dry). However, a visit to this inspiring place, run by quite exceptional people, is about far more than just wine. The vineyards lie on the large Cluver family-owned De Rust Estate, which includes a 2,470-acre conservation reserve; they also form part of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve area, one of the world’s richest sites for plant diversity with more than 1,600 species.
Don’t miss The riesling Dry Encounter and the gorgeous, sweet Noble Late Harvest. Stay for lunch at the estate’s Salt restaurant, run by chef Craig Cormack, a salt connoisseur whose private salt collection runs to 145 salts from all over the world (I know; he keeps them under lock and key in a padlocked steel case).
Practicals Tasting centre open seven days a week, 10am-4pm (cluver.com).
May-Éliane de Lencquesaing was the owner and managing director of Château Pichon Comtesse de Lalande for 30 years. In 2003, at the age of 78, she embarked on a new project and bought the Stellenbosch estate that became Glenelly. This was a from-scratch project: fruit trees had to be uprooted, vineyards put in and a new winery built – it’s a glorious modern temple to wine, with a glass wall that looks out across the green land. “Making Bordeaux-type wine was not a driving force,” says winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain. “The idea was to make the best wine we could in Stellenbosch.” As well as a stylish tasting room, Glenelly also has a buzzy and welcoming bistro restaurant, and you can visit Mme’s glass collection, housed next to the winery. The glossy wines are made from chardonnay, merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon.
Don’t miss The cabernet franc has quite a following and the restaurant is a good place to eat.
Practicals Tasting room is open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 10am-3pm. Check website for the glass museum and bistro opening times (glenellyestate.com).
Three more to visit
Cape Point is a sauvignon blanc specialist based amid the spectacular scenery of the Cape Point peninsula. In Somerset West, Vergelegen makes textbook cabernet sauvignon, sémillon and sauvignon blanc. Lastly, Franschhoek’s Leeu Collection Wine Studio allows you to try the Swartland wines made by Andrea and Chris Mullineux.
Where to stay
Oude Werf, Stellenbosch mixes contemporary decor with antiques. Doubles from about R2,000 (£112), room only.
Lily Pond House, Le Lude, Franschhoek is a private guesthouse on the estate of wine specialist Le Lude. There are two en suite double rooms, an open-plan kitchen and lounge, and small outside area with pool. Doubles from R4,660 (£262) per night.
Sugarbird Manoris a small B&B, 10 minutes’ drive out of Stellenbosch, run by the owner of wine producer Botanica. Doubles from R2,500 (£140).
Where to eat
The Fat Butcher, Stellenbosch.
Book in advance to secure a table at this steak restaurant. Starters from R65 (£3.66); steak from R140 (£7.89); and there are burgers and salads, too (thefatbutcher.co.za).
Wijnhuis Wine Bar & Grill, Stellenbosch.
A relaxed restaurant with wine list that allows you to explore – there are 500 South African wines by the bottle, and 20 by the glass or carafe. Foodwise, it’s Italianish with springbok thrown in (wijnhuis.co.za).
Via The Telegraph