The Wines and Wine Country of South Africa
Africa is the land of a great variety of wild game, but South Africa established the first new world winery back in 1680. South Africa produces some of the world’s finest white and red wines to be found anywhere, yet not many people are aware of what they do. But many Europeans from different wine producing countries are buying up lands and are starting new wineries in South Africa. They are more aware of what the land and climate can do for the noble grape. It’s one of the fastest growing industries in South Africa. I’ve added this story to the site so that you can become aware of what they have to offer; so you may add some of their wine to your wild game or ethnic dishes for an even more enjoyable experience.
It had been twenty years this year since I last set foot in South Africa. I was away for too long. I first visited the country in 1986 and spent a little over a week of the two months there in the wine country of Stellenbosch and Paarl, and no one ever mentioned the Constantia (Con-Stan-she-ah) area just north of Cape Town. I was very impressed by the fine wines they were producing. At that time, the United States and a few other countries had sanctions against South Africa because of apartheid, so we never saw any of their wines in the United States. Yet, they were producing some outstanding wines that were winning awards all over Europe. A lot of the wine country looked like the Napa area or Anderson Valley area in Mendocino County in California. The only way you knew you were in a place other than the U.S. was because of the Dutch Style of architecture that was used on the wine country buildings, and of course the English that was spoken with an Afrikaans or British accent.
I knew things were going to be different before I ever landed in South Africa. The South African Airways cabin crew were all native South Africans. As I looked through Sawubona, the new SAA in-flight magazine, I noticed the CEO of the airline was a native South African woman, and there were several other articles about other native woman who were managing large corporations in the country. None of this ever existed on my four earlier trips. But the real surprise came when dinner was being served. As they began to offer soda, beer and wine prior to dinner, I asked for a nice Riesling that I knew the country produced. As the steward looked through all the white wine bottles all he could say was Chardonnay time and time again. I finally said, “OK, I’ll take a Chardonnay”. That is my least favorite American white wine. I feel they are too woody, too dry, and too acidic. So many of them are so woody that I feel only a termite could love such a wine. If I want the taste of wood in my mouth, I’ll put a toothpick in it. After I poured the wine into the glass, I gave it a couple of swirls to bring the full nose out of it. I was surprised by the floral and tropical fruit aromas coming out of the wine. When I took my first taste of the wine, I was astounded by the fresh fruit flavors I was experiencing. I was really bowled over by the fact I was tasting the true fruit of the grapes, and the affect of the sun, wind, moisture and soil had on them, and nothing else. The wine was from the Welbedacht Wine Estate from the Wellington area, and was a 2010 unwooded Chardonnay. It was then that I realized that this was going to be a wine experience like no other. The food was delicious and consisted of a very nice salad with a creamy dressing and the main entrée I picked was a seafood medley with pasta that was outstanding.
The wine country has gone through some dramatic changes and production has doubled since I was last there. The wineries are no longer wineries, they are resorts in varying sizes with different amenities and activities. Some of them are like a small city that will have homes for the workers in the fields and in the production areas. The wine industry has been very dynamic and is growing rapidly. It is also a good part of the tourist industry as many Europeans come to South Africa just to taste and visit the various wineries, just like we go to California.
Some of the things you’ll find at different wineries are contemporary art galleries, golf courses, cricket fields, equestrian facilities, wildlife farms, extensive floral gardens, extensive native plant gardens, winery museums, native and local art galleries, winery estate national landmarks, Eagle Rehabilitation Facilities and Cheetah Outreach Programs. The one I enjoyed most is the Franschhoek Motor Museum at the Anthonij Rupert Winery. There you could see cars you never heard of like a 1909 Le Zebre Tipe-Type or a 1911 Lorraine Dietrich (which sounds more like a movie star name) or a 1928 Type 358 Bugatti. There was a full size version for the father and a smaller version for the son. The car that really caught my attention was the 1935 Cord 810 Convertible in a bright red. It would look at home on the highways of today just as well as some of the retro style cars they are building today.
The very first vine cuttings came from France in 1655 and the first wine produced by Jan van Riebeeck was in 1659. In 1685 the Constantia Wine Estate was established on over 1,800 acres. It was the start of the new world wine making. Over many years the estate has been broken up and there are five major wineries and two smaller ones that now operate on what was once the Constantia Estate or a part of it.
I spent my first night at Constantia Uitsig (eight-zig) which was once a part of that estate. After being able to sleep in the horizontal position for the first time in a few days, I awoke bursting with energy. After a delicious breakfast of eggs, toast and breakfast sausages somewhat like bockwurst but with honey as well and then a delightful light pastry and strong coffee I was ready for whatever the day had to offer. In the process of getting ready for the five wineries I was going to be visiting this first day I ran into Francois Theunissen who is the marketing director for the Constantia Uitsig winery, hotel and it’s three restaurants. When he found out my reason for being there he invited me to that evenings 2011 Vintners Annual Dinner, something I was totally unaware of. He also advised me not to overdo any lunch I was having. It was going to be hard following his last recommendation.
My first winery visit was to Klein Constantia, just down the road from where I was staying. It also was part of the original estate as were the three others I visited that day. The front of the main building was typical Dutch style architecture and as I stepped through the main entrance I found myself in the lobby area with the reception desk directly in front of me. What was so unique was that if I proceeded to my left front I would be in the production area where all the steel tanks are. If I went to my right front I had access to the wine fields. If I went to my right rear I could descend into the barrel storage area which is underground. To my left rear there was winery art on display. It was a very well thought out area.
In a few minutes Adam Mason, the winemaker appeared and gave me a tour of all the interior facilities. We then headed out to the vineyards’ in his four wheel drive truck. The vineyards and the countryside were lush and green and as we got higher you could even see the ocean in the distance. He mentioned he’d take me to the highest point on the property where they have established a new vineyard. I could see where we were headed and I thought the road was a little challenging. It was getting stepper and steeper and I was beginning to feel like an astronaut getting ready for liftoff as most of my weight was in the seatback. We were about 100 yards short of our destination when the wheels started spinning on the still moist ground and grass from the morning dew. We cautiously got out of the truck as neither of us wanted to become a high speed missile headed towards the valley bottom. There were spectacular views in every direction and it was well worth the effort. It was so beautiful.
Back at the winery a table had been set up with the wines I was going to be sampling along with water, some breads and crackers and some cheese. Adam explained each of the wines we sampled and I was astonished by the full rich flavors of the fruit in the white wines. We started with a Chardonnay that had tropical fruit taste and similar nose with a little flower as well. It was unwooded. It was similar to the wine I had on the flight. I was finding it hard to believe how much I enjoyed these wines compared to what I experienced in the states. The second white was an unwooded Sauvignon Blanc and it had a flowery nose and a taste of asparagus, fruit and a little green taste. Then we tried a wooded Chardonnay. They only wood about 20% to 30% of the wine in that batch and only for two or three months. That seems to be what most of the other wineries are doing as well. You still get the great fruit taste of the grapes and the finish is a little more polished, but you don’t have any wood taste. We did a few more whites and then a flight of the reds. All the wines were delightful, and made a real impression on me.
Constantia has the best climate and the perfect conditions to produce some of the world’s best white wines, and the wineries focus on those wines. Yet, the reds they produce are winning awards in Europe and other areas as well. One of their wines proved highly desirable to a very famous person, Napoleon Bonaparte. Once Napoleon had been shipped off to St. Helena to live in exile, he was still treated well by the British since he was once an Emperor. Every month the British had a case of Constantia Natural Sweet Wine shipped to him, so he could continue to enjoy some of the things he was used to having as Emperor. That wine is still being produced and bottled in the same style bottle that was shipped to Napoleon.
After touring Groot (Large) Constantia and doing a wine tasting there I headed further down the road to Buitenverwachting (Beyond Expectation). There I met Hermann Kirschbaum, Cellar Master and Winemaker. We were going to sample the wines with lunch, which is the way I prefer to do it, but you can only do that once or twice a day if your able to do it with dinner as well. I ordered a light fish dish to go with the wines we’d sample, but it also included a soup, salad and dessert. We tried five wines, a Buiten Blanc 2011, that was a full bodied Sauvignon Blanc based blend that offers a variation of fruit characters including ripe gooseberry, green peppers, green melon and hints of tropical fruit. A Chardonnay 2010, it was a wooded full bodied and rich Chardonnay offering a powerful citrus and steely backbone. Classic toasty and butterscotch-like characters with mineral undertones. Good balance of oak followed with abundant fruit. A Sauvignon Blanc 2011, the wine had a pale lemon yellow color and a bouquet reminiscent of green figs with hints of gooseberries and an intrusion of green peppers. The wine is dry, full bodied and has a long lingering finish. A Husseys Vlei Sauvignon Blanc 2011, the wine had a pale lemon yellow color and a bouquet reminiscent of green peppers combined with herbaceous aromas. The wine is dry, full bodied and has a long lingering finish. A ‘1769’ Vintage 2010, this classical Constantia Dessert wine offered a ripe apricot, melon, almond and apple like characters. All the wines and lunch were truly outstanding.
I had one more stop to make that day at a new winery called “Steenburg”. It’s a very contemporary looking structure and even more so once I stepped into the restaurant and wine tasting area. It looked like you just stepped into a high end restaurant you’d expect to see in New York City. It was very classy and yet had a very warm feel to it with great vistas out of the glass walls on one side. The wines here were outstanding as all the places I visited earlier. It’s a place I would highly recommend someone visit if they ever decide to visit the wine country here and play golf.
That evening, I headed over to the restaurant for the Vintners Dinner. About eighty to one hundred people paid $65.00 (390.00 rand) to attend this function and it was a full house. There were eight people at this table and four of them were also with the media in South Africa. Each of the five major wineries in Constantia were going to be presenting their newest offering in a premium Bordeaux style white wine blend. Each winemaker gave a brief talk prior to the wine and matching gourmand dish of the five course meal was served. The best way to describe the food and wine at this grand dinner is to tell you about the chef and restaurant it was held in. Head Chef, Clayton Bell, and his restaurant at Constantia Uitsig has been ranked number one in Africa for over a dozen years and has been ranked number twelve in the world. Need I say more? The food and wines were truly outstanding. The dishes were not only works of art in presentation, but artfully composed with exciting flavors that mingled well with each other and with the wines. It was truly a moveable feast.
Over the week end, I spent some time sightseeing in the Constantia area and doing a little shopping. It was truly a beautiful area that had lush verdant valleys and plains with dark rugged and jagged peaks poking up through the green. I noticed all the flowering plants seemed to have a more intense and richer and brighter colors than anywhere I’ve ever been. As we know, man had his start in Africa, but he had to have been born in Constantia because of the natural beauty. It’s the garden of Eden. It is this lushness from the sea breezes that makes this one of the world’s finest white wine growing regions.
Late Sunday, I headed over to the Laiback Winery which was going to be my base camp for the remainder of my two week wine tour. It is one of the few organic wineries in the area and is lovingly cared for by a great couple who truly love what they are doing, and it shows. They have a string of eight very large and contemporary rooms that also offer a large LCD TV a small cooking area. At the far end of the room were glass sliding doors that opened up to a deck overlooking a small lake and a swimming pool off to the left below the main lodge. The sunsets ever night beyond the lake were pretty intense. There were always a few small bottles of their white and red wines in the room to sample or have with a small snack. With the large lunches and sampling the wines before, after and with lunch every day, I never felt there was a need to have dinner.
Over the course of the time I was there I visited over forty different wineries and each of them offered another unique experience in the great wines they are producing in South Africa. Every day there was a surprise of one sort or another, and I was surprised to find an American who owned and operated the Tokara Winery that was nestled in a narrow little valley. Thys Lombard told me he got tired of the rush and hassle of the investment business in New York City and decided to use his more creative talents in developing great wines. And he is doing just that. Every winery I visited, I sampled anywhere from six to ten or twelve wines. And I have to tell you, out of all the wines I sampled, there was not one wine I would have considered marginal or poor. It was a daunting task, and I had to be careful not to over enjoy any of the wines as I was driving myself through the countryside were everyone drives on the wrong side of the road.
I was very surprised one evening when I received a phone call from one of the wineries I was going to be visiting in a few days. It was from David and Susan Sonnenberg, the owners of the Diemersfontein Winery in the Wellington area. Instead of visiting their winery on the scheduled day, they suggested that I come the day before and do the wine tasting with them at dinner that night, then spend the night and attend Pinotage On Tap the following day and spend the night there as well, so I wouldn’t have to drive home after the party. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
The next few days was more of the same, sampling some of the most interesting and tasteful white and red wines I’ve had to opportunity to experience in the last few years. The red wines were more like the red wines you’d find in other parts of the world, true to the accepted style of the grape. But even today, I’m still amazed at how great and yet different the white wines are from South Africa than what we normally have here in the states. They are truly outstanding and the quality is second to none. There is a small winery in the states that produces some outstanding white wines, it’s the Husch Winery in California. There are over 7000 different wines in South Africa, and I’ve only scratched the surface.
Friday rolled around and after my last tasting I headed for Wellington and dinner at the Diemersfontein Country Estate with David and Susan. As I headed up the stairs of the estate house I could see the elegantly set table on the veranda. After I got settled in, in one of the thirty guest rooms, I went out and met my hosts. David filled me in on the history of the estate and winery and his families involvement starting in the 1940’s. Once a few other guests arrived we sat down to a grand dinner and wine tasting. There was nothing left to be desired. The food and wines were excellent and rather than describe them here you can see their descriptions on their web site, as you can with all the wineries visited. Tomorrow is the day I want to relate to you.
I’ve been to outdoor wine tastings in California, New Mexico and other areas, but this isn’t a tasting, it’s a celebration of a wine. Pinotage. It’s a wine with a sorted history of failures and false starts, and finally a celebration of the long struggle. David has created something unique, first in a wine, then in an event. Pinotage On Tap is an annual event that David holds on the estate grounds each year starting ten years ago. This year it attracted over 2000 fans for a full day of friends, fun, food and wine. The wine has a cult following. For about $35.00 to $40.00, depending on the exchange rate, you gain entrance to the event and you receive a shopping bag of goodies. It includes a wine glass along with information, other memorabilia, and tickets for food during the day and a front seat to some great entertainment. Several steps from where you pick up your goodies is the first barrel of Pinotage where your glass is filled. Throughout the grounds are spread eight barrels of Pinotage, each holding about 250 liters each and one barrel of white wine for those other people. By the end of the day they were all empty which meant about one liter of wine per person was consumed and not one incident of intoxication.
As people continued to stream in, several employees started moving through the crowds with large plates of finger food that was delicious. Every time you saw one of them they would have a different item for tasting to enjoy with the wine. Yes, the wine. What is it about this wine that has so many people flocking to an event like this. In April 2007, Neil Pendock christened it “The People’s Pinotage” after his consumer survey in the South African Sunday Times found that it was the “overwhelming favourite” of all pinotages. Since then, the people have spoken again by voting it “The Best Red Wine on Show” at Winex in Cape Town and Johannesburg in 2008/9/10. David says,” Since we first developed this Pinotage in 2001, as a new and original style, it has taken wine lovers throughout the world by storm! It is praised for its easy accessibility, uniqueness, wonderful rich coffee, smokey overtones on the nose – and yet the preservation of voluptuous fruit on the palate, along with cinnamon and chocolatey notes on the palate. It is vivacious, versatile and velvety. Makes you sit up and smile at the company you are with. It can be paired with a range of different foods – from curries, to game meats, to dark chocolate desserts. It appeals to new drinkers who have not previously been red wine enthusiasts – they find it an easy introduction to the world of red wine – a true midwife to drinking pleasure.” I could not have said it any better.
There was an African marimba band in front of the Estate House, a guitarist and singer under one of the large tents containing food and beer vendors and eventually the large stage came alive with the African beat of the main entertainment group. It was mostly traditional African music and the rhythm got the crowd of a thousand in front of the group pulsing and moving with the music.
In your bag of goodies were three tickets for food. One got you a bowl of delicious pasta, another was a bowl of chilli with meat and beans with rice and the last was a bowl of chicken and rice with a great sauce. You could also buy some grilled sausages if you were still hungry. A real big event happened in one of the buildings not far from the stage at 2:30PM. They opened the doors to the room with a three by eight foot table with a chocolate fountain at each end and the table buried in strawberries and some marshmallows several inches deep. You had to be careful, it was like a shark feeding frenzy in there. There was an older gentlemen whose job it was to keep the chocolate fountains flowing and the table filled deep with strawberries. He was a very busy man and I wondered if he was up to the task. I worried he could get trampled or have a heart attack, but apparently he survived the ordeal.
What a fun day of great entertainment, food, friends and wine that was always filled with new experiences. After a dazzling sunset the crowds started to disperse to the chartered buses and autos for the trip home. The next morning after another grand breakfast, I thanked my hosts and headed back to my lodging at the Laiback Winery. The next week was filled with more wine tours and wine tastings that never failed to amaze me with their delightful flavours of fruit, melons, and citrus. The wines of South Africa are basically an undiscovered commodity for most of the United States, but they are available on the east coast, Florida, Texas and to a lesser degree on the west coast. If you look closely you’ll also find the wines in areas like Nevada and Illinois, but it is a hunt. If you go, it’ll become one of your most memorable trips of your life. I didn’t want to leave and return home.
Notes: Most of the wineries I visited are importing into the United States. To find out who to contact go to the winery web site and find the list of agents for the United States. Most of them are on the east coast, Florida, Texas and a few on the west coast. They may sell to you directly or advise you of where it can be purchased. You can find a complete list of wineries I visited at: http://www.wosa.co.za. My only regret is that I couldn’t write about every winery I visited. To do so, would require this to be a book. They all deserved to be mentioned as all the wines were truly outstanding. If you or a group are interesting in making a trip to the South African wine country, I’d be happy to assist you. If you go, you’ll want to make sure you get a GPS unit with your car to get you to where you’re going rapidly. They do things differently over there and it’s actually a better way to navigate. You just put in the longitude and latitude of your destination and your off. It’s faster and easier to input than our method of state, city, street name and number. You normally only have to change four or five digits. You might also pick up a cell phone as the book along with descriptions, maps and the GPS coordinates that make it easy and fast to get there. The U.S. phone won’t work over there. You would get your GPS unit and telephone in the terminal prior to getting you rental auto. There are usually one or two vendors at each airport. I’d also advise you to get a copy of Platter’s book of South African Wines for 2012 which just came out. All the wineries are listed in it.
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