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Catching the cape wine bug
travels in the South African winelands

By Dominic Hiatt

The South African wine industry is buzzing at the moment. And with an unbeatable combination of fantastic scenery, a warm climate and affordable, high-quality wine, the western Cape is currently a happening tourist destination. It seems that just about everyone’s catching the SA bug. Dominic Hiatt gets Down to Earth in the winelands of the south western Cape.

There really was no alternative. I pulled on my trunks, pushed through the French windows of Autumn, flip flopped across the springy grass and designer gravel and threw myself, all European and ugly, through the Langeberg Mountains and deep blue skies into cool salvation.

The night before, at the delightful Old Mill restaurant across the road from bloomestate, Swellendam’s self-entitled ‘luxury retreat’ with its four seasonal bedrooms and swish breakfasts, I had recklessly washed down my springbok carpaccio and beef flambé with an entire bottle of Viljoensdrift River Grandeur 2001 Shiraz. In this fabulous wine alone, a porty ensemble of pepper, plums, herbs and berries with a knowing, velvet finish, the South Western Cape, as a wine-producing region, has clearly arrived.

South African wines have certainly made huge strides in recent years. The social and political developments of the nineties, along with a surge of private wine initiatives as small producers have broken away from the big co-operatives, has significantly improved the quality and variety of wines produced. “Such is the enthusiasm for wine production,” joked Debbie Viljoen at Stellenbosch’s Louisvale Wines, “that at one point in 2002, seven new wineries were opening every week. Some people were even making wine from their garages.”

Margie Barker, Cape Wine Master at the Cape Wine Academy, toes much the same line: “The political events of recent years have had an incredible effect on the South African wine industry, and have opened huge gates – from the export point of view, but also internally. There has been a major rethink of how things are done here, the Government has set up bodies to encourage and help people, and the result is many tremendous wines.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, of course, is the favourable Mediterranean climate generated by the raging African sun, the cold Benguela current streaming up from Antarctica and the conflict of warm and cold winds whistling in off the Indian and Atlantic Oceans respectively. The result is warm summers, rather than hot, and wet, but mild winters relatively unaffected by frost. Or sometimes, to quote Viljoen, “four seasons in one week.” The macroclimate is complemented by innumerable mesoclimates offered by the mountainous terrain, highly varied soils and equally varied regional rainfalls (as little as 350mm in some areas, more than twice that in others). All in all, the perfect recipe for a wine-producing nation.

When I hauled myself from the pool, the edges of my hangover ran off my shoulders and back, cheated by shock. It was still only nine but the sun was already biting, the white façades of Cape Dutch homesteads throbbing like heatspots in the distance. But I was ashamed: I wanted more of the same. Viljoensdrift it was.

Deciding to spend another day cruising the winelands of the South Western Cape, tasting and buying some of the best secrets the world has to offer, while admiring the incomparable landscape, wasn’t, admittedly, one of the hardest choices I’ve ever made. It wouldn’t cost much either. With around fourteen South African rand to the pound, you can walk away with some seriously good wine for next to nothing. Take the River Grandeur Shiraz. It set me back around seven or eight pounds in the Old Mill; it would cost a quarter of that at Viljoensdrift itself. We got in the car; I handed Tiggy the keys.

Along with 20 or so other estates including Springfield, De Wetshof and the more familiar Graham Beck Wines, Viljoensdrift belongs to Robertson, a small but increasingly influential wine region in the breathtaking Breede River Valley two hours east of Cape Town. As fate would have it, Swellendam, a popular pitstop on South Africa’s famous ‘Garden Route’ (particularly with ramblers, art and antique lovers), was only a short drive away along rose-lined roads.

“South Africa isn’t going to get any bigger – it’s held back by water shortage and irrigation problems – but it will get better. We can’t expand but we can improve the quality.”

Fred Viljoen

The vineyard itself, covering 80 hectares, is located on the banks of the Breede River itself, the valley’s lifeblood. Given the quality and range of the wines on offer, it came as a surprise to learn that Viljoensdrift only started up again in 1998 after a 30-year absence. “Until a few years back, we were part of a co-operative, growing our grapes, handing them over and then forgetting about them. But we decided we wanted to produce our own wines and did just that”, says Fred Viljoen, who runs the vineyard with his brother, Manie, while also offering trips every Saturday on the vineyard’s very own riverboat, Uncle Ben. Wine naturally included.

Although Viljoensdrift grows several grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage (South Africa’s own grape, a crossing of Cinsaut and Pinot Noir), “the preferred grape here”, says Fred, “is Shiraz, which thrives in a Mediterranean climate similar to that of France.” The stony limestone soil, he adds, “is full of calcium, which gives complexity to our reds.” I agree, saying the River Grandeur 2001 Shiraz was great. The 2000, he hits back, is even better.

Annual rainfall in Robertson can be as little as 350mm, although Fred claims the aridity of the land is in fact a big plus: “We don’t like to give the vines too much water anyway as this keeps the grapes small and concentrated – we’re able to get more flavour out of them that way.” Keeping things as natural as possible is also a major part of the Viljoens’ philosophy, and as a result they adhere to the guidelines of the environmentally-friendly Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) scheme: “We don’t like to use a lot of chemicals, but when we do, we only use chemicals that are preferred by the South African wine industry”, says Fred.

Feeling infinitely better, and with the boot slightly fuller – there’s a cracking 2001 Semillon too – we bade Viljoensdrift farewell and drove off into the heat. Cape Town was our ultimate destination, but we would make two more stops en route, the viticultural districts of Paarl and Stellenbosch.

West of Robertson in the direction of Cape Town lies the Paarl region, home to the likes of Glen Carlou, Fairview, the leviathan KWV and Villiera. The latter, purchased by cousins Jeff and Simon Grier in 1983, was particularly memorable. After all, how many chateaux would unleash a dozen or so bottles on you – Merlots, Cab Savs, a dessert wine called Inspiration among others – and leave you to it? Talk about out of the pan and into the fire.

A lot of changes have taken place in South African wine production – there’s been a big focus on quality and we’ve become a lot more open-minded. We’re now asking what the consumer wants rather than what people drink locally. It’s taken a lot of time to shake that off.”

 Cathy Brewer

Like Viljoensdrift, Villiera is brimming with confidence, and another wine farm eager to make its mark. With 300 hectares to play with, it certainly has the opportunity to do so, although to ensure quality, rather than quantity, harvesting is limited to eight tons per hectare. Size poses other challenges too. Closer to the Atlantic seaboard, it rains a lot more in Paarl than it does in Robertson (around 650mm a year on average) so canopy management is vital, as is sufficient airflow to minimise humidity.

Winewise, Villiera produced only Cap Classique sparkling wine in the early years, although regular visits by Jeff to Europe and the New World gave him confidence to expand the range of wines on offer, and develop the techniques used to produce them. “We’re constantly talking about wine, we keep reading about it, and we keep travelling to learn more,” says sales representative Cathy Brewer.

For the whites, the focus is on Sauvignon and Chenin, although Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer are also grown. The former are blended to produce the wonderful Blue Ridge Blanc, a fruity, refreshing and gloriously gluggable number that will appeal to all – from absolute beginner to connoisseur. Selling for about £1.20 a bottle, this wine symbolises what Villiera is all about. “The philosophy at Villiera is to produce good wines at a good price,” adds Cathy. “Blue Ridge Blanc offers incredible value for what you pay.” It certainly does.

But so too does the snazzy-sounding, snazzy-labelled Down to Earth, a spicy, dark berry blend of Shiraz, Carignan, Gamay Noir, Merlot and Pinotage. The idea here was to produce a red that could be enjoyed by all, and which ‘tastes of the earth in which it grows’. Well, Villiera gets top marks again. Not bad for 90p. Not bad at all.

As we drove back down the long, gravelly drive, five or ten pounds out of pocket, but five or ten wines in favour, it all started to get to me. The intense heat, along with a fair few sips of wine, most recently Down to Earth, had had the quite opposite effect of sending me upwards, into orbit. One more stop and then home.

Of all the vineyards in South Africa, Louisvale, a boutique wine producer in the picturesque Devon Valley, just outside the famous university town and cultural centre, Stellenbosch, is surely one of the more charming. Dusty, pot-holed lanes wind their way through vines and thorny red to a small farm and tasting house where the aesthete can absorb the incredible  vistas  and  the  hedonist  some of the most enigmatic Chardonnays the rainbow nation has to offer.

"The key to South Africa is its creativity. We’re finally moving away from the tried and tested wines into something altogether new.”

Debbie Viljoen

But while  it  oozes sleepiness and rustic bliss, in reality Louisvale has been a hotbed of activity in recent months. In October 2002, the vineyard was purchased  by Michael Johnston, owner of Scotland’s Carnoustie Hotel Golf Resort & Spa,  and  Hendrik Kotze, a partner at a Cape Town law firm. They certainly mean  business  and  immediately bought up a small neighbouring farm where they  intend  to  expand  the range of homegrown wines, hitherto limited to Chardonnays of varying degrees of wood. Cabernet and Merlot are strong front runners to be planted in the decomposed granite that underpins the soil. 

A batch of new French oak barrels has also been rolled in, in an effort to facilitate “the Burgundian  approach  to Chardonnay which the winery is keen to implement”, says  spokesperson Debbie Viljoen, adding that, henceforth, “we will be letting the wines mature in the bottle for longer prior to release.”

Despite its new acquisition, Louisvale, with only 28 hectares given to its grapes,  remains a boutique, but one with big, big ambitions.  “The  UK is a market we really want to concentrate on,” adds Debbie. Well, with two wines, the lighter, medium-bodied Chavant Chardonnay, and the Cabernet LV already on sale at Harrods, they haven’t done badly so far…

… And nor, indeed, had we. In one, heat-hazy day, we had tasted some spectacular wines, bought several more, seen humbling landscapes and even the odd ostrich. But enough was enough. Homeward bound.

Only forty minutes away from Louisvale lies the superlative beauty of Cape Town itself. An increasingly popular holiday jaunt – even long weekend – given the favourable exchange rate and marginal time difference, ‘Kapstaad’ can satisfy even the laziest of wine lovers. Indeed, if the thought of putting too much distance between yourself and the palm-lined chic of Camps Bay is simply too unbearable, then a trip to the two bastions of the South African wine industry, Groot and Klein Constantia on the other side of Table Mountain, via the imposing Twelve Apostles, is an extremely attractive, if less personal, alternative.

But for wine lovers with a thirst for adventure, there really is no better place on earth. After all, where else can you mix your enthusiasm for undiscovered wines with activities as diverse as whalespotting, game drives, horseriding, watercolour painting, and diving – with dolphins or the Great White itself?

A few useful websites 

·         For comprehensive information on the wine regions of the South Western Cape, check out Wines of South Africa at www.wosa.co.za.

·         For a vast selection of wine-related tours, visit www.winetours.co.za.

·         To import your finds through established and reliable operations, try The Vineyard Connection (www.vineyardconnection.co.za), or the Cyber Cellar (www.cybercellar.co.za).

·         Acommodationwise, try www.sa-venues.com, www.capestay.co.za and the excellent www.portfolioconnection.com, or, in line with the pace of life in this corner of the world, simply go with the flow.

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