After 350 years, the sweet secret of Africa's southern tip is out, writes Winsor Dobbin.
On February 2, 1659, Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company and first Commander of the Cape wrote in his diary: "Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes."
That sweet wine, Vin de Constance, is still made today and, 350 years on, South African wine is not only making an impact worldwide but wine tourism offerings in regions such as Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Paarl, Wellington and Robertson are regarded as among the best in the world.
With virtually all the wine regions in South Africa within three hours of Cape Town, it is easy to combine world-class wine tastings with whale watching, wildlife adventures and exploring one of the most dramatically appealing cities on the globe.
There are 17 South African wine routes in all, with Constantia and Durbanville on the fringes of the city and the triangle of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl, which sprawl into each other to the north-east. Other less-visited regions include Bot River, Breedekloof, Darling, cool-climate Elgin and Hermanus, Robertson, Swartland, Tulbagh, Wellington, the West Coast and Worcester, along with the Klein Karoo route that is allegedly one of the longest in the world.
Franschhoek has been dubbed the gourmet capital of South Africa and is home to top restaurants including the Tasting Room, Reuben's, Babel, Boschendal, the Restaurant at Grande Provence, and Bread and Wine at Moreson Vineyard. Its world-class accommodation ranges from the plush Le Franschhoek Hotel and Spa and L'Ermitage to award-winning bed and breakfast La Fontaine. Star wineries include Vrede en Lust, Haute Cabriere, Plaisir de Merle and Boekenhoutskloof.
Stellenbosch is a historic university town founded in 1679 and home to the country's oldest wine route. Look out for magnificent Delaire Graff Estate, Neethlingshof, Thelema, Vergelegen, Beyerskloof, Mulderbosch and Rust en Vrede, along with star eateries Jordan, Tokara, 96 Winery Road, Overture and Terroir, while Paarl, under the Du Toitskloof mountain range, is more countrified. Home to the Afrikaans language monument, with a vinous history dating to 1867, its major wineries include Backsberg, Fairview, KWV, Laborie, Glen Carlou, Nederburg and Simonsvlei, while Grande Roche is regarded as the top luxury resort.
Rather than South African cellar doors being mired in the '60s after the trade embargoes of the toxic apartheid years, local wineries quickly realised they were part of the entertainment industry. From tram rides to Segway tours to breathtaking scenery and world-class cuisine, the Cape wine routes offer an exhilarating experience that goes far beyond chenin blanc and chardonnay.
At the popular destination of Spier Estate in Stellenbosch, for instance, visitors are invited to take a vineyard tour on one of those nifty Segway machines before a tasting, or choosing from one of three winery restaurants in which to eat or visiting the spa, craft market or eagle conservation centre.
At L'Ormarins in Franschhoek, they can combine a tasting with a visit to one of the world's best car museums: the Franschhoek Motor Museum, as well as a hiking trail up into the mountains where Cape leopards are spotted occasionally.
At Solms-Delta there is a fascinating museum detailing the 400-year history of the farm and a restaurant serving modern Cape Malay food, as well as a choice of guided walking tours and food and wine-matching experiences. La Motte is home to a world-class art gallery and at Viljoensdrift, near Robertson, you can take an open-air cruise on the Breede River after enjoying a picnic and tasting on a delightful deck.
There are dozens of other such innovative offerings, including a cooking school at Leopard's Leap, the opportunity to watch glass blowing at Backsberg, KWV's Sensorium (where art and wine are combined) and some fabulous food and wine matchings at Grande Provence.
"Many of the wineries in South Africa realised years ago that you need to offer more than just a wine tasting to bring people to your door and engage with your product," says Georgie Prout, an Australian who works for the Glen Carlou winery.
Many South African wine estates are dramatically beautiful and boast striking Cape Dutch architecture. Several have on-site restaurants – far more than you would find in any Australian wine region – and with the Australian dollar so strong now, wines, food and accommodation are all ridiculous bargains.
As an example, rooms at the very chic Relais & Chateaux Le Quartier Francais start from about R1900 ($206) and a three-course dinner at Grande Provence is priced at R320.
And what of the wine quality? Chardonnays vary between fat and oaky and the modern vibrant style, while visitors should try the native grape pinotage (a hybrid of pinot noir and cinsault). Chenin blanc shines, however, and is readily available for $4 a bottle upwards, and sauvignon blanc, cabernet, shiraz and bordeaux-style blends are all agreeable.
Wineries range from big, slick operations owned by local millionaires to small mum-and-dad operations. Several, including Solms-Delta and Dombeya, have handed part ownership to their black workers.
No fewer than five of the winemakers in and around Stellenbosch are former Springbok rugby players, combining two of the country's greatest passions.
Franschhoek was founded by French Huguenot immigrants and has a decidedly French flair – and you'll try some excellent white wines there. The Stellenbosch district is probably better known for its reds.
The Cape wine regions were featured on TripAdvisor's "Best Wine Destinations 2012", which highlighted the distinctive Cape Dutch architecture to be found at many estates.
The Stellenbosch Wine Route, established in the early 1970s, is the most famous and busiest, but it is worth also venturing out into areas such as Robertson, based on a dusty Afrikaans heartland farming town but surrounded by vineyards producing wines offering quite extraordinary value.
Here are some of the world-class gourmet experiences:
Grande Provence is a grand and historic wine estate at Franschhoek with a superb tasting room with wine and food matchings, the fine dining the Restaurant, an impressive art gallery and sculpture garden, and world-class accommodation at the Owners' Cottage. +27 21 876 8600, grandeprovence.co.za.
The Robertson Small Hotel is a luxury boutique hotel in a slow-paced rural area, and was recently named South Africa's best luxury country hotel for the second year consecutively. There's a mix of sophistication and old-world charm, service is impeccable – and there is a world-class restaurant on site: Reuben's at Robertson Small Hotel. +27 23 626 7200, therobertsonsmallhotel.com.
Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek is part of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux group and comprises a luxury hotel and two restaurants; one of them – the Tasting Room – regularly rated among the top 50 in the world (sample dishes including wildebeest loin). The wine list is comprised exclusively of premium Cape wines. +27 21 876 2151, lqf.co.za.
The writer was a guest of South African Tourism.
Five essential things to do
1. Explore the immaculately laid-out gardens and superb fresh produce at Babylonstoren, a French-style fruit-and-vegetable farm, and enjoy afternoon tea in the Victorian greenhouse or lunch at Babel restaurant. The manor house dates back to 1777.
2. Take a ride on the new Franschhoek Wine Tram, a hop-on, hop-off experience that links several of the top cellar doors, including Grande Provence, Chamonix, Dieu Donne and Haute Cabriere.
3. Enjoy tapas overlooking the vines on Thursdays and Friday afternoons at Glen Carlou cellar door.
4. See the Nelson Mandela Monument at the Drakenstein Correction Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison), where Mandela spent his last days before his release.
5. Visit the traditional township restaurant Batho's Place outside Franschhoek. Sample local beer and enjoy entertainment and a barbecue lunch in a shanty town. A chance to see how many locals live.
Six top winery eateries
Solms-Delta Fyndraai Restaurant specialises in modern takes on Cape Malay food. Sit in an old wine cellar or outside on the deck and enjoy dishes such as mussels in tomato bredie or bobotie spring rolls. Super-friendly service and affordable gourmet picnics are also available to enjoy on the lawns. Bookings essential.
Rust en Vrede This landmark Stellenbosch winery, 315 years old, is home to a cellar restaurant with open kitchen that offers indulgent four- or six-course degustations in a slick but not stuffy environment. Think refined dishes such as sole fillet with scallop mousse, beurre blanc and pork skin.
Backsberg Relaxed tastings and a casual dining environment in a traditional Cape Dutch setting in Paarl. The rotisserie lamb cooked over wood is a long-time weekend favourite and the cooking is wholesome and hearty. The estate wines are outstanding.
Glen Carlou Situated outside Paarl, it offers spectacular vineyard views and is part of a chic complex that also houses a museum of modern art. Standout dishes include duck and chorizo terrine with cassis jelly, or soy-braised pork belly with chilli caramel and sesame broccoli.
Moreson Outside Franschhoek, this is a terrific lunchtime destination with its Bread and Wine restaurant open seven days and focusing on charcuterie such as traditional biltong and mettwurst from local expert Neil Jewell. There's a rustic setting in which to enjoy the bistro-style dishes and the courtyard is lovely on a warm day.
Grande Provence One of the swishest wine estates in Franschhoek, it's also home to a sophisticated restaurant where chef Darren Badenhorst serves up dishes such as Cajun-spiced soft-shell crab and roasted quail with truffled gnocchi and figs. Expect top-notch service in a refined setting. Dine inside or in the sculpture garden.
Terroir at Kleine Zalze; Cotage Fromage at Vrede en Lust; Boekenhoutskloof; 96 Winery Road; Pierneef at La Motte; Reuben's at the Robertson Small Hotel; Tokara; Overture; Delaire Graff and the Restaurant at Jordan.
Getting there South African Airways has daily non-stop flights from Sydney and Perth to Johannesburg. Fares from Sydney start at $2085, including taxes, and a return side trip to Cape Town. 1300 435 972, flysaa.com.au.