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Vineyard with a View: South Africa

By |  October 9 2015

Nowhere else in the wine world at present, surely, is there more vital and fruitful a dialectic of old and new as in the Cape. It is partly a matter of South African political and viticultural history, with the past few decades seeing a radical reinvigoration, but not a repudiation, of some 350 years of winemaking. It is also that the land and climate seem to prompt wines with, at their best, a character that falls somewhere between the abstracted extremes of conservative classic Europe and iconoclastic New World — though both of these models exert force on contemporary Cape winemaking.

In different ways the forces of old and new, of tradition and discovery, of rediscovery and reinterpretation, can be found in most parts of South Africa’s winelands: Sharing that dynamic is part of the pleasure and interest for visitors.

Such wine-focused visitors to the Cape will note two significant advantages after the probably long flight to Cape Town. The first is that the winelands, with all their diversity, fan out contiguously from the city — inland and along the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts — and are all generally easily accessible from there and from each other. Leaving aside an estate in KwaZulu-Natal and the hot, irrigated vineyards along the northerly Orange River (leaving aside the latter is eminently reasonable for the serious wine lover), the larger part of the vineyards and wineries you could wish to visit would take between 20 minutes and a few hours to reach if you made your base in the city itself, with Table Mountain rising austerely but comfortingly above you.

A second great advantage is the winelands’ spectacular beauty. Jancis Robinson MW has lamented, "I go to South Africa to write about wine and end up writing about tourism. […] The place is just so damned beautiful." It’s a useful attribute for when you grow weary of dipping your nose into a glass (or are traveling with someone who makes it clear your obsession is being merely patiently indulged).

If it is somewhat arbitrary to focus here on three of the smaller wine-growing valleys enfolded by the mountains of the Western Cape, so be it. In rather different ways, though, they can tell some of the story of what is happening to South African wine today.

Constantia

The days are long gone since Constantia was a vast single estate, the property of Simon van der Stel, governor of the Dutch settlement tentatively reaching across southernmost Africa in the latter 17th century. While the land was then subject to personal power and ambition, much of it has since been claimed by the impersonal and even less resistible growth of the city. Though a large area of the mountainous Cape Peninsula is given over to a national park, the remnants of the vineyards that were started in the late 1600s are now largely an enclave of some of the city’s more luxurious suburbs, inevitably threatened by an insatiable desire for housing with mountain and sea views and for golf courses to replace the vineyards — or at least reduce them to decorative amenities.

Yet even here is evidence of the rebirth of South African viticulture that followed the political transformations of the 1990s. Tourism, largely domestic, had kept Groot Constantia, van der Stel’s grand homestead, thriving through the years as a winery, too. In the 1980s, Klein Constantia (Groot means big, Klein means small) had created in Vin de Constance a revival of the great sweet Constantia wine that had once been the Cape’s glory; the estate, and a few others, were producing creditable or better wines. Now, even more remarkable than the survival of the established wineries in the face of the inexorable city, is the emergence of new ones and the carving of vineyards on some of the steep, almost Mosel-like slopes of the mountainsides, which are still zoned for agriculture.

Whether Constantia is indeed a valley might well be the matter of debate for geographers. Most of the vineyards lie on the lower slopes and at the feet of the chain of mountains curving from behind Table Mountain (if that mountain’s "front" is to the classic ocean view) to the sea on the other side of the peninsula. This rugged amphitheater opens on to mostly urbanized flatlands and the waters of False Bay, with the Stellenbosch mountains forming the far horizon.

The wind that comes to the vineyards is not a valley wind but the southeaster bringing Atlantic coolness to the vines and generally keeping fungus at bay, though its moisture can require vigilance against botrytis in sheltered spots. They know at Steenberg, the most exposed of the Constantia wineries, that "kindly cooling sea breezes" is a phrase that sometimes falls short of reality: The vines that produce their finest Sauvignon Blanc can have leaves stripped by the wind or the leaves burned by salt blown in from the ocean just 3 miles (5km) away.

The relative coolness of Constantia means that, on the whole, white grapes do best here — notably Sauvignon, which occupies about a third of the vineyard, Chardonnay some way behind in second place, and Semillon and a little Riesling much further down the planting list, if not the quality rankings. Nonetheless, in the established but not always convincing tradition of the Cape (and the New World as a whole), only now starting to be challenged, most properties produce a range of wines, including reds, Steenberg not least among them.

Although Steenberg’s vineyards date back only to the early 1990s, the farm was the first land grant made in the area — remarkably enough, to a woman. In 1682 Catharina Ras was given the land "to cultivate, to plough and to sow and also to possess." It was acquired by big business in 1990, and as well as a golf and housing estate, the vineyards and winery are complemented by a small luxury hotel and smart restaurant. Best known for its excellent Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc (and the occasional fine blend of the two), there is a range of red wines, including a rather successful stab at Nebbiolo.

Two new properties, still in the throes of establishment and not open to visitors, have great ambitions for red wines. One of them, Constantia Glen, already produces a fine, serious Sauvignon Blanc, and a Bordeaux-style blend is to be the only other wine; winemaker Karl Lambour points out that the part of the valley where they and Beau Constance are farming have aspects that give them a few extra hours of sunlight to justify confidence. It is worth noting, too, that another recently developed winery, High Constantia (beware of confusion: Many of the wineries’ names include reference to the area) makes a good varietal Cabernet Franc and an even better blend of both Cabernets, called Sebastiaan.

Probably the most successful of the valley’s red wines is the Christine from Buitenverwachting, a Cabernet-based Bordeaux-style blend that manages somehow to suggest elegance and finesse, as well as depth, despite paying the price of its ripeness with an alcohol level usually well in excess of 14%. In the best years, Buitenverwachting’s varietal Cabernet Sauvignon is equally good, and the Chardonnay and Sauvignon are among the area’s best.

If Groot Constantia is somewhat constrained by an orientation toward tourism, recent years have seen progress in the top wines, notably Merlot and Shiraz, and the state-owned winery is worth visiting for more than the historic sights and casual meals. Klein Constantia is another establishment where the general standard is rising after the estate seemed to lose concentration in the 1990s: The redoubtable, frequently ageworthy Sauvignon (now complemented by a more exuberantly showy single-vineyard version) seems likely to be more reliably good. So, too, are the other wines in the range, recently usefully extended by a Sauvignon/Semillon blend called Madame Marlbrook, a consort for the rather tough red Marlbrook blend, which includes a little Muscat de Frontignan, the variety used for the famous (if now less unchallenged) Vin de Constance.

Another winery that has risen to the fore in the 15 years since its first bottling is Constantia Uitsig, which is enviably consistent across its range; all except the red blend are under screwcap, incidentally, which is still rare in South Africa. The highlights are a Semillon — one of the best in the Cape, stately and invariably ageworthy — and the Uitsig White, one of the emerging Semillon/Sauvignon blends that are promising to establish a very serious category of modern but classically oriented Cape wine. Uitsig has more to offer the wine tourist, however: The 16 garden rooms of its small top-end hotel all have views appropriate to the luxury of the accommodation. Of the three restaurants, two are both good and serious: La Colombe, the better known, seems to have happily weathered the change of chef after the resignation of Franck Dangereux, whose Cape-Provençal cuisine had taken it well into world-class standards.

It would be a mistake, before leaving Constantia, not to make a detour to Cape Point Vineyards, on the other side of the peninsula. The detour itself should give much satisfaction, whether you take the shorter route over the starkly beautiful low mountain pass known as Ou Kaapse Weg ("Old Cape Way") or the much longer route along the coastline. Taking the latter, you could call in at the charming if rather touristy fishing village of Kalk Bay (and eat at the modest, eccentric, but excellent little restaurant/bakery called Olympic Bakery — no reservations taken) or get close to the delightfully enigmatic penguins that colonize Boulders Beach, or at Cape Point Nature Reserve clamber on the rocks against which huge waves fling themselves at the tip of the peninsula. It’s not, despite assertions to the contrary, where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean (that’s at Cape Agulhas, where there are interesting new vineyards, too), but the sea behaves as though this is a place of the greatest oceanic moment.

And once you get to Cape Point Vineyards winery itself, above the long white beach at Noordhoek, another reason for the detour is evident in the quality of the wines. Since the maiden releases of 2000, this has indisputably joined the top levels of the Cape hierarchy: Modest winemaker Duncan Savage makes superb varietal and blended wines from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Franschhoek

The dialectic of old and new takes on extra point — and poignancy — at the Solms-Delta estate on the edge of the Franschhoek Valley where it opens up into the larger Paarl district. Vineyards were first planted here around 1690, after the Dutch colonial government settled a few hundred French Huguenots fleeing Catholic persecution, intending them to impart winegrowing skills to the valley’s burghers (the immigrants were French, so those skills were taken for granted, however dubious they might have been). The French heritage lives on, not only in viticultural tradition and in marketing opportunism, but also in the name of the Wine of Origin ward and of the little town itself (a Dutch rendering of quartier français); also in the names of many of the wine farms, with their lovely white-gabled buildings: L’Ormarins, La Bri, La Bourgogne, Grande Provence… With bilingual panache, the dynamic grouping of local winemakers even calls itself the Vignerons de Franschhoek — though precious little French or Dutch is spoken these days.

The Delta vineyards, like those elsewhere in the valley, were destroyed by phylloxera at the end of the 1800s and turned over to fruit trees in a time of wine-market depression. In 2001 a replanting program was undertaken by neuroscientist Mark Solms, who returned from London to take over the debilitated property. Along with establishing vineyards largely planted to Rhône varieties (Shiraz, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Viognier) Solms began addressing the human legacy of centuries of dispossession and exploitation, with a profit- and property-sharing scheme established in conjunction with British philanthropist Richard Astor, who is settling on an adjoining farm.

There is now a small, professionally curated and moving museum at Solms-Delta, chronicling the history of the people who have lived and worked here — from the times of the earliest settlers and pre-colonial pastoralists, through the colonial viticulture that was built on slavery (something usually glossed over in the Cape, despite the monumental slave-bells that form charming architectural features at many Cape-Dutch estates), through the period of apartheid, to the beginnings of democracy and, as Mark Solms says, "our hopes for the future."

Not only did Solms energetically set about recording history and opening a less harsh and more humane chapter: With little knowledge of wine but a researcher’s library skills, he even rediscovered winemaking, notably the traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who, he reasonably concluded, should have something useful to say about growing grapes in a Mediterranean climate. The focus here, consequently, is desiccation, with bunches carefully strangled and left to dry on the vine (the climate makes this option less risky than it would be in Valpolicella).

Not all the wines are made entirely from dried grapes, though the two made in a joint venture with winemaker Hilko Hegewisch are: a white made from aromatic varieties; and the more successful Africana, made from Shiraz, with just over 15% ABV and a little, scarcely perceptible, residual sugar. These statistics are not much different from those of some blockbuster wines made more conventionally, but the balance, freshness, and character of the wine makes it more convincing than many others, and it is a very plausible vino di meditazione. The Solms Wijn de Caab range has desiccated minority components only: the Shiraz-based Hiervandaan; Amalie, largely Viognier, with some 20 percent Grenache Blanc; and Lekkerwijn, one of the Cape’s best serious rosés.

Many of the Solms wines are, while the home vineyards mature, largely from grapes sourced elsewhere. It would in fact be difficult now to make even tentative suggestions about Franschhoek terroir, partly because the current renewal of the area is so crucial at the higher quality levels, and partly because of the concomitant fact that many of the wines made here until recently are from bought-in grapes. An immediate counterweight to this should be noted, however: Perhaps the oldest vineyard in the Cape is in Franschhoek, producing a usually excellent, concentrated Semillon from Landau du Val (though the current 2005 clearly suffered from a stuck fermentation, leaving it offdry and less satisfactorily balanced than usual).

Boekenhoutskloof Syrah, the finest wine from Franschhoek’s most highly regarded producer, does in fact come from Wellington, though Mark Kent and Rudiger Gretschel make an ever-expanding range of top wines from their own fruit, including a Cabernet Sauvignon and a new Bordeaux blend called The Journeyman, the maiden 2005 from ten-year-old vines: Cabernet Franc (60 percent), with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. There are also two excellent wines from Semillon, the wooded dry version now joined by a subtle dry-finishing dessert wine, sold at the 2007 Cape Winemakers Guild auction. With such quality in diversity, it would be perverse to argue a need for greater focus, sitting on the veranda of Boekenhoutskloof’s chic new tasting room, with the Semillon vineyards below and the splendid mountains rising up behind.

The most impressive of the wineries that use only their own grapes is Chamonix. Not coincidentally, the Chamonix vineyards are planted high up the side slopes of the valley, while a majority of Franschhoek vines grow on the broad valley floor. Chamonix has long been well reputed for a fine, mineral Chardonnay capable of good development (even needing a few years to start showing its best). Last year, a still-fresh 1997 won a Museum Class trophy at an important local competition.

Through serious involvement in the management of the vineyards (which are increasingly organic), young Gottfried Mocke has managed to raise the standards of all the Chamonix wines in the six years he has been responsible for winemaking here. He is bringing to the fore a minerality and finesse in wines where fine natural acidity and moderate alcohol levels are part of the impeccable balance — the Chardonnay Reserve 2006, for example, has just 13.1% ABV. A few years back, the only other Chamonix contender as a genuinely high-quality wine would have been the Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, one of the rare Cape examples where wood is successfully used, but the quality of Pinot Noir grapes coming into the cellar means that some very good Pinots are now being made, too. There is also an attractive, fresh, sparkling wine and a decent Bordeaux blend.

Franschhoek is not a large area, with some three dozen wineries. Most are well set up for visiting and can offer something interesting apart from their views. In this brief and selective overview, another winery whose quality demands mention is Stony Brook. The farm was established little more than a decade back, largely to a wide range of red varieties — from Malbec to Mourvèdre. The maturing vineyards are now producing some characterful, modern, and powerfully rich wines.

Meanwhile, the biggest gesture of faith in Franschhoek wine — or, at least the biggest financial investment — is yet to show its achievement. Johann Rupert, of luxury-goods firm Richemont, has spent very many millions on a revitalization of L’Ormarins, his historic winery in the foothills of the Drakenstein. He has planted new high-lying vineyards to replace lower ones now turned over to paddocks, though he has also bought vineyards outside Franschhoek to provide grapes for the magnificent new winery. The first wines of this ambitious project should emerge in early 2008.

It would be invidious to advance too strongly the claims of only a few of the many places to stay in this valley, which offers a great deal of luxurious accommodation (as well as some that is less grand). Anyone putting up at Le Franschhoek — a new hotel and spa on the little town’s outskirts, with magnificent views over the valley — is likely to feel tempted to make this area their base for a wide-ranging winelands exploration. One advantage of staying at Le Quartier Français in the town center, apart from the excellent lodging, would be the short distance to stumble home after eating at The Tasting Room, the auberge’s main restaurant and certainly among the country’s top handful.

In fact, the little main street of Franschhoek offers arguably more and better fine dining than the whole of Johannesburg, and even the fastidious gourmet could spend a week or two here without being forced into repetition. Reuben’s (partowned by Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof) is less formal than Le Quartier but is the other leading place, and no less rewarding an experience. Both of these restaurants have good wine lists.

Hemel-en-Aarde

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is initially less spectacular scenically than Constantia or Franschhoek; at least until one is deep into the valley and the tarred road has dwindled to gravel, these seem mere rough high hills compared with that mountain grandeur. The Afrikaans name means "heaven and earth," which carries its own high assertion and corrective. But there is a finer quietness here. Unlike those in Constantia, the scattered vineyards of the Hemel-en-Aarde are not harried by ambitious suburbia. Unlike Franschhoek, the local town is set apart a little — the fashionable and now sizable seaside resort of Hermanus, its ugly outer parts only starting to threaten invasion — and the valley is not closely dotted with farmhouses and guest houses. Seen from the wide windows of the restaurant at La Vierge across the narrow valley, the handsome white house of Anthony Hamilton Russell looks almost isolated halfway up the steep hillside, among the patterns of vines and olive trees.

Perhaps the most significant difference between this valley and the other two, however, is the length and nature of its winemaking history. It was providential that the colonizing settlers soon found lands suitable for viticulture within a reasonable radius of Table Bay. This coastal valley took longer to reach — it’s now some two hours by car, mostly through lovely scenery. But when Tim Hamilton Russell was searching in the 1970s for a terroir that might allow him to successfully grow the great grapes of the Côte d’Or, he eventually decided on here; and despite substantial bureaucratic obstacles and the scornful doubts of many winemakers secure in Stellenbosch (cool-climate Pinot Noir indeed!), he established his wine estate, then the most southerly in the Cape.

His vineyards of Pinot and Chardonnay were planted 2 miles (3km) or so from the Atlantic, and cool sea air is drawn into the valley by convection to temper the warmth of the summer. This was the Cape’s first fully conscious and passionate search for terroir, and it set a tradition that continues here — not only in the Hamilton Russell fine discrimination among the aspects, soil types, and structures available to them, but on a slightly larger scale. The valley was previously simply part of a much larger district, Walker Bay, but its claims for difference have now been acknowledged, and three wards have been promulgated (wards are the smallest units in the Wine of Origin system, established after rigorous investigation and requiring demonstrable differences in viticultural conditions). Two are within the valley as such — one taking its name; the other, farther inland, called Upper Hemel-en-Aarde; the third, farthest inland, has a disputed relationship with the valley and was still unnamed in late 2007.

In the grand tradition of many pioneers, the Hamilton Russells have shown a tendency to empire, and soon there will be three separate cellars for the estates in their portfolio, each with a white and a red wine. Anthony believes strongly in the value of this separation in marketing terms as well as focus (and perhaps easing the task of bequests to the children). Southern Right, named for the whales that are frequent performers for tourists to this coastline, offers a Sauvignon Blanc that freshly and forcefully unites the green and tropical characteristics of the variety, alongside a generous, ripe Pinotage. The Pinotage, which goes without varietal naming under the newer Ashbourne label, is a much more interesting, unusual, and ambitious example: understated, almost Bordeaux-like in structure, but with a fresh charm to the varietal raspberries. But it is the Pinot and Chardonnay of the eponymous estate, internationally acclaimed as among the best of the New World, that are the real validation of the opening up of this valley to wine growing.

In another tradition of pioneers, the Hamilton Russells have spread their winemaking genes, as it were, throughout the valley. It seems that their winemakers leave only to set up shop elsewhere in the valley. In 1990, Peter Finlayson, who had helped build the foundations of the area’s viticulture, became a partner in a new winery (later joined for a time by Paul Bouchard of Burgundy). Although Finlayson also produces a succulent and more-than-interesting Sangiovese-led blend called Hannibal, the focus here too is on the Burgundian varieties. The Missionvale Chardonnay is frequently an extremely fine example of the mineral, forcefully elegant wine that this area can produce. But perhaps it is the Galpin Peak Pinot Noir, and especially the Tête de Cuvée selection made in the best vintages, that is Finlayson’s signal achievement.

Finlayson’s successor at HRV, Storm Kreusch-Dau, later moved on to establish WhaleHaven at the foot of the valley, also with a Burgundian focus. After some vicissitudes, WhaleHaven is under new ownership and undergoing regeneration. Kevin Grant was next in line at the pioneer winery, and he too moved on, in 2004, up the valley and into the area that is now the third unnamed ward of the area. Here his 47ha (116 acres) are being planted to the Pinot and Chardonnay that will surely express his deepest ambitions, as well as a few other reds and Sauvignon Blanc. The latter is rapidly becoming another focus of local winemakers — partly, of course, in deference to its international fashionability. Grant’s Ataraxia label has already appeared on an acclaimed Chardonnay made from bought-in fruit.

The number of wineries in the Hemel-en-Aarde area is growing, with half a dozen and more newcomers since the Newton Johnson partnership arrived a decade ago. Newton Johnson makes a small range of good wines, partly from boughtin fruit, but has recently acquired another farm on the opposite side of the valley, which will markedly increase the options. One of the contributions it has made to satisfy visitors to the valley is the restaurant Heaven, with views of mountains, valley, and sea, and a good reputation for its kitchen. Another restaurant in the valley, interestingly enough, is at the winery Newton Johnson originally used but sold a few years back, when it became La Vierge. The views and food are equally satisfying.

Accommodation within the Hemel-en-Aarde is no doubt being planned somewhere, but not far away there is a good Relais & Chateaux hotel, The Marine, with commensurate restaurants — notably Seafood at the Marine — for fish and wonderful views. There is plenty of other accommodation at nearby bustling Hermanus, with its beaches, pretty fishing harbor, and the "whale crier" blowing his horn made of kelp to alert tourists when and where whales are to be seen. The town claims to be "the world’s best land-based whale-watching spot," and southern right whales come to these waters around June, while the Pinot and Chardonnay vines of the Hemel-en-Aarde are in winter dormancy, and leave in search of fresh supplies of krill around December, as the grapes show signs of ripening on the other side of the mountain. Their consciousness of the deeper connections of nature is doubtful, but that makes them no less wonderful.

Logistics

Constantia, Franschhoek, and the seaside town of Hermanus near the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley are extremely well set up for visitors, and the few lodging and dining establishments mentioned in this article are the tip of a mostly comfortable, well-catered iceberg. Contact details for them and others (as well as for the wineries mentioned) are easily accessible from the tourist or wine-route websites given below.

Constantia

The Constantia Valley Association is dedicated to marketing "Cape Town’s Vineyard," and its website is continually being developed as an online portal for this area, with links and guides. www.constantiavalley.com

Franschhoek

The Vignerons de Franschhoek website has links to the valley’s wineries. www.franschhoekwines.co.za Franschhoek Wine Valley Tourist Association also has comprehensive listings. www.franschhoek.org.za

Hemel-en-Aarde

The Hermanus Tourism Bureau is useful for accommodation in the town, but the wineries are less well served online. See www.hermanus.co.za and www.tourismhermanus.co.za

"Contact information for some of the places mentioned:
Ataraxia e-mail: info@ataraxia.co.za
Bouchard Finlayson: www.bouchardfinlayson.co.za
Hamilton Russell Vineyards e-mail: hrv@hermanus.co.za
La Vierge (winery and restaurant): www.lavierge.co.za
Marine Hotel: www.marine-hermanus.co.za
Newton Johnson (and Heaven restaurant):
www.newtonjohnson.com"

Bibliographical note
For those wishing to brush up their knowledge of South African wine before a visit, there is unfortunately little to recommend in the way of printed material. Other than splendid photographic coffee-table books, the Cape has been poorly served in terms of literature, except for, and perhaps partly because of, the excellent, international award-winning annual guide John Platter South African Wines. This book is indispensable to the wine tourist. As well as giving details for all the country’s wineries and rating their output, it also provides much background material and some skeletal wineland maps. The Faber volume by James Seely is out of date. Of books that might be seen on the shelf currently, Wendy Toerien’s well illustrated Wines & Vineyards of South Africa (Struik, 2001) does have useful, if now somewhat dated, descriptions of the wineries. Although promisingly titled, The Essential Guide to South African Wines: Terroir & Travel by Elmari Swart and Izak Smit (Cheviot, 2006) is gravely flawed beyond its lamentable writing, poor proofing, and errors of fact. Furthermore, the leading Franschhoek wineries are not included because they did not pay to be so.

South African wine is better served online. Material on the history and winelands is available on the website of the generic marketing organization Wines of South Africa (www.wosa.co.za), as well as on www.wine.co.za. These, as well as www.grape.co.za, also offer current material.

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