One of the things that I have learnt as a South African living in the UK is that the wines that you see on supermarket shelves from South Africa is in no way representative of South African wines in the broader sense. For one, supermarkets demand such a massive supply of a particular product that all boutique wineries are already automatically excluded because of their small production – and boutique wineries are often where all the exciting wines are made. Also, many people don’t realise that some of the labels they recognise as South African here in the UK are made purely for export – so although technically Kumala might be South Africa’s best selling wine, it certainly isn’t the one that any of my South African friends would list as their top choice. This means that when wine-loving tourists visit South Africa, they are often not sure which wine estates to visit and often end up visiting the same few big names like Spier, Groot Constantia or Delaire. The list I have put together below provides you with a few more eclectic suggestions, all of which I have visited and loved for different reasons. It’s a very personal list and I am sure everybody I ask would come up with a different list, but you can’t go wrong with visiting any of these fabulous wineries.
Situated just outside Stellenbosch, Stellenrust is one of the oldest family-owned vineyards in South Africa. The property was established as a wine farm in 1928 and today occupies 400ha (200 under vines). Half the vineyards fall within the Stellenbosch Golden Triangle while the other half is higher up in the Bottelary Hills, renowned for its cool climate. This means that charming and dynamic young winemaker Tertius Boshoff has a range of terroirs to work with and to showcase in in his superbly elegant red and white wines. The farm is Fairtrade certified and runs a very successful black empowerment programme which aims to transfer parcels of land to the workers on which they can hone their own farming and winemaking skills. Stellenrust also provided all the white and rosé wines for all the London 2012 Olympic venues – a massive coup – as well as supplying all the rosé wine for the 2014 Wimbledon tennis tournament.
Visit the estate for… the best Chenin Blanc in South Africa, in my humble opinion. Their premium Stellenrust Barrel-Fermented Chenin Blanc is made from the old vines in the estate’s Bottelary Hills vineyard and the age of the vines is reflected on the silver plaque affixed to the bottle each year (we are up to 49 now). The wine is fermented on its lees in a selection of French, American and Hungarian oak, which imparts a wonderful richness to the. In addition, a small portion of the grapes is allowed to develop botrytis before harvesting and then added to the blend. The result is a lush nose with lots of fresh pears, peaches and vanilla, followed by a mouthful of tropical fruit salad, beautifully balanced acids and an extremely long and caramelly finish. In a blind tasting, I challenge anybody to distinguish this from the finest French Vouvray. Tertius also makes a Clement de Lure (a play on Cremant de Loire) – an unusual Methode Cap Classique sparkler made with non-traditional Champagne varietals (currently Chardonnay and Pinotage, sometimes Chenin Blanc). And if you are really lucky, you might bump into Tertius himself, who is mesmerizingly intense when talking about his wines and raucously funny when talking about everything else!
Springfield is a family-run wine farm in the beautiful Robertson valley, about 160km from Cape Town and bordering on the semi-arid Little Karoo region. It is owned by ninth-generation descendants of French Huguenots, who came to South Africa from the Loire in 1688 with bundles of vines under their arms. The current incumbents are brother and sister team Abrie and Jeanette Bruwer, the fourth generation of winemakers, who are responsible for winemaking and marketing respectively. Abrie is known for being obsessed with terroir (the influence of the land where the grapes are grown on the wine) and his philosophy is that “terroir is a gift from God inherited by our ancestors”. This means that the winemaking process is kept as direct and uncomplicated as possible so that the natural elements in the wine can speak for themselves, with the least possible human interference (they even have a team of snail-eating ducks!). Most of the wines are fermented using natural wild yeasts found on the grape skins – high-risk winemaking that leads to lost vintages every few years. But when everything goes right, Abrie makes astonishingly complex, terroir-driven wines from site-specific vineyards that actively challenge the idea that New World wines are unable to match the subtle complexity of Old World Wines.
Visit the estate for… the amazing French-style, minerally, terroir-driven wines like the Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc; Methode Ancienne Chardonnay or Whole Berry Cabernet with its deep inky colour; smoky cigar box nose; and its opulent Christmas pudding palate. On a sunny day, you can taste on a pretty wooden deck overlooking the small lake outside the tasting room, and if you are lucky, Jeanette may be in the tasting room – passionate and knowledgeable, she is one of my favourite women in wine.
3. Graham Beck
Graham Beck’s Robertson estate, Madeba, is situated in the Breede River Valley 10km from Robertson and 140km from Cape Town, near the start of Route 62, a meandering country road which takes visitors past numerous food, wine and cultural attractions. The land was purchase in 1983 by Graham Beck, a wealthy South African industrialist, with the ambition of establishing a world-class cellar and a groundbreaking tasting facility. Whereas many South African wine farms still conform to a traditional gabled, whitewashed, thatch-roofed architectural style, the tasting facility at the Robertson property is a distinctive modern structure in hues of peach, green and purple to reflect the surrounding Karoo soil and fynbos. At the helm of winemaking is the wonderful Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira who grew up surfing along Durban’s beaches and did a degree in microbiology before turning to winemaking. After working alongside South African sparkling wine legend Achim von Arnim at Cabrière in 1984, doing vintages in Champagne in 1987 and 1989, Ferreira became obsessed with sparkling wine and the range he has been making at Graham Beck since 1990 is some of the very best that South Africa produces. The cellar operates on the principle of minimal intervention, instead allowing the authentic essence of the fruit and terroir to shine through in the final wine, but for Pieter, it’s all about the bubble. “I’m still in search of the perfect bubble – until then, I’ll keep refining.”
Visit the estate for… Some of South Africa’s top methode champenoise sparkling wines – there is a range of up to eight to choose from including white and rosé; vintage and non-vintage; and Brut Zero which is made without dosage. There is also an excellent range of still wines including a number of Syrahs, a grape that does particularly well in this area. The view over the koi pond and vines from the funky tasting venue’s floor-to-ceiling windows is also pretty spectacular and if you are lucky, the hugely personable “Bubbles” Ferreira might be there to talk you through the range.
Situated at the foot of the Paarl mountains, Fairview was officially demarcated as a farm in 1693 and was granted to a French Huguenot who had fled Protestant prosecution in Europe. Wine was first made on the farm as early as 1699, but its star really started rising from 1937 when Charles Back Snr bought the property. An immigrant from Lithuania, the young Charles Back had arrived in South Africa in 1902 and opened a butcher shop in Paarl. Having had his interest piqued by friends, he bought a piece of local farmer David Louw’s farm Babylonstoren in 1916, with a view to trying his hand at being a self-taught winemaker. By 1926, he had won an award for best South African wine and built up a booming wine export business, so he looked for a second farm, which turned out to be Fairview. Upon his death in 1955, he bequeathed a wine farm to each of his two sons and Fairview became Cyril’s inheritance. Pioneering Cyril replanted many of the vineyards with new varietals and broke away from the KWV co-operative to bottle wine under Fairview’s own label for the first time in 1974. Cyril also ensured that Fairview was one of the first South African wine cellars that was regularly open to the public for tasting. Since Cyrli’s death, his son Charles Jr has continued this spirit of innovation, producing South Africa’s first Beaujolais Noveau wine from Gamay grapes and building the famous Fairview goat tower in 1981. The herd of goats produce the milk that goes into Fairview’s extensive range of cheeses, and they provide endless entertainment for visitors to the estate as they clamber about their tower. Goats feature on the farm’s crest as an integral part of the history of Fairview, and Back says that the Fairview brand has a lot of the goat’s capricious nature in its DNA – “always looking for new opportunities, not afraid of climbing, sure-footed and quite mischievous at times”… as the French found out with the release of their cheekily named Goats do Roam range of Rhone-style wines.
Visit the estate for… a wide range of varietals that are not so common in South Africa, such as Carrignan, Barbera and Tannat, or their Rhone-style sparkler made of Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Noir; the famous goat tower complete with goats in the front yard; the lovely and relaxed Goatshed restaurant; and the cheese tasting room – surely the best example ever of a complementary industry to a wine estate!
Situated in a natural amphitheatre on the south-facing slopes of the Schapenberg above False Bay, Waterkloof is one of the most spectacular settins for a wine estate that you can imagine. As you arrive, you are greeted by row upon row of vines interspersed with green grass and flowers (a function of the vineyards being biodynamic); and an ultra-modern tasting venue and restaurant perched like a glass and concrete cube on a slope overlooking the view. Although grapes have been planted on the Waterkloof since the early 1970s, they were usually sold to other wineries to be bottled. Wine importer Paul Boutinot took over the property just before the 2004 harvest, and the first wine bottled under the Waterkloof name was from the 2005 harvest. A major new planting and replanting exercise was completed by 2008, with vineyard now covering 53 hectares of the 100 hectare farm (the remainder will remain fallow to preserve the rare and abundant natural vegetation, fauna and flora (fynbos) situated on the property). The owners also felt that conventional wine farming methods serve to diminish the differences between various vineyards and so in 2008 it was decided to begin the conversion of Waterkloof to a fully-fledged biodynamic wine farm using minimally interventionist methods and equipment. This extends to using cow dung from their own cattle to make bacterial and fungal compost (e.g. preparation 500) to put life back into the soil; developing an earthworm farm using old wine barrels so as to have earthworm tea for the vegetable and herb garden; and housing their chickens in “chicken mobiles” parked in the vineyards so that they can run free through the vines eating all the vine weevils – and producing fresh organic eggs for the Waterkloof restaurant. Their Waterkloof, Circumstance and Circle of Life ranges are all excellent, with the Circle of Life whit blend winning best South African white at the Independent Wine Review Awards in 2012 and 2013.
Visit the estate for… the spectacular view and architecture; the award-winning wines (which can be paired with Trealy’s cheese); the cosy tasting lounge with its central fireplace; and the restaurant. The restaurant is one of the most spectacular I have visited in the winelands, both for its setting (a glass-enclosed box perched at the edge of the amphitheatre to take in the view) and its innovative menu. Chef Czarnecki emphasies using the freshest seasonal ingredients, such as free-range eggs, farm-reared Schapenberg lamb, and a variety of common and rare herbs and vegetables, many of which are grown and harvested at Waterkloof. Every plate I had was a work of art.
In 1982 Ted and Sheelagh Jordan, who had up until then been in the shoe trade, purchased the original 74 hectare Stellenbosch property that makes up the core of Jordan Wine Estate today. They immediately embarked on an extensive replanting programme, specializing in classic varieties suited to the different soils and slopes. Today, it is their son Gary and his wife and Kathy Jordan who are at the helm – he is a trained geologist and she is an economist, but after working internationally, including a stint at a Sonoma Valley winery, they returned home to build a cellar at Jordan in 1992. The following year the vines were judged ready for making wines worthy of carrying the Jordan name and this dynamic husband-and-wife team’s first vintage at Jordan was in 1993. Since then, their wines have been consistently winning accolades and medals at both local and international wine competitions. In 2012 they scored a further coup in enticing renowned Cape Town restauranteur and chef George Jardine to the estate to run their beautiful indoor/outdoor restaurant, meaning that outstanding food is always on hand to match their fine wines.
Visit the estate for… the outstanding barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc, or the rich and luscious Cobbler’s Hill (a classic Bordeaux blend), obviously, but also for the restaurant. Tables spill out onto a terrace overlooking a reed-lined lake with vineyards and mountain peaks beyond it. It’s tranquil, glamorous and beguiling all at once. The menu changes daily depending on what is fresh and in season, and all the plating is exquisite. (And if you can’t make it to South Africa, you can always drop into High Timber, the restaurant that the Jordans co-own in London.)
Ask anybody where wine is made in South Africa and they will list places like Stellenbosch, Paarl or Franschoek – maybe Robertson or Elgin if they are feeling adventurous. But the last thing they’d expect to see near Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route, nearly 600km from Cape Town, would be a sign saying “Wine Estate”. The estate in question is Bramon, a pioneering boutique winery that aims to realise the winemaking potential of this part of the Garden Route, known as The Crags. Owners Peter Thorpe had grown up on a wine farm in Worcester and had an inherent passion for winemaking. When he discovered that climatic conditions on the piece of land that he had bought at The Crags at the foot of the Tsitsikamma mountains were very similar to those of the Marlborough region of New Zealand he set about planting his first Sauvignon Blanc vines in 2000. The little 250 ton cellar was completed in December 2010 and 2011 was the first official winemaking year in the history of Plettenberg Bay (the region has received Wine of Origin denomination status). The first wines were award-winning MCC sparkling wines, followed by a still Sauvignon Blanc. The initial vintage was vinified by Pieter Ferreira of Grahan Beck, but the cellar is now headed up by the laid-back Anton Small who grew up in George, spent 20 years at Villiera learning his trade, and then returned to the Garden Route to make wines at Bramon (when he isn’t surfing!). Anton waxes lyrical about the full spectrum of flavours from grapes grown in different pockets of vineyards in the Plettenberg Bay area, ranging from capsicum and cut grass to fruity pineapple, passion fruit and gooseberry.
Visit the estate for… the award-winning sparkling wines – grab them now before word gets out and everybody wants them! I also adore the restaurant on the estate, with the outdoor tables literally positioned between rows of vines, so you sit between the vines from which the wine that you are drinking was made.
So – those are seven of my personal favourites – what do you think? Agree or disagree? What are your favourite South African wine estates to visit and why?
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