The Cape Winelands of South Africa may just be the most enjoyable wine-touring oasis on the planet, with great hotels to stay in and plenty of other activities on offer as well as drinking wine
I’ve toured fine wine regions around the world, but never in Africa, so I jumped at the chance to check out the increasingly popular Cape Winelands for myself. South Africa, and especially this particular region, is fast gaining a reputation for a top wine-touring experience, up there with anything on offer in France. And it is not just about wine - in an action-packed week, I also squeezed in a bush walk, quad bike ride, a round of golf and a mountain biking adventure.
Just a short hop from Cape Town’s airport is a vineyard typical of the South African experience. At Kleine Zalze you can take a guided tour and browse their well-stocked shop, play on the championship golf course, indulge in an award-winning restaurant and spend a night at one of their luxurious lodges. The latter come complete with balconies that look out to sweeping mountain views that look as if they have been touched up on a computer.
The next day it was off to another trio of wineries in nearby Somerset West, home to the kind of well-balanced Sauvignon Blanc that shows South Africa is no longer just about Chenin Blanc. You could never get bored of visiting wineries in the Cape Winelands, though, as each vineyard has its own unique personality and things to do. At Lourensford they have diversified into eco walking and jeep tours into the rugged local hills, while Vergelegen is a favourite of Queen Elizabeth II, with its manicured-to-within-an-inch-of-their-life grounds (perfect for a gourmet picnic). Morgenster now also produces an impressive range of olive oils, including the best truffle oil I have tasted outside of Istria.
Moving on towards the coast, I spent the night in a hilltop retreat at Grootbos. The chic rooms opened up epic views of the Atlantic rollers thundering down on to the deserted sandy beaches below. Soon I was amongst the surf bouncing out on a RIB in search of Southern Right Whales. After spotting a rare humpback dolphin, we saw one oil-black whale appear on the horizon. Then another. Soon there were whales on all sides, breaching and blowing water high into the air.
Reluctantly leaving the Atlantic behind, I pushed back inland to the starkly striking interior, a wilderness once the sole preserve of pioneering Boer farmers. At the heart of the Robertson Valley lies the relaxed Viljoensdrift winery. After stocking up on wines that I’d never seen in UK supermarkets, I hopped on a river cruise and afterwards enjoyed a posh picnic.
The culinary highlight of the Cape Winelands is Franschhoek, a charming outpost hemmed in by skyscraping mountains on all sides, a fittingly dramatic setting for some spectacular food. I crammed four restaurants into one gourmet day, with the highlight the legendary hotel and restaurant Le Quartier Francais, with its eight-course tasting menus and innovative food combinations.
My base for the night, Klein Oliphants Hoek, was equally impressive, a characterful old retreat where my room boasted a terrace hot tub with a view of the mountains. In the morning, before heading out tasting, I just relaxed and took in the town waking up under the watchful eye of the rugged mountains that hang omnipresent all around.
No trip to the Winelands would be complete without a visit to Stellenbosch, the biggest and most popular wine town. Basing myself at L’Avenir, a relaxed country hideaway just out of town, I checked out Speir, one of the largest producers, whose wines you can pick up in supermarkets and specialist shops all over the world these days.
After a week in the Winelands I rounded off my trip in Cape Town itself. On previous visits to the city, I had not been that impressed by the touristy Waterfront area and the larger hotels, but this time could not have been more different. I opted for the Camps Bay Retreat in the eponymous seaside suburb. Staying here was like being in a posh bush camp right in the city, my room a rope bridge away with the sound of the ocean to wake me in the morning. It was a fitting way to end a week in one of the most spectacular corners of Africa, which for me also offers the most enjoyable wine touring in the world.