Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017

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The Constantia region is home to the country's oldest wineries, like Buitenverwachting.

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A twirl of the Cape

Why tour of South Africa's best wine estates? They just happen to be in the country's most dramatic landscapes

“Baboons were a problem until we planted a ‘baboon belt’,” Nicky Krone told me as we sat on the deck atop his winery in morning sunshine. Buying time to make sure I’d heard correctly, I took another sip of Krone Borealis Brut MCC; serves me right for imbibing sparkling wine before 10AM.

Krone, the winemaker at Twee Jonge Gezellen (Two Young Bachelors) Winery north of Cape Town continued: “Troupes of baboons come down from the hills and raid grapes from the vineyard,” he sighed. “Tuck them under their arms and run off. ” The baboon barrier around the vineyard is a planting of red juice grapes — wine grapes release a clear juice. “They eat the barrier grapes, see red on their hands, think it’s blood and run away in terror,” he raises another glass of Borealis fizz, “leaving this for us.”

Plenty of exotica revealed itself during a week of poking around the vineyards of South Africa — baboons, cheetahs, a winemaker who creates chocolates to pair with his wines and another who sabers his champagne bottles.

But the biggest surprises were the wines themselves and the spectacular wine lands where they come to life. I’d sampled only a smattering of their wines at home. But when I reached Cape Town and began to seriously wrap my nose and taste buds around the crisp whites and robust reds I was delighted not only by the high quality, but also the low prices.

South African wine country extends in every direction around Cape Town and is dramatically beautiful — think Napa Valley meets the Rockies — with sheer grey peaks and mountain spires soaring above a green landscape of eucalypts, giant camphor trees and a tangle of hydrangea and roses. Tucked amid a sea of vines are more than 350 wineries in architectural styles from traditional whitewashed Cape Dutch with its swooping gables to angular modern showpieces glinting in the southern sun.

Napa in Africa

Many people come to Cape Town and leave only a day to explore the wine country, but that’s not enough even if you’re not a hardcore wine lover. There are villages peppered with elegant inns in old family estates, spas, galleries, bistros and some of South Africa’s best restaurants. Hike and horseback ride in the mountains and cycle between wineries. Golf, too, is booming.

South Africa has been producing wines since the Cape of Good Hope was a victual- and fresh-water pit-stop for ships of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. It was particularly well known for its fortified wines — sherry, brandy and port — until the 1980s when economic sanctions resulting from the country’s Apartheid policies cut off exports.

With the end of Apartheid in 1992, there was euphoria and a surge of international demand for “Mandela wine.” But South Africa had not been able to keep pace with the world’s tastes and the exports until the mid-90s were of inferior quality. The country’s reputation was tarnished for a time, but all that has changed.

Over the past decade, South Africa has played catch-up and is now producing sophisticated wines that are scooping up awards in Europe. The Soccer World Cup in South Africa also brought attention to the country’s wines: in the four-month period ending April 2010, South African bottled table wine imports to the US were up 96 percent over the same period the previous year. Chenin Blanc is a very popular white planting, but my favourites were the crisp and fruity Sauvignon Blancs produced in the cooler regions, and the robust hot-weather reds that ripen in a climate similar to that of Chile and Australia. There is even an indigenous red variety called Pinotage, South Africa’s “national grape,” a rich blend of Pinot Noir and Cinsault (the grape formerly known as Hermitage).

330 years young

Wine growing literally begins in the leafy suburbs of Cape Town and instead of staying in the city when I visit, I often base myself in Constantia, the country’s oldest wine growing region only 20 minutes from downtown. Constantia was the birthplace of South Africa’s 350-year romance with the grape, where the first vines for earnest wine making were planted in 1679.

Constantia was famous in England by the 18th century; Dickens sang its praise as did Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility. It was also Napoleon Bonaparte’s favourite drop — 24 bottles of sweet Constantia were consumed daily at his household in St. Helena. A phylloxera epidemic struck South Africa in the late 19th century and wiped out the vines, but in the 1980s, the Klein Constantia Estate (tel: 011-27-21-794-5188; kleinconstantia.com) re-created that Vin de Constance, a sumptuous dessert wine.

In the 17th century, visitors called in at Constantia and stayed at the elegant manor houses just as you can today at wine producing estates like Steenberg (tel: 011-27-21-713-2222; steenberghotel.com), where I started my tour with the annually updated wine bible, John Platter’s South African Wines, tucked under my arm. Although it was mid-February and he was busy with his harvest, winemaker John Loubser took me into the cool of the cellar where we tasted Sauvignon Blanc juice picked and crushed the previous week. Already I could pick out the clean, green pepper flavours that characterize Steenberg’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc which regularly garners rare five star kudos from Platter.

Then he uncorked the winery’s signature red, Catharina, named after the gutsy 22-year-old widow who became the estate’s first owner after she fled Germany in 1672. “It’s a luscious red, a blend of five grape varieties,” said Loubser, “one in honour of each of her five husbands.” Catharina Ustings Ras had little luck with husbands; one was eaten by a lion, another murdered by a Hottentot and a third was trampled to death by an elephant!

Get your goat

The biggest and best-known wine growing region is 30 minutes drive’ from Cape Town, the valleys surrounding the towns of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek, each with their own character. I travelled the well-signposted Wine Routes throughout the valleys, poking down country roads and visiting many revered estates like Meerlust (tel: 011-27-21-843-3587; meerlust.com), Kanonkop (tel: 011-27-21-884-4656; kanonkop.co.za), Thelema (tel: 011-27-21-885-1924; thelema.co.za) and Delheim (tel: 011-27–21-888-4600; www.delheim.com).

Fairview (tel: 011-27-21-863-1536; fairview.co.za) is not only a winery, but the biggest exotic cheese producer in the country. It offers a delicious goat’s milk brie with sun-dried tomatoes, chèvre with red pepper and a divine havarti with caraway. Fairview has over 600 milk-producing goats and since goats like to climb, they’ve built a “goat tower” for them to scramble up. With an eye to humour, Fairview has produced a popular red wine blend called Goats do Roam, a spoof on France's Côtes du Rhône appellation.

I stopped in at Spier Cellars (tel: 011-27-21-881-8400; www.spier.co.za), a kind of Disneyesque wine complex with a hotel, restaurants, wine shop and amphitheatre. One corner of the grounds has been given over to Cheetah Outreach who do fundraising for the Cheetah Conservation Fund, a Namibian-based research and education group doing good work to save wild cheetahs from being shot by livestock farmers on the country’s ranches. In a large compound several of the sleek cats lounged and strutted and I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

À la française

The French feature prominently in the pretty village of Franschhoek, settled in the 1680s by Huguenots — French Protestants fleeing persecution in their home country — who brought with them to South Africa much needed knowledge about quality winemaking.

As I drove up the Franschhoek Valley, the dampness of the morning stirring up the aromas of rosemary and lavender hedges, French names like the Auberge Ballon Rouge, La Provence B&B and wineries like Mont Rochelle (tel: 011-27-21-876-3000; www.montrochelle.co.za) and Plaisir de Merle (tel: 011-27-21 874 1071; plaisirdemerle.co.za) appeared one after another out of the early morning mist. There is even a Relais & Châteaux called Le Quartier Français (tel: 011-27-21-876-2151; lqf.co.za; doubles from $375).

At the end of the day I turned off the main road onto a dusty track through the vineyards of L’Avenir (tel: 011-27-21-889-5001; lavenir-lodge.com; doubles from $170), a working wine estate or “farm”, as they’re called in South Africa. L’Avenir is also a bed-and-breakfast and would be my base for the next few nights.

Franschhoek is also home to Haute Cabrière (tel: 011-27-21-876-8500; cabriere.co.za) whose owner is the legendary character Achim von Arnim. Tall, with a military bearing and more than a touch of the showman in his character, von Arnim often conducts group tours of his winery in person, pouring samples of everything from an unusual Pinot Noir-Chardonnay to his own light cognac. He also uncorks a champagne bottle with the quick and dramatic slice of a saber.

More austere is the ultra-modern Vergelegen Estates (tel: 011-27-21-847-1334; vergelegen.co.za), octagonal in shape and built entirely into a hillside. You descend from its peak into the sunken wine cellar where the whole winemaking process is gravity fed. But the original wine estate is an old one, preserved as an elegant furnished museum where I had lunch on the terrace amid its classical rose garden.

Twin passions

I thought I was the only person who liked to nibble chocolate with a glass of wine for dessert, but at Waterford Estate (tel: 011-27-21-880-0496; waterfordwines.com) I learned otherwise. Winemaker Kevin Arnold collaborated with a chocolatier to pair up my two favourite vices for tastings in the courtyard of his Mediterranean-styled winery. “We picked qualities in the wine like the spiciness of Shiraz and matched it with Masala Chai dark chocolate,” he explained, adding that Oprah fell in love with his Shiraz during an African visit and followed up by ordering it for her 50th birthday bash.

There is a lemon-vanilla milk chocolate that goes perfectly with Chardonnay, but I fell for the Cabernet Sauvignon paired with an unlikely-sounding combination of dark chocolate studded with tiny bits of rock salt which produced an unusual and rich savoury flavour. “That combination especially appeals to people who don’t normally like red wine,” says Arnold, “because it softens the tannins on the finish.”

The last stop on my wine circuit was at Twee Jonge Gezellen Estate (tel: 011-27-23-230-0680; tjwines.co.za) in the Tulbagh region where Nicky Krone introduced me to his “sexy, up-front bubblies” which have earned him the prestigious Diner’s Club Méthode Cap Classique award. Krone believes he has a responsibility to create jobs in this country of high unemployment. “All our picking is done by hand,” he said, even the cool night harvesting he introduced in the Cape. “The vineyards twinkle with pickers wearing miner’s lights and the grapes are easy to see because they shine like pearls.”

After harvest there is a party with guitar playing, eating and dancing. Like most South African winemakers Krone has faced many hardships during the country’s troubled past — the least of them raiding baboons — but like everyone I spoke with in the industry, he has boundless optimism for the future. “I think we can make champagne as good as France’s,” he insisted. And sipping that exquisite Brut, I was prone to agree.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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