South Africa's Cape is emerging as one of the most promising wine regions anywhere. It's also one of the most breathtaking.
Sir Francis Drake wasn't too far off, back in 1580, with his first impression of Africa's southern tip: "A most stately thing and the fairest Cape that I have seen in the whole circumference of the earth." The same rugged mountains, topped with snow in winter, still rear out of ultramarine bays, silver beaches and green valleys. Wild(ish) animals still lurk. As landscapes go, it's pretty spectacular.
And these days there's another reason to visit: the wines. Like the new South Africa itself, the wines of the Western Cape province are not without their (mostly inherited) problems, but they're increasingly good, sometimes brilliant and certainly worth investigating.
The choices are dazzling. More than 4,000 different labels are produced by the province's 315 wine producers, and 20 wineries have opened in the past year alone. Specialization is rare: even small farms will grow half a dozen grape varieties. And Pinotage, the national grape, accounts for just 5 percent of the country's vines. Yet this diversity is a boon for travelers because a trip as short as three days can reveal the full range of what the Cape has to offer. So there's no need to let Table Mountain out of your sight. The region's most historic and glamorous wineries are all within easy driving distance of the flat-topped rock mass that rises above Cape Town like a great weathered rampart.
DAY ONE Cape Town is the best place to begin your explorations. To put the surrounding wine country in perspective, whiz up Table Mountain in a revolving cable car. Stretched out below is the vast hinterland that lured European expansionists deep into Africa. Robben Island, the infamous prison where cells the size of anchovy tins left Nelson Mandela with his bent-knee shuffle, looks like a speck in the ocean.
Today the island is a museum, and Mandela is a retired statesman who drinks only a rare drop of something very sweet. Yet it was this virtual teetotaler who led South African wines into the modern age by bringing about the end of sanctions in 1993. When a beaming Mandela was photographed toasting democracy with a South African vintage, wine suddenly lost its taint and became politically correct. In an astonishingly short time, many Cape winemakers have left behind the provincialism fostered by South Africa's pariah years and started to catch up with the outside world. Their lean, mean wines began to round out, becoming more supple and suggestive. The best can be characterized as somewhere between a matey Australian and an aloof European, but this generalization overstates a personality that is still being formed in this gold-rush era.
Down on the waterfront, make your way to Vaughan Johnson's Wine Shop.A cosmopolitan figure favoring shirts from Hong Kong and cigars from Cuba, Johnson personifies the new spirit of the Cape wine scene. For years, the old regime--pious even in its immorality--denied him a Sunday trading license. Sunday after Sunday he opened for business, getting himself arrested and splashed all over the papers. Today he (and he alone) is allowed to sell alcohol on Sundays. The cross section of wines at his shop is excellent, and many visitors begin and end their tasting trips right there. Johnson is also a marvelous resource for travelers about to embark for wine country; feel free to quiz him shamelessly.
One of Johnson's favorite lunch recommendations, The Tobago Restaurant, is just a short walk away. South African food, like South African wine, has abandoned its insularity and embraced indigenous, Asian and European influences. At The Tobago, that means grilled squid steaks with gremolata and black-crocodile ravioli with lobster, all served on a deck at the waterfront where the breakers from Table Bay practically crash onto your plate.
After lunch, you might explore the center of town. From there, it's a pleasant stroll down Government Avenue to the century-old Mount Nelson Hotel. The Nellie, sugared-almond pink with lavender-gray woodwork, is colonial to the core; it offers kippers for breakfast, cucumber sandwiches for tea. Up the front drive, lined by fat Canary Island palms, came Sir Winston Churchill (who had escaped a Boer War prison), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who shocked locals by holding séances in his suite) and, less scandalously, John Lennon.
DAY TWO Clinging to the back slopes of Table Mountain, the suburb of Constantia is where Cape wine made its reputation two centuries ago. It's only 20 minutes from Cape Town, but we strongly recommend a detour along Chapman's Peak Drive, one of the world's great scenic routes. The six-mile-long road clings precipitously to granite and sandstone cliffs that plunge into the sea. It's torment for vertigo sufferers, but it makes the Amalfi Drive and Pacific Coast Highway look like country lanes. The road eventually funnels down to Cape Point, where the Indian Ocean washes into the Atlantic. Here, in Cape Peninsula National Park, chacma baboons, mountain zebras, bonteboks and other antelopes jolt you back to Africa. Jackass penguins waddle like inebriated waiters, a clear signal to head for wine country.
Whitewashed and gabled Dutch-colonial manor houses keep watch over Constantia's vineyards, where the serious planting of vine cuttings from France began in the late 17th century. Constantia Muscat captivated Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Napoleon, who drank it to his last gasp. But in later years phylloxera, politics and predatory developers swallowed historic farms. Constantia sank into suburbia.
Klein Constantia Estate, one of the sources of that famous old dessert wine, encapsulates the national turnaround; it's attracting worldwide attention again. Its Sauvignon Blanc is as bold and energetic as the vintner who makes it, Ross Gower. (In the French village of Sancerre, the locals still talk about his backflips down the street after a long night of serious wine research.) But it's Gower's Vin de Constance that is most remarkable. A historically correct reprise of the legendary Constantia Muscats, it's a riveting fusion of lime, marmalade and mint.
Just down the road is Constantia Uitsig, a vineyard-resort (try its standout Chardonnay Reserve). You can spend the night in a simple Cape-Dutch cottage that opens onto a rambling garden of oaks, white roses and beds of lavender, all fringed with grapevines. The resort has its own cricket oval, a wine shop that showcases the neighborhood's best bottles and one of the Cape's finest restaurants, La Colombe.
As coolly blue and white as the pool it overlooks, La Colombe is on everyone's miss-at-your-peril list. Owner-chef Franck Dangereux was born and trained in Provence and mellowed during stints in the Caribbean. He's young, handsome and passionate, especially about such regional ingredients as perlemoen (abalone) and Karoo lamb. The menu here changes according to his mood, the season, the state of his garden and the choppiness of the sea.
DAY THREE It's less than an hour from Constantia to Stellenbosch, the Napa of the Cape, home to its most trumpeted cellars. The university there turned out almost all of South Africa's apartheid-era prime ministers; soon it will cap the country's first black enology graduates.
Oaks and jacarandas line the avenues of Stellenbosch, their colors repeated in the green vineyards that march up the slopes toward mauve and faded-denim peaks. On one side of Simonsberg mountain is Thelema, a family-owned property that in little more than a decade has been transformed from a run-down fruit farm to a world-class winery. Thelema has been the Cape's most brilliant international star since Gyles Webb, a onetime cellar hand at Heitz in Napa, released his 1988 vintage. Webb's Cabernet Sauvignon is the epitome of the new-wave Cape. It is miles away from the tougher, more austere styles that South African winemakers were traditionally known for, and its arrival really shook up the scene. Webb's racy Sauvignon Blanc and rich Chardonnay are also impressive.
Webb doesn't make a Pinotage. For a singular rendition of this peculiarly South African hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, head to Uiterwyk Estate. The farmstead, a national monument, has been in winemaker Daniel de Waal's family for more than a century. De Waal has worked with vintners in St-Emilion in France and at Antinori in Italy, and he takes a very European approach to this African grape. His Cape Blend teams Pinotage with Cabernet Franc and Merlot for a wine with Pomerol texture and Cape flavor.
The local vintners' favorite canteen, 96 Winery Road, is an ideal spot to see how well Stellenbosch wines stand up to food. You can dart about owner Ken Forrester's wine list, tasting selections from the vineyards on Helderberg mountain,visible through the windows. Make sure to try Cordoba Crescendo, a splendid Cabernet Franc blend, and Forrester's own Chenin Blanc. Chef Kathy Romer-Lee's dishes celebrate regional produce: duck is a specialty, as is grilled loin of springbok. Finish your meal with the Cape's best version of port, J. P. Bredell Cape Vintage Reserve, made nearby.
If you want to stay overnight in wine country, return to Constantia, which has more than its share of great hotels. You might check into the Steenberg Country Hotel, a winery and resort that features a championship golf course as well as Sémillon and Merlot bottled on the property. Or there's The Cellars-Hohenort, which offers tranquil accommodations and the acclaimed Novelli at the Cellars, the South African outpost of London-based chef Jean-Christophe Novelli.
Now it's time to ponder a couple of questions: Do South African wines stand up to their setting? Can anything?
The 20th edition of John and Erica Platter's South African Wine Guide will be published this month. They are now at work on a book about Africa's 18 wine-producing countries.