Stellenbosch Vineyard

Our three days of indulgence in the Cape Winelands flashed by like an ’80s movie montage, all postcard-perfect backdrops, long laughs, rental cars, and red teeth.

During our three-day splash here in this, the biggest wine-producing region of South Africa, we managed to squeeze in stops at 25 different vineyards and taste some 120 wines while scooting around between Stellenbosch, neighboring Franschoek and Paarl, as well as, a few days later, the Constantia Wine Route in the suburbs of Cape Town.

Half the fun was never knowing what to expect at each vineyard. A handful of recommendations (Delheim, Fairview, Delaire) came from new friends we made in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and we loosely followed some of the tips in our trusty Lonely Planet and Time Out guidebooks. Mostly, though, we just picked names out of a hat (or, more specifically, randomly chose ones listed on the free wine maps) and left it to chance.

Would it be corporate or boutiquey? Would the tastings be free, or cost 10, 20, maybe 30 rand? How aggressively would the staff push the wine, and would they be easygoing, knowledgeable about the products, or clearly full of shit? Would it be packed with tourists, or would we have the tasting room all to ourselves? How did I get stuck driving and spitting again while she gets to sit back and imbibe?

The autumnal mountainous scenery and clear, cobalt-blue skies were intoxicating. We met so many great people making good wines and working hard to make them even better. The menus at restaurants like the Delaire Graff Estate’s Indochine and Kleine Zalze’s Terroir were inspired, and “el vino did flow” at night in downtown Stellenbosch at bars like Vinehuis and Jan Caats. We really had such an amazing time.

Here are just a few quick notes and snapshots from along the way.

KWV Wine

Though KWV’s tasting room in Paarl was one of the slicker, more corporate ones we visited (along with Ernie Els Wine in Stellenbosch), the friendly staff, surprisingly laidback vibe, and accessible everyday wines belied its bigwig status as one of South Africa’s biggest global wine exporters. Our tasting offered a choice of five wines from an expansive menu that included 40 different wines, liqueurs, and brandies to choose from; the 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and 2007 Cathedral Cellar Shiraz stood out.

Del Aire Graff Estate

We had one “best meal ever!” after another during our wine-tasting tour, but a hedonistic lunch at the Delaire Graff Estate’s Indochine restaurant, dramatically perched on the Helshoogte Mountain Pass between Stellenbosch and Franschoek, was a highlight. It began with a melt-in-your-mouth, pepper-seared tuna starter, above, which came drizzled with zig-zags of olive tapenade and was served with a side of quail eggs, watercress, and tomatoes. I washed it down with a glass (and generous pour) of Delaire’s crisp, grassy 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Coastal Cuvee. My main, seared salmon trout with crispy potato rounds and an avocado remoulade, was brilliant.

South Africa Vineyard

Our afternoon cruising the Constantia Wine Route, which runs along the backside of Table Mountain in the suburbs of Cape Town, began with a stop at Groot Constantia, where the first grapes in South Africa were planted back in the 1650s.

From there it was on to the stunning Constantia Uitsig, pictured above, for a tasting led by one of the bubbliest, most-enthusiastic winery employees you’re likely to meet. Uitsig is best known for their whites, so no surprise that the 2009 Unwooded Chardonnay, 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, and 2008 Constania White were highlights. The Muscavet D’ Alexandrie, the first cultivar ever planted in the country and made from Uitsig’s oldest vines, was the best of the bunch and, at 285 rand a bottle, it was also the priciest.

In addition to the tasting room and, of course, the vines, this sprawling estate also houses three award-winning restaurants, a spa, and hotel. Along the service road between the tasting room and the hotel are well-marked vines with signs that indicate each grape type and when the vines were first planted (the earliest, at least from what I saw, were in 1984).

Like many vineyards in the area, Uitsig was forced to harvest their grapes at different times this year–some earlier than usual, some later. They expect a high-quality harvest in 2010, but less quantity than normal. Based on this and other conversations I had with other wine producers, it sounds like there’s going to be some interesting, boom-or-bust blends coming out of the Cape Winelands as a whole from this year’s crop.

Chamonix Vineyard

As the last full day of our vineyard-hopping extravaganza wound down, we settled into Chamonix just before closing time late Sunday afternoon. Located up a hill near the end of a residential street shooting off from downtown Franschoek, this small tasting room is a cozy, converted 18th-century blacksmith shop, the kind of place where you could hole up for a long, cold winter by the fireplace, surrounded by jugs of cheap wine, pouring glass after glass and eating wedge after wedge of cheese until you pass out.

Known for their chardonnay and pinot noir, Chamonix’s wines didn’t overwhelm; in fact, outside of the 2007 Greywacke Pinotage we felt they were just decent. But three months later, as I look back on the hour or so we spent there, it doesn’t matter that the wine was just okay, just like it wouldn’t have really mattered if it was the opposite. Either way, I’d still always remember being there, at that time in my life, with my best friend, smiling, laughing, hopping back in the Honda Jazz, and asking each other if our teeth were red.

All photos © 2010 Brian Spencer and cannot be used or reprinted without permission.