The air is laden with the sweet smell of fynbos, shrubland vegetation found here on South Africa’s Western Cape. It includes proteas, ericas, pincushions and blombos and all kinds of fragrant wild herbs. This is a fertile terroir, surrounded by mountains — Simonsberg, Papegaaiberg, Groot Drakenstein, Jonkershoek and Die Twee Pieke — and the Bottelarai hills. It’s here you’ll find the Cape Winelands and, at its heart, the glorious town of Stellenbosch.
I’m in a 4WD being driven by Kevin Arnold, the winemaker who established the Waterford Estate; the man whose name is on its award-winning Kevin Arnold Shiraz. He wants me to get a sense of these 296 acres in the Blaauwklippen Valley and how they inform the vines and soils responsible for his wine.
“There’s something in our wines that comes from the soil — which is the oldest soil in the world because, as we know, everything started in Africa,” he explains. “Our soil is very rich; we have 9,000 plant species growing on our vineyard — the whole of the UK has 1,800 species. And that’s the story of the soul and the wines grown in the Cape. We have a very particular climate: there’s the Atlantic on one side of the peninsula, and on the other the Indian Ocean, known as the Cape of Storms. And then there’s our proximity to the South Pole and the two oceans.”
Back at the Waterford Estate’s main house, we try wines paired with chocolate custom-made for the estate by chocolatier Richard von Geusau — from Overberg, a two-hour drive away. There’s a masala chai chocolate that complements the spice of the Kevin Arnold Shiraz and a sea salt one that brings out the savoury notes of the Waterford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. “We take a long time trying to match the flavours with the wine,” explains Kevin. “If the vintage is very dry and tannic, we’ll go up with the cocoa to match the tannins.”
Stellenbosch takes its name from Simon van der Stel, the former governor of Cape Town, who described it as ‘a beautiful valley with lovely trees’. Its streets are lined with charming, Cape Dutch-style gabled buildings, most with porches decorated with cast-iron broekie (‘knicker’) lace underhangs. A mill stream runs alongside the kerb.
I meet Hanli Fourie, founder of Bites and Sites, which offers food tours of the town and winelands with a bit of history thrown in. We visit Schoon de Companje, an indoor market where Fritz Schoon produces bread using heirloom wheat varieties and his wife Channelle makes her own ice cream. At the traditional, time-warpy Eikeboom Slagtery butcher’s shop, the ceiling is hung with biltong drying in the air (the chewy beef is flavoured with salt, pepper, crushed coriander seeds and vinegar). I taste that same coriander in the droëwors, a thin, dried sausage that Hanli assures me is “lekker” (‘good’). It is.
The Stellenbosch area has some of South Africa’s best restaurants — many located on the vineyards, all a short taxi ride from the main town. Over dinner at Terroir, on the Kleine Zalze vineyard, cellarmaster Alastair Rimmer is ecstatic about the growing conditions: “I’ve worked in vineyards across the world, but now I’m in Stellenbosch I can’t imagine ever leaving — we have the most beautiful vineyards I’ve ever seen.”
We try a fresh and vibrant unoaked Chenin Blanc, with notes of passionfruit and lime. “This is South Africa in a glass,” says Alastair, before offering me his 2015 Sauvignon Blanc. “I think this is one of the finest Sauvignons ever produced in this country,” he says. “Think broad beans and fresh peas with the texture of a Sancerre.”
Stellenbosch is not all vineyards and chic restaurants. Like most places in South Africa, poverty lives cheek by jowl with affluence. We visit the township of Kayamandi — to get an understanding of life in a shanty town that emerged in the 1920s when men from rural villages began migrating to the towns for work. “It was only men at first, 10 of them sleeping in one small room. Then the women started to come to live with them,” explains Thembe Koli, a local guide. “Then they began to build small houses, which soon grew to become an informal settlement. Houses were put together with what could be found — corrugated iron, plywood. Most have no running water and share communal toilets and washing facilities.”
We walk through narrow alleys, seeing how tiny huts seem to grow out of each other. Nocawe Piedt is dressed in a traditional Zulu outfit as she welcomes guests into her bungalow — local kids gather in the driveway to sing and dance. In her living room, she introduces us to Xhosa food. There’s vetkoek (‘fatcake’), a savoury doughnut; chakalaka, a vegetable relish made from cabbage, carrots and red peppers; baked beans spiced with curry powder, onions and chutney; grilled chicken; and pap, a polenta made from mealie-meal (coarse flour).
The next day I clamber into another 4WD, at the Jordan Estate, and climb over 1,300ft above sea level. Here among the Sauvignon vines, you can see over False Bay and out to Cape Town’s Table Mountain. Eben, my young guide, pours a glass of Sauvignon Blanc before explaining, “this is the highest block on the estate. You plant either very high up — the higher you go, the clearer the air — or you plant on a cooler slope. Because it’s so high, you get the breeze from the False Bay area and Cape Town. It cools the vineyards during the harvest but adds different characteristics into the soil. This wine has the freshest fermentation flavours — green pepper and the cut grass of a normal Sauvignon Blanc, but there’s also a red pepper in a Jordan, with a nice acidity.”
By opening up estates, the winemakers of Stellenbosch have made the area special. There’s no better place to taste the region’s wines and to take in the smell of the fynbos. The terroir is in your glass and all around you.
Four places for a taste of Stellenbosch
Chef Michael Broughton adopts a ‘less is more’ philosophy at this restaurant on the Kleine Zalze wine estate. The menu changes daily — although the signature prawn risotto stays put. Ingredients are seasonal and local. My visit showcased a cracking confit pork belly with mustard sauce, roasted cauliflower and fennel and apple salad. Try winemaker Alastair Rimmer’s award-winning Family Reserve Sur Lie Sauvignon Blanc 2015 or his vintage Brut 2009.
How much: Three courses, around R550 (£24) per person.
In the midst of the vast Spier Wine Farm, Eight Restaurant offers casual farm-to-table eating using produce grown on the farm or sourced locally. The menu changes seasonally but fixtures include fillet, sirloin and sausages from the estate’s grass-fed cattle. Vineyard picnics are recommended, after stocking up at the on-site Eight to Go Deli with handmade pies, cold cuts, cheeses and, of course, a bottle of Spier wine. Picnic gear is available to hire.
How much: Three-course meal costs around R300 (£13) each.
Chef Tanja Kruger presides over the Makaron, at the five-star Majeka House hotel, offering a six-course tasting menu or an a la carte four courses. Two guests at a time can sit at the Kitchen Table, by request. Dishes use herbs and edible flowers grown in the gardens. Main courses can include crispy pork belly, apples and cabbage and ‘coffee ostrich, dates, celeriac and pickled roses’. Each course can be paired with a Stellenbosch wine.
How much: Six course tasting menu, R620 (£27)per person.
Middelvlei Wine Estate
Come here for the braai (barbecue) experience on the Middelvlei estate after first blending Merlot, Shiraz and Pinotage to create your own wine. The Momberg family will introduce you to pot bread, snoek (queen mackerel) pate, braaibroodjie (a braai-ed toastie filled with cheese, tomato, onion, chutney and mayonnaise), as well as pumpkin fritters, lamb chops and boerewors (sausages) and malva pudding (sponge filled with apricot jam).
How much: Braai meal, R165 (£7) per person, including coffee.
Five Stellenbosch food finds
There are over 200 wine and grape producers in Stellenbosch.
Biltong and Droëwors
Traditional dried, aged, spiced South African sausages, harking back to the days before domestic fridges.
Ice cream & bread
Come to Schoon de Companje for funky retro decor plus artisan ice cream and bread, made by a husband and wife team.
No visit to Stellenbosch would be complete without sampling meat cooked on a braai (traditional barbecue).
Traditional Xhosa cooking
Try hand-cooked vetkoek, chakalaka, beef, grilled chicken, baked beans and pap in a local home in Kayamandi township.
How to do it: South African Airways flies from London to Johannesburg twice daily, with 19 connections to Cape Town from £515 return. Rooms at Majeka House from £100 for two sharing. Suites on the Jordan Wine Estate from £83 per night.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)