Zipping between sandy bays and swank wine estates, our driver pointed out Kalk Bay—a popular site for seeing southern right whales—then drove us to the oldest winery in South Africa. We’d only left downtown Cape Town a mere 25 minutes prior, and my mind was trying to throw off preconceived notions as quickly as the formidable sandstone mountains were shrugging off the morning mist. I found the numerous wine regions near Cape Town overwhelming: Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, Constantia, Paarl, Durbanville—all beckoned with their idiosyncratic qualities like a row of red wines during a blind tasting.
Where to go
If you have traveled through wine countries around the world, you will quickly find that things aren’t the same in South Africa. This was immediately apparent when we arrived at Steenberg Wine Estate. A gate blocked entry, and an armed guard approached the car. He only wielded a visitor’s sign-up sheet, but the experience was discomfiting, begging the question: What’s the gate for? Other unexpected sights: Signs warning of the imminent threat of baboons (which actually are a real danger: so keep your cheese and crackers stowed) and—was that an ostrich walking among the grapevines?
As well as vineyards, the Steenberg Estate was comprised of flower gardens and historic buildings featuring the bell-shaped gables and whitewashed facades of Cape Dutch architecture. The winery had the majesty of plantation homes in Georgia; the vineyards swept down tan hills like in California; and the sandstone mountains formed a backdrop that only South Africa can lay claim too. Inside, the Steenberg Estate tasting room was ultra modern, and the white wines snapped with acidity; many had aromas of chamomile and lychee. The winery also offered two dining options, the fusion restaurant BistroSixteen82 or the fine-dining Catharinas.
After spending a day in Constantia, I took off to Stellenbosch, South Africa’s most famous wine region—only this time I was behind the wheel. Driving through South African wine country is a relaxing experience, but you have to be comfortable with driving on the left side of the road and on the right side of the car. The roads are well maintained, and, in fact, the wine routes through Stellenbosch are sponsored by American Express—as is easy enough to glean from the name: the Stellenbosch American Express® Wine Route. The route begins about 40 minutes from Cape Town, and the wineries along it are clearly marked. Note that the alcohol limit is 0.05%, so drive smart.
As opposed to Constantia, which is on the coast, the interior wine regions feature plateaus and gently rolling hills. Inside the tasting rooms, I was amazed by the hospitality of the people, who were down to earth and willing to share their love of their home and swap a few jokes. Indeed, South African wineries often describe themselves as wine farms, and travelers will find many serving meals comprised of organic vegetables and meats cultivated onsite.
In addition to tasting rooms, game reserves and historic towns also stud South Africa’s wine country. The reserves offer the chance to stare down everything from antelope and zebras to giraffes, lions, and rhinos, and, whether you’re hungry, looking for souvenirs, or looking for a bed, the historical towns erupt with options—designer clothing stores standing beside shops selling African masks and statues.
After several days in South African wine country, I had developed quite a taste for the fiercely independent mentality of the people I’d met—their focus on being self-reliant as well as making sustainable wine-making and lifestyle choices. Moreover, the adventure hadn’t stopped at the wild baboons, left-handed gear-shifting, or the running of red robots (robot is the South African term for stoplight). Each of the wine regions around Cape Town have their own microclimates, and I had to discover the different tastes of dry Semillons ripened against the strong ocean winds and the musty vintages of pinotages dating back to 1978.
It’s pretty difficult to screw up a wine tasting journey from Cape Town. As a matter of fact, a traveler can strike off in any direction from the center of Cape Town and find wine tastings within a forty-five minute drive. Let me rephrase: any direction that doesn’t take you into the Atlantic Ocean and alongside whales and great white sharks.
As an added bonus, South Africa serves the good life for a great price: The tasting room fees are almost unanimously low, costing between $2 and $5, and, in most cases, even this charge is waved with bottle purchase. In the sections below, the wineries are organized by region; their tasting fees are given; the regions are described; and a list of popular activities is provided.
For those short on time, this region is easily accessible and easy to understand. It’s just 20 minutes from downtown Cape Town, and there are 11 wineries total, including Groot Constantia, the oldest vineyard in South Africa, and Steenberg, the oldest wine-making farm in South Africa. The region makes many of my favorite South African white wines, especially Steenberg Vineyard’s 2009 Magna Carta (60% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Semillon).
The sheer number of activities within a short drive is astonishing. For sublime experiences in nature, drive to the picture-perfect Hout Bay, go whale watching in False Bay, hang out on one of the numerous beaches, hike to Peers Cave in the Silvermine Nature Reserve, or visit Cape Point, one of South Africa’s most beautiful natural sights, where you can see penguins, ostrich, and baboons. Excellent restaurants serving fresh seafood can be found in the small towns, including Hout Bay and Kalk Bay. If driving home late, watch out for the endangered Western Leopard Toad, which likes to populate the roads at night (Cape Point Vineyards even makes a wine called Splattered Toad and donates a portion of the proceeds to saving the endangered amphibian).
The following wineries offer wine tastings in Constantia:
Buitenverwachting – free; daily; by appointment for groups over 5
Steenberg Vineyards – free; daily
Cape Point Vineyards - $2; daily
Groot Constantia - $3.50; daily
Eagle’s Nest – $3.50; daily
Klein Constantia Estate- free; Mon-Sat
Stellenbosch and Franschhoek
The country’s most famous wine region, Stellenbosch is South Africa’s Napa Valley, and it is home to the Franschhoek Valley and the town of Franschhoek, also known as “the Gourmet Capital” of South Africa. About 40 minutes due east from Cape Town, the wineries—which total more than 200—tend to combine state of the art facilities with the atmosphere of a rustic farm, and many furnish romantic in-house accommodations.
Focusing on red wines, the wineries make blends as well as mono-varietal reds using the pinotage, merlot, shiraz, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon grapes. In addition, most wineries make at least one white wine, and popular grapes are chardonnay and viognier. The wineries in the Franschhoek Valley make a more even number of red and white wines, utilizing the white grapes sauvignon blanc, Semillon, chenin blanc, and chardonnay. Further, the area is known for its sparkling wines made from pinot noir.
The towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek both offer excellent shopping options, and The Tasting Room restaurant, which has repeatedly been voted the Best Restaurant in Africa and the Middle East by the San Pellegrino Awards, welcomes diners in Franschhoek. For a cheaper meal, visit The Tasting Room’s sister restaurant, The Common Room, also in Francschoek. Other activities include hiking, biking, or swimming in the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve and golfing at the Stellenbsoch Golf Club.
There are five Stellenbosch American Express® Wine Routes for wine tasting within Stellenbosch: Stellenbosch Berg, Botterlary Hills, Greater Simonsberg, Helderberg, and Stellenbosch Valley. Franschhoek, though it is part of the Stellenbosch municipality, deserves to be considered its own unique wine region. My philosophy: Just drive. You can’t go wrong.
The following wineries (among many others!) all welcome visitors for wine tastings :
Blaauwklippen – free; daily
Vrede en Lust – free for up to 5 people; daily
La Bonheur – free ; daily
Vergelegen Estate – $2.50; daily
Meerlust – $3.50; Mon-Sat
Rust en Vrede – $5; Mon-Sat
Thelema Mountain Vineyards – $3; Mon-Sat
Simonsig – $3; daily
Rustenberg – $3; daily
Dornier Estate – $3; daily
Durbanville Wine Valley
Similar to Constantia in terms of number of wineries and accessibility, Durbanville Wine Valley is a great day trip from Cape Town. In fact, the town of Durbanville is technically a suburb of Cape Town, and most of the wineries center around it. For the most part, the wineries are family-owned and operated, and they’ve cultivated a reputation for creating a relaxed environment and offering friendly service. The area makes both white and red wines. To round out your wine tasting day, tour the upscale Clara Anna Fontein game reserve, relax at the Ruslamere Guest House Spa, shop at the Willowbridge Slowfood Saturday Market, or dine at one of the numerous restaurants, including the Die Boer Theatre Restaurant.
Paarl and Wellington
A full-bodied red wine region, Paarl lies about an hour northeast from Cape Town, and, between the town of Wellington and the surrounding area, it offers a large and diverse selection of boutique and large-scale wineries. In addition, the area boasts a particularly well-regarded art scene and a number of nature reserves, including the Drakenstein Lion Park and Butterfly World, a greenhouse with hundreds of butterflies inside. For hikers, the Limietberg Nature Reserve offers trails and naturally formed pools that are great for swimming.
The following wineries offer wine tastings:
Dunstone Wines – $1.50; Wed-Sun
Fairview Estate - $3; daily
Glen Carlou - $3; daily
Laborie Estate - $2.50; daily
Rhebokskloof Estate - $2; daily
Boekenhoutskloof - free; Mon-Fri
Under Oaks – free ; Tue-Sun
Photos courtesy of Mattie Bamman.
- Mattie Bamman