A western cape crusade

01 Jan 2018
6 min read
Breathtaking landscapes, good food and fine wines – Stellenbosch has it all, as Rowena Marella-Daw discovers when she explores South Africa’s second oldest wine region.

The lure of South Africa’s Western Cape beckons with its world-class vineyards and glorious landscapes, along with an enticing food scene that’s transforming Cape Town and Stellenbosch into one of the coolest foodie capitals in the world. There’s much to excite the curious and adventurous, and even more to seduce those who relish eating and drinking in the lap of luxury.

My food and wine adventure commences in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, the city’s vibrant social hub. The imposing Table Mountain looms over myelegant hotel, Cape Grace, set within strolling distance from the harbour’s restaurants and shops. Not long after checking in, I’m scouring Watershed, a contemporary space sprawling with over 150 stalls showcasing the best in African arts and crafts, fashion, jewellery and home furnishings. And when the much-awaited Zeitz MOCCA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) opens its doors at the waterfront’s historic Grain Silo Complex in 2017, it will serve as home to collections from Africa’s talented artists.

South African food is a delectable hotpot of native, Asian and European influences, typified in dishes, such as Bobotie, Cape Malay curry, Biltong and Chakalaka, a spicy vegetable relish. South Africans love their meat, particularly ostrich and springbok, although more adventurous palates can savour more exotic grub – caterpillars (mopane), crocodile, zebra, warthog, impala, wildebeest, gemsbok and kudu – served at the V&A Food Market, along with other native specialities. Beyond traditional fayre, there’s also a growing demand for innovative cuisine, providing a platform for creative fine-dining experiences offered by the likes of Nobu restaurant at the One&Only hotel, and Chef Luke Dale-Roberts’ The Pot Luck Club and The Test Kitchen.

The menu at Cape Grace Hotel’s Signal Restaurant is pretty special, thanks to Executive Chef Malika van Reenen’s knack for marrying international classics with national favourites, such as the Rooisbos-smoked salmon fish cake and Bobotie-spiced springbok. The lean thread of Springbok meat comes with a subtle gamey sweetness, while Ostrich has a more fine texture than beef and contains far less fat and cholesterol. But it’s not just good food that sets Cape Grace apart. Design and heritage play a big role here too, as I discover an eclectic collection of antiques and quirky art pieces gracing the corridors and walls on every floor.

A flavour of Cape Town is just the icing on the cake though, as more gastronomic adventures and vineyard hopping take me next to Stellenbosch, the country’s second oldest wine region. Along the way I encounter a mesmerising tableau punctuated by the majestic Stellenbosch, Jonkershoek and Simonsberg mountains, undulating hills and valleys cloaked in vineyards. The fact that this region is home to more than 150 wine farms spread across a 30km radius is intoxicating enough.

With much to discover and cram in three days, I head straight to the heart of Stellenbosch, Dorp Street, which once served as the old wagon route to Cape Town. Immaculate white-washed Cape Dutch-style buildings imbibe a quaint charm that blends with vibrant Church Street, lined with oak trees and a bevy of funky eateries, art galleries, museums, boutique shops and inns. At the Stellenbosch Wine Routes Office I meet my guide, Hanli Fourie of ‘Bites and Sites’, and she takes me on a ‘Foodies on Foot’ jaunt, starting with a nibble of biltong at Eikeboom Butchery, lunch at Oude Werf Hotel, followed by dessert at M Patisserie, and a mooch around Schoon de Companjie, a rustic cooperative selling artisanal specialities.

Escaping the hot summer sun, my driver whisks me off to Die Bergkelder cellars for my very first tasting of unfiltered wines from Fleur du Cap’s range. A clarifying method of ‘settling under gravity’ assures minimal intervention and helps to retain complexity in the Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Merlot,Cabernet Sauvignon and Noble Late Harvest dessert wine, and matching these with selected salts from around the globe (there are 161, apparently) is an interesting experience. The smooth and velvety Unfiltered Sauvignon Blanc 2014 is now on my favourites list, and so is the Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 for its distinct character – hints of dark chocolate, raspberry, a bit of truffle and mixed spice.

Just a 15-minute drive away, my charming country abode, WedgeView Country House & Spa, is encircled by acres and acres of vineyards. But before I get a chance to unwind and enjoy spectacular mountain views, the aroma of Braai wafting from an open barbecue pit in the garden temps me to descend in haste to witness succulent pork, boerewors (sausages), chicken, pork kebabs, and the most delicious lamb chops sizzling away. All other barbecues pale in comparison, and the secret’s in the special marinade and true South African spirit.

Back on the wine trail, next day starts early with a delightful breakfast at JC Le Roux’s stylish Le Venue restaurant, followed by a tasting of MCC (Methode Cap Classique) bubblies in the elegant private tasting room. Traditional methods of blending, fermentation and maturation are used here to produce more delicate bubbles. I observe the miniature beads of effervescence rising in the Vintage Pinot Noir, Pinor Noir Rosé, Brut and La Valle Rosé, but my favourite has to be the award-winning Scintilla 2009, a beautiful blend of chardonnay and pinot noir. It spent 60 months on the lees, resulting in an elegant and smooth mingling of vanilla and citrus notes. A grand ending to my tasting is a demonstration of sabrage, a daring way of opening a properly chilled champagne bottle with one quick stroke of a sabre, a tradition that goes back to the Napoleonic times.

A vertical tasting involving five vintages of the Lanner Hill Kumkani sauvignon blanc at Stellenbosch Vineyards is next on the agenda. “Kumkani means ‘king’ in the native Xhosa language”, explains sommelier Abraham de Villiers, while he pours the 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2015 vintages. “2008 was a good year,” he confirms, after I declare this vintage ‘king’ for its distinct character: fresh, well rounded, a hint of pear and lychee lemony aroma and a pale gold colour. After all the tastings, I manage not to go horizontal – lunch at Bistro 13 right next door is too good to miss. Creative pairings such as Lamb spring rolls with coconut curry sauce and plum chutney, and Pan fried venison loin, Jerusalem artichoke puree, crispy polenta and Cape Malay honey jus, illustrate the exciting gastronomic revolution sweeping across South Africa.

Not too far away is Van Ryn’s, the only brandy distillery in Stellenbosch. A tour around reveals impressive facilities and huge distillation rooms with copper vats. Watching a craftsman build an oak barrel from scratch is quite fascinating, while a pairing of their award-winning 12, 15 and 20 year-old vintages with Belgian chocolates is an unusual treat.

Exquisite wines, good food and talented chefs: Stellenbosch ticks all the boxes. In fact, seven of the country’s top 20 restaurants are based around the region, some situated in picturesque vineyard settings. Tokara is a fine example, a treat for the senses: life-size sculptures and paintings grace the lobby and dining room; panoramic views of Stellenbosch and Cape Town beckon in the distance, a full moon adding to the dreamy atmosphere. I peruse a creative repertoire from award-winning Chef Richard Carstens, who brings 27 years of experience to the table, and the Leipoldt springbok with turmeric croquette, mange tout, butternut, salted apricots, banana ice cream and curry jus catches my eye.

One of the joys of exploring the Western Cape is the opportunity to stay in a historic wine farm, such as Lanzerac Hotel & Spa, built on a 324-year old working wine estate on the foothills of Jonkershoek Valley. Driving through the grand gates, a long, leafy avenue leads me to the Manor House, a fine example of Cape Dutch architecture. There are 48 elegant suites here, many of which have patios overlooking the gardens and countryside. Lanzerac is home to the first bottled Pinotage, and guests staying here can enjoy complimentary wine tasting and cellar tours. And what could be better than pairing exquisite wines such as Mrs English Chardonnay 2013 and the particularly moreish Merlot and Pinotage Dark Cherry Cigar chocolate?

A fitting finale to my Stellenbosch experience is dining at Makaron restaurant at Majeka House, a quirky boutique retreat in an affluent enclave of Stellenbosch. From its trendy private club setting to cuisine and presentation, the approach is fun, bold, unconventional. Forget the bread basket. Instead, I’m served a wooden box with a drawer full of scrumptious fresh baked breads, flatbreads and dips. The dishes are rich and intense, but not to be outdone by equally exciting wines from boutique vineyards.

It would take weeks, if not months, to explore Stellenbosch at leisure, and cherry picking your tasting experiences is the best way make the most of a short journey such as mine. In just a few days I get to sip some of the best wines, savour exceptional cuisine and meet friendly locals. Stellenbosch is indeed a place that warms the heart and stirs the spirit.


Recommended wines

  • Ernie Els Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
  • Kumkani Lanner Hill 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Stellenbosch Vineyards)
  • Lanzerac Mrs English Chardonnay
  • Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
  • Tokara Director’s Reserve 2011 (Won gold in IWSC 2015)
  • JC Le Roux Scintilla 2003
  • Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon 2012


Little black book

Bites and Sites www.bitesandsites.co.za

Cape Grace www.capegrace.com

Fleur du Cap www.fleurducap.co.za

J.C. Leroux www.jcleroux.co.za

Lanzerac Hotel & Spa www.lanzerac.co.za

Majeka House www.majekahouse.co.za

Stellenbosch Vineyards www.stellenboschvineyards.co.za

Tokara Restaurant www.tokararestaurant.co.za

Van Ryn’s Distillery www.vanryn.co.za

Wedgeview Country House & Spa www.wedgeview.co.za

Barkeeper: Buy Wine Online

SA Wineswww.sawines.co.uk

Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com

Awin Barratt Siegel Wine Agencies www.abswineagencies.co.uk