Wednesday, December 13, 10:48:29 AM, Europe/London

Cape Winelands

by Graham Boynton | Posted: October 31st, 2015

I have been visiting South Africa’s Western Cape since I was a schoolboy in what was then Rhodesia. I remember sitting on Cape Town’s Camps Bay Beach on my first trip here in the 1960s and looking up in wonder at the Twelve Apostles, the formidable range of coastal mountains that runs from just above Camp’s Bay to Chapman’s Peak on the horizon to the south west. There was something about that combination of granite peaks, scudding clouds, and the ebb and flow of the Atlantic tides that remained in my memory forever. Those were the days when the country was firmly in apartheid’s brutal grip; Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress inner circle were imprisoned just off this coast, on Robben Island. The Afrikaner regime seemed as immovable then as those mountains, and it was always with mixed emotions that our family took our vacations in the Cape.

Today on Camps Bay beach, and the neighboring Clifton beaches the landscape remains the same but the atmosphere has changed dramatically. South Africa and the Western Cape in particular are not only back on the international map but are part of the international jet set circuit. It is summer and that means party time – champagne festivals, garden parties at the wine estates, parties on the luxury yachts bobbing offshore on the Atlantic swell – and the heady mix of British, American, French, German accents confirms that what we are seeing here is a kind of United Nations of vacationers.

The bacchanal is spiced up this year by the presence of Hollywood gossip column regulars. Charlize Theron and Sean Penn are making a movie here. The fourth season of Homeland has just wrapped, but Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin and the rest of the cast are returning soon to film the next season. The locals are thrilled by such international attention, long denied them during the apartheid years, but what pleases them most is the degree to which the bold-face vsitors seem stunned by the extravagant physical beauty of the Cape.

Still, this is nothing new. When British explorer Sir Frances Drake first set eyes on the Cape in 1580, he noted that it was “the most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth”—a large, deep harbour that abuts a natural amphitheatre (just open grasslands in Drake’s time but today the City Bowl, where Cape Town’s urban centre is located), framed by the vertical cliffs and flat-topped summit of Table Mountain and two other dramatic mountains – Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. There are more than 70 peaks higher than 1,000 feet in the Cape Town area, a spectacular contrast to the large, low-lying coastal plane known as the Cape Flats that lies between the city and the similarly dramatic mountain ranges around what are now the wineland towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl, and, a little further northeast, Riebeek Kasteel, the center of the Swartland wine region.

North of all these massive outcrops, the rest of South Africa, and indeed most of sub-Saharan Africa, is by comparison chaotic, politically volatile, turbulent. But here, tucked in behind the granite cordon sanitaire, is Africa as a cross between the Mediterranean and California, an organized, orderly , sophisticated, and bucolic playground. THE, the Atlantic and the Indian oceans crash onto brilliant white beaches and between the mountain ranges are verdant valleys decorated with rows of giant camphor trees and gardens dense with hydrangeas, aloes, and 9,000 varieties wild flowers endemic to the Cape. And on the slopes around them grow the rows of vines that now produce some of the best New World wines on the planet. Add to this the Dutch gabled farmhouses and estate manors, some dating back to the 18th century, plus an ideal climate of hot summer days cooled by sea breezes, and you have what the gods might have imagined as perfect wine country.

Today, it’s not just that the international jet set is increasingly vacationing here. Many have been buying up large chunks of winelands real estate. First there was Laurence Graff, the British diamond multi-millionaire, who in 2006 purchased the modest Delaire wine estate on the top of the Helshoogte Pass and lavished untold millions on it, transforming it into an extravagant spa resort and winery. More recently, Sir Richard Branson snapped up Mont Rochelle, a pleasant but unprepossessing property that looks down into Franschhoek, gave it a lick of paint and some new carpets and, in characteristic fashion, announced it as the valley’s latest luxury lodge. Most notably of all, the Indian healthcare and telecoms billionaire, Analjit Singh, bought three adjacent properties on the slopes of the Klein Dassenberg Mountain in 2013 and at the time of writing is creating the Dassenberg Estate—a boutique hotel, a spa, and a winery—due to open mid-2015.

My enviable mission here is to travel through the Cape’s winelands and gauge the spectacular transformation that has taken place here in the 20 years since the end of apartheid. As every Capetonian will tell you, apartheid was a reasonably brief interlude in a long and distinguished history for this far corner of Africa. European settlement began in 1652 with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, who had been instructed by the Dutch East India Company to set up a permanent base. 

Dutch and then Huguenot settlers, the latter fleeing from anti-Protestant legislation in France (and bringing with them a tradition of gastronomy and viticulture that they transplanted gradually), arrived through the second half of the 17th century. Their intermarriages led to the beginnings of the Afrikaner nation, although for centuries they lived relatively harmoniously alongside the indigenous Khoikhoi, a numerically small minority tribe. (Today’s black population in the Cape is made up of migrants from all over Africa.) The Cape changed hands frequently until 1854, when it established its own parliament and twenty years later its own prime minister.

Stellenbosch had been founded as the first Afrikaner settlement in 1655, and by the early 1700s a small town had been built and around it, in the lush valley at the foot of the Simonsberg mountains, were the farms. Unlike any other colonial African frontier towns, Stellenbosch quickly built a school, then a theological seminary, then the country’s first Afrikaans-language university.

So it seems fitting that i start my my journey here, at the Harvard of Afrikanerdom, where the doctrine of apartheid was developed by one generation of Afrikaner academics in the early 20th century and torn down as untenable by another generation at the century’s end. Today, Stellenbosch university and its neat, pretty town have become the center of South Africa’s IT development. As I wander along the oak-lined streets, past the gabled, whitewashed buildings and immaculate Victorian houses that dominate the town center, I am struck by how unchanged Stellenbosch is, how in a country that is heaving with transformations it has remained serene and easy-going.

Four miles outside it lies Vriesenhof, the wine estate belonging to Jan Boland Coetzee, a legendary Stellenbosch rugby hero and winemaker who is both a traditional Afrikaner (his forefathers arrived from Europe in 1678) and a reformist who supported so-called coloured (mixed race) farm workers rights in the 1980s. (Mixed race Capetonians make up 49 percent of the population.) When I ask Coetzee to describe precisely where we are, he smiles and says: “We’re on the south facing slope of the Stellenbosch mountains, close to Stellenbosch town, close to heaven … just four doors away.”

His thick crop of once sandy-coloured hair has turned grey but he remains a solid chunk of Afrikaner muscularity. He makes wines that are rich in local character and flavour, brilliantly reflecting the terroir of this region.

In his younger days, Coetzee was a mould-breaking winemaker, having lived and worked in Burgundy and then come home to challenge the straight-jacket conventions of the South African wine industry, and like other progressives of the day was reduced to smuggling forbidden foreign vines into the country in his son’s diapers. Those were times of high apartheid, when the minority Afrikaner government attempted to control everything to do with politics, literature, the arts, even winemaking. The all-powerful State-funded KWV (Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging) set policies and prices for the wine industry and imposed draconian regulations on it. At the same time, international boycotts of anything South African further isolated the industry, resulting in the country’s wines being virtually unknown internationally through most of the twentieth century.

These days the self-declared mould-breakers are clustered some 40 miles northwest of Stellenbosch in the Swartland. A little more than a decade ago they had moved onto vineyards that had old vines, previously used for cheap bulk wines, and are now turning out international award winners.

LEAVE STELLENBOSCH AND ARRIVE AT THE Sadie Family winery to be greeted by Eden Sadie, who is regarded as a prophet among South Africa’s younger generation of winemakers. Now in his early 40s, Sadie has the absentminded scruffiness of a surfer-poet, which is what he is when he’s not making South Africa’s most celebrated new wines. He doesn’t have a television or a radio show, doesn’t read newspapers, and says he is “nourished by music and poetry and wine.” All he is interested in, Sadie says, is working this land. “I never wanted to make wine. I wanted to farm. I moved here for the soil. The winery is merely a place where I can connect up my electricity.”

The morning’s tasting is a rich mix of flowing wine and equally flowing Sadie apercus. We taste his two signature wines--Columella, named after an admired Roman-era agronomist, and Paladius, after Columella’s successor, and then plunge into wines called Skurfberg, Pofadder, and Trainspoor (all Afrikaans titles) while Sadie proclaims the virtues of long unfashionable grape varietals such as cinsaut: “Cinsaut is like your brother in jail. You love it privately but you can’t talk about it at parties.” I’m particularly taken by the delicate, fruit-driven, cinsaut-based Pofadder, named after an extremely poisonous snake, and the lemony chenin blanc Skurfburg. Both wines are hard to find, as Sadie only produces 5,000 bottles of each per year, but they are worth searching for. Entertaining Sadie may be, but it is his wines that really do the talking.

Sadie and his fellow members of the Swartland Independent Producers (including Jan Boland Coetzee’s son-in law Adi Badenhorst and a young American UC Davis graduate Andrea Mullineux and her husband Chris), the co-operative that insists on “naturally produced” have become master marketers and hold an annual celebration called The Swartland Revolution in and around Riebeek Kasteel. They’ve helped put South African wines on the international map.

SO, AFTER A SHORT BUT EXTREMELY SWEET EXCURSION TO THE SWART I RETURN TO STELLENBOSCH AND THEN ACROSS THE HELSHOOGTE PASS into the Franschhoek Valley. Your first sighting of this lush, chocolate-box-beautiful valley tells you why international investment is pouring in here. What started out in 1688 as a remote settlement for 180 French Huguenot refugees has transformed itself into a vacation retreat of significant beauty, with wine shops, art galleries, and a clutch of excellent restaurants. Over the past 20 years, Franschhoek has become to the South African food revolution what the Swartland is to the wine revolution.

There has been a dramatic growth in luxury accommodations. Le Quartier Francais, a 21-room auberge that combines informal service with chic design, was the first, having opened in 1990. In 2004, Liz and Phil Biden opened Franschhoek’s most flamboyant hote, La Residence, which quickly became a favoured retreat for the rich and the famous–Richard Gere, Bono, and Robert Redford have all checked in. Liz Biden says that the valley has in the last decade gone from being a somnambulant retreat for retired South African couples to a cosmopolitan center for well-heeled travelers, and the arrival of such proprietors as Branson and Singh is merely confirming the desirability of the neighbourhood. “When you see the physical beauty of the area, you can see why they’re buying into Franschhoek,” she says. “It is prettier than Tuscany and the locals speak better English. And it’s physically, geologically much more interesting than Napa Valley.”

It was here 18 years ago that a young Dutch woman, Margot Janse, took over as head chef at Le Quartier Francais. Around the same time, Nelson Mandela became the country’s first democratically elected president and South Africans, black and white, were able to shake off the shackles of apartheid. Leaving behind a culinary culture that had seen chefs and restaurateurs eschew local products in favour of anything from overseas, Margot Janse and a few like-minded young chefs began to source local produce and cook seasonally appropriate dishes. Suddenly, and in more ways than one, it was cool to be South African.

The Tasting Room, Le Quartier Francais’ restaurant, is now a must-visit on the Cape gastronomic circuit and has been named as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world in the San Pellegrino annual listings. Janse has inspired a generation of chefs to take her culinary high road and Tokara, Pierneef at Le Motte, Foliage, and Bread and Wine, a quartet of excellent contemporary restaurants in Franschhoek, have emerged as testimony to this.

AFTER several days of driving from vineyard to vineyard, it is a treat to spend a night at Le Quartier Francais and to dine at the Tasting Room. The menu is part Ferran Adria (for starters, black pepper snow, beetroot, and lime, and foie gras with edible silver disguised as a chocolate bar) and part nouvelle Cape cuisine (salted, farmed kabeljou, cod, with black mussel and charcoal) and it is sensational. Over the next two days I also eat at Tokara, where the chef, Richard Carstens, offers ‘Baked Alaska Salmon’ (fillet of trout, citrus salsa, and smoked salmon ice cream) as his speciality dish, the most extreme culinary experience I have on this trip, and have a languorous lunch with friends at Bread and Wine, a delightful deli and terrace restaurant on the Moreson wine estate. All of which confirms that the Cape winelands stand comparison with centres of culinary excellence in France, Spain, Australia and the USA and act as a reminder that the days of cultural isolation under apartheid are long gone.

HE MOST SPECTACULAR piece of real estate in the Franschhoek Valley belongs not to yet another international gazillionaire but to a local. Johan Rupert, the owner of Richemont, a holding company for such brands as Dunhill, Cartier, Montblanc, and Van Cleef & Arpels, owns a sprawling wine estate cum horse stud in two prime locations at the foot of the Groot Drakenstein Mountains. He studied economics and commercial law at Stellenbosch University and is a proud Afrikaner. So proud that when in 2005 the magazine Wallpaper declared that “Afrikaans was one of the ugliest languages in the world,” he promptly withdrew all advertising.

He is also an outspoken patriot, and at a recent meeting of one of his holding companies, he denounced the country’s ruling elite—essentially the African National Congress under President Jacob Zuma—and cautioned that a dramatically underperforming economy threatened to derail the new post-apartheid South Africa. The headline read: “South Africa going bust gradually, warns Rupert.”

“I was quoting Ernest Hemingway’s famous line from The Sun Also Rises,” Rupert explains to me when I visit him at L’Omarins farm, the location of his wife Gaynor’s stud farm and, most important for travelers, the site of Rupert’s Franschhoek Motor Museum, a stellar collection of more than 200 vintage vehicles dating back to the Model T Ford. “Hemingway had written: ‘How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.’” He is unrepentant about his pronouncement, and says the country’s economy is in a perilous situation because state-run enterprises such as South African Airways, the national airline, ESKOM, the national power company, and many others are being mismanaged on an epic scale. “We now have uneducated people making big decisions,” Rupert says. “We have to fix this quickly.”

I had come here for a reality check after my week of living the Cape good life. Has the African post-colonial malaise insinuated itself into this Mediterranean-seeming outpost? There might be a snake in the winelands garden, but Rupert won’t dwell on it long. Like most Africans, he is a genetically predisposed optimist. We soon put politics aside and he’s off on an extended monologue about the good things here in the Cape. He enthuses about his state-of-the-art vineyard a few hundred yards away, announcing that he is now making a South African version of Armagnac that he calls Sagnac. He declares that his own Antonij Rupert Wines (named after his late brother) have been compared to the best of Burgundy by several wine writers.

As I leave I ask Rupert whether he and his Afrikaner tribe see their future here in the Cape. He growls his response: “My first forefather came here in 1662…and I am still here.”

N THE DRIVE BACK TO Cape Town along the N2 Highway, I push Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenburg into the CD player and float along on a cloud of hypnotic and mournful Cape jazz. Ibrahim, formerly Dollar Brand, is from the Cape and this piece of music, recorded in the early 1970s during some of the darkest days of apartheid, became an anthem of resistance. I’m driving past the endless sprawl of shantytowns that is the Cape Flats, once the dumping ground for apartheid’s unwanted people of colour and now a magnet for millions of economic refugees from all over Africa. Kayalisha, Guguletu, Langa and, of course, Mannenburg were names once associated with the shame of a minority white regime; now they speak of a post-apartheid government that seems incapable of stopping the spread of poverty.

As Mannenburg fades on the car stereo, I am past the Cape Flats and into Cape Town. Tonight I shall stay at Ellerman House, Paul Harris’s beautiful hotel on Bantry Bay. After breakfast in the morning on the veranda overlooking perfectly manicured gardens and beyond a great, uninterrupted view of the Atlantic Ocean—to me, one of the most perfect vistas in the world—I wander through the hotel taking in the great works of South African art. Everything is here, on the walls of drawing rooms, passageways, restaurants—from old masterpieces by Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, Irma Stern, and Gergoire Boonzaier, to significant works by contemporary artists (John Meyer, William Kentridge, Anton Kannemeyer).

Suddenly, the electricity is switched off. Everywhere. For the next three hours, traffic lights cease to function, shops close, restaurants stop serving food. It will happen again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Locals patiently explain that this is called load shedding, rotational power blackouts imposed by the country’s national power supplier, Eskom, because the existing power stations can’t keep up with demand. But among themselves, they curse Jacob Zuma’s ANC government and see the blackouts as vivid evidence of their inability to run a First World country. The feeling of frustration and disappointment is summed up by one columnist who writes with appropriate acidity: “After 20 years of democracy, and 12 months since Nelson Mandela was laid to rest, the mood in South Africa is bleaker than at any time in recent history – and with good reason. Still, the weather is lovely and the scenery is beautiful.”

Maybe uncertainty is the price you pay for Paradise.




comments powered by Disqus
The last supper at El Bulli

With just three weeks to go before the world’s greatest restaurant closes for ever a table at El...

Posted: July 25th, 2012 · (9929) views

Is Heathrow fit for purpose?

As summer approaches Graham Boynton says that London’s crowded main airport once the world’s...

Posted: August 8th, 2012 · (7428) views

TOPlist