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the latest of Square Meal's tours to the world's great wine regions, Hamish Anderson takes to the roads of South Africa
I had only been off the aeroplane three hours but already a cold, grey London and 12 hours in a cramped seat seemed like a bad dream. One of Cape Town's leading sommeliers was taking me through a range of wines from Swartland, an up and coming area north of Cape Town. This being South Africa, the tasting was conducted outside, the sommelier dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, and the beers already chilling in an ice bucket. A stiff but warm breeze that blew over and smashed a couple of the Riedel glasses was the only thing that threatened to interrupt an otherwise perfect introduction to the Cape.
Since being welcomed back into the international fold, South Africa has been striving to catch up with what it missed in the intervening years of isolation. After a difficult period of transition, the country, while still having many hurdles to overcome, now has a booming economy and an air of confidence.
This new self-belief is no better illustrated than in the wine industry. Despite a strengthening rand, wine exports to the UK are in rude health, a young, well-travelled generation has taken over many of the family estates, and the wine lands are now big tourist attractions combining sport, gastronomy, world-class hotels and nature.
The Cape has a staggering array of wildlife and fauna: there are more varieties of flowers on Table Mountain than in the entire UK. Many of these plants only occur in areas where specific soil, climate and geography combine.
Sound familiar? It is what the French would call terroir and the Cape has literally thousands of these unique spots. The same grape variety is often blended from across these varying sites, giving the wines great complexity. This gives South Africa a distinct advantage over other New World competitors.
On top of all that, the natural scenery of the Cape is surely the most staggeringly beautiful backdrop of all the world's vineyards.
I based myself at Spier Lodge just outside Stellenbosch, an hour from the airport. I had travelled here in a C-Class 270 CDI, which proved itself effortless to drive and wonderfully full of zest. Geographically, this is a great spot as most of the major wine regions are within striking distance for day visits, but it's still accessible to the delights of Cape Town.
If you feel in need of exercise to work up a suitable appetite and thirst, a host of world-class golf courses, riding and fishing are on hand. Stellenbosch is an attractive town and there are many examples of the distinctive Cape Dutch architecture. It is also a thriving student town. During term time, this lends a real buzz to the place in the evening, so it is worth having a walk round to soak up the atmosphere before settling into a restaurant.
The great and the good of the South African wine industry are all here. A typical day might find you cruising off to the iconic Thelema in the morning with lunch in the lavender-scented courtyard at Waterford (try the wine and chocolate matching challenge while you're there). The afternoon might be spent walking off the excesses of lunch around the serene and calming gardens of Vergelegen, perhaps finishing with a glass of its coveted Sauvignon.
After a few days, I decided to look further afield. Regions such as Elgin (in the Overberg district) and Robertson and Wellington (in the Paarl district) are at the cutting edge of what is happening in the Cape.
Visiting Graham Knox at his estate and house in Wellington proved how exciting the wines from here can be. I had been told to meet him in a supermarket car park, presumably because I would not be able to find the estate on my own. Very wise this turned out to be. I gingerly followed him, in his 4X4, up numerous dirt tracks until arriving at his estate, a farmhouse tucked at the end of a beautiful valley.
Lunch was lamb chops on the barbie and a tasting around a table outside. I really couldn't have imagined a better few hours and the perfect antidote to modern slick-tasting rooms and four-course meals.
Franschhoek is about another hour's drive inland and is one of the Cape's most picturesque spots. Initially, this reputation was built on the town itself, as it became a mecca for foodies, but now the region is also being taken very seriously for its wines.
Boekenhoutskloof (available from Charles Hawkins & Partners, tel: 01572 823030) is perhaps the most famous of these new-wave wineries. The homestead was built in 1784 and, being at the end of the valley, it has a jaw-dropping backdrop of a flat-topped mountain.
On the day I was there it was made even more spectacular by a layer of cloud cascading off the top. Amid the history and beauty was Marc Kent, a no-nonsense winemaker who not only makes some of South Africa's finest Syrah (small quantity, cult wines) and an off-the-wall Semillon, but also Porcupine Ridge, an exciting mass-market brand.
In one corner of his tasting room hung a TV broadcasting international cricket. Between our discussions on oak and harvest times, Kent hurled profanities at it as another South African batsmen was dispatched to the clubhouse by an Australian. After this enlivening tasting, I headed off to town in search of sustenance.
I had visited Franschhoek six years earlier on a previous trip to the Cape, so perhaps had an idealised vision of the town, but it came as a shock to find how developed the place has become. Every building seemed to contain an art gallery, gift shop or restaurant and the whole place verged on the twee.
I don't want to put anyone off visiting, as there is a stellar set of restaurants, but it does seem to have lost much of its laid-back charm. My advice would be to stay outside town at somewhere like La Petite Ferme and to drop in at night to sample the culinary delights on offer.
Birthplace of wine
The last part of my trip involved a night in Constantia, a small (fewer than 10 wineries) region south of the capital. It has the feel of a leafy, historic suburb of Cape Town. It is also the birthplace of South African wine, vines having been planted here since the 1680s.
The vineyards sit in the foothills of Table Mountain and a combination of altitude and proximity to the sea provide some of the Cape's coolest growing conditions, along with outstanding scenery. Because Constantia is so close to Cape Town, wine tourism has been thriving here for years. Among the historic Cape Dutch estates to visit is the famous Groot Constantia, although it can be overrun by busloads of video-camera touting tourists.
An altogether more civilised experience can be found at Uitsig Constantia. I was booked into its boutique hotel, whose 16 rooms are beautifully converted workers cottages, and where the main estate buildings have been turned into two restaurants, one of them award-winning. A cricket pitch adds to the relaxed colonial feel here and I imagined myself in another age, gin martini in hand, listening to the thwack of leather on willow.
I was, however, jolted out of my reverie by a startlingly good tasting of precise, modern wines. The Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc (available from Marc Fine Wines, tel: 0207 647 1878) are among the finest I had tried.
Even after a week of scenery that seemed to surpass itself each day, arriving at my next destination, Klein Constantia, was extra special. Nosing the C-Class down a tree-lined avenue, I could see the white of the Cape Dutch homestead through the vegetation and vineyards stretching up the mountainside in the distance. I parked up and was greeted by Lowell Joost. His father bought the dilapidated estate in 1980 and the family has been working ever since to return it to its former glory.
Let's be clear, though, this is not just any old wine estate: Klein Constantia produces a sweet wine called Vin de Constance. Constantia was initially planted with vines in the 1680s and in the early part of the 18th century Vin de Constance was born. By the turn of that century it had become a regular on the tables of the European aristocracy and according to Hugh Johnson it 'was bought in preference to Yquem, Tokaji and Madeira'. Such was its fame that Napoleon requested it while in exile and Dickens eulogised of 'the support embodied in a glass of Constantia and a homemade biscuit'.
But late in the 19th century, phylloxera, deadly to vines grown on European rootstock, arrived in the Cape, devastating the vineyards.
The Joost family studied historical records to learn how the wine was made and then replanted the original variety, Muscat de Frontignan, in the old vineyards. The grapes are allowed to become super ripe and raisin-like on the vine before being harvested, vinified and matured for a couple of years in barrel. It is then bottled in the estate's unique dumpy 50cl bottle. The first new vintage was released in 1986, although it has taken time to reestablish itself in the UK market. And due to EU bureaucracy, it has only become possible to legally import it in the past few years.
A tour round the vineyards and winery ended with lunch in the old cellars and a demonstration that the winery is not just content to rest on its Vin de Constance laurels. Lowell has employed the services of an ambitious young English winemaker, Adam Mason, and a piercing new single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc - Perdeblokke - and a revitalised range of reds are the result.
On leaving, the modest Lowell asked if I would like to try a new wine he was working on. Although I was pushed for time, it seemed rude not to. He produced an unlabelled bottle of red that was young but complex, spice-laden and very serious, one of the best I'd had all week.
He said it was a joint project with Bruno Prats (ex-owner of Château Cos d'Estournel) and Hubert de Boüard (co-owner of Château Angélus), called Anwilka from a Stellenbosch vineyard (from www.farr-vintners.com). Not a bad pedigree. And since my visit, the famous American critic Robert Parker has pronounced the debut vintage 2005 as the finest South
African wine he has ever tried.
With a couple of bottles of Vin de Constance stashed in my by-now-wine-laden boot, I headed off to the airport wondering how many bottles could justifiably be classified as hand luggage.
2003 Green on Green Semillon
Jack and Knox, Coastal Region, £9.99, Tesco
Semillon, along with Chenin Blanc, was one of the tour's revelations. There are not many examples of the former yet available. Those around, such as this stunning, herbal, complex and rich version from Jack and Knox, point towards a serious future for the grape in the Cape.
2000 Vin de Constance
Klein Constantia, Constantia, £27, Selfridges (www.selfridges.com, tel: 020 7318 2375)
If you enjoy sweet wine and have not tried Vin de Constance, you have a gaping hole in your vinous education. An intensely decadent palate of pineapple, orange peel and cinnamon is kept fresh with bracing acidity.
2001 Ashbourne, Walker Bay
£25, Averys of Bristol (tel: 01275 811100)
The press has in the past maligned Pinotage and it is not hard to find detractors within the South African industry. There is, though, a quiet revolution going on in the Cape, with a band of producers taking its production very seriously. The most vocal of these is Anthony Hamilton Russell, famous for his Pinot and Chardonnay. This is the first release of his new project and has a complex, classical structure, with mineral notes, a touch of spice and perfumed black fruits.
For further information: www.winesofsa.com
Constantia Uitsig, Spaanschemat Road
tel: 00 27 21 794 2390
One of three dining establishments at Constantia Uitsig, it has twice been voted South Africa's top restaurant.
Fairview Wines, Paarl
tel: 00 27 21 863 3609
Graham Beck's operation not only makes exemplary wine but also award-winning cheese. Sample both as well as excellent cured meats at this Paarl winery.
Le Quartier Français
Huguenot Road, Franschhoek
tel: 00 27 21 876 2151
This iconic hotel restaurant was one of the original establishments that founded Franschhoek's foodie reputation. Standards are as high as ever - desserts in particular are out of this world.
92 Bree Street, Cape Town
tel: 00 27 21 422 1367
The Caveau wine bar is located only about 15 minutes' walk from the waterfront. It has a brilliant South African list (300-plus bins and plenty by the glass) and serves deli-style plates to assist in the sampling.
Helshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch
tel: 00 27 21 808 5959
This strikingly modern restaurant attached to the winery seems to hang off the hillside. Even those who think they are saturated by vistas cannot fail to be amazed at the views from the balcony.
Engine: 2148cc, 6-speed manual transmission
0-62.5mph: 10.1 seconds
Top speed: 139mph
Hamish Anderson's verdict: The Cape has few motorways and you often find yourself disappearing up small single-track roads in search of wineries. Thus the emphasis is very much on driving, rather than cruising, something the C 270 CDI excels at.
Top Gear Andy Wilman's verdict on the C220 CDI (the comparable car to the C 270 CDI in the UK): Let's be honest - you don't buy a C220 to win traffic light races. The performance of this car's four-cylinder diesel engine has something of a gentle touch: 0-60 in over 10 seconds, 150 bhp, that sort of thing. But what it lacks in pace, it makes up for in grace. The engine is smooth, and it makes the C220 one of the most economical in the C-Class range, with a 44 mpg average (other specs below). It's a good looker, too.