South Africa: A Vintage Tour

They're called New World wines, yet the vineyards of South Africa's Cape were planted some 350 years ago. Cathy Pryor unearths their story in Stellenbosch and discovers what's new for today's visitor

I've never much liked the phrase "New World wine". To me, it smacks of Empire. It says: whatever these colony fellows do, they haven't been doing it for as long as us in the old world, so how can they be as good? Loud, brash, unsophisticated: that used to be what "New World" implied, and in some ways still does. These days, the wine is hugely popular, some very good and not all of it typical of the style. Some Old World winemakers even try to emulate it. But the label still applies, apparently.

Yet the "New World" isn't necessarily all that new. Take South Africa. In its wine-growing district in the Cape, the first vines were planted by a gentleman called Jan van Riebeeck, who worked for the Dutch East India Company, in 1655. Oliver Cromwell was running the show in England, the Spanish Inquisition was going strong and the Taj Mahal had only just been built. It was really quite a long time ago.

The Dutch had arrived in the Cape only three years earlier. Life there can't have been easy, but that's not why Van Riebeeck, the colony's first commander and a man with a surgical background, decided they needed to produce wine. It was a shipping strategy. The Cape was an outpost for Dutch East India Company vessels on their way to the East Indies. Wine kept better than water on the long sea voyages, and it was also believed that young red wine in particular, could stave off scurvy. Accordingly, van Riebeeck had vine cuttings - thought to have been French muscat - sent to him, packed in wet earth and sewn up in sailcloth to keep them fresh, and with the sailors under strict orders to make sure they stayed damp. Van Riebeeck also planted vines at his farm, Boschheuwel, and encouraged others to do the same. His plan succeeded. On 2 February 1659, he wrote in his journal: "Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes."

Van Riebeeck left the colony in 1662. In 1679, it acquired a new commander, Simon van der Stel, an experienced viticulturalist. One day, riding through a valley called the Wildebosch, he saw that it was ideal for grapes. To celebrate this discovery, van der Stel, nothing if not modest, renamed it after himself: Stellenbosch, meaning "van der Stel's forest". Today, Stellenbosch township and area remain central to the Cape's enormous wine industry.

In 1688, France helpfully declared Protestantism illegal, driving out the Huguenots, some of whom fled as far as the Cape. Though their contribution has been disputed, it's generally thought that the Huguenots brought French expertise to bear on the region's wine-growing efforts and planted many vineyards. By 1699, the Cape was exporting wine back to Europe, albeit on a small scale: and by the 1770s, with the industry supported by slavery, exports were steady. The wines from van der Stel's Constantia Estate, in particular, were much admired. Frederick of Prussia imported them and Napoleon was supplied with them when he was confined on St Helena.

So famous were they that they're mentioned by Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility (1811): "I have just recollected that I have some of the finest old Constantia wine in the house that ever was tasted," says Mrs Jennings. "My poor husband! how fond he was of it!"

Although the Cape Winelands region has had its political and economic struggles, it is the largest wine-producing area in South Africa and has the tourism to match. The areas of Constantia, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl, Robertson and Wellington all offer popular wine routes to guide visitors around select estates: the first, Stellenbosch, was founded in 1971.

However, there are moves to change the way the industry operates. Nina le Roux, the head of Stellenbosch Wine Routes, says: "We're trying to bring in what you might call the new tourist, rather than the mass-market tourist: the kind of people who get in their car with their families and drive where they want. Many of the farms don't have the capacity for big crowds, but they still want visitors."

Accordingly, wineries are trying out new things in the hope of attracting people. These range from giving away hand-made chocolates to offering accommodation, exhibitions and live music. A recently arrived wine maker, Tony Hindhaugh, says the idea is to make visits a "lifestyle experience". Hindhaugh, from Newcastle, took over Eaglevlei wine estate in December, and has put in a restaurant, a wine-tasting room and an art exhibition space: the estate is also used for charity work with local children. "What I'm trying to do is demystify wine, take off the pompous, arrogant edge winemaking can have," he says.

So that's the deal you are likely to get if you visit the Stellenbosch region's wine farms. A new kind of wine tourism: but a good deal more of the old than you might have expected, with a winemaking history that goes back to the 1650s.

T HE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9 850; ba.com) offers return flights from London to Cape Town from £700. Double rooms at Rozendal start at £63 per night.

FURTHER INFORMATION

South African Tourism (0870 155 0044; southafrica.net). Stellenbosch Wine Routes

(wineroute.co.za).

1. Groot Constantia

Built by the governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, in 1685, the vineyard was subsequently divided and fell on hard times. It was rescued by the Cape government in 1885 and a museum established there in 1927. It was proclaimed a national monument in 1936.

CONTACT: Groot Constantia Estate (00 27 21 794 5128).

2. Vergelegen

The wine farm was founded in 1700 by Willem Adriaan van der Stel who within six years had half a million vine stocks and had planted camphor trees, orchards and orange groves. In 1706, disputes with van der Stel's enemies led the Dutch East India Colony to dismiss him and he was exiled to the Netherlands. Vergelegen is now recognised as one of the oldest and most beautiful estates.

CONTACT: Vergelegen (00 27 21 847 1334; vergelegen.co.za).

3. Meerlust

The Meerlust Estate is 40km east of Cape Town on the banks of the Eerste River. It was established in 1693 when Cape Governor Simon van der Stel gave the land to Henning Husing, who named it after the sea breezes that blow in from the bay. Its wines include a pinot noir, a merlot, a rubicon and a chardonnay. The manor house is considered a fine example of Cape Dutch architecture.

CONTACT: Meerlust (00 27 21 843 3587; meerlust.co.za).

4. Spier

To describe Spier as a wine estate is only half the story. It has a hotel, winery, shops, wild animals and eateries including Moyo, which serves traditional dishes. Governor Simon van der Stel granted the land to German settler Arnout Janz in 1692. Hans Heinrich Hattingh bought it in 1712, naming it after Speyer on the Rhine.

CONTACT: Spier (00 27 21 809 1100; spier.co.za).

5. Rozendal

Rozendal is a rambling old farm and winery run on organic principles. It also offers accommodation. Visitors are given a small taste of its red wine vinegar before dinner. This has been matured for 10 years in oak barrels and macerated with grape must and lavender - tasty enough to drink on its own.

CONTACT: Rozendal (00 27 21 809 2600: rozendal.co.za).

6. Rustenberg

Rustenberg was set up in 1682 by Roelof Pasman from Meurs, near the Rhine. By 1781 3,000 cases of wine were produced on the farm, but by 1850 it had fallen on hard times. It was rescued in

1892 by John Merrima, later Prime Minister of the

Cape. Today its wines include chardonnay, rosé, sauvignon blanc and shiraz.

CONTACT: Rustenberg Wines (00 27 21 809 1200; rustenberg.co.za).

7. Eaglevlei

Eaglevlei is a relative newcomer on the Cape wine scene. Its shiraz, merlot, pinotage, cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc vintages attract wine lovers - but it's also a place for art buffs. Its exhibition space will soon house works by Andy Warhol and Henry Moore. Eaglevlei also offers magnificent views of the nearby mountains.

CONTACT: Eaglevlei (00 27 21 88 44 713; eaglevlei.co.uk).

8. Muratie

This vineyard was established in 1699, when landowner Laurens Campher fell in love with Ansela van de Caab, whose mother had been a slave. Ansela inherited the land on his death, becoming the first woman descended from a slave to own her own farm. One of Muratie's vintages is the Cape ruby, a dense port-style wine.

CONTACT: Muratie (00 27 21 865 2330; muratie.co.za).

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