Similar to California's wine region, the Winelands consist of a number of small towns. The biggest is Stellenbosch, which is full of great wineries, but the town center is pretty crowded with tourists, students and people who work in the area. The next largest town is Franschhoek which consists of beautiful vineyards, a small town and some of the world's best restauarants. Then there are smaller towns like Paarl, where the town itself is nothing to write home about, but the vineyards are very pretty.
Our brother-in-law, Jerry, is a chef and long time wine connoisseur, so he had some connections with a few wineries in South Africa. Thanks to said connections, we had a nice list of places to visit! We also ventured out on our own and made some great discoveries.
We did a lot in just 3 days so for this entry, we will list our favorites. In case you don't know us, we should note that we are, by no means, food & wine experts. We are, however, fortunate in that we have very similar tastes in wine, so we tended to favor the same wines during our Winelands tour. Some have even suggested that we had less sophisticated palates (ahem...cork dork at New Zealand's Serasin winery). We just like what we like. As a preface to the following, we should mention that we only made it to about eight wineries, and tasted 3-8 wines at each place. Therefore, we are by no means qualified to issue the following awards. However, we will do so anyway. So without further ado, here are our Wineland Awards:
Best Red Wines:
First place: Boekenhoutskloof's flagship Syrah shown in the picture below (seven chairs on the label). We wanted to buy a bottle, but they only sell it by the case and, sadly, do not ship to the US. We tasted this on our 3rd day in the Winelands and it was easily the best red we had during our visit.
Second place: a tie between Choloclate Block (also a Boekenhoutskloof wine - it's second-tier offering) and Mont Rochelle's 2007 Syrah. We tasted the Mont Rochelle at dinner at Ryan's Kitchen the first night and loved it so we went to the vineyard the next day and picked up a bottle. It is really a shame (or maybe a blessing) that none of these places ship to Massachusetts!
First place: Grand Provence Sauvignon Blanc. Normally we enjoy Sauvy's from New Zealand, and this wine was very close to one of our favorites (as it happens, the one our unsophisticated palates were ridiculed for enjoying, so take this one for what it's worth!) It turns out they use grapes from the coastal region, similar to those in New Zealand, while others source their Sauvy grapes farther inland. These other local attempts at Sauvignon Blancs fell a bit short for us.
Second place: Hamilton Russell Chardonnay. Typically we do not like Chardonnays due to their heft and full, buttery taste. This wine, however, was lighter and crisp with a great flavor. They use clay barrels in combination with oak, which gives it this taste.
Pinotage is a red wine variety produced exclusively in South Africa. We tried several of these at various wineries, but really only cared for one of them, the Pinotage produced at Neil Ellis winery. Apparently, about 80% of the Pinotage grapes burned last summer due to excessive heat, so it may be a while before production levels are restored.
First place: The beautiful view from Tokara, which is perched atop a hill on the main route between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. The bright colors and diagonal lines of the vineyard contrasted with the blue sky.
Second place: Delaire Graff's main outdoor patio. The owners of this vineyard also own a diamond business and have poured a lot of money into this place. It's decadent. The wines were not our favorite, but we really enjoyed the stunning view of the fall leaves and colorful gardens surrounding the property.
We ate at a place called Ryan's Kitchen in Franshhoek. Supposedly you can't get a table at this place in the high season, but this time of year, you can walk in. It was our good fortune. While the menu was very interesting we opted for the fixed menu chosen by the chef, which ended up consisting of the following:
- Amuse-bouche: Beet mousse with crispy mushroom crumbles served in a miniature pail
- 1st Course: Tuna tartare in a tunnel made of frozen vegetable puree with seaweed gelatin cubes, aubergine and some sort of dust that made the tuna effervescent
- 2nd Course: Minced lamb in a thin pancake / crepe with chopped nuts, white pepper meringue and roasted red pepper
- 3rd Course: Wildebeest medallions on a bed of minced green beans with duck fat french fry cubes
- Dessert: Guava souffle with caramel ice cream and some sort of chocolate concoction with pumpkin seed oil ice cream. The guava souffle was one of my all time favorite desserts!
This was our favorite/most interesting meal from South Africa. We also had dinner at The Common Room which was not nearly as creative or delicious.
We had lunch at La Motte winery. This winery is owned by the same family that owns (or owned) large stakes in a number of famous luxury brands, such as Cartier. The wine estate is expansive and beautiful, and there was a great spot for lunch where we spent a few hours eating, exploring the grounds and of course, sampling the wine. Here are a few photos:
Part of the fun of visiting all of these wineries is seeing how each has chosen to decorate its facilities and wine tasting area. Each is different based on the owner's personal style and tastes. While it's tough to choose, for us, first place goes to the tasting room at Grand Provence, which was certainly not the most elaborately decorated place we visited, but had great style.
This isn't really an award because we only stayed at one place in the Winelands, but we thought it was worth mentioning because it was wonderful! We stayed at a guesthouse called Fransvliet outside of Franschhoek. It consists of 4 lovely cottages situated in the garden with a great view of the vines and the mountains. The manager, Victor, was incredibly hospitable and the owner, Shirley, was very friendly. Shirley owned a cooking school in Johannesburg for many years and recently decided to retire to Franschhoek. Victor also worked with her at the cooking school, and moved his family to Franschhoek to manage the property.
The rooms are massive and nicely decorated by Shirley's daughter who is an interior designer. The bathroom is huge, with a claw foot tub, heated floors, and wonderful bath products (I loved the lotion!). Each room has a wood burning stove and two complimentary bottles of wine - a perfect combination for a cool winter's night.
Another thing worth calling out is the breakfast. The amazing breakfast!!! We ate at gourmet breakfast in the main house every single morning. Here is a sample of our menu:
-A fantastic juice made from ginger, lime, apple and pear
-Yogurt with fresh warmed berries from the orchard outside
-Cappuccino and fresh breads & pastries
-Eggs with portabello mushrooms and bacon
If you ever make it out to the Winelands, definitely stay here!
We stopped into Tokara primarily to see the grounds and the view, but ended up having a tasting and spent probably an hour talking to the bartender who helped us out. He was very young, maybe early 20's, but very passionate and knowledgeable about wine. He talked about wines from different regions - inside and out of South Africa. We think he may be a winemaker some time soon!