Why the scenic Western Cape Winelands should be on your bucket list
If you could travel to a wine region anywhere in the world right now, which one would it be?
If I could go anywhere right now for wine tasting it would be the stunning South African Winelands without doubt.
Sadly, South Africa’s wine industry is going through a difficult time as the country has banned alcohol sales for the second time in a short row due to Covid-19 related security measures. This means, whilst work in the vineyards continues, wineries are not able to sell their wines nationally, let alone welcoming visitors for wine tasting or any of the large range of other experiences they usually offer.
Whilst a vineyard experience is currently not possible in South Africa (and travelling there from abroad is not on the cards either, much like visiting many other destinations around the globe is not possible), I think any time is perfect to get virtually better acquainted with this breathtakingly beautiful region and its excellent wines, and start planning for a future trip.
Any why don’t you head to your local wine shop first and buy a couple of South African wines (or alternatively order them online), so you can crack open a bottle while planning.
A short introduction to South African wines
South Africa is officially classified as a New World wine region. That said, the story of South African wine-growing goes back to the mid 1650’s. At that time, Jan Van Riebeeck, a surgeon with the East India Company oversaw the first planting of vines in Cape Town and according to his own notes the first harvest took place in 1659.
Meanwhile, the first wine farm in the Cape – Constantia Estate – was established in 1685 by Simon van der Stel in Constantia Valley. Today, the original property is divided into Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, and Steenberg Vineyards.
The various wine regions across the Western Cape boast a huge diversity in soil type and climate conditions. As a result, wines from South Africa can be hugely diverse ranging from ripe, full-bodied red wines to fruit-forward, crisp whites.
International grapes like Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot are those most found but there are also local grapes, in particular Pinotage, a cross of Cinsault and Pinot Noir which is widely popular in South Africa.
Introducing the South African wine scene would not be complete without mentioning the growing popularity of Cap Classique wines, which are sparkling wines produced according to the Champagne process.
How to get to / around South Africa’s wine regions
Wherever you wish to go in South Africa – wine regions or other destinations – your best option will always be going by car.
Although many destinations can be reached by public transport, not all places are well connected and navigating public transport connections can be challenging and rather time consuming.
Driving in South Africa is actually easy, though you have to drive on the left-hand side which especially for those from Europe and the US might be a bit unusual.
If you really don’t want to drive yourself – which would also be recommended if you want to explore wineries and go wine tasting– you could either join organized wine tours into the Winelands which usually start from Cape Town. Alternatively, there are several car service agencies providing you with a dedicated driver. Though these are not necessarily tour guides, they will usually be good in pointing out interesting sites and many will know their way around the local wineries quite well.
Which are the various South African wine regions and where to find them
The Western Cape Winelands, in my opinion is one of the most beautiful and versatile winegrowing regions of the world.
This beautiful area, which starts shortly outside of Cape Town and extends into the further reaching areas of the Breede Valley, Klein Karoo, Overberg and more lately also the more distant Plettenberg Bay area is characterized by stunning mountain ranges, ocean views, semi-arid plateaus, and a hugely rich flora and fauna dominated by the indigenous fynbos.
Today, there are 26 distinguished ‘wine of origin’ areas in South Africa, located across the Cape Winelands.
Below, I have highlighted the various main winegrowing areas across the Western Cape well worth exploring.
The historic wine regions of Constantia, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl
The first vines ever planted in South Africa were located within the Constantia Valley, which forms part of Cape Town’s southern suburbs, just about 20 minutes from Cape Town’s bustling Waterfront.
Today, Constantia Valley is home to 11 wine farms all located at close range along Constantia Main Road, Constantia Nek and the nearby areas.
Most of Constantia’s wineries are looking back at a centuries-old history, and indeed go back to the original Constantia Estate wine farm belonging to Simon van der Stel, including Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia and Buitenverwachting.
Steenberg Vineyards too goes back to the original Constantia Estate. However, next to the historic buildings which today are home to renowned, award-winning restaurant Tryn and a stunning vineyard hotel, the winery today boasts a stylish, modern tasting room offering a large range of wine tasting options.
However, the area is also home to a number of newer boutique wineries. Beau Constantia, nestled on top of Constantia Nek, is not yet 20 years old but boasts one of the quirkiest tasting rooms in the area. Looking like a cube towering over the surrounding slopes, the tasting room offers breath-taking looks over the stunning Constantia Valley and False Bay. It also hosts a branch of the popular, award-winning Chef’s Warehouse.
Definitely worth a visit too are Constantia Glen, Eagles Nest (one of my favourites) and Silvermist Organic Wine, which offers one of the most spectacular views over the area and on-site it boasts a boutique hotel, restaurants (one is the largely acclaimed, award-winning La Colombe), a zip line and wildlife and hiking trails.
Though there is no official wine tour route served by public transport, Cape Town’s sightseeing hop-on-hop-off Blue Route is now stopping at Constantia Nek from where you can reach Beau Constantia. From here, you can also catch the Constantia Wine Bus who serves two other wineries in the area, Groot Constantia, and Eagles Nest.
To learn more about the area, check out my post Exploring the Constantia Wine Route in Cape Town, South Africa.
Stellenbosch just about 25 minutes from Cape Town International airport is the second oldest winegrowing area in South Africa.
The small historic town centre is a lovely spot to spend some time. Walking around Drop, Ryneveld and Church streets, you will find lots of historic Cape Dutch houses and monuments.
Right in the small centre, there are also many lovely shops selling local crafts and arts whilst cafés and bars invite to sit down for some rest.
The Stellenbosch area is surrounded by the stunning Helderberg, Simonsberg and Stellenbosch Mountain ranges and boasts climate conditions which are similar to those in Bordeaux in France (with temperatures just slightly warmer).
Therefore, the area is particularly known for its red wines, with many wine farms crafting excellent Bordeaux-style blends whilst you will also find excellent white wines produced here.
There are plenty of well-known wine farms offering a mix of historic Cape Dutch architecture along with modern, quirky wineries. Whichever style you prefer, the common ground are excellent wine tasting opportunities including a wide range of unusual wine pairings and in many occasions, excellent food as well as vineyard accommodation.
Among the wineries you should have on your list, I definitely recommend including the following:
Meerlust, located along Baden Powell Drive close to Somerset West just about five kilometres from False Bay, offering breathtaking views over the distant ocean and the Helderberg mountain range. Meerlust is best known for its acclaimed Rubicon wine, a Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot.
Vergenoeged Estate, located as well along Baden Powell Drive is a favourite spot thanks to the estates hundreds of ducks who, when not swarming around in the vineyards where they are forming part of a natural pest control solution to Vergenoeged’s quality of wines, are parading through the estate every day, drawing in lots of people watching.
Blaauwklippen Vineyards, founded in 1682 as one of the earliest wine farms in South Africa, today Blaauwklippen is widely recognized as one of the country’s leading producers of Zinfandel. In 2007, it did also bottle the country’s first white Zinfandel. If you are in season, there is a special Christmas macaron and wine tasting. Otherwise, try the regular chocolate or canapé wine tasting options.
Dornier Wines definitely needs to be on your list if, like me, you love modern quirky wine architecture. The beautifully sculptured modern winery was built by the estate’s founder Christoph Dornier to be functional but also to satisfy his high sense of stunning architecture. Whilst most of Dornier wines are red, the winery is particularly known for its Chenin Blancs. Try their Donatus White, a blend of Chenin Blanc and Semillion. Wine tasting options at Dornier include some unusual combinations. There’s the Farmer’s Gourmet tasting and a Flammkuchen and wine tasting. Reservations in advance for the special tasting options are recommended.
J.C. Le Roux in Devon Valley is one of the few wine farms exclusively focusing on Cap Classique MCCs. The stylish tasting room and outside patio with views over the vineyards and nearby mountain range will make your wine tasting a wonderful experience whilst you indulge in the winery’s some unusual tasting options: pair your bubbles with some excellent nougat or go for the meringues and marshmallows paring.
Tokara, located close to the top of the Helderberg Pass, offers beautiful views of False Bay, the surrounding mountain range and rolling vineyards along with enticing art installations found throughout the property itself. Wine tasting is taking place in the estate’s modern tasting room featuring a structure of steel and glass, which also hosts the winery’s restaurant. Meanwhile, just a short walk away through the sculpture garden you will find Tokara Delicatessen, a bistro style restaurant and wine shop.
Warwick Estate is no doubt one of my favourite wineries in the Winelands, boasting a fantastic picnic area next to a beautiful small lake overlooking the nearby vineyards and mountain range. This is the absolutely perfect spot to enjoy the estate’s excellent gourmet picnics or tapas. If you are more adventurous instead, hop on one of the estates range rovers for a ‘big five’ vineyard tour. Just to be clear, though, the big five in this case are the estates five different grape varieties.
Franschhoek might be primarily known for its bustling restaurant scheme. Indeed, it is lauded as the culinary capital of South Africa although competition from around the country is getting hard on its heels.
Still, walking along the distinctively French-feeling Huguenot Road and nearby areas, you will find some of the country’s most lauded restaurants, including La Petit Colombe at the renowned five-star Le Quartier Francais, Le Coin Francais or Reubens Franschhoek. Also on Huguenot Road there are lots of small cafés, shops and art galleries.
The relatively small wine-growing area surrounding the little town includes some of the most historic gems along with a few excellent newcomers.
The wineries you definitely need to have on your list when visiting Franschhoek are:
La Motte winery, established in 1695 by German immigrant and since 1970 belongs to the Anton Rupert family. There is an excellent wine tasting centre on site and every Friday the winery offers a food and wine pairing experience which is one of the most outstanding I have ever experienced. In addition, the award-winning Pierneef La Motte restaurant is always worth a visit. There is also a lovely farm shop and art museum.
Grande Provence, well known for its lovely sculpture garden and off course excellent wine tasting and restaurant this more than 320-year-old estate boasts one of the stateliest historic manor houses in Cape Dutch architecture.
Le Lude winery, a relatively new estate producing exclusively Cap Classique MCC wines is just perfect if you love bubbles. Head here for a canapé tasting, their delectable afternoon tea or lunch in the lovely L’Orangerie.
Boschendal, set against a stunning mountain backdrop in the beautiful Drakenstein Valley between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, surrounded by dramatic mountain landscapes looks back at a history starting in 1685. A wine and working farm, Boschendal has a nearly 1,000 strong herd of Aberdeen Angus beef, a free roaming herd of pigs, a small flock of sheep and an absolutely gorgeous fruit and vegetable garden. Thus in addition to wine tasting, definitely head to the Werf restaurant for excellent farm-to-table dining.
Allée Bleue draws its name from its stunning Eucalyptus-lined entrance road and otherwise subtle reference to blue touches across the estate. Also it is still one of the lesser known wineries of the Cape Winelands (a fact that is changing fast), it is one of the oldest farms in the Franschhoek area, dating back to the 1690s. Try their flagship wine, a blend of Chardonnay, Sémillon and Viognier called Isabeau, the red Bordeaux-style blend L’Amour Toujours and the Pinotage. There is also an excellent Brut Rosé from the winery’s premium range you should not miss.
Paarl, located at the foot of one of the largest granite outcrops in the world, today presents the lesser known area of the historic core – at least to international visitors – but has actually played a very important part in the South African winegrowing history.
The town is home to KWV Wine Emporium, one of the leading wine and spirits producers in South Africa. Founded as a co-operative in 1918, today it is a public company with shareholders of which around 60% are black-owned companies. Today, KWV boasts a huge range of wine experiences, including cellar tours, wine and spirit pairings like chocolate and brandy tasting, cheesecake and MCC pairing, wine and artisan pies pairing, along with a tea and chocolate pairing among other choices.
Another farm you need to have on your list visiting Paarl is the amazing Babylonstoren. Though including a winery, Babylonstoren is mainly known as working farm boasting one of the most amazing edible gardens in the Western Cape, an excellent restaurant, deli, butchery, bakery, farm shop, and luxury accommodation.
Breede River Valley: Robertson, Worcester, Breedekloof
In a bit over one hour from Cape Town International Airport, driving along N1 you will reach the beautiful Breede River Valley.
This broad and fairly flat valley surrounded by the Hex River Mountains, the Skurweberge range, Langeberg Mountains, Boland Mountains and Riviersonderend Mountains is known as one of the largest fruit and wine producing valleys in South Africa.
There are a couple of different wine areas here including Robertson Wine Valley, Worcester and Breedekloof areas.
The largest, both in terms of number of wineries and extension across the area is Robertson Wine Valley, stretching from the town of Robertson stretching to Ashton, Bonnievale and McGregor.
There are several small boutique wineries nestled across the area offering excellent wine tasting opportunities, including the renowned Graham Beck, founded in 1983 producing a large range of award-winning MCC (Method Cape Classic) wines along with several dry still wines as well, Excelsior Wine Estate, Van Loveren Family Vineyards and Esona Wine Estate.
For more information, read my post 10 exquisite Robertson Valley wineries in South Africa you must visit.
Home to more small boutique wineries are the areas of Worcesterand Breedekloof. They typically offer only small tasting rooms yet several also boast excellent restaurants. Those not to be missed for both wine tasting and food are the bustling Nuy on the Hill tasting room, Bosjes Farm, and Opstal Estate.
One of the lesser known wine regions, the Klein Karoo Wine Route stretches along Route 62 from Montagu to De Rust.
This is not your typical winegrowing area, as the Klein Karoo is in large parts a semi-arid dessert. Still, the area forms part of the Succulent Karoo Biome and is recognised as one of the top 26 areas in the world for biological diversity.
Different microclimates along with hot, dry summers and cold winters mean the Klein Karoo produces excellent yet hugely diverse wines. The area is indeed known for its excellent port-style fortified wines and brandies. In fact, most of the wineries here originally have been distilleries and the Klein Karoo wine route following R62 is also often referred to as South Africa’s ‘brandy route.
Wineries along the route are small, family-led and typically very intimate locations.
Today there are around 40 wineries spread over a distance of nearly 300 kilometres, making the Klein Karoo wine route one of the longest in the world. As a result, you will need to plan a couple of days if you want to visit the different wineries.
Which is just fine, as the area is also widely known for its ostrich farms (which you can visit too), is home to a couple of meerkat families along with two wildlife lodges allowing you to experience some of the Western Capes amazing animals at close range.
Check out my post Exploring the Klein Karoo Wine Route to learn more about wineries and wine tasting in the area.
Overberg: Elgin Valley, Bot River, Hemel-en-Aarde
Located around 75 kilometres east of Cape Town, once you have passed the scenic Sir Lowry Pass on N1, Elgin Valley has become a popular weekend location for Capetonians.
Historically known to be the largest production area for apples in South Africa, the area enclosed by four mountain ranges and the cold Atlantic Ocean only about ten kilometres away thanks to its climate conditions today also produces spectacular cool-climate wines. Indeed, the region is in particular known to produce excellent Chardonnay.
Elgin is part of the recently created first biodiversity wine route in the world. Also called the Green Mountain Eco Route it includes Elgin Valley, Grabouw, Bot River, Houw Hoek and Villiersdorp.
Check out my posts A wine lovers guide to Elgin and Discover Bot River to learn more about local wineries.
Perhaps the best-known destination in the Overberg is the coastal town of Hermanus. This historic fishing village is one of South Africa’s best destinations to watch large numbers of Southern Right Whales migrating here from June to early December from Antarctica to mate and calve in the warmer waters.
Only a short drive outside Hermanus, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is one of the Western Cape’s more recent winegrowing areas. Also sometimes referred to as Hermanus Wine Route, lined along the Valley’s Main Drive Road are several boutique wineries including the increasingly popular Creation Wines or Hamilton Russel Vineyards producing among others excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines.
For more information, check out my post A day in Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.
For me, a trip to South Africa never feels complete without a drive along the amazing Garden Route.
This stretch 300 kilometre long stretch from Mossel Bay to Storms River, is without doubt one of the most scenic routes in the world and there is always something new to explore no matter how often you return.
Including the Tsitsikamma National Park, Robberg Nature Reserve, a large number of wildlife sanctuaries mostly located close to Plettenberg, and attractions such as Knysna Lagoon, the white sandy beaches of Plettenberg, and Bloukrans Bridge amongst others, there is no shortage of adventures here.
A more recent addition to the to-do list along the Garden Route is wine tasting. The new ‘Wine of Origin Plettenberg Bay Region’ is actually touted up and coming future champagne-style wine region of South Africa thanks to the area’s geographic and cooler climate conditions that are particularly favourable to growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes for the production of Methode Cap Classique wines.
Wineries in the Plettenberg area are small, family-led boutique wineries boasting a quite different style from the historic wine farms in the Cape Town area. Still all of them have tasting rooms offering wine tasting and various food options though not all have regular restaurants. Definitely check out their food options ahead, you might need to make advance bookings if you also want to eat.
Most of the local wineries are located in an area called the Grags. Turning of 2 and driving along a gravelled road, you will find a number of lovely small boutique wineries such as Key and Monty, Lodestone Wine and Olives and Newstead Lund Family Vineyards.
Bramon Wine Estate, the first wine farm established in the Plettenberg area, instead is located very conveniently directly on the N2 whilst just a short drive into the vineyards there is also a small winery restaurant.
Plettenberg is a wine area well worth exploring, especially as you are very unlikely to find their wines anywhere else. As wine farms here are small, and due to the small batch vintages produced, they do not export their wines, and some even do sell exclusively at the cellar door or just locally.
To learn more about the local wineries, check out my post Discovering the Plettenberg Wine Route.
Have you been to the Cape Winelands yet? Which part did you like most? Let me know about your experience.