The process of growing grapes, harvesting them and producing wines is complex. It requires skill, creativity, a scientific brain, and a passionate dedication to producing the kind of sweet nectar of which Bacchus would be proud. You’ll find all of this at any of the Stellenbosch wineries. But in this South African wine region you’ll also find that wine is an experience.
Stellenbosch is built on a wine-producing heritage and history that stretches back more than 335 years. And through the passage of time there have been many great stories, secret histories and legends.
These not only bring character to Stellenbosch, but have shaped the way the region presents the wine experience to visitors.
Experiencing South African wine
I say experience, because that’s what Stellenbosch is. You can drive through it on a day trip from Cape Town, do a few tastings at one of more than 140 vineyards, perhaps just stick to labels you know, and head back to the city. You will likely enjoy it – Stellenbosch’s wines were so good I’d regularly find myself running out of superlatives (if you want to see some of the wines I tasted and rated, check out my Vivino profile).
I’d never experienced a chocolate pairing but entered it with a “What’s not to love!?” attitude.
But to do so would be to miss out on the unique experiences that a few days stay in Stellenbosch will allow. Added to that, you won’t meet any of its local characters and that would be a crying shame – people make a destination after all.
Blending to tasting at Stellenbosch wineries
Blending, pairings to vertical tastings and more – you don’t just taste wine in Stellenbosch, you have any number of wine adventures.
One of my favourite experiences was a blending class at Middelvlei Wine Estate. The vineyard is in a bountiful green pasture and you can blend wine on your own or as a team. They even have a blending experience for children with wine gums, frozen grapes and grape juice for them to taste to embrace this fruity passion from a young age.
Now I have to confess to knowing little about wine – I don’t want you thinking this is a pro-level experience. But if you do have some knowledge, you may take even more away from it.
Jeanneret Momberg of Middlevlei showed us the ropes, arming us with a bottle of the winery’s 2014 Pinotage, Merlot and Shiraz, grape concentrate (to add fast sugar), oak concentrate for that “French oak barrel” flavour, and measuring jugs and glasses.
Tasting each you consider what percentage of which wine you’d like, mixing and blending your vintage until it’s just to your liking.
Finally, Middelvlei bottle your wine, label it with a personalised image, and box it for you to take home. I’m quite sure I’ll never be a vintner, but I love my LiveShareTravel red.
Savouring the flavour
Tastings are par for the course in wine regions, but Stellenbosch has developed the experience into a fine art with all manner of food pairings. I thoroughly enjoyed a post-spa tapas pairing at Wedgeview Resort & Spa, whose Zonneweelde wines (the viognier, cabernet sauvignon, and avontroodt, were among the best wines I’ve ever tasted).
But every meal in Stellenbosch is a wine lover’s experience. We had delicious wines at Terrior restaurant at Kleine Zalze Wines.
There was a fantastically creative menu at Makaron at the gorgeous Madjeka House Hotel. Dishes were brought together through a top chef pairing, the Makaron’s chef Tanja Kruger and Christo Pretorius of Azure restaurant at the Twelve Apostles Hotel. The 2013 Spice Route Mouverde served with catch of the day with a laksa foam, carrots and cashew nuts, and Catherine Marshall Pinot Noir paired with warm chocolate mousse, dehydrated raspberries, granadilla jelly and tonka bean ice cream were perfect partners.
At Hartenberg Wine Estate we didn’t just eat our food we made it on the braai – Afrikaans for barbecue. But South Africans don’t ever just throw a burger on the fire. Instead we feasted on snoek pate – a to-die-for smoked fish spread made from a Hartenberg secret recipe. Then we made borewors, or spicy sausages, with famed local butcher Nic van Rensburg, and braaibroodjies – the most delicious toasted cheese sandwiches.
We also sampled traditional African foods such as chakalaka and pap, and the finest ginger beer produced in the kitchen of Mama Swartboy, who runs cooking classes for tourists in Kayamandi Township. But the wine still took pride of place – Hartenberg wowing our senses with shiraz in the form of The Stork and Gravel Hill.
But two food and wine pairings really stood out. We discovered flavours we never knew existed with the fusion of, at times unusual, ingredients presented with artistic flair at The Restaurant at Waterkloof.
The vineyard is home to an architectural and epicurean wonder of a restaurant where head chef, Gregory Czarnecki treated us to a six course degustation menu.
I loved the steamed Mauritian sea bass with celeriac, black pudding and kale served with Circle of Life white (2012). While Joostenberg Vlakte duck á l’orange – was the perfect example of South Africa’s obsession with sweet and savoury – a marriage of the rich duck with sugar-coated sultana fritters, which was rounded off with their Seriously Cool Cinsualt (2014).
The other excellent pairing came in chocolate form at the Spier Wine Estate. I’d never experienced a chocolate pairing before but entered into it with a “What’s not to love!?” attitude. And I was right.
The vineyard introduced us to their blended red Creative Block wines, the lighter number 3, paired with white peppered plum chocolate, and the number 5 with dark malted cherry. The former lighter wine and the peppered plum were my favourite red combo, but I loved their Long Market 93 Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon (2014) which we tasted with a saffron, cardamom and passion fruit white chocolate.
Despite the deliciousness, Spier knows that chocolate isn’t the most nutritious of foods, so we followed our tasting up with one of the estate’s excellent picnics.
The wines and foods of South Africa, were as diverse, enthralling and colourful as the magnificent continent to which the country belongs. The tantalising tastes, bountiful wines and hearty welcome of local people all served to remind me to return to Stellenbosch, and to return as soon as possible.
Prepare your senses for the region – I’m updating a page here with more stories on Stellenbosch.
I experienced the South African wine region of Stellenbosch on a project with Stellenbosch Wine Routes and iambassador. All views, tastings and extra calories from the incredible food and wine are entirely my own.