For our last day before beginning our flights home, we booked a tour of the wine country east of Cape Town. We had our bags packed, wedged into the rental car, and ready for checking out of the apartment after an early breakfast. Our meeting point was the departures curb of the airport, where we were to drop off the rental car. Our guide, Karen, of Luhambo tours, arrived at 8:30.
Stellenbosch was one of the early migrations of farmers from Cape Town. They found the soil to be conducive to growing grapes for wine making. With the exodus of French Huguenots to Holland, then transported by the Dutch to Cape Town, additional wine making expertise came to the colony. Eventually, the Dutch and Huguenot settlers would establish several villages in the mountain valleys. In addition to Stellenbosch, we would visit Franschhoek.
Our first stop was the Huguenot monument and museum in Franschhoek. The monument, erected a couple of decades ago, symbolizes the Huguenot’s search for freedom of worship, which they found in the colony. The museum outlines political and religious trends of the 18th century, and houses a number of artifacts related to early colonial life.
Our first wine tasting was at Stony Brooks Vineyards. This is a family operated vineyard and winery. Joy invited us to relax in the shade of the trees of their patio, while sampling half a dozen varieties that they produce. She talked about their growing methods and what factors in the harvest and fermentation process generate different flavors. With Max, their jack russell dog, snoozing at our feet, we felt more like neighbors trying newly opened bottled than customers.
We drove a short distance to a restaurant, Roca, situated above the town with a commanding view of the valley. We lingered over a refreshing meal of fish and pasta. Before resuming wine tasting, we drove back to Stellenbosch and toured the village museum. They have preserved four houses in the historic district. These contain period furnishings, which progress from the early settlement time to the Victorian era
Our afternoon wine tasting was at Dornier Wines. This is a larger winery, and had a restaurant as well as wine tasting patio over looking the processing building and mountains. The hostess explained the different flavors that we might expect with each wine. Our guide, helped to clarify these classifications, though she acknowledged that tasting is a personal experience and the terms used to describe the wine’s aroma and flavor should come from each taster. She encouraged us to make our own associations to develop our vocabulary. I shall think of the aroma of freshly split oak, hickory, and sassafrass wood; or maybe the aroma of lavender, rosemary, and sage brushed against in our garden; or the pungency of stepping into our barn when feeding our goats and ducks. Hey, I’m not making any official judging here.
For many of the wineries, farming is not really a way of making a profit. Rather, fortunes made in other industries, in Dornier’s case airplane engines, fund the purchase of land and building of the facilities. Over a number of years, or decades, the vineyard might pay off the debt, and might turn a profit. Families who want to run a vineyard as a hobby or corporations which wish to direct excess profits toward a business gamble might take up wine production.
Prior to traveling to South Africa, we searched for South African wines in different wine shops. We found a few varieties, but often these were stocked sporadically. Upon talking with our guide, she indicated that South Africa wineries have had difficulty exporting their product. They often do not produce the large volumes at low wholesale prices that international food chains desire. In the USA, each state has different regulations and import taxes that make accessing markets difficult in more than one region. And, unfortunately, the reputation of South African wines has been tarnished by a few large-batch sales of inferior quality wine. The result is that many wineries in this region have taken on debt that their local sales cannot fulfill. Over half of the vineyards in Stellenbosch are for sale.
So, if you are traveling to the Cape Town area, support the wine industry. Take a tour, sample some unexpected varieties, and bring a few bottles home. For transport home, you can stop at the local liquor store where you can purchase a special six-bottle carry box with insulation especially designed to hold wine bottles.
P.S. Our 6 bottles, carefully boxed and wrapped, travelled in 4 vehicles, 3 airplanes, through 10 towns, 4 countries, 3 continents to arrive safely on our wine shelves.