By Vivienne Mackie
South Africa has much to offer the visitor, but no trip is truly complete without taking to the wine routes.
South Africa's wine production ranks eighth in the world in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality many people would vote it higher than that. The southern and western Cape has a Mediterranean climate, which is perfect for growing vines, and over many years the South African vintners have perfected their craft.
When in the southwestern Cape it's difficult not to notice vineyards and wine: There's such a variety, choice and selection, and almost everywhere you drive you'll be in or near vineyards. Not far outside of Cape Town on your way to the wine towns of Stellenbosch, Paarl or Franschhoek you'll soon get to miles and miles of rolling vineyards with a backdrop of impressive mountains.
If you're lucky, you can visit some of the wine estates to taste and buy wine there. But if you want to have a picnic at one of the lovely parks or on a gorgeous sandy beach, all the supermarkets and liquor stores carry a good range of wine, too. Generally, prices seemed reasonable to us with most of the good quality wines priced under $10 U.S. or under SAR 80.
Doing part of the wine route is a really fun activity and does reflect a way of life in this part of the world: You get to see part of the stunning Cape countryside in addition to visiting some of the estates, many with pretty gardens or parks, many in lovely old Cape Dutch buildings.
But how to pick which ones to visit? There are just way too many to even contemplate visiting them all, plus wine tasting is a very personal experience. From our experiences, basically all the estates are great and you won't go wrong with whichever ones you choose.
I'd suggest first getting a copy of the brochure "Stellenbosch and its Wine Routes," plus the brochure for Paarl, known as "the little black book of Paarl." Check out the small description of each place — hours, what they offer, etc. — plus locate them on the very clear maps, so you can plan to visit places that are close to each other.
It also depends on where you're staying. We were based in Somerset West, so getting to both the Stellenbosch and Paarl wine areas was very easy. You can also get information online, but the booklets are probably easier to carry around.
The Stellenbosch Wine Route was the first to be founded in April 1971, and since then 13 others have been established. Each route has its own character and beauty and reflects part of South Africa's cultural history.
Many estates have cafes or restaurants, so doing lunch at one is also a nice option. On our recent visit, we had lunch at Blaauwklippen and at Fairview, both outstanding meals in a great setting outdoors under huge trees and bright umbrellas. Many also have animals and activities for kids and/or a playground, which is useful if there's a little one in your party (there was for us this last time). Many also have markets on certain days of the week, such as at Blaauwklippen on Sundays and at Heathersage and Lourensford on Sundays once a month (different Sundays).
Some of our favorite estates are Blaauwklippen, Fairview, Delheim, Muratie, Uva Mira, Morgenster, Vergelegen, Laborie and Bilton. Why? The wines are superb, the settings lovely and most of them have a place to eat and pretty gardens. You can picnic in most of them if you buy the picnic food from the estate, but Muratie and Laborie allow you to bring your own picnic food.
Note that you have to pay for tasting — but it's not a lot, and it's well worth it.
Any time of year is good to visit, but the warmer months are probably best as you can sit outside and enjoy the gardens and superb views of vineyards and mountains.
I hope you enjoy any South African wine that you are lucky enough to find around here.
Vivienne Mackie, an Urbana resident, loves to travel — especially when tasting new foods and wines is involved. Visit her blog at http://viviennemackie.wordpress.com.