Each place in this world that is known for wine has a type that it does very well; France has Champagne, Napa Valley has Cabernet Sauvignon, Italy has Prosecco, and South Africa has Pinotage.
A cross between Pinot noir and Cinsaut grapes, Pinotage is a variety of grape that up until recently was unique to South Africa. It was developed in Stellenbosch, a gorgeous wine region located only 45 or so minutes outside of Cape Town.
Generally I’m not a red fan, but this smooth, earthy, and fruity grape has put Pinotage at the top of my wine favorites.
Prior to my visit, I’d certainly heard that South Africa had fabulous wine, but what I didn’t know was how sophisticated and competitive with the best wines in the world it would be. The other thing I couldn’t believe was how well-priced the wine is in South Africa given the superior quality.
A tasting is typically no more than 80 Rand (about $6.50), and most bottles are priced around the same. I still can’t wrap my head around how this is possible since Napa wine bottle prices are easily 10x that, but I’m certainly not complaining!
Given my love for Pinotage, it seemed logical to go to its birthplace. The following are the best ways to enjoy Stellenbosch, involving both wine and culture:
Wine and Chocolate Pairing
Do you love wine? Do you love chocolate? Do you love them together?
Usually sweets work against the palette when tasting wines, which was my main question when heading into the tasting. However the chocolates at Lanzerac have been specially developed to complement each wine, ranging from a white chocolate with lemongrass with the Sauv blanc to a dark, salted, cherry-flavored chocolate with the Cab. Each chocolate has various flavors in it meant to complement the paired wine and did so beautifully.
They sure know the way to a girl’s heart.
The winery also has a nice green lawn and over the weekends, Stellenbosch University students and locals come and enjoy the nice weather with a bottle and some chocolate.
Blend Your Own Wine
I’d never heard of this possibility before but in Stellenbosch, you can blend your own wine! Ben of the Momberg family-owned Middelvlei Wines came up with this idea as a fun afternoon out for a group of friends. In my case as I was there solo, he sat with me as I blended – a lovely afternoon and some great conversations.
First we sampled Syrah, Merlot, and Pinotage, the three that would go into the blend. Mixing small amounts and writing down each recipe, I went through five different blends with various amounts of each wine, along with liquid wood (it’s a thing!), and a tiny bit of sugar, before settling on my winner. No surprise here, but by the end my blend was mostly Pinotage.
Then, I put a Be My Travel Muse label on it and corked it myself. The whole experience was documented on Snapchat (@KrisLikeWhaat).
Though in theory the tour is an hour and a half, I was told that the blending experience sometimes lasts all afternoon as groups get more and more into it. I was shocked to find out the price is only 135 Rand (less than $12) per person and 115 Rand ($10) per personalized bottle as well!
Wine and Dine
The Cuvée restaurant at Simonsig Wine Estate had a fabulous, delicious lunch on offer. Once again, I was blown away by the pricing. Though just as fancy and high-end as a winery with meals starting at $30 per plate, Cuvée had offerings such as ceviche of farmed cob with cucumber, radish, avocado & cob crackling (pictured below), for a mere 80 Rand ($6.65). Main courses such as springbok loin run at 170 Rand ($14).
The accompanying wines are, true to the theme around Stellenbosch, smooth, rich, and easy drinking as well. If you’re passing through, definitely do a meal at Cuvée, but book ahead as they’re popular!
Cycle or Hike the Beautiful Surroundings
Quite unfortunately, Stellenbosch was experiencing a rather catastrophic fire during my visit. Normally I would have hiked around, and this post would be full of photos of the gorgeous surroundings, but with all the smoke, that wasn’t possible. The fire is out and Stellenbosch is rapidly returning to its original beauty these days, however.
The alternative was a bike tour around the town and Stellenbosch University, which took me back to my UC Santa Barbara days as the two campuses, full of bougainvillea flowers and white buildings, had an uncanny similarity. My guide, Raino, was a delight to bike around with, telling me all about the town’s history as a Dutch settlement and wine growing region.
The tour (which runs at 580 Rand) finished with the above wine and chocolate pairing, since we’d earned it after several hours of cycling, no?
I visited 4 different townships 6 times during my time in South Africa. The reason why I kept going back was because of the genuine nature of the people there, the great food, and the unique culture at each one I went to.
The township of Kayamandi in Stellenbosch, initially populated by migrant workers, is a Xhosa name for “nice home,” a fitting name for a place full of many artistic souls.
While there I met Jimmy who makes his living throwing pottery and welcoming tourists who want to give it a try. It had been ten years since I’d thrown pottery on a wheel, something I used to love doing, and it was nice to have that experience again in the most unexpected of places.
I also visited a creche (preschool) for children of teenage parents. Previously, students with children would have to drop out to take care of their kids. The creche has changed all that.
Founded by a woman who was in that situation and vowed to help others to stay in school, the creche with its colorful buildings were full of adorable children who chanted “teacher, teacher,” when I walked in. They showed me the shapes they were studying, and then we all sat in a circle and sang songs. It was a touching experience and one I won’t soon forget. This tour and any of the above can be organized through the Stellenbosch Wine Routes.
A quick word on township tours while we’re at it: I was hesitant to visit them at first. I wondered if locals were really okay with people parading through their homes taking photos, but each time, I was warmly welcomed. Moreover, the tours I took were almost exclusively one-on-one with a guide who had grown up in the township. The funds from the tour therefore go back into the community, as with the example of NK in Soweto putting a good chunk of his time and earnings into an orphanage in a local shantytown. I’d encourage you to visit one if you find yourself in South Africa – they’re difficult, but eye-opening and heart-warming all at the same time.
In closing, there are a lot of wine regions in South Africa that are worth visiting, but the history and culture of Stellenbosch plus the sheer volume of things to do and see there make it the perfect place to go and spend a few days getting to know South African wine. Each of the individuals at the wineries I visited were so pleasant to meet and speak with as well, which was typical of my experience in South Africa in general. As if there wasn’t so much to love about the place already, finishing up a glorious 9 weeks there in wine country was a perfect ending.
*I was a guest of the Stellenbosch tourism board, however you will never read a positive review on this blog unless I truly enjoyed and would recommend the experience. Opinions are my own, and the wine really is stellar!