My Journey Through South Africa: Part 3

I have seen many contestants during my travels for the world’s most beautiful vineyard prize, but South Africa is 10 leaps ahead of the rest. In Stellenbosch, brilliant green pastures sandwiched between the mountains and the sea expand into the breathtaking Franschhoek Valley, with the gleaming white facades of Cape Dutch colonial architecture. Perhaps it’s because it was my first visit, but I was becoming quite smitten with South Africa.

The media tour was drawing to an end, but I had managed to include a trip to the Cape–it seemed silly to go all that way and not pay a visit to the Appelbaums of Demorgenzon. Hylton and Wendy Appelbaum own this beautiful wine farm and are some of the most relaxed and fun people I have ever met, a million miles apart from the stuffy false image that wine can attract. We were introduced in October and I had been dying to visit the farm ever since.

Cape Town and the wine lands were the icing on the cake of the trip, the Demorgenzon estate truly surpassed Hylton’s proselytizing. Situated high above the valley, the visitor is afforded view across to table mountain, taking in the grand sweep of the bay. However, the estate is not only famed for having the most impressive view in the region, but for its unique way of growing grapes.

Not content with meticulously pruning and caring for his vineyards, Hylton connects speakers to every row of vines and plays them baroque music 24/7. My first thought was “nice gimmick,” until he explains the reasoning behind it. “My vines clearly respond to the sound waves from melodic Baroque music, they show greater vigor and are healthier as a result,” he says. “We saw a difference within the first year after introducing music to the vineyards.”

I was able to see the effects for myself. Two vineyard sites close together; same soils, aspect and grape variety. The only difference was that one site was playing baroque music year-round, one wasn’t. The vines that had been treated to some Bach were producing smaller berries, less fruit with a noticeable more even pace of ripening across the bunches. The skin to pulp ratio seemed much more favorable. I don’t really understand the science of sound waves and vines, but I had finally seen with my own eyes the effect it can produce. Not just a nice gimmick after all.

The Appelbaums were great hosts, taking me to various farms across the Cape where I always received a warm welcome. The wines of Rust en Vrede, Forrester Meinert and Morgenhof were particularly impressive.  I took in a massive swathe of farms in a relatively short space of time, where I was always reliably informed that the Cape boasts the oldest geology in the wine growing world: ancient soils typically based on granite, Table Mountain Sandstone or shale which naturally inhibits the vigor of the vines.

From what I experienced, the best wines come from estates around the town of Stellenbosch, which is apparently subject to southerly ocean breezes from False Bay, or high enough in the hills for altitude and cooling winds to slow down the ripening process. Hamilton Russell Vineyards produce an excellent Chardonnay in such conditions, proof that South Africa can do this previously disappointing variety justice here.

Stellenbosch is a paradise for foodies, as well as wine lovers, as the town is packed full of good restaurants. Try the Big Big Easy Restaurant & Wine Bar (address below) in the center for delicious modern European cuisine at prices that don’t break the bank. Fantastic setting and wine list too!

Going back to my favorite subject, the most noticeable trend during my visit was the wholesale substitution of red grapes for white, especially Chenin Blanc, which once dominated South African vineyards. It is still the most planted variety, but now represents less than one vine in five. To loose more would be a grave mistake, old vine Chenin is a special thing indeed and rivals the best from the Loire.

Before I left South Africa I managed to include a day in Cape Town, dashing around the center at manic speed trying to take everything in. Suffice to say, my time was so short that I could not do the city justice in words, but Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities I have laid eyes on. Sandwiched between Table Mountain and the Atlantic, the visitor would need at least a week to scratch the surface.

I briefly visited the VA Waterfront, which to be honest is totally overrated, at least in my view. A large, commercial and soulless shopping center, this was definitely not the heart of Cape Town. Its heart belongs in Long Street, the main boulevard in Cape Town. Its streets are lined with a mix of European and African culture, shops, bars, restaurants and a nice mix of architectural styles. Take my advice, skip the Waterfront and head straight to Long Street and grab a beer. It’s the perfect spot for people watching!

This is exactly what I did, before packing my bags and heading to the airport. Leaving this warm, intoxicating country was made worse by the fact that it was freezing cold in the UK. Still, I could always come back, a thought which got me through airport security.

After I landed, so many friends and colleagues asked me to summarize this varied and complex country in a media friendly sound-bite. Well you can’t. But, you could say that South Africa is incredibly beautiful but also quite ugly too.  Great wealth, beauty and diversity sit uncomfortably next to great inequality and poverty, where the rich use barbed wire and armed security to protect their wealth. Crime is definitely a scar on the country, although efforts are being made to tackle this most monumental of social problems. Ultimately though, the biggest crime would be not to visit South Africa at all. Don’t let media hype put you off coming here because once you arrive and South Africa starts to work its magic, you’ll be converted for life. Take care, don’t live in fear and prepare to be hooked!

Big Easy Restaurant & Wine Bar
95 Dorp Street
Stellenbosch 7600
Tel (021) 887 3462

Fax (021) 887 3470
Email: info@thebigeasy.co.za

James Lawrence

James Lawrence is a self confessed wine obsessive, passionate about discovering and promoting the lesser known wines and wine regions of the world. He is a frequent contributor to decanter.com and runs an interactive, community led wine forum, thewineremedy.com In 2004, he went to study in Bilbao, Northern Spain. Luckily for him, the famous wine region of Rioja was just over an hour away by car. He began to spend a great deal of time there, visiting the wineries in Rioja and speaking to local wine makers. Their passion for the subject and their pride in the wines was infectious. He began to realise what an amazing subject wine is and how wide and complex the world of wine could be. Subsequently James moved into wine retail while finishing his degree, and was hooked. James also enjoys food and travel writing - he lives for Italian and Thai cuisine!

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