Vine trails

A grape escape in South Africa.

Great wine, good food, stunning scenery – South Africa delivers one of the world’s most satisfying vineyard driving routes, all within easy reach of Cape Town.

The wine tradition south of Cape Town dates back to the late 1600s

Drive out of Cape Town and before long, brown tourist signs depicting a stylised wine barrel appear, pointing the way to countryside that gets close to perfection. There could hardly be a more green or pleasant land than South African wine country. Like most other wine regions, it has rolling hills, pegged vines, gourmet restaurants and rose-filled gardens. But nowhere else can you picnic under giant camphor trees and admire gabled Dutch houses. Nowhere else do ostrich and springbok feature on the plate.

In short, meander through South Africa’s vineyards and you can enjoy easy drives, big scenery and plenty to please the palate. Of the various wine-themed driving routes, the easiest brings you to Constantia just 20 kilometres south of Cape Town, where as a bonus you’ll also find one of the world’s best botanic gardens, Kirstenbosch, bright with flowers beneath the bulk of Table Mountain.

Land here was first developed in 1685 by the Dutch colony’s first governor Simon van der Stel, who would later pioneer the wine industry. His Groot Constantia estate, now a national monument, became noted for its sweet fortified wine, one of Napoleon’s favourite tipples. The nearest you’ll taste to this once-famous wine these days is Vin de Constance, a sweet Muscat produced at Klein Constantia vineyard. 

Klein Constantia wine estate at the foot of Table Mountain.
Simon’s Restaurant at Groot Constantia.
Dessert wine at Klein Constantia.

Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are now this wine region’s main focus, although Groot Constantia is also known for its Bordeaux-style red wines, of which the Gouverneurs Reserve is outstanding. Steenberg Farm also has a flagship red blend, which you can try on a terrace that gazes over Table Mountain.

South Africa’s most famous region, however, surrounds Stellenbosch 50 kilometres east of Cape Town. Stellenbosch Wine Route is a well-established tourist drive that links some 200 surrounding cellar doors, but you’d do well to drive the scenic R310 to Franschhoek and R44 to Paarl. Don’t make the mistake of hurtling through on a day tour from Cape Town. The region features dozens of cellar doors, historic sites, superb gardens and gorgeous landscapes that provide days of contented meandering. 

Start in Stellenbosch itself for its lovely collection of Dutch-era, Georgian and Victorian buildings snug under giant oaks. Village Museum recreates several period houses with explanations on the architecture, fashions and household management through the centuries.

Almost every road out of Stellenbosch features a dozen cellar doors, but take the R310 and you’ll encounter not only the most historic of these but stunning mountain scenery as the road swings over Helshoogte Pass. Simonsig Wine Estate has notably splendid views matched with a good variety of wines, as does uber-chic Tokara Wine Estate, where you can tuck into warm oysters in butter sauce, smoked salmon, or ostrich fillet accompanied by a Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc.

South Africa’s most famous region, however, surrounds Stellenbosch 50 kilometres east of Cape Town

Vineyards outside Franschhoek.
Countryside around Stellenbosch.
The magnificent scenery of Franschhoek.

In the 1980s, Boschendal pioneered the now popular pink Blanc de Noir

As you swing down the other side of Helshoogte Pass you’ll find Boschendal, one of the country’s most famous wineries. The historic Cape Dutch manor house has lovely grounds and a wine cellar for tastings. The farm was established in 1685, is one of South Africa’s oldest wineries and, in the 1980s, pioneered the now popular pink Blanc de Noir, which seems like the perfect summer drink to enjoy in Boschendal’s hydrangea-filled gardens.

Pink wine seems apt too for an estate that sits between red-wine focussed Stellenbosch and white-wine specialist Franschhoek. South African reds might seem a little thin to Australian palates, but its whites are deeply satisfying, with vineyards recently focusing on limited yields, better quality and interesting varietals. Franschhoek is also a well-known gourmet destination with distinctly French influences. The town was founded and vineyards planted by French Huguenot refugees; its name means ‘French Corner’. 

Don’t miss restaurant La Petite Ferme, where you dine overlooking rose gardens and mountains on Mediterranean-influenced fare such as oak-smoked trout, zucchini rolls and a plum pavlova made from estate plums stewed in red wine. La Petite Colombe has more fine food, with ever-changing degustation and wine-tasting menus showing the chef’s flair for innovation. An 11-course wine-matching degustation runs from oysters and yellowfin tuna to glazed pork and langoustine ravioli.

The manor house at Boschendal wine estate.
Rugged beauty of Boschendal wine estate.
The restaurant at Tokara Wine Estate.

Franschhoek is essentially a tourist village, especially when compared to more gritty, lively university town Stellenbosch. It’s hard not to be seduced, though, by its beautiful setting and reputation for chocolate, cheese and trout. Needless to say, there’s wine to be investigated too. Haute Cabrière above town specialises in Pinot Noir and sparkling wine and provides a good cellar tour that culminates in a panoramic tasting room. The winemaker might show off his sabrage skills, in which the cork is removed from a bottle of sparkling wine the old-fashioned way, with the stroke of a sabre. 

La Motte is also worth a visit for its elegant, contemporary tasting room. You can’t tour the cellar – though you can see it through smoked glass windows – but you won’t be complaining about the estate’s bold Shiraz and lush Shiraz-Viognier.

Though a detour south, no drive through this wine region is complete without a call at Vergelegen near Somerset West. It produces excellent Chardonnay and Merlot, though its chief attraction is the historic estate. A thatched Dutch manor house built in 1700 sits amid gardens profuse in roses and hydrangeas beneath enormous, 300-year-old camphor trees: just the place to perch with another glass of South Africa’s finest.

Though a detour south, no drive through this wine region is complete without a call at Vergelegen

Lavender fields at La Motte outside Franschhoek.
Historic buildings at La Motte outside Franschhoek.
The manor house at Vergelegen wine estate.
The wine-tasting building at Vergelegen wine estate.