Faced with the staggering beauty and surprising abundance of South Africa's Winelands, it's tempting to just drive off and explore the 300 or so wineries outside of Cape Town (or be driven, if you know enough to know you don't know your limits). Dozens of wineries offer tastings, and the signage is decent once you reach Stellenbosch (the main wine region), Franschhoek and Paarl (its substantial, but smaller neighbors) or the more remote wine routes.
We chose to organize our drive, though, by choosing sustainable wines. Easy enough? Not so, because unlike the government-regulated U.S. organic system, South African "organic" standards are confusing, with eight competing certifying bodies. Anyway, good luck finding a list of organic wineries! Fortunately, WWF and other conservation groups have formed the South African Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, which publishes lists of member and champion wineries, which you can compare against the many wine route maps available. (We found the American Express Stellenbosch wine route map to be the best.) Taste wines from these estates, and you choose vineyards that have taken significant steps to reduce pesticide use, farm sustainably and preserve the unique ecology of the region.
"Due to the concern that 'organic' really only deals with the manner in which grapes are grown, BWI looks at the entire spectrum of grape production, from farming to the cellar," Inge Kotze, the initiative's coordinator for WWF, wrote The Daily Green in an email. Organic vineyards expanding into untrammeled ecosystems is actually a big part of the problem, she said, so the initiative is the gold standard for sustainability in the region.
What's so unique about the ecology? Nearly all South African wine is grown in the World Heritage-designated biodiversity hotspot known as the Cape Floral Kingdomsometimes called the hottest hotspotwhere nearly 20% of Africa's plants, including the utterly unique fynbos biome, are found on far less than 1% of the continent's land area. Wine-making, because it converts diverse wild lands to cultivated rows, is one of the chief threats to the landscape, along with urbanization and invasive species.
"I'll drink to that!" we might say, drunkenly. "We're on vacation!" But instead, why not drink to the Cape dwarf chameleon? That's what we did on our firs stop, and we were not disappointed:
The colorful little Cape Dwarf Chameleon has become a mascot for Jordan Winery, since the Jordan family has worked to protect the rare species, among many other conservation efforts. You can sit back on a sunny patio overlooking the scenic vineyards and the craggy mountains beyond (right), and taste some excellent wines. (The restaurant is supposed to be excellent, too.) Our favorites were the 2008 Chardonnays, but Jordan is also known for its Syrah and "Mellifera" dessert Reisling, named in homage to the Cape honeybees they keep in the vineyard. (Our friendly wine-pourer, Franziska Schreiber helpfully told us to look for the wines labeled "Jordin" in the U.S., since Jordan was already in use by a Sonoma County vineyard.)
Just down the road from Jordan is DeMorgenzon, where the love of the vineyard is so strong, they even play music Mozart for the vines. ("Although not much scientific investigation has been undertaken" into the effect on plant growth, they admit.) More concretely, the owners have cleared invasive plants from at least 12 acres, and are working to restore native fynbos plants. The wooded Chenin blanca native of the Loire Valley of France that has nonetheless become a distinctive South African varietalwas simply the best we tasted. Because it's made from 39-year-old wines, our pourer told us, it canunlike many white winesage gracefully for three or four years. If you can hold onto it that long. It's damn goodand even better (since we drained the bottles we stashed in our luggage) it's proved easy to find in the U.S.
A Champion in the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, Delheim led the effort to preserve the 220-acre Klapmutskop Conservancy and the winerywhich has incredible views and architectural charmproudly touts its ecological accomplishments. Unfortunately, we found the two wines we tastedthe 2010 Sauvignon blanc and the 2010 Sauvingnon-Chenin blanc blendto be subpar. The food, on the other hand, was awesome. Try the Cape Malay chicken curry or the bratwurst with German potato salad and shredded butternut salad (each about $10) for an affordable lunch under a beautiful canopy of flowering wisteria on the patio. (We visited in November, when spring blooms were still fragrant.) Also, Delheim has one of the most extraordinary parking lot views I've ever seen:
We chose to visit Warwick Estate, despite the warning signs (that is, signs designed to attract tourists) because it has the same name as one of the few wineries back in New York's Hudson Valley, and we thought the photos would be fun to share with our friends back home. Like Delheim, the vineyard has contributed land to the Klapmutskop Conservancy, and it uses a "minimum intervention" strategy to reduce the use of pesticides. Still, trust your gut when you see those signs. True, it is family friendly, so if you happen to be traveling with kids you can occupy them with lawn games while you listen to well-rehearsed stories about the wines' names and drink wines that are unexceptional at best.
One can't end a vacation on a sour note, and one can hardly end on a higher notefor wine, for food or for accommodationsthen Steenberg Vineyards, nestled in the Constantia Valley on the back side of Cape Town's famous Table Mountain. In fact, Steenberg is a recognized membe of the Wine and Biodiversity Initiative in part because it donated about 123 acres to CapeNature, the province's wildlife agency.
Steenberg, which won the 2010 Great Wine Capitals Sustainable Tourism Award, is a boutique hotel in the best sensethe staff is friendly and attentive without being intrusive, the rooms come with memorable touches like lavender sprigs on your pillows and the setting is drop-dead gorgeous, situated as it is on the oldest farm in South Africa. You will never forget sitting on a private patio, enjoying one of the bottles you've bought on site or brought back from your wine tour, while watching the famous "Table Cloth" cloud descend over the mountain, or a sunbird alight nearby (below).
Steenberg is also a winery in the best sensefrom its crisp sparkling Chardonnay to its "red wine drinkers' white" Sauvignon blanc to its eminently drinkable (believe me) 2008 Shiraz. The only complaint I have about the wines is that they only export the Sauvignon blanc, and I could only fit a couple bottles of the Shiraz in my luggage.
And then there's the food at Catharina's, the restaurant named for the original farm owner, who in the forbidding early days of the Dutch colony survived to farm the land though five husbands did not (one was killed by a lion, another by a hippo, and you'll have to visit to get the rest of the story). Catharina's is consistently rated among the best in South Africa, and it deserves it. The seafood plate showcased the best of the Cape's freshest, with Malaysian flourishes, while the cauliflower soup was an incredible fusion of local seasonal produce withsomething, something I can only taste and not describe. My God! My wife whimpers at night sometimes dreaming of her filet mignon. (Incidentally, Bistro Sixteen82-named for the year the farm was established-also offers incredible food, in a tapas style.)
So, stay the night or just stop bybut do not miss Steenberg.
Using sustainability as our guide, we may not have hit every renowned South African winery, and we did hit a dud, but we also found exemplary quality, scenery and food. Our conscience is clear, and if we ever make it back to South Africa, we still have dozens of sustainable wineries to explore. Some of the Biodiversity and Wine member wineries that are known for award-winning wines include Graham Beck, Paul Cluver, Cederberg, Klein Constantia, la Motee, Oak Valley, Vergelegen and Waterkloof. Plenty for another tour!
Photos by Samantha Shapley
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