For the 45-minute drive from Cape Town, where we stayed under the immense brow of Table Mountain, one of the world's natural wonders, to Constantia, the smallest and oldest of the region's wine routes, my friend Neil gaped at the scenery. I had enticed him away from an inviting pool to taste wine.
My goal was only partly to introduce him to the glories of the South African wine establishment. I also wanted to visit Klein Constantia, an estate whose dessert wine, Vin de Constance, is legendary. Napoleon was consoled by it during his exile on St. Helena, and Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, among other literary titans, referred to it in their work. (The original vines died out, but Klein Constantia winemakers resurrected the technique and the look of the old bottles in the 1980s to much acclaim.)
But we got mired in a peculiar crisis at Groot Constantia, an exquisite complex of whitewashed, thatched and gabled Cape Dutch buildings surrounded by a veritable sea of mature vineyards and severe mountains, and Neil, an ad-sales guy who never, never lacks for words, seemed to lose his capacity for language: "Oh, man," he said. "Oh, man. Can you believe this? Oh, man."
He was so stunned by delight that I was mildly concerned. We hadn't, after all, even started tasting yet.
The Wine Route, as it's popularly known, is really a succession of sometimes interconnecting routes in the Cape Province's dramatic, verdant interior. The routes vary enough in scenery, culture, soil and wine styles that they're quite distinct from one another. Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek ("franz-hook"), each named for the town that anchors its respective valley, draw the most visitors, and when people refer to "the Wine Route," that's usually what they mean.
So, whether by rented car, chauffeur or tour bus, you drop in and follow signs to the tasting rooms. You can realistically do three to six a day, depending on your level of enthusiasm, and you don't have to be a wine sophisticate. With ample restaurant and picnic offerings, and a few cheese producers, talented eaters will also find their level.
Franschhoek is where the Huguenots--French Protestants fleeing religious persecution--first settled, so the wineries' French names (Provence, La Petite Ferme, etc.) actually have a reason apart from Francophile pretentiousness. The town itself is one street lined with cafes and art galleries leading to the Huguenot Monument, a tribute to the group's struggle to survive. Although all estates, on this route and others, have the elegant Cape Dutch buildings and appointments, and fragrant, impossibly neat gardens that lend an air of aristocracy, Franschhoek is known for being particularly haute. One of the country's larger producers, Bellingham, is here, as are some of its best, including La Motte and L'Ormarins, and it is all surrounded by a crown of granite-crusted mountains ringing the fecund plains and valleys.
The Boschendal estate, though, is a superb treat. You enter down a path that's lined with majestic oaks and long-stemmed purple agapanther flowers and go to a gazebo, where wicker picnic baskets are waiting for those who had the foresight to make reservations. The last time I was there, which wasn't on my most recent visit, the basket contained pate, a roulade, peppered mackerel, smoked salmon, baby potatoes, salad and rolls of hard-crusted French bread. Dessert was vanilla ice cream with fresh raspberries. (The region not only has great weather but is remarkably bug-free, making picnics nearly as enjoyable as they appear in the movies.)
The drive itself is pleasant because in addition to the scenery, you get to stop to eat and drink frequently. The people you meet are pleasant, too, because people are invariably pleasant when they're eating and drinking frequently.
In Paarl ("pearl" in Afrikaans), Laborie makes a dessert wine from indigenous Pinotage grapes, and KWV claims to be the world's largest cooperative wine seller (it also makes a good port and brandy). But Paarl's most delectable spot is Fairview. It's the only estate that makes wine and cheese and lets you sample both. (In Stellenbosch, the Zevenwacht estate produces both, but only offers wine samples.) Fairview's shiraz is simply wonderful, as are its goat's-milk cheeses. The people who run the estate, though, take a somewhat guarded attitude toward the merry souls walking through their doors, with a conspicuous sign noting that the cheese is for sampling, not lunch.
Stellenbosch, built around the world's oldest and largest Afrikaans university, is the largest of the routes, with 75 estates, many of which offer accommodations. Because of a favorable dollar-to-rand exchange rate, the cost can be absurdly low, starting from about $20 per person, double occupancy. At Zevenwacht, about 12 miles east of the town center, a luxury suite, complete with bed- and sitting rooms, a lavish bathroom and a patio overlooking the vineyard about halfway up a mountain, is $110 double. Lanzarac is a 300-year-old, 375-acre estate whose restaurant has a fine reputation for its Cape-Malay cuisine, a spicy and uniquely South African food style that blends Indonesian and African influences. And Delair, which like Boschendal serves picnic lunches on a terrace alongside its own restaurant, serves up a deliciously expansive view of vineyards stretching into a valley.
My favorite route, though, is still Constantia, where South African winemaking started in the 1640s. In contrast to the other routes, this one, with just five estates, is as concentrated as its best wines. Buitenverwachting ("Bay-ten-fer-vak-ting") has horses in paddocks and pastoral barns, and an elegant restaurant. And Klein Constantia's Vin de Constance, the dessert wine, is close to an out-of-body experience.
Next door, in Groot Constantia's tea room, a stone enclosure with potted plants and whitewashed walls, Neil and I leaned back in our chairs. The late afternoon sunlight filtered through overhead beams hung with vines and dappled the floor. I'd introduced Neil to another local delicacy, the Cape Brandy Tart, a bread pudding soaked in brandy, vanilla and dates. He'd recovered his faculty for language, and tucked heartily into the dessert.
"This," he declared as he surveyed the courtyard, "this is what you call living."
Todd Pitock last wrote for Travel about golfing on Georgia's Golden Isles.
DETAILS: Wine Routes
A note on buying: Shipping wine to the United States can be problematic. Many wineries will ship as few as six bottles and say their orders have gone through without a hitch, but they also warn that shipping is entirely at the buyer's risk.
INFORMATION: For more information on touring the wine estates, contact the South African Tourism Board, 1-800-822-5368, www.satour.org, or Western Cape Tourism, www.wcapetourism.co.za/index3.htm. Some wine estate lodges are listed with the Portfolio Collection (www.portfoliocollection.co.za) and American Express's Fine Selection (www.classic.co.za). Also, the South African Wine Directory, at www.wine.co.za, offers a wealth of information and links.