It could take years to discover the many wines of South Africa's Western Cape. For travelers with only a few days on their hands, Cape Town is an excellent base for exploring not only the surrounding wine country, but the city's wine bars and world-class restaurants.
Spread over 40,000 square miles, the Cape Winelands include numerous regions, each with its own distinctive scenery, terroirs and wine routes studded with gracious estates. Closest to Cape Town is the leafy suburb of Constantia, the country's oldest wine region; Groot Constantia estate is 332 years old this year.
After that, the historical districts of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Robertson, Wellington and Franschhoek are equally famous. But for those in the know, the smaller-scale, typically younger winemakers of other regions such as the Swartland are producing some of the country's most exciting wines, often with an emphasis on natural production methods.
And that's only part of the story.
Apart from the Western Cape, South Africa's ever-expanding viticulture industry continues all the way up into the Northern Cape, the Orange Free State and even the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal.
There are 900 estates producing more than 9,000 labels annually in the Western Cape.
As a South African who has been exploring the country's wine regions since the 1980s, here's a short list of my personal favorites:
Most South African wine estates are set up to receive casual visitors. Online booking is often possible, but seldom necessary. Travelers will likely find a warm welcome from well-informed staff with a passion for their product.
Some estates still offer free tastings, while others charge a nominal fee; it's anything from 30 to 100 South African rand (around $2 to $6.50) to sample several labels. And relax — there's no pressure to buy.
Pouring tends to be more generous than in California's Napa Valley or Western Australia's Margaret River. While serious connoisseurs who prefer to merely taste and spit could probably hire a car and drive themselves, a better option for the rest of us is to join a wine tour that will pick you up from your hotel or apartment. And if you've mapped out an itinerary, it's perfectly possible — and probably cheaper — to get around by Uber.
For an introduction to the Cape Winelands, drive 40 minutes east from Cape Town along the N1 motorway to the atmospheric university town of Stellenbosch with its evocative lanes, artisanal boutiques and 18th-century colonial Cape-Dutch architecture.
From Stellenbosch it's a 10-minute drive along picturesque Helshoogte Road to Delaire Graff Estate. Previously owned by wine-and-food buffs John and Erica Platter — the annual "Platter's South African Wine Guide" is a local bible — Delaire was acquired in 2003 by Englishman Laurence Graff of Graff Diamonds and has been transformed into a fabulous destination for art, high-end retail, luxurious hospitality and wine appreciation. The Wine Lounge offers a relaxed and elegant tasting experience, either indoors or alfresco.
Across the way on the slopes of Simonsberg mountain is Tokara, a favorite of wine connoisseurs. It can also be visited by an Airbus helicopter that departs from Cape Town's V&A Waterfront, in which case it would be silly not to make a day of it with lunch at the fine-dining Tokara Restaurant.
Next door to Tokara is Thelema Mountain Vineyards, most famous for its rich cabernet sauvignon. Here you can also taste wines from the cooler Elgin region where Thelema winegrower Gyles Webb owns another estate.
From there, follow the R45 to Groot Drakenstein and stop at Boschendal — if only for a photo of its circa-1812 homestead, an evocative example of Cape-Dutch gabled architecture. What's more, its chardonnay pinot noir MCC (or Méthode Cap Classique, referring to the bottle fermentation process) is eminently quaffable.
With several wine-tasting sessions under your belt, it's likely time for lunch. Continue to the enchanting village of Franschhoek, originally settled by my own ancestors — French Huguenots who fled France in the 17th century to escape religious persecution for their Calvinist Protestant beliefs and who subsequently made an important contribution to wine production in the area.
The town is home to the fabulous Reuben's, located in a bright and spacious converted warehouse. Celebrated chef Reuben Riffel (born in the area) owns several eateries around the country and opened this one in 2017; he has another in nearby Chamonix, where he cut his culinary teeth.
Leave some room for a tasting at award-winning L'Ormarins Wine Estate, now owned by billionaire Johann Rupert and still part of the Anthonij Rupert wine stable. Before returning to Cape Town, take the R45 to Simondium to reach one of the oldest and most historic Cape-Dutch farms, Babylonstoren. It offers a 30-minute tour of its wine cellar and olive press as well as a restaurant, tasting room and an inspirational fruit and vegetable garden.
Just a 20-minute ride from downtown Cape Town, Constantia's wine estates are ideal for a tasting or two (or three), followed by lunch. Luckily, the area's most celebrated restaurants are located within the wineries.
Pair some of Constantia's finest wines with the outstanding cuisine at Chef's Warehouse at Beau Constantia, consistently ranked among South Africa's top 10 restaurants. Lunch is best for appreciating its stunning vineyard views.
Ivor Jones (previously head chef at Test Kitchen) commands a formidable open-kitchen operation that serves up a tapas-style adventure. Think linefish sashimi larb, smoked coconut and toasted rice; coal-seared tuna with barbecue turmeric dressing; beef tartare with port and herb jellies and a rye and onion crisp — and that's just the first three of eight courses.
La Colombe Restaurant on Silvermist Wine Estate in Constantia Nek is another of South Africa's top fine dining establishments, offering French-Asian inspired tasting menus in a delightful treehouse-style dining room. Or try Bistro Sixteen82, a relaxed restaurant in the lovely setting of Steenberg Estate.
Just a few of Cape Town's many highlights include riding the cable car to the top of Table Mountain for stupendous views, shopping for pan-African souvenirs at Greenmarket Square, and taking the picturesque coastal drive from Camps Bay to Llandudno past the Twelve Apostles mountain range to the charismatic fishing village of Hout Bay.
All this is hungry and thirsty work. Fortunately, Cape Town has hundreds of restaurants with a wide range of cuisines and wines at exceptionally reasonable prices for the international traveler. But reputations rise and fall with time, so be warned: a randomly-chosen eatery on the touristy V&A Waterfront may prove disappointing.
The Test Kitchen in the suburb of Woodstock is helmed by U.K. chef Luke Dale-Roberts and was rated as one of the world's Top 50 restaurants in 2019. Or try Fyn (pronounced "Fain"), the new downtown restaurant by chef Peter Tempelhoff that is serving kaiseki-style fusion food and receiving rave reviews. For dinner and a show, get a seat at the kitchen counter and watch the chefs at work.
Villa 47 is a relaxed bistro where chef Clayton Bell presides over delicious Italian fare such as carpaccio of octopus and the lightest tortellini this side of Bologna. For old-school Italian with traditionally dour service, Seapoint's La Perla remains a top hangout for Capetonians.
While in this area, pop into friendly Frogitt & Vonkel wine bar for a pre- or post-dinner glass. The bar serves a selection of wines from estates around Cape Town, but also South Africa at large as well as Namibia.
For sublime modern Indian curries served tapas-style, Thali belongs to the stable of restaurateur Liam Tomlin of Chef's Warehouse fame. And, The Bungalow is at trendy Clifton Beach, serving sushi and more with stupendous coastal views.