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Travel Guide: South Africa's Wine Routes

2nd Nov 2011 1:53am | By Editor

With new and old wineries vying for your custom, Stellenbosch has truly become vintage in South Africa. AMY ADAMS reports

With new and old wineries vying for your custom, Stellenbosch has truly become vintage in South Africa. AMY ADAMS reports

It's not hard to see why Tony Hindhaugh left Newcastle-upon-Tyne to open a wine estate in the heart of South Africa's Cape winelands. Sipping his own rosé (named Becky's Blush after his daughter) on a sun-soaked veranda as neat rows of vines melt into the mountains behind the idea of relocating seems impossible to resist. It's intoxicating in more ways than one. "I completely fell in love with the place, it was a bit of a thunderbolt," he says, remembering the first time he came to Stellenbosch after overlanding through Africa 10 years ago. "The vines, the mountains and the blue skies ... it was just fantastic."

Hindhaugh's dream of owning a vineyard in the area didn't resurface until last year when a chance encounter led to a proposal from the Discovery Channel to film his progress. He worked out a business plan, secured a £2 million investment and, most importantly, found Eaglevlei.

"It was horrible," he explains, "there was a pseudo Tuscan building and rubble but there was a certain feel about the place and there was that view - the mountain range in the background and Table Mountain to one side. It was the view that made me think this is absolutely perfect." If you caught any of the Grape Escape series in August, the rest is history, until now. After a year of preparation, Eaglevlei opened last month. Now the real test begins as Hindhaugh attempts to make his mark in a region not lacking in wineries.

When the Dutch arrived in South Africa in 1652 it didn't take them long to work out that the climate and winter rainfall of the Cape were ideal for wine production. They imported shipments of grape vine cuttings from France and set about planting vineyards. That South African wine is still considered new is down to the country's colonial and apartheid past. Since international sanctions were dropped after the fall of apartheid in 1994, wine production has skyrocketed.

For Stellenbosch, an area one hour from Cape Town based around a manicured university town of the same name, it's boom time. According to Nina le Roux, head of Stellenbosch Wine Routes, there's been a 7000% market growth, though, she insists, not at the expense of the wine.

Quality is the golden thread that runs through every wine farm," she assures us of Stellenbosch's 130 estates, and the fact that they have the most wine awards per capita than any other region in South Africa proves her point.

As well as exportation, much emphasis is placed on the wine tourism industry - on drawing visitors to South Africa to appreciate the whole process of the wine from grape to glass. Instead of vying against each other, vineyards work together to entice tourists. "The competition for a wine estate in South Africa is not the next door neighbour, it's America or Australia," says Hindhaugh who's currently working with nearby estates to organise a rotating wine festival.

Stellenbosch is the most toured area in the Cape Winelands, perhaps because this idea of teamwork is not a new one. Stellenbosch Wine Routes was the first tour of it's kind ever formed in South Africa, in 1971, and is now the largest of all the country's wine routes in terms of number of members (so big it's had to branch out into sub-routes). The benefit for the tourist is that, as well as having a sturdy infrastructure in place, none of the wineries can afford to be lazy. They might be working together, but each estate still has to find it's own particular brand of seduction.

"They have to find a unique selling point and create a niche product to stand out," Le Rouz explains, especially as Wine Routes are moving away from coach trips towards small estate-friendly, self-drive wine tours. It follows that in Stellenbosch, when you want a break from wine tasting, there are more than a few options available, from visiting a horse-drawn carriage museum to petting a cheetah.

At Eaglevlei, on the Greater Simonsburg subroute, you'll find the biggest jungle gym in the Western Cape, a restaurant specialising in matching food with wine and an art gallery displaying international and local art - much of which is created on site by township and farm kids courtesy of the Arts Foundation charity project. "There's a lot to try and perfect," says Hindhaugh, "we've hit the ground running." The South African wine industry did the same 12 years ago, and it hasn't stopped since.


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