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South Africa’s Life of Wine

[one_third_last]Wine tasting in the Cape is not just a sensual treat. Jacqui Taylor discovers a whole world of history and culture deserving of exploration.[/one_third_last]

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[two_third]I was in my late thirties when I developed an obsessive interest in wine. I moved out of the corporate environment in funky, cosmopolitan Cape Town to Stellenbosch. This university town is surrounded by some of the most beautiful wine estates in the world. Not only had I transferred from urban sprawl to agricultural heartland, but I found that the architecture, music, culture, food and people of the town had all been influenced by wine.

I wanted to know how wine could have such an influence on society, and in doing so discovered an historical and archeological web of interesting stories with African, European and Asian influencers. The captivating tale of Solms-Delta Wine Estate and its people is a microcosm of life in the wine lands over the ages and its history adeptly illustrates the effect of the vine. Professor Mark Solms, an international renowned neuro-psychologist, and the owner of Solms-Delta together with the Wijn de Caab Trust and British philanthropist Richard Astor, initiated a project that resulted in the establishment of the Museum van de Caab in a section of the original 1740 cellar. Archaeological exploration discovered a Stone Age settlement site a few metres away from the current homestead. The artifacts found provided proof that the San had lived in the area for centuries. Their stay was interrupted by the Dutch traders who settled on the Southern tip of Africa in the 17th century, bringing with them the European wine culture of their day. Jan van Riebeeck, the first Dutch colonial administrator tasked with building a settlement in the Cape, wrote in his diary on Sunday 2nd February 1659 ‘Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes, namely from the new must, fresh from the vat. The grapes were mostly Muscadel, and other white round grapes, very fragrant and tasty.’ The foundation
had been set for the start of a long and interesting relationship between man and grape in the Cape.

[singlepic id=164 w=320 h=240 float=right]However, when the Dutch discovered that the land had already been occupied by ‘people of the bush’ or ‘bush men’ as the Dutch named them, battles broke out in the Cape as the landless settlers moved into the areas inhabited by these Bushmen. These San/Bushmen retaliated against the invasion by attacking the lives and property (mostly cattle) of the Trekboers who organized themselves into military commandos and proceeded to annihilate most of the San adult males. The San women and children were enserfed into farm labour and over the first two centuries the wine that was produced on Delta was made by slaves. Slaves were also bought to the Cape from Batavia (Java), Bengal, Madagascar and Mozambique. After emancipation in 1834, many of the freed slaves continued to work for their former owners, due to poverty and the social and family ties they had formed in their farming communities. The Museum presents an opportunity in the Cape

Winelands to obtain an understanding of life on a wine farm where both colonial owners and the descendants of indigenous communities had an influence.
The estate offers three wine ranges, which use varying quantities of desiccated grapes to create wines with distinctive styles. The resulting products have been named after their historical community links. The Solms-Wijn de Caab range is made purely of Rhône varietals. Solms-Hegewisch is made entirely from desiccated grapes. The lighter Solms-Astor range consists of unusual Cape wine blends and is inspired by Solms-Delta’s involvement in reviving the traditional folk music of the rural Cape.

The Dutch had a significant impact on the architecture and gardens of the region and one of the most beautiful examples can be found at the magnificent 18th century Vergelegen Estate that was granted to Williem Adriaan van der Stel, the Cape’s colonial Dutch governor at the time. The estate was modeled on the grand gardens of the European aristocracy. The large grounds have been kept in the formal garden style of that period with some of the original Chinese camphor trees outside the historical Cape Dutch manor house. It’s a place of serenity and peace with the rose garden, the white garden, the herb garden and the symmetrical ponds surrounding the beautifully restored Manor House.

Vergelegen has won the International Best of Wine Tourism awards several times. It’s known for its excellent wines as well as its architectural designed cellar, sunk into a hill. The octagonal design of the winery reflects the shape of the walled garden laid out by Van der Stel in 1700. It has four levels, the bottom of which is a barrel maturation cellar. The wines are made by cellar master, André van Rensburg, who has been awarded the Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de La Lande trophy for the best red blend twice since he joined Vergelegen. The estate produces 3 tiers of wines: the flagship range is Bordeaux blends, the reserve tier consists of single-varietal wines and the Premium range of every day drinking wines.

Wine and food enjoy a symbiotic relationship in the Cape over the centuries and Michael Roux Junior, of La Gavroche, published a recipe book where he paired one of Cape’s best known wines, Vin de Constance, with his recipes. The home of the dessert wine is on the slopes of the Table Mountain National Park.
Situated in a valley between the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, Constantia was the first wine farm in the Cape. The Swedish botanist who sailed around the Cape with Captain Cook visited Constantia several times in 1772 and was amazed at the demand from Europe for ‘the racy, very delicate dessert wines which has something peculiarly agreeable in the aroma of it.’ The estate was later divided into several wine farms, one them named Klein Constantia. Its wine, made from Frontignan grapes was a favourite for Europe’s aristocracy and rulers, including Napoleon, Frederick the Great of Prussia and the Duke of Wellington, as well as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Although Vin de Constance is now made using Muscat de Frontignan grapes, it comes in a reproduction of the wine’s original 18th century bottle.

The Manor house was built in 1818 and the design of the building is typically Cape Dutch in style – the house is thatched and U-shaped with sash windows. The estate is now owned by the Jooste family. A comprehensive list of Michelin star restaurants around the world list Vin de Constance, details of which can be found on the estate’s website.
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Pinotage, the offspring of the breeding programme between the Hermitage and Pinot Noir grape, is synonymous with Kanonkop Estate, owned by the Krige family, fourth generation wine farmers. The English translation of the name is Cannon Hill. The cannon, which is still on the estate today, was used in the 17th century to notify farmers when a ship arrived in Table Bay harbor so they could load up their wagons and sell their produce. In 1935 Pinotage seedlings were grafted onto rootstock for the first time in the world and the first Pinotage grapes were planted in 1953 at Kanonkop. The first bottle of their internationally acclaimed Kanonkop Pinotage was sold in 1973. The vines are still producing grapes that are used today. In 2008, Abrie Beeslaar, the winemaker at Kanonkop, was voted International Winemaker of the year at a gala award ceremony in London. The estate has won numerous international awards including Winery of the Year.

There are over 4000 wine producers in the Cape and it is easy to understand how a compulsive disorder would develop. I’m sure that if I spent the next 11 years visiting a different wine producer every day, I would end up writing an encyclopedia. But even for an obsessive such as myself, the true pleasure can only ever be in the tasting.

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