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Winelands –
an introduction

by Michael Olivier Wine and Food Writer and Broadcaster Lannice Snyman Eat Out Lifetime Achievement Award Winner 2013 for his contribution to the food industry



In 1652, with Dutch ships regularly travelling around southern Africa to the East for spice and other trade goods, the Dutch East India Company decided to create a refreshment station at the Cape. Colonial administrator Jan van Riebeek was sent to Table Bay in the Cape Colony, where Cape Town now stands with three ships full of provisions. 

Also on the ships were the gardener Hendrik Boom and a variety of seeds and plants.  It is interesting that the descendants of the assistant gardener Jacob Kloeten, later called Cloete, should have created the famous Constantia wine. This early Western Cape wine became well known, and was to be found in many of the cellars of European royalty. It even appeared in the writings of Baudelaire, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

Van Riebeeck’s introduction of the vine to the Cape was part of on-going horticultural experiments. There was misplaced theory at the time, that wine would help conquer scurvy in sailors.  Of course, limes would later do the trick, but in the early days of the Cape Colony, the first wine grapes were imported from the Rhine, Spain and France.  On 9th February 1659, van Riebeeck wrote in his diary, “Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes.”  Only some 15 litres of must was pressed from Muscadel grapes and round white grapes, but it was a start

Later vineyards were planted in the Wynberg [wine mountain] are and then in Constantia from 1682 when Steenberg was granted to the Widow Catherina Ras and in 1685 when Simon van der Stel was granted Constantia.

And so the wine industry grew, as did the distillation of brandy by wine farmers, all to supply ships passing the Cape on their way from and back to Europe.

By the end of the 18th century Constantia wine was a favourite in Europe. It also found its way to the island of St Helena where, in exile, Napoleon ordered regular supplies.

Various challenges faced settlers growing vines in the next two centuries. Once phylloxera vastatrix had been eradicated though, by grafting vines onto American root stock resistant to this vineyard louse, production soared. Farmers planted heavy-bearing grape varieties so that by the early 20th century there was a glut of wine in South Africa.  In 1918, the KWV [Cape Winegrowers Association] was founded to control the industry and later through Parliament the KWV was granted sole control over the wine industry.  This was both a good and a bad thing, restricting growth and development, preventing the importation of new grape varieties, instituting a quota system for farmers and curtailing the areas in which vines could be grown.


There were of course the pioneers.  The brave men and women who just carried on and who triumphed in the end as pioneers always do.  Jean Parker of Altydgedacht, Annemie Canitz of Muratie with her barefoot winemaker Ben Prins an then Norma Ratcliffe of Warwick, were three women who went against patriarchal norms and made names for themselves with wine. All three estates still produce superb wines today.

NC Krone of Twee Jongegezellen, Gunther Brozel of Nederburg, and Bernard Podlashuk of Bellingham pioneered cold fermentation, which brought about such a change in the freshness and fruitiness of the Cape Wines.  This made a huge impact on white wine drinking in the 1960s.  The Lieberstein Revolution brought wine grape suppliers to Stellenbosch to be part of the changes which had initially come from the vineyards.

This led to large wine companies like Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and Distillers Corporation, Douglas Green and Gilbeys producing wines which half a century later are still top sellers. While brands such as Chateau Libertas, KWV, Groot Constantia and many others have existed for most of the 20th and all of the 21st century.

Frans Malan, founder of Simonsig Estate, was almost unique in that he and Neil Joubert of Spier and Spatz Sperling of Delheim started the first wine route, in Stellenbosch, in 1971. 

Starting out with a few farms and what were then known as Co-operative Wineries, the Stellenbosch Wine Route grew. More members were added, and wineries started adding tourist facilities, restaurants, picnic facilities, cheese lunches, Sunday barbecues and so forth.  Suddenly visits to Stellenbosch were more attractive to families.  Today the Stellenbosch Wine Route is a huge commercial success and its marketing is sponsored by a leading credit card company.  Other wine routes followed, Paarl first, then Franschhoek and before long, most wine producing areas had their own routes offering regional specialities to attract visitors.

Frans Malan of Simonsig, not content with making wine routes a popular attraction,  also produced the first classical Champagne style wine with a second fermentation taking place in the bottle.  He used Chenin Blanc at the experimentation stage, though his sons now use the classical grapes of Champagne, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  Today, there is an association of producers making wines in South Africa under the Mèthode Cap Classique moniker as the word Champagne is geographically protected.

With the dawn of democracy and Nelson Mandela as the first president of a free South Africa, things started to change in the wine industry.  The country came out of the isolation of the Apartheid era, and our winemakers and vineyardists starting travelling. They began to work harvests in other wine producing countries and producers from other countries started visiting the Cape.  Travelling winemakers became de rigueur with winemakers and consultants travelling from the northern hemisphere to the south moving with the harvesting seasons.  Some major names like Pierre Lurton of Chateau Cheval Blanc consulting for Morgenster, Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux working with Neil Bester at Plaisir de Merle and Michel Rolland working on Remhoogte and Vergelegen.
Imported virus-free vine material found an easier path to our vineyards. As a result a number of new varieties starting finding their way into suitable micro-climatic areas and into bottles and onto tables for wine lovers to enjoy.

As more and more people came to discover the joys of South African wines, so serious wine associations started up, the Cape Winemakers Guild amongst them.  The CWG is a group of possibly the finest of the Cape’s winemakers.  Each year their auction raises huge funds for the wineries and for charity, and for their wonderful wine protégé programme that trains winemakers by sending them to university and by mentoring them on their farms.

Another positive result of the dawn of democracy in South Africa is that as people came to find a lot of interest in wine, they were also travelling overseas. These travels brought them into contact with top restaurants and the food of some of the most well known international chefs. Our young cooks and restaurateurs were also travelling. They looked at what was on offer abroad, looked at the produce and bounty of home and started looking to up the standard of the restaurant offering of the region. It was such a natural match with the incredible wines we produce, that the pairing of good food and wine soon became a way in which the Western Cape defines itself.
While the all too familiar steak houses, with steak and chips will always have a place in the hearts of many South Africans, we were ripe for change. The fine diners and quality bistros started opening on wine estates, in shopping malls and in the main streets of both suburbs and country towns. They took advantage of sweeping vistas, views over mountain or on sea-shores and opened eateries that are quite simply world class.

Scenery and fine wine aside, the operators quickly discovered an abundance of incredible produce and the Cape was back in it’s role as a refreshment station for foreign visitors. Of course the local gourmands piled on board in growing numbers, making the Western Cape the home to as many as 14 of the top 20 restaurants nominated in the country.

Following international trends, eating local has become the done thing. Chefs now wander the idyllic hills, foraging in the mountains for mushrooms and wild herbs.  Sustainable fish, grass fed beef, beef from different varieties of cattle, lamb from the Karoo, a geographically designated area, cheaper cuts of meat like pork cheeks, hangar and strip steaks, micro herbs, baby vegetables have come into favour.  All of this is constantly measured against and paired with the wines of the region.

The Western Cape has started exporting chefs too.  They have started travelling, training overseas and working stages in the restaurants of name chefs in Europe, Australia and the USA.  They have become wiser to the matching of food with wine.  Wineries now have tasting and pairing evenings in some of the finest restaurants in the cities and chefs are inventive in their pairings.  Vanessa Marx, of Dear Me Food World in the heart of Cape Town, last year won the Rising Star Award from the prestigious Eat Out Magazine.  I have attended a number of wine and food pairings she has done and in my opinion is one of the most intuitive when matching the aromas and flavours in wine with her food.  

Chantal Dartnell of Restaurant Mosaic at The Orient in Gauteng, Eat Out’s Chef of the year 2014 is cooking up a storm in her restaurant where she is known for her innovative and meticulous approach to modern cuisine and wine with her nationally known sommelier Germaine Lehody.  Marthinus Ferreira of DW11-13, a national Top Ten Restaurant has Mandla Mathonsi (known as Patson) by his side, winner of the Eat Out Wine Server of the Year award 2014.  Shaun Smith of Durban’s Fusion Café has made a name for himself on the East Coast, not only as a fine trainer of chefs and restaurant staff, but as a renowned matcher of his eclectic dishes with fine wines from the Cape.   Margot Janse, the Dutchborn chef has carve a niche for herself in Franschhoek at Le Quartier Hotel with her Tasting Room offering her unique take on local foods and wines which abound in the valley.  


Nic van Wyk, hugely popular as a judge in a well known reality cookery TVseries Kokkedoor has returned to Stellenbosch, home of his earlier successes and has opened Bistro13 at Welmoed Winery.  Nic has a special approach to his food with a twist of acidity amongst the sweet, a touch of smoking here, well cooked pork there, with his dishes all built to complement the wines from the cellars next door.  Award winning cookery book writer Camilla Comins and her brother Jason have rebuilt the old vinegar cellar at Overgaauw Winery in Stellenbosch and are sending their sublime food out to tables of eagerly awaiting guests.  George Jardine has built a wood fired bread oven and offers fine dining and more casual dining in The Deck at the well known Jordan Wine Estate.


Here the Cape Dwarf Chameleon, sits in the Restio grass around the reservoir and the restaurant.  Christophe Dehosse at Joostenberg presents some of the finest Cape country food which I housed in a buiding which offers an exciting range of food and charcuterie to go.  Another well known chef and judge of the Ultimate Braaimaster offers his treats to visitors in an eagles eyrie up on the side of the Helderberg offering panoramic views over the Stellenbosch vineyards.

In the vineyards and cellars innovation continues with new grape varieties, new winegrowing areas with interesting microclimates.  New cellar techniques are being explored, and organic and biodynamic wines being produced.  Watch out for wines from Elim, The Orange River, areas east of Hermanus, Cape Point Vineyards and places up the west coast, Darling and even further north where the Teubes Family is producing perfect wines to go with the fabulous fish and seafood of the area.  In Paternoster Suzi Holzhausen of Gaaitjie and Kobus van der Merwe of Oep ve Koep use local and foraged foods to produce the delights of their tables, and always with an interesting wine to go with it.  

Young winemakers like Jacques Erasmus from Spier and JD Pretorius are walking away with winemaker of the year awards, in the well respected Platter’s Guide to South African Wines Wendy Appelbaum’s De Morgenzon Reserve Chardonnay 2013 made by Carl van der Merwe is celebrated as the White Wine of the Year and Alistair Trafford’s De Trafford Blueprint Syrah 2012 as the Red Wine of the Year.  The Swartland-based Sadie Family Wines is the Guide’s Winery of the Year for a historic second time.  Continuing has path of innovation and excitement Charles Back of Fairview and Spice Route Wines is always on the cutting edge.  Adam Mason of Mulderbosch, the Mullineux of Riebeek Kasteel, and oh so many more are the wineries to watch.There is much to be seen and experienced in the Cape Winelands, interesting wines, truly great food and wonderful people. 

Hardly a month goes by without a new winelands restaurant opening up - a chef or a sommelier moving.  I find this very exciting as I see the winelands becoming more populated with first class eateries, more farmers growing special crops, more lamb coming from the Karoo now established as a geographic indicator for fine lamb.
The more visitors from other countries, the more we will be made to push the envelope and have a better offering for our guests from overseas.

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