The story of South African wine starts in 1655 with a few scraggly vines of muscadel planted in the shadow of Table Mountain. At the time, the Cape of Good Hope (today’s Cape Town) was a bare-bones waystation, a dusty port where Dutch East India fleets stocked up on victuals like fresh meat and vegetables—and, from about 1659 on, barrels of wine—before sailing on to Asia.
This new “Cape wine” happened to be pretty good. By the late 18th century, aristocrats had grown smitten with the stuff, procuring Constantia estate’s sweet “Vin de Constance” by the case. Call it the Dom Pérignon of Europe’s elite through the centuries: Charles Dickens and Jane Austen mentioned it in their writings; Napoléon had a private stash.
Fast-forward to the present, and you can still savor this heavenly nectar in its birthplace—a bucket-list achievement for any devoted oenophile—but these days, that’s just one of many reasons to strike out on a South African wine adventure. Let’s start with the obvious: the Winelands, situated inland from Cape Town, are stunning. Picture bright-green grapevines erupting from the parched fynbos like a lost Eden, their neat rows stretching out to the shimmering ocean in one direction and climbing up near-sheer mountain sides in the other. Steinbeck would’ve kissed the ground here.
Then there are the wineries (“wine farms” to locals), whose tasting rooms are often historic Cape Dutch mansions, highly Instagrammable for their fairytale-like gables, whitewashed walls, and bushy thatched roofs. Many have exceptional on-site restaurants, too, which means less driving and more leisurely sipping.
Of course, the real highlight is the wine itself. If, like most casual wine drinkers, you equate South African wine with screw-cap chenin blanc and bargain-bin pinotage (that polemical pinot noir–cinsault hybrid), let’s just say you’re in for some earth-shattering revelations. There are a whopping 100 grape varieties currently under vine in South Africa, from historic cultivars like shiraz, merlot, and sauvignon blanc, to wildcards like assyrtiko, barbera, and gewürztraminer. And contrary to your local wine merchant’s selection, there’s much—much—more to South African wine than characterless plonk, so save room in your suitcase for organic and biodynamic bottles with a distinct sense of place.
Planning your route is key. This isn’t Napa. There are sparse “wine trail” signs along the highway, and many visits operate by appointment only. So, how to craft an itinerary in a country with 233,626 acres of vines spanning more than 100 official appellations? Keep these recommendations in your back pocket, and you’ll be off to a running start.
Getting Your Bearings
Cape Town makes a practical home base for trips to Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Constantia, and beyond—you can comfortably hit a vineyard or two in the morning and be back in time for dinner. Most wineries worth visiting are less than an hour’s drive from the city center, so plan on either renting a car or shelling out for (cheap!) ride-hailing services like Bolt, Uber, or Hailer. Time your trip to the February harvest to get a first-hand look into the winemaking process.
Where to Taste
Get a feel for the historical grandeur of Stellenbosch, South Africa’s most prestigious wine region, at Spier Wine Farm, a sprawling estate that dates back to 1692. Spier’s polished European-style cabernets, sauvignon blancs, and red blends are a fine introduction to classical South African winemaking, and they sing alongside the farm-to-table dishes served at Eight, the indoor-outdoor winery restaurant.
Nine minutes up the road and you might as well be in a different universe: At Reyneke, a certified organic and biodynamic winery, Napa-like glam is traded in for down-to-earth rusticity—this is a wine farm with emphasis on the farm (peep the longhorn Nguni cows, which help fertilize the vines). Tastings here (by appointment only: firstname.lastname@example.org) are as casual as founder Johan Reyneke’s usual outfit, a holey T-shirt and worn-in jeans. Expect pristine sauvignon blancs and syrahs worth smuggling home by the case.
Another young-gun Stellenbosch winemaker everyone has their eye on is Alex Milner of Natte Valleij (appointment only: email@example.com). His single-origin cinsaults (annual production: 40,000 bottles) are some of the most elegant wines coming out of the region today—and a proverbial middle finger to cinsault’s many naysayers. “Five years ago, cinsault was the orphan on the farm,” Milner said. “Nobody wanted it. But in the last three years we’ve seen a 300 percent growth in the cinsault sector.”
Due east, beyond the weathered granite peaks of the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve (a prime spot for hiking and mountain biking) lies Swartland, a previously overlooked district that’s becoming trendier by the day. Swartland’s rebranding from a plonk-producing backwater to a terroir-driven hotspot has everything to do with Mullineux, the 12-year-old farm that bagged Platter’s “Top Performing Winery of the Year” prize for 2019. Mullineux’s chenin blancs, particularly the single-parcel “Quartz” and late-harvest straw wine, are virtually unparalleled in their complexity.
A 20-minute drive northwest will land you in Paarl, a climatically diverse a region whose star winery is Babylonstoren. This expansive estate could be mistaken for a bustling town: There are flower gardens, intersecting lanes, two restaurants, and a full-service hotel and spa. Short of moving in, you can partake in the dependably well-orchestrated tastings. Babylonstoren’s Rhône varietals, such as viognier, mourvèdre rosé, and shiraz, steal the show.
Where to Stay
Pamper yourself at The Silo hotel, whose aesthete-approved rooms pop with collector-grade art and feature deep-soak tubs facing out to the harbor. If dropping a grand per night on accommodation isn’t on the cards, take in the defunct grain silo’s industrial splendor at the adjoining Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa instead—and be blown away by thought-provoking works by the best artists on the continent.
Travelers who prefer quiet, old-fashioned comfort over see-and-be-seen swank should book a room at the Cape Grace. Situated across the marina from The Silo and built on its own private cay, drawbridge and all, it’s Cape Town’s original Grande Dame (think fresh-cut flowers, period furniture, and complimentary port and sherry in the evenings).
Where to Dine
Boschendal’s newly redesigned restaurant The Werf is the place to be at sunset, when the Groot Drakenstein mountains take on a fiery glow. The vegetable-packed menu, which hinges on estate-grown produce, is a god-given reprieve from the region’s usual meat-or-meat options.
Another restaurant eschewing the usual model is Tuk Tuk Microbrewery, a raucous brewpub in downtown Franschhoek that serves a Mexican-inflected bar menu of nachos, tacos, and ceviche.
But you can’t knock classics like Delaire Graff Restaurant (architecturally plated, French-inspired dishes) and Tokara Restaurant (market-driven pan-European), situated on the eponymous wine farms, emblems of South African fine dining.
A Note on Social Justice
Whites, who account for approximately nine percent of South Africa’s population, own 70 percent of the country’s farms, and that stark inequality applies to the Winelands, a place where multimillion-dollar estates and shantytowns often exist side by side. Traveling through the region, you may notice that none—literally none—of the wine farms on the main tourist circuit are fully owned by people of color. Things are changing, albeit slowly. New black- and mixed-race-controlled wineries are sprouting up, even if many of them don’t yet have formal, tourist-ready tasting rooms. Thokozani, The Township Winery, and Aslina—all of which make fantastic wine—are cases in point and well worth hunting down in shops and on restaurant menus.