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Profile of South Africa

text and photographs ©2002 Tom Cannavan

 part 1 - part 2 - part 3

I had a fantastic trip recently, as guest of Wines of South Africa, the promotional body for South African wine in the UK and elsewhere. This included visits to dozens of estates, the Nederburg Auction, and Cape Wine 2002, South Africa's wine expo. This feature is in three parts. Part 2 features profiles a dozen top estates. Part 3 presents 100 Great South African wines.

This is part 1, an introduction to the Cape from both a wine-tourism point of view, and for those with a more general interest in visiting this most beautiful region. It will focus heavily on the restaurant scene - surely one of the most vibrant in the world at the moment.

Part 1 - Introducing the Cape

I had long wanted to visit the Cape, having heard so many good reports. It seemed that almost everyone who had been, had fallen in love with the area. I can honestly say that my expectations were exceeded; not only are the Cape and the Winelands amongst the most stunning places I have visited, but the people are friendly and the standard of restaurants and hotel accommodation is extremely high. But the biggest shock of all is the current exchange rate. More on how the collapse of the Rand has affected the winemaking scene later, but for now the Cape offers possibly the cheapest exotic holiday destination in the developed world.


Cape Town

Cape Town is South Africa's second largest city, and undoubtedly one of it's greatest treasure. With its magnificent setting facing due north, it basks in almost constant sunshine, and has the spectacular Table Mountain as a backdrop. The vineyard areas are all within easy driving distance, with some of the best only 20 minutes from the city centre in Constantia, a peaceful old suburb of the city.

I flew into Cape Town international airport and picked up a cheap hire car from Value Car Hire (£100 for eight days, with fully comprehensive insurance). It is an easy 20-minute drive by motorway into the city centre. I had a bit of a problem deciding where to stay, Cape Town's layout being rather difficult to grasp from maps. The City Centre has tourist and business hotels, but there is little to recommend this area after dark.

  After a bit of research, I settled on hotel La Splendida, just a kilometre from the Victoria and Albert Waterfront at the peaceful Mouille Point beach-front. For just 420 Rand per night (about £30) our room was chic, spacious and air-conditioned, with beautiful, uninterrupted views of the sea. The Waterfront is one of the city's main hubs; a nicely done, up-market shopping and tourism development around a working port. Apart from countless shops, bars and restaurants (most of the latter a bit fast-food touristy), the waterfront houses a fine branch of Vaughan Johnson's wine store and an IMAX theatre.

It is also the embarkation point for trips to Robben Island. The city centre runs back from the Waterfront towards Table Mountain. Driving south and west from the Waterfront brings you quickly to the seaside suburbs like Camps Bay, whilst driving south and east skirts around Table Mountain towards Constantia, or out towards the Wine Lands. Continuing on either road south of the mountain takes you through the Cape Point national park and on to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Close to Constantia, the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens make a great day out.

Driving is made easier for British visitors because South Africa drives on the left, and the roads are in very good repair. However, the standard of driving leaves something to be desired, especially the taxis of Cape Town which operate to their own code.

Driving down to Cape Point and back is easy in a day, as is a visit to Stellenbosch or Franschoek. This is not only a chance to escape the city in favour of ruggedly beautiful scenery, but you will drive over mountain passes in either direction, a wonderful chance to see not only the famous fynbos plant-life, but a variety of wildlife, from Cape zebra to ostrich. We came across this troop of baboons high on the Tamberskloof pass. Cape Point has one touristy restaurant with magnificent views; both Stellenbosch and Franschoek have plenty of options.

Cape Town hotels

My choice, the Hotel La Splendida suited me just fine: very comfortable without being too grand, moderately-priced, situated far enough away from the hubbub of the City Centre and Waterfront, yet not so far out as to feel isolated. The poshest accommodation in Cape Town includes two venerable old hotels in the grand style, The Cape Grace, which is in a secluded little area of the Waterfront, and the Mount Nelson, an old, colonial-style hotel in the city centre. Both are five-star establishments, and firmly in the luxury bracket. The Cape Grace was Condé Naste's "best hotel in the world" in 2000, and the Mount Nelson has that refined, over-stuffed, slightly faded "jewel in the crown" atmosphere with extensive lawns and good service. Its position is central, just off Kloof street, one of Cape Town's liveliest streets for shops, bars and restaurants. The Table Bay hotel is a brand new luxury option directly on the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, and is plush and glittering, with acres of marble and glass. I ate a very good meal there, but it is certainly a less individual option than the Cape Grace or Mount Nelson, with more of the corporate feel about it.

A range of other hotel choices is clustered around the Waterfront; a good option for those wishing to be in the thick of things, but avoid downtown. Many visitors choose to base themselves slightly out of town, in one of Cape Town's suburbs, or in one of the nearby coastal towns like Camps Bay or Clifton. Here there is plenty of guesthouse and bed and breakfast accommodation at very low prices, and of generally high standard. I know several people who swear by this option for Cape Town. Several individual guesthouses and booking services have online booking options.

Cape Town restaurants

If there is any better destination for the food- and wine-loving traveller I'd be surprised. The parlous state of the Rand and current exchange rates make South Africa so cheap as to be quite unreal; two beers will cost 50p in a bar, a cappuccino 30p, a simple lunch for two £10, and a full-blown, Michelin-quality gourmet meal and wines no more than £35 tops - the sort of thing that would leave no change from £100 in any British or continental restaurant. Add in the fact that The Cape offers glorious weather for the British winter (and a great deal of fine weather year round) and stunning scenery on so many levels, and this is a fabulous choice for the gourmet traveller. All prices are for a three-course meal for two including good wine and coffee, unless otherwise sated.

Atlantic Grill, Table Bay Hotel, Waterfront, Cape Town. (021) 406 5688
Plush and upmarket, the Table Bay is a modern hotel built right on the Waterfront, with wonderful views from the full-length windows. Though my meal here was remarkable value for very good food and opulent surroundings, it was a touch soulless and just too blandly international, and came with Uriah-Heepishly ingratiating service. Juniper-seared carpaccio of Springbok was much less exciting than the description promised: the Springbok was too soft in texture and light in flavour for an overpowering emulsion of a cranberry sauce. My Jamaican spiced duck breast with a red pepper and pear relish was a little overcooked, and the duck meat slightly dried, though my partner's char-grilled yellow-tail (a meaty game fish) was much better, cooked nicely and served with rosemary and bacon-wrapped potatoes. A bottle of Glen Carlou Pinot Noir was 250 Rand - only around £16 in this posh place, but the same wine was almost half price a few nights later in the superior The Restaurant. About 600 Rand (£40).

Aubergine, 39 Barnet St, Cape Town. (021) 465 4909

Undoubtedly my top foodie experience of the trip, vying with The Restaurant (below) but triumphing thanks to painstaking execution and flawless conception of the dishes by chef/patron Harald Bresselschmidt. At night, this inner city area is bleak and, as is standard in Cape Town, a guard is employed to look after your car if you park outside. The lovely old building has been given a churchy feel, with pew-like but very comfortable seating and broad oak tables. We chose the five-course tasting menu (actually seven by the time a little amuse bouche and sorbet were included).

This contains a selection of smaller portions of some Aubergine signature dishes. First up was a lovely creamy, light but quite gamy liver pâté/mousse, served with an intriguing shower of little nuts, roasted seeds and strips of sweet marinated pepper in a pool of delicate stock. The second course was a triumph: line-fish of the day, pan-fried then (I'd guess) finished in the oven with a wafer-thin topping of potato rosti, and served on a foaming, rich velouté that had marvellous texture. After melon sorbet, a fillet of beef, topped with crottin of goat's cheese and served on a layer of wild mushrooms, courgettes and asparagus in a deeply reduced red wine or Madeira sauce. The first of the dessert/cheese courses was another absolutely brilliant creation - the sort of food that leaves you searching around for clues as to what it is, whilst loving every spoonful: little mounds of soft, comforting nursery-food pillows of creamy goat's cheese-based sweetness, served with slices of marinated Asian pear and fig. Lastly, a berry tartlet, with intense berry ice-cream and a vanilla sauce. We drank a half of Danie de Wet Chardonnay and a bottle of Vergelegen Estate Red. Marvellous. 700 Rand (£50).

The Restaurant, 51a Somerset Rd, Cape Town. (021) 419 2921
If you want some theatre along with possibly the best food I experienced on a foodie paradise trip, ask for a table in front of the open kitchen where you can witness the boiling-point tensions of chef/patron Graeme Shapiro and his crew. Highly entertaining. The Restaurant is in a slightly insalubrious neighbourhood, but there is secure off-street parking and a very warm welcome. Unpretentious, there is a very relaxed, informal atmosphere here, yet one that is clearly deadly serious about food. Nibble on wonderful salt-encrusted focaccia and roasted garlic olives whilst you peruse the brief menu, with around half a dozen choices at each course. My Baklava of Goat's Cheese was just sensational: a creamy, fluffy goat's cheese mousse piled into a filo pastry case, smothered with roasted pistachios, then doused in warm honey. Beneath the cheese is a little piquant layer of spicy onion marmalade. My main courses of Ostrich on a sour fig and sweet potato sauce was superb, my partner's fillet of Springbok venison on a honeybush and redcurrant sauce was a triumph. Dessert was a signature dish; an individual tart tatin, plump, soft and with a gorgeous almondy undertone in the pastry, served with a scoop of terrific praline ice-cream. Coffee was very good, served with little chocolate-coated Christmas pudding-flavoured biscuits. We had another bottle of the excellent Glen Carlou Pinot Noir here, at precisely half the price of the Atlantic. Around 450 Rand (£30).

The Blue Danube, 102 New Church St, Cape Town. (021) 423 6324
I warmed to this place immediately, formed as it is from an old Victorian house, so typical of many in the UK with corniced ceilings, picture rails and panelled doors. Decorated in a startling blue, there is Viennese flavour to the food prepared by top chef Thomas Sinn. Packed on the Thursday night I ate there, I very much enjoyed the food, especially a dish of goat's cheese wrapped in Black Forest ham with a wild rocket salad. My main course tempura of tiger prawns was simple but delicious. Puddings include Strudel and Kaisserschmarrn. Nice petit fours were served with decaff. With a bottle of good Chenin Blanc from Ken Forrester, the bill for two came to 500 Rand (£33). A little kitsch, maybe not quite as exceptional as it thinks it is, but I enjoyed it. Another place with secure, off-street parking.

Mortons on the Wharf, Waterfront, Cape Town. (021) 418 3633
The Waterfront area is principally a shopping and entertainment Mecca, and as you might expect, the food choices are generally in the fast-food and family restaurant category. For a quick slice of pizza or steak and chips there are numerous choices (Quay Four being the best spot for an informal fish and chip lunch). On the upper level of the Victoria and Albert Waterfront terraces are a couple of slightly more upmarket, yet still casual, mid-priced choices. Morton's is a southern cooking joint, with Jambalayas and Gumbos aplenty, and a bar-room atmosphere (think Ted Danson in Cheers). I had good, spicy Creole soup, followed by a very nice cut of fillet steak, cooked medium-rare and served with a choice of sauces and vegetable accompaniments. One bonus with Morton's is that it actually has a very nice range of wine "specials" chalked up on blackboards, offered in addition to their modest list. These included parcels of mature wines purchased from the Nederburg Auction, so someone takes their wines quite seriously here. About 350 Rand for two (£27).

Theo's, 163 Beach Road, Mouille Point, Cape Town. (021) 439 3494
The main reason we ate here was because it is only a hundred yards from our hotel, the excellent La Splendida, and was an easy option after a long day. Theo's offers a very friendly welcome, either indoors or on a terrace table in summer, which sits immediately opposite the beach. Big on seafood and steaks, my tip would be to choose a steak, or what looks good from the seafood listed on the blackboard. My starter of huge tiger prawns simply char-grilled was a real treat, and my main course grilled line-fish (Kingclip) was rubbed with Creole spices and served with salad and vegetables. The wine list is well-priced; we had a bottle of truly excellent Boschendal Sauvignon Blanc 2001 for only 80 Rand (£5). Moderately priced and decent food, rather than haute cuisine, but worth remembering if you are in the area. About 370 Rand (£25 for two)

Tides Restaurant, The Bay Hotel, Camps Bay. (021) 438 4444
10 minutes drive from the Waterfront is Camp's Bay. The Bay hotel is a member of the Relais & Châteaux group, and is basically an up-market seaside hotel, with a very stylish first-floor dining room offering panoramic views out to sea. It is finished in blonde woods, and has a modern, minimalist feel. The set-price menu here is a mind-boggling 130 Rand (£8 at current exchange rates) for three courses, a little amuse-bouche and lovely rosemary bread. My starter of black mushroom, sun-dried tomato and avocado terrine was cool and delicious, made even more so by the very imaginative and clever addition of a scoop of tomato and chilli sorbet on top, which melted into a delicious sauce. My main course choice was blue cheese and pear-stuffed corn-fed chicken, which came with braised vegetables. For pudding, I ordered a goat's cheese and lime cheesecake, which was delicate and perhaps just a little too subtle for its own good. Coffee is served in cafétieres, with plenty to linger over a second cup. The wine list is well-priced and covers all the best South African producers. The gorgeous Buitenverwachting Chardonnay comes in at £6.50 - about £1.50 les than retail in the UK. About 400 Rand (£27).

I also attended a function at Devonvalley Hills winery, where two top Cape Town restaurants had closed for the night to provide the catering. Both were hugely impressive: Five Flies, which is at 16 Keerom Street in the City (tel: 021 424-4442) and The Savoy Cabbage which is in Heritage Square, tel: 021 424-2626. Five Flies is based on classic French cuisine but with lots of unexpected fusion-food influences, and Savoy Cabbage does soul-food with a modern twist: lots of slow-braised dishes and wonderful lamb- and rice-filled cabbage rolls cooked in a broth.

Cape Town wine shopping

Internationally priced consumer goods like Japanese electronics, Swiss watches or Italian designer clothes are just as expensive in Cape Town as anywhere. However locally produced goods are extremely affordable, and that includes, of course, wine. Though you can pick up bottles that will cost £8 back home for £2 or £3, the allowance is only two litres, so you may decide it is not worth lugging home when so much is available in the UK. On the other hand, for some wine rarities I can recommend Vaughan Johnson's at the Waterfront, and Wine Concepts. Wine Concepts branch on Kloof Street is within a really nice little shopping centre that makes for a great hour or two's browsing. The centre also has a branch of South Africa's best coffee shop, Mugg & Bean, which has indoor and outdoor terraces, great coffee, good snacks and terrific cheesecake.

South Africa's Winelands

I've come away from South Africa's Winelands having discovered a new top contender for "world's most beautiful wine country", and having visited dozens of estates and tasted literally hundreds of wines, thinking that this is a country of some fantastic wines and some amazing potential. There will be a series of specific winery profiles and tasting notes to follow on wine-pages.

  The Winelands can be reached on a day outing from Cape Town, though the furthest regions like Robertson would be best managed by basing yourself in Stellenbosch for a few days, a pretty University town. Walker Bay, slightly isolated on the south coast, is also an easy day trip, though there are hotel options in the town of Hermanus - whale-watching central during the May to November season.

The leafy, very settled suburb of Constantia is a 20-minute drive from the city centre, and is the closest collection of quality wineries. Famous names like Klein Constantia and Buitenverwachting have tasting rooms and fine restaurants. Closer still, with a winery actually on the Waterfront, is Flagstone winery. I have been really impressed by their wines, including former "Wine of the Week", The Noon Gun. Telephone to arrange a visit: 021 425 3766.

Winelands hotels and restaurants

During this part of my trip I was guest of Wines of South Africa, and stayed just outside Stellenbosch on the Spier Wine Estate, which has an absolutely beautiful hotel complex, and is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The rooms at the Spier are really lovely: cool and spacious yet with huge living-flame gas fires to take the chill off an autumn evening. Built as an eco-friendly village, Spier's "homes" are clustered in small groups around private pools, and the complex offers an 18-hole golf course, horse riding, cheetah park and even its own restored steam train amongst many attractions. I ate in two of the four restaurants, and each was competent without setting the heather on fire. There are good alternative dining options in Stellenbosch, including the beautiful Morgenhof estate with its delightful rose gardens. The small town of Franschoek has become something of a gourmet paradise, with numerous restaurants vying with Cape Town's best. Haute Cabriere (Tel: 021 876-3688) and Le Quartier Français (Tel: 021 876 2151) are two of the most renowned, but I enjoyed a quick lunch in the casual, cool upstairs room of Bijoux very much (021 876-3474) .

Buitenverwachting, Klein Constantia Rd, Constantia. (021) 794 3522
Easily reachable on a pleasant 20-minute drive from central Cape Town, the wine farms of Constantia are the closet to the city, and the area is lovely. This was an absolute delight. Buitenverwachting (Bett-enn-verr-vach-ting) has a choice of restaurants, all serving light, smaller portions of Mediterranean-inspired food based on fresh ingredients in sophisticated composition. I ate in the Café, on the broad veranda overlooking the beautifully shady courtyard and fountain, and serving a smaller selection of dishes. It closes for the winter, and we were there in mid-April, just a day before the shut-down, but were blessed with a beautifully sunny day. Excellent breads are served before light, fusion dishes. My risotto was creamy and subtly flavoured, with half a dozen seared scallops ringing the bowl. For dessert, the apricot crème brûlée was really good and freshly made, and espresso hit the spot. Two courses, water, a couple of glasses of Buitenverwachting Sauvignon and coffees came to 300 Rand - about £23.

River Café, Constantia Uitsig, Spaanschemat Rd, Constantia. (021) 794 4480.
Constantia Uitsig is one of the newest estates in the area, and has carved out a name for its superb restaurants as much as for its wines. Colombe, the French-inspired top restaurant is regularly lauded as one of South Africa's best, but the River Café was an easy choice on a beautifully sunny Sunday lunchtime, when the courtyard tables are shaded by mature trees and parasols. The food here is of almost equal renown, an inspired blend of fresh and imaginatively-combined ingredients served by efficient, friendly staff and accompanied by a good local wine list. I thought my main dish was an absolute highlight; grilled fillets of yellow-tail (A game fish), which has been crusted with crushed nuts and sweet spices, served on a bed of caramelised sweet potato and squash, buttered green beans and wilted, smoky asparagus. It was sensational, matched to a glass of Buitenverwachting Sauvignon Blanc. The pudding was sensational too: an unusual vinegar sticky ginger pudding, steamed and delicious, yet light with a brilliant little tang, served with a quenelle of good ice-cream melting over the top. This is a beautiful setting, with the vineyards and mountainous backdrop, with brilliant food and very modest prices. Two courses, water, two glasses of wine and double espressos cost just 45 Rand - about £30 for two.

Lady Phillips Restaurant, Vergelegen Estate, Lourensford Rd, Somerset West. (021) 847 1342

The estate of Vergelegen (not too far from Stellenbosch on the wine route) is one of the most beautiful in South Africa. With a stunning Cape Dutch-style manor house, formal rose gardens, beautiful woodland and collection of ancient Camphor trees around the estate restaurant, and further up the hill the breathtaking winery (visits by appointment to the latter). The restaurant is comfortable and stylish, with a shady terrace that is a delight in fine weather.

For starters I chose a goat's cheese and sun-dried tomato tartlet with a beetroot dressing, which was a little salty for my palate. The bread served with it was wonderful however; a rustic wholemeal baked on the premises. My main course of venison in puff pastry was much more successful, the meat moist and slow-cooked to be falling apart at the touch of a fork, in a dark reduced gravy. Wines are all from Vergelegen or Boschendal Estates (under the same ownership) and prices are modest, with the delicious Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc for around 50 Rand. About 430 Rand for three courses, wine and coffees (£30).

I have fantastic memories from this trip, of friendly people and a beautiful country. Without doubt I will return for a vacation some time soon. Whatever the Cape's magic is, its power is pretty strong.

part 1 - visiting Cape Town and the Winelands
part 2 - profiles of the top estates
part 3 - 100 great South African wines