“Stellenbosch is famous for three things: its wine, its university (30,000 students) and its oak trees,” said Ian. “But we know why you’re here today.”
Our Wine Flies tour guide and driver for the day, Ian was introducing us to five wineries in Stellenbosch. It’s a pretty little town on the outskirts of Cape Town, with a mix of white Cape Dutch and Victorian buildings along its oak-lined streets. And it’s home to South Africa’s most developed winelands – some 186 wineries and counting, according to Ian.
South African “Wine History 101”
South Africa’s wine history dates back to 1659, when Dutch settlers pressed wine for the first time from French Muscadel grapes. The country is the 8th top wine producer in the world; the fresh and fruity white Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted grape.
You no doubt like the wine South Africa produces?
On our previous South African safari, we tried the country’s signature red Pinotage for the first time and fell in love with its bold juicy taste. Now when we head to the local liquor store, South African wines strut to the top of our “Maybe we should buy this wine?” list.
So it was a given on our recent visit to Cape Town that we’d go on a wine tasting tour. Being so close to Cape Town (about a 45 minute drive away), Stellenbosch is easy to visit on a day tour.
About Wine Flies
We initially had a few reservations about Wine Flies. Google, and you’ll find that it gets nothing but rave reviews. But we thought their tour might still be a bit kitschy. Their guides are called “wine lords,” and pictures on their website showed them wearing top hats. When we emailed Wine Flies, we heard back from “Lady Sue.”
Would this be a boozy day of tippling cheap wine and listening to poor jokes?
Our doubts were quickly put to rest. It turns out the “lord” and “lady” references are really just to take the snobbery out of wine tasting. Ian was a fount of wine knowledge (nor did he wear a top hat or call himself “Lord Ian”).
Cool Ian tip: Avoid paying restaurant prices for wine in South Africa. It’s normal to take your own bottle of wine to a restaurant and pay a corkage fee of roughly $3 to $5 ($8 at the most).
Our fellow visitors on this Wine Flies tour were also a lively international mix. There were 12 of us all-told – including a young medical doctor from London in Cape Town on a conference, a family from Pennsylvania (whose university-aged daughter was entering med school), a UN soldier from India stationed in Sudan, and a young couple from Mexico City studying international affairs in the U.S. Needless to say, when we weren’t talking wine, our conversations covered the world!
Five wineries – and a whole lot of wine…
We visited five wineries on our Wine Flies tour – tasting 25 glasses of wine (and even more at lunch at a 6th vineyard winery).
Of the five essential “s’s” of wine tasting – see, swirl, smell, sip and savor – we unfortunately had to add a 6th “s” to that, spit. At least we did a little spitting, or we wouldn’t have made it through the day!
A pairing of five cheeses and wines at the boutique family-owned Mitre’s Edge eased us gently into our wine tasting day (the cheese and crackers substituted for breakfast).
At the “green” Villiera Farms – where zebra and antelope roam freely and a flock of 1,000 Peking ducks are responsible for natural pest control – we tasted some bubbly and paired different cured meats with wine. The beef biltong went very nicely with Villiera’s 2007 Cab Sauv/Merlot/Cab Franc blend!
At another winery, we paired wine with chocolates.
Best winery? Annandale
The best and most unique wine experience was naturally saved for last.
In a rustic barn at Annandale, complete with a bull mastiff sitting by a crackling fire, we tasted aged red wines made in an old-world style. The wines are aged in oak barrels for at least eight years giving them a rich full-bodied flavor; a couple we tasted had a hint of a burnt amber color, a classic sign of an aged wine.
It was a privilege to meet the winemaker, Gerhard (Hempies) du Toit, a fifth-generation South African Huguenot wine-maker. Annandale itself traces its winemaking heritage back to the founding of South Africa; there’s still a 1700’s manor house on the Annandale estate.
The barn in which we tasted the wines was certainly very atmospheric – cobwebs stretched overhead from corner to corner, and the barn was filled with everything from rusted farm implements to a stuffed antelope. (We read somewhere that Gerhard has never allowed a broom to enter the room.)
But Gerhard, formerly a world-class rugby player, is a seriously accomplished winemaker whose wines are even coveted by royalty around the world. When Prince Albert of Monaco married Charlene, Gerhard was asked to create a special wine for their wedding; Annandale’s “Chalbert Merlot 2005” was made in their honor and shipped to Europe for the wedding celebration.
Annandale’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon was voted the best Cab Sauv in South Africa.
With a 5 o’clock shadow and rumpled clothes, Gerhard was most unassuming, welcoming and down-to-earth, and the whole experience at Annandale felt very real and authentic. And oh, the luscious wines! We were just sorry our Canadian customs laws only allowed us to buy one bottle each to take home…
Booking information for a Wine Flies tour
- Wineries: The five wineries selected for your Wine Flies tour may change from day to day. But Wine Flies aims to always include at least a couple of small, off-the-radar boutique wineries you might not have heard about or couldn’t otherwise visit on your own.
- Food: You won’t go hungry on your Wine Flies tour. A hearty lunch (with more wine!) is included. (Our lunch: vegetable soup, grilled sausages, chicken kebabs, potato salad, green salad and, as if we weren’t full by then, grilled cheese-and-tomato sandwiches.) Throughout the day, you’ll be nibbling on cured meats, cheeses and chocolates too.
- Transfers: Pick-up from your Cape Town hotel is sometime after 8:00 am. You’ll arrive in Stellenbosch about 10:00 am. Drop-off back to your hotel is around 5:00 pm.
- Details: For more information, see the Wine Flies website.
All photos are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except lead photo and where noted)
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Our Wine Flies tour was complimentary for the purpose of this review. But we never accept media invitations in exchange for positive stories, and our words are always our own.