Ask me to list the things in life which make life worth living, and family, travel, and wine would quite possibly be the top three. Every now and then, the fates collide and I can enjoy all three at once, which makes for a wonderful experience indeed.
When I talk about wine – and in particular wine tourism – in Africa, South Africa is inevitably the first destination which comes to mind. Not only are South African wines well known in the UK market, but they are renowned for their quality and value for money. What you find, however, is that in South Africa and its neighbouring countries, there are a good number of excellent wines which never make it to foreign lands. If you want to drink them and learn about them, you have to go straight to the source.
Let’s think about South Africa first: it has the largest and best known African wine industry, and the country has been producing wines since at least the 1650s. The Garden Route – arguably the best road trip in Africa – winds its way around the Cape, and includes some of the most fascinating wine producing regions.
The Vineyard – built as a private house in 1800 – is one of the most striking places to stay in Cape Town. It is on a seven acre plot on the slopes of Table Mountain and is the ideal place to start any wine themed adventure in South Africa. The ageing vines were completely replanted in 2008 to mark the 350th anniversary of wine making in the region, and one of the best opportunities to try them is at the wine pairing dinners, which take place periodically in the hotel’s The Square Restaurant. There are guided walks through the gardens and vineyard and, if you are feeling slightly more energetic, even a designated jogging route.
Travelling a short distance outside Cape Town, you come to the Asara Wine Estate and Hotel in Stellenbosch. This award winning property has 104 hectares under vines, 75% of which are red grape varieties. Wine themed activities, as you might expect, feature prominently on the programme. There are plenty of wine tours and tastings on offer and these combine well with day trips and rounds of golf. Ask for one of the glorious Vineyard Suites and your French doors will open straight out onto a wrap around balcony with views not only of the vines but of Stellenbosch’s mountain peaks as well.
My third recommendation for wine lovers in South Africa would have to be the Franschhoek Country House and Villas, located in the Franschhoek Valley. Franschhoek was settled more than 300 years ago by French Huguenots, who brought their knowledge of winemaking with them. The hotel has been created from an earlier historic homestead, and is ideally placed for you to enjoy the fine dining and wine tastings for which Franschhoek is known.
Thus far I’ve told you only about South Africa, but actually there are pockets of wine making across Southern Africa which you might not be aware of. Although vineyards elsewhere may not be destinations in their own right, they combine well with safaris and other excursions.
Namibia is a prime example of this. The Neuras Wine and Wildlife Estate is an oasis in the desert, a place that you wouldn’t expect to find much life at all. But for more than 100 years, a succession of innovative farmers have worked this land and made it fertile. Allan and Sylvia Walkden-Davis planted the first commercial vineyard here in 1996, rehabilitating historic vines and planting new ones.
There are two things they take very seriously at Neuras Estate: quality and sustainability. When you stay in the attractive stone chalets at the winery, there are regular wine tours and tastings, but also chances to volunteer on the estate and learn about conservation work. From here you can explore the ochre dunes for which Namibia is famous on exciting quad biking adventures and its close proximity to the NamibRand Nature Reserve and Sossusvlei make it the perfect introduction to a lengthier desert retreat.
My final African vineyard selection is a surprising one: did you know they produce wines in Zimbabwe? Bushman Rock was planted by a Scotsman (another surprise!) in the early 20th century. He envisaged a valley which rivalled Italy in its beauty and set out to achieve it.
The estate winery uses grapes from 60 year old vines, which are lovingly tended by hand. Most of the varietals are French – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot amongst them – and winemaker Nelia Kanyasa ages the wines in traditional oak barrels. Touring the vineyard is a must, but so too is watching a match at the Bushman Rock Polo Club, taking a safari drive along the Nyamasanga River and viewing the ancient San rock paintings in nearby caves.
The perfect vineyard escape in Africa is not just about the wine. The location, the accommodation and the other attractions and activities are what truly make the experience. If you’ve toured France and Italy, and perhaps the Napa Valley as well, look this time to what Africa can offer.
Laura Burdett-Munns is Managing Director at Africa Exclusive. Africa Exclusive has been creating the finest tailor-made safaris since 1990, specialising in luxurious accommodation in beautiful remote places.