Great Wines from the Cradle of Humankind

A visit to South Africa inspires with its natural beauty, wildlife, ambitious citizens and the quality and pricing of its wines.

Standing at the top of a lighthouse perched on a sheer cliff, I gazed at the horizon. Above was a spectacular sky, a tapestry of blue firmament and powdery clouds. And below, two mighty oceans converged in massive surges of foamy waves. Here, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet, I marked the beginning of a journey that was to dazzle, educate, humble and amuse me. Baboons with their babies in tow eyed me suspiciously as I walked back to our car from the edge of the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point on the African continent. I was in South Africa, home of spectacular wines, natural beauty, friendly people, wild animals and the fossil remains of man’s earliest ancestors.

This was the start of my whirlwind tour of some of South Africa’s best wineries. In the weeks that followed, I sampled spectacular Sauvignon Blancs at both Klein Constantia and Steenberg. I enjoyed a “worldwide” tasting at Fairview that included South African Viognier, Sangiovese, Shiraz and their famous Goats do Roam. Adventurous souls, they’re even producing a solid Zinfandel. Rupert & Rothschild offered a more focused presentation, with two Bordeaux Cab-Merlot blends—their complex, rich, leathery Baron Edmund and Classique wines. At KWV, good winemaking and pioneering marketing have helped the company get a jump on their neighbors, bringing great wines to the U.S. Their wines are gems, and can be found at bargain prices: Cathedral Cellars, Ruderberg, KWV, Robert’s Rock and Pearly Bay can be snapped up at prices from as low as $5 to $16. At Rust en Vrede, I admired their 2000 Guardian Peak Merlot with its blackberry and chocolate notes and learned that their goal—to make a world-class Bordeaux blend—is only two vintages away. At historic Meerlust, their Bordeaux blend Rubicon (they claim they preceded Coppola with the name) was filled with wonderful flavors of cigar smoke and rich berry fruit, while their Chardonnay tasted like a great Meursault.

Rich, herbaceous Sauvignon Blancs, silky-smooth and spicy Shirazes, classic Bordeaux blends—the magnificence of the wines was matched by the splendor of the Cape area. Viewing the vivid green hills, the quaint dairy farms and Dutch heritage architecture was a soothing interval between winery visits. And it afforded me time to ponder how competitively priced these wines are for the quality they deliver. With the conversion rate hovering around 10 South African Rand to the dollar, Americans can have a field day with very high-quality wines delivered to our shores at a fraction of their value.

Also in this issue, you will find Mark Mazur’s report on the prominent wineries and winemakers of South Africa. If this issue piques your interest in a South African trek, be sure to read Jean-Pierre Rossouw’s insider report on the best wineries to visit, and the best restaurants, hotels and other sights worth seeing in the South African winelands.

Wine is not the only story in South Africa, of course. Most important is the upbeat mood driven by empowerment—more education, healthcare, overall employment and real economic opportu- nities for the formerly disenfranchised. Also important is the preservation and protection of the wildlife found there—elephants, lions, African buffaloes, rhinos and leopards are visible in virtually all of the camps along the Kruger National Park, but their very visibility belies the fact that they are endangered. Also quite intriguing to me on my visit were the archeological digs near Johannesburg, where new discoveries about the early ancestors of mankind are being made at an astonishing pace.

But wherever you go in South Africa, if you so choose, wine will never be too far from your side. I drank wonderful Pinotage from Kanonkop in the middle of the bush surrounded by elegant giraffes. I sipped Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir at a first-class restaurant overlooking the “Cradle of Humankind,” where fossils dating back as much as 7 million years are as common as dinner mints. South Africa is an adventurous wine enthusiast’s paradise.

Published on October 1, 2002

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