These days, there are literally hundreds of boutique wine estates dotted around the Western and Eastern Cape. Our favourite pastime is to head out over the weekends and stop wherever the mood takes us, visiting as many new Western Cape wine estates as possible.
We’ll start with some of our favourite Western Cape wine estates in the area known as the”Cape Winelands”: Franschhoek; Paarl; Wellington, Stellenbosch, Tulbagh and Robertson. In the first part of this series, we’ll describe our criteria and then pick just a couple for now.
Our travel criteria list – Western Cape wine estates, accommodation and restaurants
We have specifics that we always look for in a new discovery. We call them our “V’s & C’s List” and these are:
So, before we begin, let’s explain each of our criteria because these will crop up time and again.
Something that has begun to hit us South Africans hard is the fact that our country is so popular with foreign visitors. In some places, especially Cape Town, this has started to take its toll on the locals price-wise. We don’t always mind paying a bit extra for a special experience or great food and service. When we discover, though, that we’re paying more for our wine bought directly from the vineyard in the Western Cape than friends are paying for the same wine up-country, that’s just wrong! That sticks in our craw, so to speak. Otto is also Dutch and it’s in his nature to find the best deal, always. So, it has become our mission to seek out the places that still look after their locals, no matter what.
Our biggest thing in life is views. After all, what is life and travel without spectacular scenery? We get quite annoyed when we find a lovely spot, only to discover that the restaurant or tasting room is in a weird place instead of taking advantage of the views – whether it’s mountain; river; dams; forest or sea. When we go somewhere, we must be able to sit and look out at an inviting scene. The one exception to this can be in the middle of a rainy, Cape winter (something we haven’t experienced in the last few years, thanks to the drought!).
This is our colloquialism for “ambience” – that certain “Je ne sais quois” that gives a place its uniqueness and keeps you coming back for more. It’s a very personal thing – unlike views or value, which can be measured quite easily. Some might prefer a really busy environment, lots of people, hustle and bustle, loud music – whatever floats their boat. For us, this is more about the actual “feel” of a place – whether we’re comfortable, made to feel welcome, and want to stay longer than a few minutes. We don’t like huge crowds and being made to feel like a number, but we also generally don’t like to be the only ones there and feel that we have to whisper in the silence.
This is paramount to us – almost more important than value and views! We absolutely cannot bear having to sit on uncomfortable chairs – that is, chairs with no cushions or horrible, unsupported backs; or worse, benches – the latest trend in the Cape it seems. Those are all very well for students and possibly the younger generation, but not for the mature, discerning traveller! In fact, now that I think about it – due to a weak back, I have never really tolerated bad seating, even as a youngster.
Our very best is to walk into a new spot and find comfy, leather couches in front of a roaring fire. (This is where the views take a back seat). We’ll sit there the whole afternoon, ordering bottles of wine and cheese platters – and after all, isn’t that the aim of setting up a tasting room with food, or a restaurant on a wine estate? You want people to visit, to stay and relax, spend money, keep coming back and refer their friends!
Another one of our absolute “non-negotiables”. Like everyone, I assume, we want to feel welcome and cared about when we visit – otherwise, why would you go back? It doesn’t necessarily have to be the manager or the owner, but that always helps. Sometimes, it can just be great “waitrons” (I really hate that word though – it makes them sound like robots), who are friendly, but not intrusive; polite; attentive; and notice as soon as you need or want something.
I can think of one local place off the top of my head as I write this, (which we’ll get to at a later stage – Seasons Restaurant at Diemersfontein Wine Estate), that failed this criterion miserably, twice! That’s usually our max – if we have a bad experience the first time, but we like the spot, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and try again at a later stage.
This one has great food, in a beautiful setting, and even attentive waiters, but we will never go back there again. The reason: the management made us feel like a strange couple who had stumbled upon a restaurant when they actually wanted to buy something else – a car, perhaps?
When we walk into a restaurant and are greeted with the phrase: “Can I help you?”, I want to turn and run a mile immediately. That’s not the way to greet your patrons! The expected greeting, preferably accompanied by a big smile is, “Hello! Table for two? Smoking or non-smoking?”
Why did this Western Cape wine estate restaurant turn us away?
In each of these strange cases, the reason was different, it seems. The first time, we arrived around 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon. They didn’t like this because oddly enough they close at about that time. We enjoy our weekends, and this is usually our one time to really relax and lie in. As a result, we usually only get going sometime after lunch. We then like to get on the road, stop at the first interesting place we see and eat “breakfast”. The places that serve all-day breakfasts really get our vote. If that’s not possible, we’ll settle for a light snack platter or starter. So, that was strike number one.
The second time, we arrived at lunchtime (we were so proud of ourselves), but – gasp…without a booking! We were told that they were very busy and had a “huge” table and would probably not be able to serve us. We noticed, before turning and walking out, that they had one table of ten and one other table of six. Hardly what any reasonable person would call “too busy”, but there you have it.
The downfall of having worked in hospitality
I have one big thing, which can sometimes be a disadvantage. I have managed a game lodge, catered for and hosted my guests until the early hours of the morning; and managed a 4-star hotel restaurant with two bars and two conference centres. I know what’s possible and what is not, and most importantly, I know how guests should be treated.
This one doesn’t always apply to the wine estates but is as important to us nonetheless. We enjoy good food, good value and good variety. Certain wine estates offer simple cheese or meat (charcuterie) platters, or other light food, which is just fine with us. As always though, it must offer value for money and be of good quality.
Lately, we find we enjoy snacking more and more. If a place has a variety of interesting starters or platters to share, this is what we tend to order. No more huge meals that you can’t finish for us! In the interests of health and weight, the big steaks and 3-course meals are a thing of the past.
Our favourite wine estate in Wellington
Having established our criteria, we can now move on to the interesting bit – what spots to choose!
Since we live here, we’ll begin here. Wellington is the place where most of the vine rootstocks are grown for the rest of the country. Yet their wines, in our opinion, do not quite measure up to other areas.
The exception to this is Doolhof – our favourite wine estate in the area. Nestled in the valley which lies between Bain’s Kloof Pass and the Groenberg Mountain Range, the setting for this Western Cape wine estate is one of the most spectacular.
Often we’ll head out for the afternoon just to enjoy the scenery, a cheese platter and a bottle of their Cape Crane Chenin Blanc or Signature Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. Our all-time favourite is a good wooded Chardonnay, but fewer Western Cape wine estates are offering oaked or wooded Chardonnay these days, sadly.
We are now Doolhof Denizens – which means we buy a lot of their wine and have been made members of their wine club! As such, we were invited to their 2017 Harvest Day – a very special experience.
Doolhof Harvest Day dawns
We began the day at 8 am by picking and loading grapes. Then watched as “our” grapes went through the de-stemmer and crusher. This fascinating technology feeds the grapes along a conveyor belt; the stems are automatically picked from the grapes and separated; and the grapes are then crushed, with the juice flowing into a barrel and the skins being discarded into separate containers.
We then followed the whole process through the cellars, in the stainless steel tanks, then into oak barrels. We tasted the “wine” (not quite ready…) at every step, looking like absolute professionals – swirling, sniffing, spitting! No way do you want to swallow it at that stage – especially when it’s only 11 am and you still have the entire day ahead of you.
The wine blending competition
Our day finally ended with a blending competition and a wonderful lunch. We were divided into four groups of five, each given four red wines – Malbec; Merlot; Pinotage and Petit Verdot (“peh-tee vur-doe”) – and told to “make the best blend”.
We are very proud to say that our group of five was named “clear and outright winners” of the competition for our blend, called “Lady Pimemape”. The name represents the four reds we used in the blending process – Pinotage, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot – in descending percentage order. This process, as you can see, becomes very technical and takes on a significant scientific/chemistry aspect! We made numerous attempts, adding minute percentages of some wines – one or two millilitres at a time. Of course, the final figures of our winning blend are known only to the Doolhof winemakers and our group!
Our blend was then bottled, labelled and sealed for everyone to take home – our pride and joy shown below.
The winning blend
Learning how to do the wax sealing
You’re never too old to learn, they say, and for us, this was a wonderful opportunity and great fun. Taking your favourite pastime and delving into all the technical processes behind the scenes; trying your hand at making your own wine blend – that’s an experience that all wine lovers should have!
Our favourite wine estate in Paarl
Another one on our best Western Cape wine estates list is Mellasat. This boutique wine estate is situated just below the Du Toits Kloof pass, in the Dekkersvallei region of Paarl
Owned by Stephen and Janet Richardson, this has become a special spot to while away a weekend afternoon – enjoying their unique and renowned White Pinotage; tasting a variety of their wines or stretching out on the lawn with one of their picnics. We often pop in on the way back home for a bottle of their exquisite French-oak-barrel-fermented Chardonnay, and a delicious cheese and charcuterie platter (with their homemade chutneys).
Mellasat opening hours over weekends
They are among the few Western Cape wine estates that open into the late afternoon on both Saturdays and Sundays. This gets a huge “tick” from us.
Food and wine offerings at Mellasat
They also offer great specials, such as the one seen in the photo, and will host large groups for an occasion. Their tasting room manager is an all-rounder, with a wine-making qualification as well. She will bend over backwards to assist with any special requests or service in general.
Enough Western Cape Wine Estates to explore for now
We’ll stop there for this week, as that’s a fair amount to digest for now, and leave you with this thought:
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Until next time!