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When I meet Danie de Kock, he's judiciously applying sunblock on a scorching morning in the parking lot of Stellenbosch's Spier winery, part of the Western Cape's star wine region. Moments later, after accepting his generous (and necessary) offer of UV protection, I find myself wearing a bicycle helmet while perched on the fat-tired balancing act that is a Segway electric vehicle. Gliding away at 20 klicks per hour, it's all accidental reversals, sudden accelerations, screeches and giggles past cattle fields and vine rows. Though the 1,730-acre property encompasses everything from a hotel to several restaurants and chicken coops, de Kock, Spier's global sales manager, says, "You may have noticed when you arrived that you didn't see a single grape vine. They're clear across the property, as are the farms and waste-water treatment plant. But we want people to see all of this." It's so sunny and lovely that, when I hear classical music playing from on high while gliding past the organic garden, I fear I've died and gone to heaven. Turns out the gardeners play music to keep the veggies happy.

With blue skies above and a glass of wine in hand, happiness is the name of the game in South Africa's winelands. I zigzag between active and lazy modes while uncorking the new face of wine tourism: one afternoon spent sipping under an ancient oak tree; the next, communing with the animal kingdom. (Just down the road from Spier is Cheetah Outreach, a community-based program created to raise awareness of the plight of the cheetah.) Following my two-hour Segway tour, I gladly segue into a tasting with de Kock, enjoying a wine flight that includes the Spier Signature Chenin Blanc 2013, a bestseller for the winery in Calgary. (It tastes like a tropical fruit bowl.) "The non-intoxication part is quite important to us," he had noted earlier, when I'd signed a pre-ride indemnity waiver.

South Africa Wine CapeStanley Mtosa leads a Segway tour through Speir Wine Farm's vineyards.

When I think of South African wines, I think of elegant takes on chenin blanc and chardonnay, merlot and syrah – and now, the smoky, dare I say meaty, indigenous pinotage. But mostly, I think of easy-drinking, affordable sippers that possess an inherent measure of fun, and I'm finding that the same can be said for the wineries (or wine farms, as they're called here). Visitors to South Africa are already sold on the wine; what they also want is a little surfing to go along with their sauvignon blanc. After all, today's well-heeled oenophiles can often be seen dressed neck to thigh in professional-grade cycling gear or sporting hiking boots, especially in the sweeping Franschhoek Valley, which is lined with some 50 wine estates. (Picture the Okanagan, only with less riesling and a lot more spandex.) The more I tour and the more I drink, the more I realize that the Cape Winelands' intense sunshine and varied terroir destined it to become a great grape-growing region. And so it came to pass in the mid-1600s, when Dutch colonists (whose names and influences remain on everything from street signs to food and architecture) first put down roots here.

South Africa Wine CapeThe La Motte Manor House in the Franschhoek Valley is a classic example of Cape Dutch architecture.

Classic Cape Dutch gabled buildings with thatched roofs are a signature of Stellenbosch, where the agapanthus are everywhere, their giant floral pompom heads cheerleading wine lovers down manicured lawns and lanes for picnic lunches. (Some wineries even offer special grape-juice tastings for the kinder.) At Vergelegen in Somerset West, we settle in for a terrace lunch at Camphors, named after the striking camphor trees planted in the 1700s in front of the historic homestead. Here, executive chef Michael Cooke – who recently took over from chef PJ Vadas when he left to open his new restaurant, the Hog House – creates modern dishes rooted in Dutch tradition, like coffee-roasted springbok rump and hibiscus jus, and miso-glazed pork belly with bitterballen (a Dutch bite-sized, meat-filled snack).

At Fairview Cheese and Wine, Bruce Rowbotham makes countless specialty cheeses, including 10 variations of camembert and brie. "I think the World Cup [2010] here changed things," he says, as I stuff my face with free cheese samples. "It used to be all cheddar, but now feta and blue are huge. People are learning and their tastes are growing." To wit: Fairview Winery's neighbouring Spice Route, like an alfresco South African version of Eataly, is a collection of the area's best artisans, gathered together in a landscape of organic field-to-customer chocolatiers, spirits distillers, glass blowers, tea makers, restaurants and the largest microbrewery in South Africa – Cape Brewing Co (CBC), green to its core, with a German brewmaster at its helm. Expat Wolfgang Koedel relies on the historic purity law, brewing with only natural ingredients and spring water that just happens to trickle down from the mountainside behind the brewery. Meanwhile, on a slope near the wineland town of Worcester, Trevor Daly offers a selection of slow-
fermented breads baked in a 20-tonne Spanish fire oven, sending his ciabattas to the Neil Ellis vineyard in Stellenbosch and his buttery buns to Clarke's, a trendy burger bar in Cape Town.

South Africa Wine CapeOn a game drive, Milton Khoza and Melvin Sambo pour sparkling chardonnay from Steenberg Vineyards.

Winery restaurant Pierneef à La Motte dishes out Cape Winelands cuisine modified from recipes first brought over by European settlers. The shiraz chips, dried and milled grape skins sprinkled over perfect, fat fries, are so amazing, it's hard to believe that just six years ago La Motte had no award-winning restaurant – not to mention no museum and no front-of-the-house experience. Now it also boasts a five-kilometre hiking trail behind its vast garden, with a lookout point for viewing more than 100 species of birds and other creatures. "Twenty years ago, a lot of the wine farms didn't even have a cellar door," explains Werner Briedenhann, La Motte's facility manager, as we swan around the winery's grounds, becoming part of the Édouard Manet-esque scene. Weekenders sheltered under oak trees are clinking glasses of pinot-tinged La Motte MCC Brut (all fresh apple with a creamy brioche kicker) as children in crisp cotton run circles on the manicured lawn. A woman sets up an easel in the corner. "Now a visit is as much about what's outside of the bottle as what's in it," Briedenhann says.

A long-haul trip to South Africa is not complete without a wine-infused safari experience, especially with some of the world's greatest nature reserves a mere puddle jump away. Just as our prop plane is about to touch down on a swatch of a landing strip in Greater Kruger National Park, the co-pilot announces that we're pulling up and will go in for a second attempt "as there's currently large game on the runway." (Read: a sizable zebra herd.) Welcome to minute one of our safari. Moments later, after arriving at Londolozi, a five-star family-run private game reserve in the park, operations manager Duncan MacLarty tours me around my impressive suite. It's very nouveau British Colonial, complete with a deep minibar that reflects the innovation of Western Cape wineries. (I'm eyeing the Graham Beck brut.) He teases me about keeping the doors double-locked as he casually points to a family of 10 vervet monkeys screeching and swinging from the trees above my outdoor grotto shower. "They're just inquisitive and easy to scare away," he assures me while opening the door and shooing them, adding with a chuckle, "But if the baboons get in here, we've got a real problem."

South Africa Wine CapeLion's share of the animal kingdom awaits spotting in the Londolozi reserve in Sabi Sands

The area is verdant with low grasses and prehistoric-seeming trees; the scent of wild aniseed fills the air as frogs sound off from beneath stabby-looking bushes. "Ribboot, ribboot," they croak. (They have South African accents.) Out in the bush on our evening drive, two hippos' heads emerge from an inky dam while all around us undulating grasslands are teeming with antelope, impalas, wildebeests and waterbucks. A dazzle of zebras trots by and a giraffe appears out of nowhere, her head poking up from a tree before us. We see an adorable lone elephant, and then our guides, the smiling Melvin and Milton, spot invisible tracks in the dirt and off-road us to a trio of usually elusive leopards. It's all a bit much, as if Disney has cast a new version of the Jungle Book just for me, except that it's all very wild and very real. As the sun begins to dip, we pull over and Melvin and Milton lay a tablecloth with a spread of cheeses and charcuterie on the Land Rover's hood. We raise our glasses and toast our good fortune with bubbles in the bush – a grand tradition, also known as a sundowner – and that's when we spy the pride of snoozing lions.

South Africa Wine CapeMichelle Mazurkiewicz of Wine Valley Horse Trails leads a trek in the Paarl Valley. The centre is located next to Rhebokskloof Wine Estate, which often combines tastings with riding tours.

To get the very last drops of the Cape's never-ending sunshine, we make a trip to Wine Valley Horse Trails stables in the town of Paarl. The plucky owner, Michelle Mazurkiewicz, greets us by saying, "It's quite rustic, but that's what we like about it." The well-used stables were the neighbouring Rhebokskloof Wine Estate's original wine cellar, once upon a time. "Our horses sleep in old wine vats," she says. "That's why they're so happy." I saddle up on a mare named Bealah while Mazurkiewicz mounts her lively horse, Poncho. Heading down a dusty dirt trail, with her dogs leading the way, she tells me that their 200 horses are used for joyriding and in the film and tourism industries. (She mentions Pierce Brosnan, Morgan Freeman and Quentin Tarantino.)

Our ride takes us through an ever-changing landscape of slight breezes, buzzing bees, olive groves, vineyards and bamboo-flanked dams. There are great slabs of granite, and near the mountaintop, we find a naturally smooth lookout point where Mazurkiewicz takes to sabering bottles of champagne while guests take in the view of the town and a nearby nature reserve. The cork flies, Poncho neighs, and it's there and then I realize that, while exciting wines are always wonderful to try, adventure with wine? South Africa's cup runneth over.


South Africa Wine Cape

Travel essentials

Oude Werf Hotel is a casually posh spot in Stellenbosch, where we loved breakfasts under sunny grape trellises. (oudewerfhotel.co.za)

The Taj Cape Town is located right across from the Company's Garden, where the first-ever South African vines were planted. Take in sweeping Table Mountain views from your balcony, before a morning hike. (tajhotels.com)

Wine estate Babylonstoren is a magical retreat of manicured labyrinths and fruit and veggie gardens that supply their two alfresco farm-fresh restaurants.
(babylonstoren.com)

A facial at Lanzerac Hotel & Spa incorporates the local TheraVine line from Stellenbosch, packed with grape seed and skin extracts. (lanzerac.co.za)

Research local wine varieties and plan your sipping itinerary with Wines of South Africa, a resource for the country's wine industry. Extra-special winery excursions include a wine-tasting on the winding one-kilometre forest boardwalk at Boekenhoutskloof (don't miss the Chocolate Block wine) and Boschendal's Le Pique-Nique on the pavilion lawns. (wosa.co.za; gocape.co.za)


South Africa Wine Cape

Where to stay

The Zulu term Londolozi means "protector of all things," and that's a big part of the spirit of the eco-friendly Londolozi Reserve. You'll be wild about its deluxe base camps, incredible food and wines.
londolozi.com

Tags

SOUTH AFRICA     WINE    

Comments… or add another

mayssam

Friday, October 31st 2014 15:18
Love, love, love this article! Can't believe it's been a year since I was in South Africa at Kruger with the animals and in Franschhoek sipping wine. I can't wait to go back!
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