A journey to the promised land of New World wine

It was a few years ago, on an evening near Christmas in a neon-lit office boardroom, that I set my heart on South African wine. Until that night, I’d floundered when faced with supermarket wine sections and restaurant lists. Nothing tasted worth the money. And yet wine played an almost daily role in my life.

But that night, presided over by Johannesburg’s own Neleen Strauss, the co-owner of lawyers’ favourite riverside steak restaurant High Timber, I found what I was looking for. With their unembarrassed, clearly structured, earthy bodies – wines that hugged rather than airkissed – South Africa’s tasty vintages seemed like home to me. They delivered oak, tobacco, leather, berries, warmth, popcorn and butter in ways that I could actually identify, savour and afford (most of my favourites cost about £10-£20).

So I was happy. I had delicious Jordan and Ken Forrester Chardonnays in my fridge afterwards, and soon after tried Martin Meinert and Ken Forrester’s famous in-your-face-and-then-some FMC: a golden Chenin that you either love or hate. If you’re a connoisseur of subtle Old World whites you might find this vulgar. I loved it.

But in London, you can’t just drink South African wine all night – it’s not always stocked where you are and anyway, there are others to be had – Croatian, Australian, French, Spanish, Lebanese.

And so finally, it became clear: to get to grips with the full range of South African wine, I needed to experience the country’s soil, its winemakers and – of course – its food. I’m not a wine specialist, so general loveliness/fun/beauty/engagement in the place as a non-specialist was important, too. As the big Cape Wine Guild’s annual auction in Cape Town rolled around on 1 October, I decided to take the plunge.

South Africa as a tourist destination is a funny one. The country’s history means that it is impossible to ignore racial tensions – even if you miss the insiders’ stark reality, you can’t help but notice the acres of iron shacks (lacking sanitation and sewage, according to recent reports) on the highway from the shiny Cape Town airport, or the grumbles about affirmative action laws in corporate businesses.

Downtown Cape Town is not a comfortable place, especially for a woman on her own. But clamber out of downtown and you find a beautiful, California-feeling array of cute homes with stunning views of Table Mountain and the valleys around Cape Town.

For example: on the same day I ate incredible coconut cake with the best flat white I’ve ever had in a chic whitewashed café called Manna Epicure on Kloof Street; descending into town half an hour later I crossed from a busy market square onto a parallel, also busy street, and had my necklace torn off my neck. Racing back up the chi-chi, comparatively safe-feeling Kloof (where were these taxis the lady in the hotel had told me about?), I sweatily changed at my stunning boutique hotel, Kensington Place, and hopped in a cab to the dreamy cove of Camp’s Bay, where all the rich Brits have houses.

But onto the wine. The next morning, an emissary of one of the country’s best-known winemakers, co-owners of the London’s High Timber and my host for part of the trip, Jordan Vineyard and Winery, arrived in a pick-up truck. Off we went to collect the aforementioned Neleen (the woman who introduced me to Cape wines and my guide for the trip) from the airport.

The Cape has several wine making areas, with Stellenbosch, Constantia, Franchoek, Hemel en Aarde, and Paarl among them. I mainly stayed in Stellenbosch, as it produces many of the best SA wines.

My first drive into Stellenbosch was the route from Cape Town Airport to Jordan – amazingly quickly the city gives way to big rural spaces and vineyards. Jordan is my first taste of a successful Cape vineyard and it’s lovely: the house frontage is all glass windows looking over vineyards; everywhere there are interesting plants and the petals of the bright flowers that grow everywhere here. The private guest cottage is covered in fuschia flowers; it is, quite frankly, adorable, and I feel happy sitting at the white, wrought-iron table outdoors in the sunshine as the dogs mosey about looking for fun, vineyards just metres to my left.

We return to Jordan the next day, but first we jump back in the car and head towards the sea, to the pre-eminent winemaker Hamilton Russell’s farm for lunch. There is a sense of manicured perfection in Stellenbosch but unlike in Argentina or California, the landscape here bursts its borders: with 8,000 species of plants, sudden changes in weather, insects aplenty, craggy slopes, forests and shark-filled oceans, how can it not?

Hamilton Russell is almost at the sea: a mountain stands between it and the raging waters of Hermanus, the famous whale viewing spot in the Indian Ocean. HR does only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – but these are the tip top.

Anyway, I am utterly seduced by the whole setup. Anthony, inheritor to the HR throne (Eton and Oxford, charm on legs), takes me around his cellar, briefly, showing me the ceramic pots used for some Chardonnay – taking away the oak makes the wine a subtler beast and apparently this method is on the rise in the industry.

If the Jordan farm embodies the idyllic, cottagey dream (see right for a picture of the Jordan restaurant), Hamilton Russell encapsulates the sheer seductiveness of South African wine wealth (other farms than the ones on my tour, I gather, have Apartheid-related histories that ruin their beauty).

Wood-panelled, high-ceilinged rooms give way to a gracious terrace looking out on vineyards as far as the eye can see. Mountains in the distance are fore-grounded on a perfect lawn by a luminous stone green swimming pool. Oh – and the pets. Two enormous Great Danes; a golden retriever and, wait for it, a (semi-aggressive) tortoise.

Russell’s Pinot Noirs are probably too rich for an Old World type of drinker, but I like how they span a decade by changing from dark and menacing and leathery and rich to lighter, tarter, softer. The Chardonnay is a delicious, straw-coloured creature and take it from me: it goes well with home-made snook-fish soup.

My tour of Stellenbosch wine playgrounds was rapid – after lunch we zoomed off again, through woodland hills to the farm of Paul Cluver, another big cheese in both wine and apples. The Cluver family has an elegant home and an assortment of old Dutch guest cottages, built in the 17th century. Its The Wagon Trail Chardonnay is one of the best out there – accessible, affordable and damn good if you like a Chardonnay that’s proud of what it is. We quaffed this, and the strangely brilliant medium-dry Cluver Riesling as an aperitif (I made sure to take some of this home).

The next day, Dr Paul Cluver Senior, one of South Africa’s top brain surgeons, drove us through his acres of flowers, apple trees and valleys covered in heather. It was like Scotland, only sunnier.

Another meal, another wine farm: this time it was Martin Meinert’s hilltop house, where Namibian oysters and tuna from the “brai” (bbq) were served with La Barry Sauvignon Blanc (a photo of his wife’s decolletage is the label art). But more importantly, Meinert is the man behind the ridiculously good Synchronicity, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinotage, and probably my ideal red. That – and Jordan’s Cobblers Hill.

Ken Forrester came next: we ate at his restaurant 96 Winery Road. KF’s Petit Chenin is a fab easy drinking sunshine white; with lunch, we had the big guns: FMC and a murkily woundrous red, The Gypsy, a grenache and syrah.

Forrester is a real hit outside of South Africa and his operation is big and attractive. Like the Cluvers, the Meinarts, the Jordans and the Russells, his family is around and helpful (two daughters and a glamorous wife, in this case). It lends a uniquely relaxed and friendly atmosphere to the vineyards and to the very wine-drinking itself.

Finally, Jordan’s restaurant is a must if you’re in the area. Intelligent cooking with really super ingredients and a space that merges with the beautiful outdoors (don’t forget the wine) makes it an archetype of the South African wine experience.

For more info on the region’s wine and auction, go to www.capewinemakersguild.com. To try top South African wines, go to High Timber, EC4V 3PA.

WHO’S WHO IN CAPE WINEMAKING
ANTHONY RUSSELL
A society legend, Anthony is a sweetheart, ladies’ man and a devilishly good winemaker. He works just with two grapes: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and produces a very high-end result.

PETER FINLAYSON
Wine-maker at the prestigious Bouchard Finlayson. Charming, charismatic and – are you noticing a trend here? – good with the ladies. Last year his Pinot Noir 2007 fetched the highest price at the Cape Winemakers Guild auction.

KATHY AND GARY JORDAN
Warm, smart and humble, the Jordans present a kind of parental fantasy if you’re under 30. She’s beautiful and caring; he’s caring and…great fun. Their wines are among the most prestigious in SA – Nine Yards, Cobblers Hill and the top-end Sophia all win regular awards.

KEN FORRESTER
KF’s wine business has the best PR of the bunch: he’s got a big presence in the US, UK and European markets and the charm to go with. A big, huggable man (see below) who knows how to a) impress the ladies (opening a 1998 bottle of Billecart Salmon rose with a soft single stroke of the spoon, for example) and b) lunch like a rockstar, he also makes delightful wine at a variety of price points.

His FMC (made with Martin Meinart), and Gypsy are the top dogs, from his Icon range.

DR PAUL CLUVER
Paul Cluver Senior is a wise, terribly sharp-minded gentleman who built the wine business, cultivated the farm and was South Africa’s top brain surgeon all at once. He loves and works on the land.

His wines, now headed up by his charming son (the operation as a whole is a family affair, with four daughters also involved), are all delights.

MARTIN MEINERT
Once known as the Michael Douglas of South African wine, Meinert is a charmer: certainly his big blue eyes, floppy hair, big smile and tan skin work to his advantage where the ladies are concerned.

But it’s his wine that matters: wherever you see it listed: buy Synchronicity. This Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Grenache blend is gorgeous.

ZOE’S PICK | THE BEST OF THE CAPE WINEMAKERS GUILD AUCTION 2011
WHITE
● Teddy Hall Wines Hendrik Biebouw Chenin Blanc 2010: Tastes of honey (though less sweet): delicious.

● Paul Cluver The Wagon Trial Chardonnay 2009: Popcorn tones, which I love, and sure to age well.

● Ataraxia Chardonnay 2010: Well balanced – smoky, rich but without sickly sweetness. A trusty favourite in the making.

REDS
● Jordan Sophia 2008: A cabernet, merlot, malbec blend and one of the best wines of the region. Smells of hay in a good way.

● Neil Ellis Rodanos 2007: Rich chocolate tones in this syrah blend; elegant, really lovely.

● Cederberg Teen die Hoog Shiraz 2009: An all round winner that gained coos from the whole audience.