South Africa's Enchanting Winelands

I’ve often thought of Cape Town as South Africa’s San Francisco. The famously progressive city enjoys a similar Mediterranean climate, iconic fog (which creeps in over Table Mountain and is called the tablecloth), stunning coastline, a huge queer population, and an extensive collection of creative types in the business world. On my latest trip there, I discovered another interesting connection: stunning winelands about an hour’s drive away.

We rented a car and drove the easy route to the wine region, dominated by the Franschhoek, Stellenbosch and Paarl areas. Wine lovers will want to try the local Pinotage, a red wine that was long looked down upon for poor production quality, but today has seen a nice resurgence in popularity in many areas around the globe.

In addition to Pinotage, you’ll find other nice reds here, including Merlots, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignons. For white wine fans, you’ll find lovely Viogniers, Chenin Blancs and Semillons.

Stellenbosch, the second oldest city in South Africa, is famous for its Cape Dutch architecture, a pleasing building style with whitewashed walls, ornately rounded gables and wooden shutters. There are more than 200 wine producers in this city alone, and you can visit everything from small tasting rooms to large estates here. Visitors who return to Stellenbosch also come back for the amazing restaurants and bevy of shops and art galleries, set amidst the many oak trees.

There are many ways to see the area, from vineyard tours on Segways at Spier Winery to walking tours of a nearby township by Stellenbosch 360.

The other popular destination here is Franschhoek, which is set in a breathtaking valley, with cragged peaks reaching into the impossibly blue clear South African skies. The city’s name means “The French Corner” in Dutch, as this is where French refugees were granted this land in 1688. Is it any surprise that centuries later, this land produces wonderful wines of multiple varieties?

One of the most popular activities here is the Franschhoek Wine Tram (another San Francisco parallel—think of the Napa Valley Wine Train!). The tram is a hop-on/hop-off sort of endeavor, and it includes both buses and track-run trams. (It also offers transfers from Cape Town, for visitors who don’t have a rental car.)

The tram has eight different tours, so you can pick which wineries to visit ahead of time. There is also a curated wine experience available, where you’ll have an in-depth visit to one wine estate, including a tour of the wine cellar and a three-course luncheon. Group tours of 20 or more are also available by advanced reservation.

Paarl is the other center of this extensive wine region, and it’s well-known for its large granite outcropping, Paarl Rock (popular with both advanced and junior climbers). The Paarl Wine Route is the second largest in the country. In addition to wineries that produce some full-bodied red vintages, visitors to this area enjoy mountain biking, a beautiful arboretum, golfing and hiking the numerous nature reserves.

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