A Tour of the Western Cape Wine Region, and What You Don’t Want to Know About It

There’s a reason why newlyweds head to South Africa on their honeymoons — it’s one of, if not the best, wine region in the world. A 20-minute drive out of Cape Town and you’ll see stunning scenery and an endless array of vineyards.

There’s a few options for you to tour the wine regions. The cheapest and easiest is go on a pre-packaged wine tour. Your hotel can arrange for it before hand or when you check in. Most work with their preferred tour operators.

The mid-tier option is to rent a car where you can go at your own pace, visit the wineries of your choice and load up your trunk with wine that you can smuggle back home. The downside is that you’ll have to be mindful of your wine intake.

The baller option is to hire a driver for a day, give him or her your destinations and route, agree of a fee and then drink the day away. The cab drivers I came across will give you their card and ask if you need a driver for a day. Whether you trust them is up to you. On the other hand, if you’re in a big group, the cost is less.

The romantic option is to stay at the honeymoon suite of a vineyard. A couple I met in town were staying at Diemersfontein, so I’m sure it’s good for sexy time.

I did the a pre-booking on Viator using a 10% coupon code. The whole day cost me $62US. That included 3 wineries, tastings, cheese pairing, lunch, a stop at an historic house and bus transport from my hotel. This was my best option since I was solo.

On my ranking of alcoholic libations, it goes beers, spirits and then wine. That’s not to say I don’t like wine, but if given the choice, that’s my order. My knowledge of wine is limited, but I know what I prefer and how to do the snooty tasting ritual.

With that said, I was looking forward to the scenery, tasting some new wines and maybe buying some treats. On the opposite end, I’m going to be stuck with strangers who maybe cool or could be annoying. They were on the annoying side.

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I was the lone American and the youngest one by about 30 years. It was a big group of German retirees and a small group of Dutch. They all spoke English and didn’t pay me much mind. By the end, they all had too much to drink and I was getting a massive headache from it. The tour operator was a little bit of a wacka-doodle and also pushing 70. It didn’t come as a surprise when they picked me up last and was an hour late.

Stop No. 1 was KWV Wine Emporium in Paarl, one of the largest vineyards in South Africa. Their wines are one of the most readily available around the world. I can even get a bottle of their Sauvignon Blanc from my local wine shop. The tour was the most extensive where you can see the whole process. The tasting was also informative, where I learned that the pinotage is the only true South Africa wine variety.

The most interesting part of the tour was their decorative barrel room where artists carve different designs into the woods.

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Stop No. 2 was Fairview Wine and Cheese in Suider-Paarl. This is where we had the all-you-can cheese with the wine. Yeah, that’s a damn good time. The vineyard had a fun-looking courtyard and a highly-rated restaurant. I took advantage of their market and bought their house-made hot sauce, wine jelly and chutney. It was much easier to transport than a whole bottle.

wine-cape-town-south-africa-12 wine-cape-town-south-africa-13 wine-cape-town-south-africa-14Lunch was at the The Famous Franschhoek Pancake House in Franschhoek. It is a Dutch-settled country so pancakes are usually in order any time of the day. It was my first wine and pancake pairing.

The next stop was in historic Stellenbosch, which is like historic Williamsburg, Virginia in America. The town is at the center of the South Africa wine region, as it was settled and founded as a vineyard back in the 17th Century. You’ll see many building  recreations (houses, plantations, school buildings) of that era around town and at the University. I had an hour to explore and visited Stellenbosch University’s art gallery.

The final winery was Stellenbosch Vineyards. By the final stop, the senior citizen Germans and Dutch were flying. My stomach was getting a little acidy because there’s only so much you can drink of anything. By the final tasting I was swirling it around and spitting, which I felt bad because it takes a lot of effort to put a bottle together from growing and harvesting to producing and bottling. And here I am spitting it out into a spittoon.

As for buying wine, many in the group did. The wineries have special carrying cases or wine-shapped bubblewrap containers that prevents breakage. Even it were to break, it’s vacuum-sealed shut. I almost bought Stellenbosch sparking wine, but it would be too much of a hassle to bring back. I’m sure I can find any of these wines back in the states if I searched the web.

Yes, if you bought it there, you’re getting an excellent bargain for some top-of-the-line wine. People do bring empty suitcases just to fill with wine. I don’t love wine that much to pay for an extra checked bag or drag it across South Africa by myself.

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On the way back into Cape Town is where I saw something that put the wine region into prospective. Along the side of the road, you’ll see hundreds of African workers walking back to the outskirts of Cape Town. The settlements in Khayelitsha can only be described as shanty towns. When you get closer to them, you’ll see miles upon miles of tin shacks among garbage heaps.

It has to be said —  all of the wine owners, tour guides and wine experts I came across were white, all of the wine pickers are black. 8.9% of South Africa’s population is white. The people who pick the grapes live in abject poverty with scarce infrastructure like electricity or running water.

You can read this report by the Human Rights Watch in 2011 about the conditions the workers live in. In this Guardian story, Khayelitsha is described as follows “When it rains, the public toilets overflow into my living room,” she says. “Water comes in through the ceiling and the electricity stops working.” Outside her makeshift home in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha, on the eastern edge of Cape Town, barefoot children play on the banks of an open sewer, while cows roam next to an overflowing rubbish heap.

Apartheid ended two decades ago, but Cape Town has a long way to go. It doesn’t mean that you should not go to the wine region. I’m just one of those people who want to know how and why things are the way they are and doesn’t want a sanitized view of reality. I brought up why wine region observation to some locals and they said, “Yeah, it’s fucked up mate.” Then, to a couple from San Francisco on honeymoon and got the “Nah nah nah, I’m not listening to you.”

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