Beyond Cape Town, the old towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl nestle in spectacular valleys covered by the vineyards of historic wine estates which have been cultivating grapes for some 300 years.
The biggest attraction of the Western Cape after Cape Town is the South Africa’s oldest and most beautiful wine-producing area. The three major wine routes are around the quaint and historical towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl, which are some of the oldest towns in South Africa. Their broad streets are lined with a pleasing mix of historical styles; Cape Dutch, Georgian, Regency and Victorian houses, dappled with shade from centuries-old oak trees.
However the real architectural gems are the manor houses on the wine estates. While the wine industry flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries, the farmers built grand homesteads with cool wine cellars next to their vines. Most of these have been lovingly restored and today can be visited to sample wine and many have even been converted into gourmet restaurants or luxury hotels.
The first wine in Cape Town was produced from 1652 in Constantia and Company’s Garden, but there was soon a great demand from the crews of ships when they arrived in Table Bay as red wine was drunk to fight off scurvy and it kept better than water. In 1679, the governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, left Cape Town with a party of soldiers and they found themselves in a fertile sheltered valley where the waters were cool and clean and everything seemed to grow in abundance. Farming families followed and planted and the area became known as Van der Stel se Bosch (‘Van der Stel’s Wood’).
By 1681, Stellenbosch was a thriving agricultural community, and was the first European settlement in the interior of South Africa. Settlers then expanded to the ‘Paarlvallei’ in 1687, and along the Drakenstein Valley in 1694, and established Paarl (‘Pearl’ after the glistening granite domes of Paarl Mountain), and Franschhoek (‘French Corner’ after immigrant French Huguenots, who were expert wine-makers). The fledgling wine industry on the tip of southern Africa then received an important boost in 1806 when the English, at war with France, started to import South African wines. Today, South Africa has 120,000 hectares of vineyards and produces some 800 million litres of wine each year.
Whether you're a seasoned sommelier or a first-time wine-drinker, and either by self-driving (with a designated driver), or with one of the numerous tour operators, the Cape Winelands are a beautiful and enjoyable area of South Africa to explore. You can spend a day visiting the atmospheric age-old estates to enjoy wine-tastings, cellar tours, and perhaps a leisurely picnic lunch on the lawns or meal at a gourmet restaurant (with wine of course), and at each you can purchase bottles or cases and the wineries can arrange for wine to be delivered internationally.
While you’re in wine country, there’s also the opportunity for other seasonal treats along the way such as brandy, olive, cheese or chocolate tastings, or there are fine country hotels and spas, and horse- and bike-riding, fly-fishing and game drives are on offer. The appeal of a Winelands tour is simple – there couldn’t be a more idyllic setting to enjoy a glass of wine, especially next to the vines on a gloriously sunny day.
Best time to visit
There is no single best time to visit the Winelands as each season brings something special. Nothing beats sipping a chilled white under an oak tree on a summer’s day or an earthy red next to a roaring fire in winter, while autumn reveals splashes of deep orange and golden yellow in the vineyards and spring sprinkles the surrounding mountains with wild flowers.
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