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My heartland in the vineyards of South Africa

My childhood consisted of blue mountains, green vineyards, sprayers that swish-swish lazy streams of water through heavy summer air, tractors pulling carts piled high with green Muscat d'Alexandrie,¹ straw baskets filled with plump Barlinka in my mother's pantry.

Vineyards near Stellenbosch

The area where I was raised and spent a large part of my adult life is officially called the Cape Winelands District Municipality. I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I was probably clutching a wine glass. My life started in a town called Worcester, which lies on the border between the fertile winelands of the Western Cape and a semi-desert area called the Karoo. It's defined by contrasts: it's bordered by the Stettyns Mountains, which has an annual (mostly winter) rainfall of 2000 mm, but it also hosts the famous Karoo National Botanical Garden, where you can see succulents and desert flowers.

The Cape Winelands District (in red)

Mid-summer temperatures hover in the low 40s,² in winter the mountains are covered in snow while winds from the Antarctic howl through narrow valleys.³

Worcester produces nearly 25% of South Africa's total volume of wine and spirits, but because it's so hot, it specializes in grapes with a very high sugar content. Its best-known products are muscadel, jerepigo, sherry and brandy. (Jerepigo, or geropiga in Portuguese, is a heavy red dessert wine.) Yes, there's a reason why I have such a sweet tooth: I was breastfed, as it were, on muscadel. You can read more about Worcester's wine production here.

Worcester seen from the surrounding mountains. Image from Wikipedia.

Worcester Dam. Image from Wikipedia.

Worcester's main street, with snow-covered mountains in the background.
Image from Wikipedia.

My father was a lawyer who was active in politics (he was the town mayor), and in both roles, legal and social, he was deeply involved in the farming community. Whenever a farmer came to town to see my dad, he'd arrive with a truck full of fresh fruit. Or a box of wine. Or a horse.

Well, we paid for the horse, but I got it via my dad's contacts.

If Worcester is quantity, then my university town, Stellenbosch, is quality. Stellenbosch, founded in 1679, is the second-oldest European settlement in South Africa, after Cape Town. It's known as the City of Oaks or Eikestad in Afrikaans due to the large number of oak trees planted by its founder, Simon van der Stel.

Dorp Street in Stellenbosch

Oak trees everywhere. Learn a lesson, Tokyo, and stop pruning your trees!
Do you know how cool it is under those trees?

Trees, trees and trees

Giraffe, anyone?

The town has a Mediterranean climate with hot dry summers (hallo, 40 degrees!) and cool wet winters, as well as excellent soil for viticulture. It's the most popular wine route in South Africa; as a matter of fact, it even has a Japanese website.

Think I'm kidding? Here.
  
When I went to South Africa in February, I visited several wineries in Stellenbosch and a third wine-producing region, the Overberg. The latter is near Kleinmond, the small coastal town where my mother currently lives, and it's producing such good wines that it's threatening to kick Stellenbosch off its winner's podium. The secret of the Overberg is its proximity to the sea, which means cool breezes, which in turn means slower ripening and intense flavours.

If you've never been on a wine tour, here's a quick explanation: all wineries offer wine-tastings; some also have excellent restaurants; and many are popular wedding locations. Ja, in Japan you get married at a shrine, in South Africa you get married on a wine farm. Much jollier.

The farms in Stellenbosch are situated in God's own country, beautiful beyond words, with craggy blue mountains as a backdrop for the centuries-old Cape-Dutch homes.

Cape-Dutch homestead on Blaauwklippen Wine Estate

It's a perfect Sunday excursion: visit wineries, taste wine, try some cheese, stop at olive farms, take it easy, enjoy life at a slow pace. During a wine-tasting you only get a small amount of wine, but each wine-tasting includes three to five wines, and it can add up. You have to watch your alcohol consumption, or else drag along a teetotaller friend who can drive, because there's no decent public transport in South Africa.

I  took thousands of photos, but it's taken me several months to get my butt in gear. Let's just say it takes time for a good wine to mature, and that quality should be savoured slowly. I cannot describe the beauty of my heartland to you in words, and I'm not nearly a good enough photographer to do it justice, but … here it is. 

I will do this in two parts, starting with Stellenbosch and saving the Overberg for later.

Muratie

Muratie, founded in 1685, is one of the oldest wineries in South Africa. It has an interesting history that's somehow symbolic of South Africa.

Its first owner was Laurens Campher, a German who came to South Africa as a soldier for the Dutch East India Company. Eventually he bought land himself, and started a wine farm in Knorhoek (literally "growling corner") near Stellenbosch. He had three children with a mixed-race slave, daughter of a white man and a female slave from Guinea, who was called Ansela van de Caab (Ansela of the Cape). When she was freed in 1699, Campher moved his family to the farm that he called Muratie.

Muratie eventually passed into the Melck family, one of the best-known in the Stellenbosch area. Ronnie Melck, a man with a legendary palate and an instinctive flair for winemaking, transformed the farm into the current award-winning showpiece.

I love Muratie because it has an awesome tasting room where they haven't removed the cobwebs since, oh, probably 1685.

The mountains and vineyards of Muratie

Table Mountain seen from Muratie

Muratie's history

Cobwebs!

Those bottles have been ageing for a long time ...

Quoin Rock

Quoin Rock is very new – it was launched in 2001, the year I returned to Stellenbosch after a decade of travelling in Africa to do a Master's degree in linguistics at the University of Stellenbosch (where I had also received a degree in journalism seven lifetimes earlier). It boasts a well that is 175 m deep and has some of the purest water in South Africa. Completely arbitrary fact: South Africa is probably the only country in Africa where you can safely drink tap water.

Simonsberg (Simon's Mountain) seen from Quoin's Rock

Quoin Rock's tasting room

Blue mountains, wine and veld flowers ... 故郷。

Blaauwklippen

Blaauwklippen is a Dutch word that means "blue rocks", and that's what you'll see behind this picturesque winery which dates back to 1682: the beautiful blue mountains that surround Stellenbosch.

Blaauwklippen is more than a wine estate: it's a massive enterprise that offers weddings, picnics, family markets, restaurants, pony rides and conferences. It has a Facebook page, a Twitter account and its own YouTube channel.

Oh, yes, it also has excellent wines.

The entrance to Blaauwklippen

Blaauwklippen homestead

The craggy blue mountains behind Blaauwklippen

Ditto

Remembrance of things past

Hydrangeas at Blaauwklippen

Meerlust

Meerlust may have been surpassed by other wineries in reputation and number of awards, but it remains legendary. It's a bit like Japan's royal family: it's been in the hands of the same Myburgh family since 1756. The wine estate is responsible for South Africa's best-known wine, Meerlust Rubicon. Here's the story from their website:

When Hannes Myburgh was on holiday in Bordeaux, he discovered that the terroir in this area of France was similar to that of his farm in Stellenbosch. Both have a distinctive climate, characterised by a cooling sea breeze; and both have a soil structure made up of decomposed granite and clay.
The red wines produced by the two regions, however, were very different. Unlike the Western Cape's specified cultivars, Bordeaux thrived on producing blends.
Myburgh returned to Meerlust, filled with inspiration and the desire to create a blend of his own that would match those of the French. After several years of experimentation, Myburgh and winemaker Giorgio Dalla Cia created Meerlust Rubicon, with proportions of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. It became an international sensation and remains the benchmark against which all South African Cabernet Sauvignons have since been graded. 

Have I tried it? Yes, of course! It's a deep plum colour, rich and full-bodied, with a smoky blackcurrant flavor. It's excellent with red meat and very strong, very mature cheese. Not for weaklings!

That reminds me: I haven't had lunch yet, and since this is turning into another epic saga, let's stop right here.

My heartland is beautiful, isn't it?

Meerlust's Cape-Dutch home


Preparing wine barrels

Display in Meerlust's tasting room

That's a fair amount of money lying there ...

Tasting isn't expensive: five wines for R30 or ¥300.

Meerlust has an extensive art collection, including Japanese calligraphy.
It's a menu. Grin.

Screen with old advertising from China and Japan.
Somebody at Meerlust is an Asiaphile.


Special thanks

Dankie, Willem, vir die rondkarwei! Ek sou wat wou gee om weer onder 'n eikeboom te sit twak praat.

Notes

1) We call it hanepoot in Afrikaans. It means cockerel's foot, referring to the leaves' shape, but I've also read that it's a form of hanekloot, cockerel's testicles, based on the grapes' shape. You can't easily find it in supermarkets, but it's available directly from farmers or road stalls. It's harvested late in the season, in March, and you can capture its flavour in the yummiest jam ever.

2) Now do you understand why I keep saying Tokyoites are insipid sissies? I grew up in 40 degrees without any air con, and guess what, I survived. To add extra oomph to my toughness, I was born on 29 January, when the heat is at its fiercest. My mother has never forgiven me for that. Grin.

3) You can't ski. South Africa's mountains are steep granite cliffs, the snow isn't deep enough and it's both too difficult and too dangerous to get to the top.

Historical building in Stellenbosch. It's an old town.

Ditto

We had lunch here. There are so many outdoors restaurants in Stellenbosch.
So what if it's hot? It's gorgeous.

This was written on our tablecloth. 

Vegetables for lunch. I binged on fresh cheap vegetables, fresh cheap fruit
and cheap cheese every day.

Beetle! I spotted it in an art gallery.

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