A Cape Cheese & Wine Tour – From Start to FinishI’ll tell you a secret. Don’t hate me and stop reading right away but I’ll be perfectly up front. I’m not a wine expert, and I’m not even a visitor to South Africa. I have had the privilege of living in Cape Town since 2009, and I’m no stranger to the Cape winelands.
In spite of all this, I’m a lucky @#$% who managed to secure a free cheese and wine tour, courtesy of Luhambo Tours.
To make this even worse, this isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to wine tours. I once clung to one bucking boozy broncos of a local tour, with around 16 litres of craft beer for breakfast on the way to the farm, and a boules match that ended in someone (not me but someone) and their three friends stripping naked and running down the banks into a pond, only to come up on the other side to find that there were families with small frolicking children just behind the reeds and therefore out of sight from our previous vantage point at the top of the slope.
Fun, but having a day that’s a bit of a blur and a sore head the next day isn’t the best when off making memories on an international tour, and neither is potential arrest for indecent exposure.
So while there were plenty wine tour virgins a lot more deserving of a free tour than I, off my partner Dean and I went on a wine tour with a difference.
It started bright and early with our being fetched from our home by our guide Christelle in not a bus, but a spacious but cozy VW Touran. We swung via a Sea Point guest house to collect our fellow tour-mates for the day – a young couple from Alaska, who were vacationing in South Africa before moving to Spain. This couple, though young, were wine tour veterans, having been on wine tours of Napa Valley, Maryland, New Zealand, Australia, Southern Illinois, and even sampled pineapple wine in Hawaii, where they’d also lived for a while.
Note #1 – You can get to meet people from all over the world on a South African wine tour.
What were the key differences they noted between wine tours in South Africa vs Napa Valley?
“Not as expensive, more friendly, and more hilly,” were their initial observations.
So where were we headed?
Our first stop was to be Fairview, a popular wine farm known for both its cheeses that are widely available in South Africa supermarkets, as well as its exotic rootstock wines, as they use a number of European imports alongside their home grown varietals. How did Christelle choose our first destination?
“Well we don’t just drop you off and pick you up to ship you off to the next farm. We’ll use this first wine tasting to establish your preferences, and then I’ll decide where we should go next based on that. We’re not about whisking you off to taste over 300 wines and get drunk because after a while you just stop tasting anything. We’re wine specialists so we choose carefully.”
Christelle certainly knew her stuff, telling us everything from the history of the area to amusing anecdotes about wine tours. For instance, she once was asked to speak in Afrikaans by a Norwegian group because it sounded like some sort of provincial Norwegian dialect to them.
We also learned the difference between grapes of the same varietal grown on farms 15 minutes away from each other, and what a difference that can make, and large estates like Fairview grow their grapes in many different areas to take advantage of this. We learned about winter pruning of vines, and we learned about the signal guns along the Cape coast, and that they used to signify new shipments of goods.
In fact, our tour mates said that they’d “learned more in one day than in eight Napa Valley wine tours”.
Note #2 – Luhambo Tours are about wine education, not just boozy entertainment.
So, back to Fairview. We made our way through the bustling hall of tasting counters to a specially booked “master tasting” room at the back, with grand table settings and a glass wall with views of the wine barrels, ready to taste Fairview’s finest dairy (and winey) delights.
“Why do cheese and wine go so well together?”, we asked Christelle.
“They don’t!” came the surprising reply. “The fat and acidity of the cheese actually interferes with the more delicate notes of a wine. Cheese and wine pairings are more of a throwback from 70s fashions than anything.” If you want something better to pair with cheese, try beer, cider, single malt scotch, and port, sources say.
Note #3 – Cheese is delicious. Wine is delicious. But they aren’t the best things to pair.
Nonetheless, as we’d requested, in our ignorance, a cheese and wine pairing, Christelle was the perfect guide, as she was also tasked with creating wine lists for curry restaurants, which is even more of a challenge due to the strong flavours at play, so if anyone could help us negotiate a difficult pairing, it was going to be Christelle.
Fairview also did a fantastic job of it themselves, with 8 carefully planned cheese and wine pairings, with bread as a palate cleanser, and beautifully narrated by Dierdre from Fairview.
She informed us, for example, that the sauvignon blanc that was paired with a feta (a good combo due to the wine’s acidity) was picked between midnight and 2am and then whole bunch pressed in the very early morning so that it wasn’t adversely affected by the South African heat.
The 40% barrel fermented chenin (barrel fermentation reducing the grapes’ acidity) went well with a sweet chilli spiced cream cheese.
I’d be writing forever if I reported everything I learned, but our tasting brought us through a range of reds, whites and even and MCC, with carefully chosen cheeses from Fairview’s extensive range.
Another thing we learnt:
Note #4 – You don’t need to rinse your glasses between wines at a wine tasting.
Why? Because a) water in the glass changes the taste and b) the tasting goes from lighter to heavier, so earlier wines shouldn’t affect the taste of later ones.
Our next stop was La Motte in Franschhoek (literally translated as “French corner” from Dutch). I’d been here with friends for my 30th some years ago, and I was in a similar state of awe over the grand approach to the farm, driving up the gentle foot of the mountain slope, with sculptures highlighted against a mountain backdrop. The tasting room was as grand as I remembered it. We didn’t have any cheese here because, well, we’d likely have died of lactose overdose if we had cheese for every wine we drank that day.
It was at La Motte where I first learned to enjoy chardonnay, and we certainly enjoyed it again this time.
We also tasted the Pierneef Syrah Viognier, which Christelle pointed out was “decorated like a Russian general” with all its award stickers.
Note #5 – Legs aren’t all that important.
Christelle also shared a snippet with us at La Motte; those streaks that appear in your glass when you swirl it are referred to as “the legs”, which is something my dad had told me when I was too young to drink wine but stealing sips of it anyway. My dad had told me it meant the wine was good, but Christelle informed us that this was a sign of sugar in the wine and that’s it – it doesn’t mean the wine is any better, and this quality was over emphasised in the 70s as much as the cheese wine pairing was.
After our second tasting we were starting to get quite rosy and we were more than due to properly line our stomachs, which we did at Glen Carlou, which has an impressive art exhibition space.
It turns out, unsurprisingly by now, that Christelle was an expert on Glen Carlou and offered to take over from the staff there in taking us through their wines, which we tasted while we waited for our lunch – some exotic guinea fowl for the Americans, and sea bass for Dean and I.
We reaped even further benefits of being there with a member of the wine community as we scored some free amuse bouche, and tasted a viognier from the “curator’s collection”, and later the flagship Glen Carlou cabernet sauvignon with its “oily aftertaste” of cloves and pepper. See all the things I learned?
Note #6 – A wine can have an “oily aftertaste” and that’s not a bad thing.
We went for a more casual vibe by the fireplace at Marianne – a farm named after the French depictions of liberté – after our very elegant Glen Carlou lunch. Marianne is a farm I hadn’t heard of before, and they have a bright and modern look in their tasting room, with high ceilings and a grey and yellow colour scheme. To put more of a twist on our food and wine pairing, Marianne offers biltong and wine tastings, biltong, of course being a South African salty, spiced, dried meat favourite.
I’ll be honest, folks, at this stage we’d already tasted a lot of wines and my handwritten notes on both Marianne and Zevenwacht, where we had our final cheese and wine pairing and cellar tour, are all but illegible. What I do remember clearly is how the weather became stormy, and how stormy weather enhances a wine cellar tour as you get to sit all cozy inside, savouring the reds while looking out at the dramatic landscape through the glass.
Note #7 – If you want to be able to read your notes from the latter half of a wine tour, either take voice notes or type them.
So what can I say to sum up? By the end of our tour, we felt to be firm friends with our fellow tour goers and our guide. We had all spent a safely escorted, comfortable, unrushed day, drinking in spectacular scenery, knowledge and of course, wine.
What Luhambo really got right is that the day was packed with value, yet we didn’t once feel rushed. If you’re looking for a truly rich wine experience, I’d heartily recommend signing up for a tour.