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Asara: a 5-star wine estate

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

So far I’ve counted 126 wine estates in the Cape Winelands but there are probably many more than this. Each one is unique in its own way and you would probably need a month, visiting around four a day to do them all properly.

The stunning view from Asara's main restaurant

We’re staying at the five-star Asara in Stellenbosch. The name Asara is inspired by the African gods of Earth, Sun and Sky (Astar, Asis and Asase) and the focus here is on balance and harmony with nature.

Which we feel immediately as we enter the long tree-lined driveway, passing the mirror-like dams packed with birdlife. Behind the water lie green vine-covered slopes. It’s a small intimate hotel that is elegant but not stiff and with breathtaking views over the Stellenbosch wine region, which we just can’t get enough of.

Asara is one of the bigger wine estates in the area – not in terms of its 120 or so hectares of grapes – but because it also offers 36 rooms, a restaurant, ballroom, bar and visitor center including a kitchen shop. The shop makes me laugh – if you are looking for a European pot or pan, or a kitchen gadget, you’ll find it here; they also have their own handmade chocolate truffles for sale. Service is also good, and fast, maybe the credit is due here to Asara’s Austrian owner Markus Rahmann, an avid wine collector who bought the 320-year-old Asara estate in 1999 and opened the hotel in 2008.

The perfect end to 2010 - a bottle of Asara's sparkling wine

We sample seven of Asara’s red and white wines (65% of Asara’s wines are red; 35% white) at the seven-course New Years’ Eve dinner. The food is delicious, especially the “trilogy of foie gras” (which is a unique combination of goose liver and chocolate pralines) and the cold melon and crayfish soup. For the main course there’s quail filled with prawns or a fillet of beef if you don’t feel like tasting the local birdlife. Their dessert and sparkling wines are particularly good.

Having dinner at a wine farm, served with wines produced from the grapes you are looking at and celebrating New Years’ Eve in the Cape Winelands is definitely an experience to remember. Unfortunately, there aren’t any fireworks, but on the distant horizon a bushfire is burning just outside Stellenbosch; luckily it doesn’t seem to be spreading in our direction.

I fell in love with the Asara the minute we checked in, enjoyed every minute spent there … and was sad to go down the driveway for the last time. It’s the perfect spot for a romantic weekend getaway with your partner, a few quiet days with friends or family or as a base to explore the magnificent winelands. You can put your feet up and chill out, but for people with itchy feet like me, there’s enough in the surrounding area to stop you getting bored – the sea is just 30 minutes away, Cape Town is less than an hour away, the stunning wine routes are on your doorstep and pretty Stellenbosch is just around the corner.

Food therapy in Stellenbosch

February 9, 2011 2 comments

The Wijnhuis in Stellenbosch, a "must eat".

Stellenbosch dates back to 1679, making it South Africa’s oldest town after Cape Town. It’s a lovely town of around 100,000 people (excluding students), snuggled into a valley amongst the rolling hills of the Winelands. With its shady oak tree-lined streets, outdoor terraces and cafes, Dutch Cape architecture and quirky shops, it goes straight to your heart.

“You’re lucky you’re here at this time of the year when there are no students around,” says our hotel receptionist. We’re here in the Christmas/New Year vacation break and everyone around us is in relaxed holiday mode.

Stellenbosch Vs Franschhoek
Locals (and guide books) told us that Franschhoek is the “culinary capital” of the Cape Winelands but from my experience, the restaurants we dined at in Stellenbosch were even better than my miserly mouthful of lemon cake that set me back ZAR 30 (EUR 4) in Franschhoek which is regarded widely as one of the prettiest towns in South Africa. Unlike Franschhoek, which feels like it is just there for decoration, Stellenbosch feels like a town that people live in and has a bit more of an edge to it.

The Wijnhuis
Stellenbosch doesn’t have many streets, shops or restaurants but the few it has are great and you’ll find plenty to eat and buy. The Wijnhuis housed in an ornate colonial building, is a “must”. It’s lively but cosy and welcoming with a great wine list and, as you glance around at all the wine barrels and vintage memoralia on the walls, you feel like you are in the heart of the wine industry. The food is fantastic and, considering this is probably one of the more exclusive restaurants in town, won’t break your credit card. A starter, main course, bottle of wine, dessert and coffee for two people will set you back around ZAR 700 (EUR 75). They classify their menu as “Mediterranean and light” which it is with plenty of healthy fresh produce but with a decidedly South African touch. It comes with great South African service and a smile. I take the sole with lemon butter which melts in my mouth, as does the crème brulee a little later on.

The Cape Town Fish Market
The Cape Town Fish Market in downtown Stellenbosch is another winner. It combines South African and Japanese cuisine, covering just about everything from fish and chips to sushi and tempura. Non-fish-lovers are also catered for and their Bento boxes are dead cute. The mussels in white wine and garlic sauce, served in an iron pot, are amongst the best I have ever tasted while the generous portion of fresh king prawns with Asian sauce as a main course are delicious. A friendly, chatty waiter completes the picture.

I’ve been in the Cape area for almost a week and haven’t yet had a single bad meal. It’s the winning combination of fresh, local produce, cosy atmosphere, quaint décor, great service with a smile and affordability (for foreign tourists). And as if that’s not enough, on top of it all, you have some of the best wines in the world coming from just around the corner.

And retail therapy…
After all that food therapy,  if you’re really blown away by all the colonial atmosphere and want to take a piece of it back home to recreate, Stellenbosch has some great antique shops and art galleries where you can pick up 90-year-old silver-plated cutlery sets, hand-painted scenes from the area and African art for a bargain, and get your 14% tax back at the airport. It’s just a pity that one of those beautiful Dutch Cape houses can’t fit in my luggage too.

Just one of the quirky antique and arty shops in Stellenbosch.

What to do in the Cape Winelands?….

February 9, 2011 2 comments

… Drink wine and drive the wine routes (preferably in a vintage convertible car), of course! There are well over a hundred wine estates to choose from – all unique in their own way.

One of the nine wines for Glen Carlou's "standard" wine tasting ... for under EUR 3

Glen Carlou was our first stop and also one of our favorites, not least because of its stylish modern wine tasting area with large glass windows overlooking the vineyards and valley below. For our first wine tasting, we chose the “standard” package which for ZAR 25 per person lets you sample an impressive nine wines…. “That’s crazy, your palette goes numb after four wines,” we were told at a later wine farm. (Which was probably true as, after five generous samples, my head started to lift a little and they all began to taste good!) This wine estate has its own in-house modern art gallery and strives to protect its local birdlife – everything from reed cormorants to spotted eagle owls and white pelicans to name but a few. The farm pays close attention to limiting, and avoiding, chemicals and interfering with nature and is part of the Biodiversity Wine Initiative which promotes sustainability in the South African wine industry. Over the bar hang some of the numerous awards that Glen Carlou label has won – its Tortoise Hill white and reds consistently are named “Best Value” wines in South Africa and it’s picked up several prizes for South Africa’s Best Cellars and its wines have made it into several airline cabins including South African Airways.

Preparing the fresh homemade platters at Seidelberg.

Not far away is the laidback and homely Seidelberg Wine Estate which, perched at the end of a long driveway on a “hilltop”, actually offers a view of the back of Table Mountain. Over 300 years old, the estate was originally called “De Leuwen Jagt” (The Lion Hunts), it was bought by German Roland Seidel in 1997 (half of the wine farms I have visited have German owners or a German connection!) who renamed it Seidelberg (literally Seidel hill) and today boasts a great choice of whites, rosés and reds.

There’s a large grass terrace which is the perfect spot for lunch – a platter of homemade meats and cheeses for lunch, served with fresh bread on a wooden board. It’s simple but delicious.

Nelson's Wine Estate - family run and damn good wines!

My personal favorite is Nelson’s Wine Estate, a small, sleepy and understated one which has some beautiful colonial buildings, owned by the Nelson family near Paarl. Alan Nelson bought the bankrupt estate in 1987 and he spent several years lovingly restoring it before going on to win the highly competitive award for “Best Chardonnay in South Africa” and title of “Champion Private Wine Producer in the Boland [Cape Winelands] region” in 1996. Today, daughter Lisha is the chief winemaker and has won several prestigious awards for her wines. We invest in one of the pricier reds, her “Dad’s” blend – a limited edition mix of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which she created as a tribute to her father.

We try five wines – the 2003 Merlot and Shiraz are both excellent as is the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc. We are the only visitors there so we are treated to a behind-the-scenes tour to see the production area which is modern, clean and extremely well-organized.

The distinctive Ridgeback wines, named after the Rhodesian Ridgeback dog.

Curious to see a smaller wine farm, we head to Ridgeback, which was recommended by our hotel concierge. Named after the fierce Rhodesian Ridgeback hunting dog (the owners have Zimbabwean connections), this farm has just 35 hectares but a very distinctive wine label with a picture of the dog after which it is named. Since then, I’ve spotted their wines on several supermarket shelves in Europe. They produce white and red wines and Ridgeback is their premium label. This wine farm has gone for a relaxing water theme – there’s a pond at the back of the restaurant complete with waterfall and ducks and it makes a relaxing pit stop for a lazy lunch or afternoon drink.

The problem with wine tasting and cruising around the wine farms in the Winelands is that you either, like me, say “Oh, this one’s my favorite” every time you drive up the driveway of the next one; or you get more critical and compare every new one you visit with the previous one or your favorite.

After four wine farms, we call it a day and, as it’s 3 pm, we look out for somewhere to get an Afternoon Tea. Unfortunately, we have no luck. “When in Rome do as the Romans do” and when in the Winelands, drink wine!

 

The charm of the Cape Winelands

February 9, 2011 1 comment

If you’re a fan of South African wines, you’re going to be in heaven in the Cape Winelands, outside Cape Town. And if you’re not, you’re still going to love the winding wine routes that weave their way across the stunning landscape which is dotted with colonial-style wine estates, green vineyards, colorful flowers, set against a rugged backdrop of rocky mountains and gently sloping hills. The effect is so postcard-pretty that it looks almost like a “Photoshop job”.  That’s why the Cape Winelands were added to the “cultural” category of the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in 2004 – the first step towards getting them included on the official World Heritage List.

The picture-postcard-perfect Cape Winelands

Unofficially, Stellenbosch is often thought of as the “capital” of the magnificent Cape Winelands as it is the best known (and marketed) out of the six areas that make up the Winelands. However, the other five regions – Constantia, Franschhoek, Paarl, Robertson and Wellington – also have their fair share of great wines. In fact, Constantia has some of the oldest wine estates in the Cape Winelands.

South Africa is world renowned for its excellent wines. But this wasn’t always the case. The first attempts to produce wine in the Capelands in the 17th-century were more or less a disaster; it took many years of trial and error before the locals got it right and earned the respect of the more established European wine industry.

Who wouldn't want to live here!

Back in the 1670s, Simon van der Stel, governor of the Cape, set his sights on developing the region and in 1679 he set the foundations of Stellenbosch. His own wine estate at Constantia, one of the first, also became well respected in Europe.

And, in another stroke of luck, the Protestant Huguenots were kicked out of France in the late 17th-century. Fortunately for South Africa’s wine industry, some of them settled in the Cape area – mainly around Franschhoek, Paarl and Drakenstein – bringing their viniculture know-how with them which helped greatly to develop today’s South African wines, and on occasion, surpass their native French ones.

In 2008 South Africa had a “record crop” according to the Rabobank Wine Quarterly report and 2011 is expected to be another “healthy” crop, estimated to reach 1.35 million tonnes. However, while domestic demand for local wines rose in 2010 (in part due to the side-effects of the World Cup), exports dropped by around 4% due to a stronger-than-usual Rand and the ongoing impact of the economic crisis in its export markets.

Regardless of competition from New World countries like Chile, New Zealand and California, and from more traditional wine producing nations like Italy, Spain and France, South Africa is still right up in the top ten global rankings. One of the keys to the success of the industry, a wine industry graduate from Stellenbosch University tells us at a wine tasting, is that “we have always been open to new influences and technology and have a much more modern viniculture than that of the more traditional European vineyards.  We always try new things to improve the quality of the wine and to make our production more effective. Sometimes, in France, they still try to do things the way they did them hundreds of years ago, but they need to update because they are losing their competitive edge.”

Chinese visitors, to the Cape Winelands, she told us, are also increasing. “They want to learn from us so they can go back home and apply it to their own wine industry,” she says. Wine from China? Yep, China also has aspirations here and is moving up the list of global wine producing nations. It was recently ranked the seventh largest producer of wine in the world, according to a study by the International Wine and Spirit Record.

Just one of the many well-known South African wine brands that you'll find on your supermarket shelf.

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