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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.

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!

 

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