After our prohibition-era strikeout the first time visiting Stellenbosch, we decided to return, making it the initial stop on our long journey from Cape Town up the coast to Durban. Fortunately, we’d actually get to take advantage of some wine tours on the second attempt.
Dinner and Our First “Wine Farm” Visit in Stellenbosch
As Americans, we’re both used to the term “winery.” In South Africa, people opt for “wine farm,” with its slightly more agricultural connotation. The Dutch descendants - and original wine producers in the Cape Colony - are known as Boers, meaning farmer, so this naming convention makes sense.
Regardless of what people call these places, we wanted to partake in some wine drinking now that we were back in Stellenbosch and actually allowed to consume alcohol. And, what better way to kick things off than with a delicious dinner and incredible views?
Stellenbosch is surrounded by towering, rocky peaks. At sunset, tracing the views from the vineyards in the low grounds up the slopes to where the grapes end and these rocky peaks begin - especially with a glass of wine in hand - makes for a solid evening. So, in her deep-dive research, Jenna found a newer winery - Cavalli - that could provide just such an evening.
Perched on a slope opposite these mountain peaks, with a sprawling balcony overlooking all of southern Stellenbosch, Cavalli is an outstanding place for dinner. In addition to great wines and absolutely decadent food, the location gives you an amazing panorama of the area, with the sunset hitting the red rock peaks just right.
In a sign of things to come, this first night’s dinner set the stage for the rest of our few weeks traveling through South Africa’s wine country: some extremely rich meals and a lot of wine!
Rust en Vrede and Some Nobel History
During our week or so there, we stayed at the Stellenbosch Hotel, a quaint spot in the heart of the old town. With wine farms spreading out in all directions from Stellenbosch proper, this would be a great launch pad for heading out to different spots. Each part of the region has a unique look and feel, so it’s nice having a few days to explore. But, unless you plan on moving to Stellenbosch, don’t expect to visit every individual wine farm - more than 150 in the area!
But, to disabuse people of the notion that all we did was drink, we also got some great history during our time there. Rust en Vrede - meaning rest and peace - makes some of Stellenbosch’s most renowned wines. It also happens to be one of the oldest in the region, established in 1694 by Simon van der Stel himself (of Stellenbosch fame).
Surrounded by lush gardens and lawns, we sat on a patio just outside the tasting room for a delicious lunch. Yes, the culinary part of our time there was a highlight. But, sitting in this historic setting, we also learned of a more recent milestone. In 1993, Nelson Mandela selected Rust en Vrede as the wine to be served at his Nobel Peace Prize dinner!
An Uber Misfire Becomes a Nature Walk - Plus Brandy
Due to its hilly terrain and windy, dirt side roads, navigating the outlying areas of Stellenbosch can be an interesting challenge. And, apparently the Uber mapping algorithms weren’t up to it…
Deciding on a day exploring the northern parts of Stellenbosch, we caught an Uber for - what should’ve been - a 20ish-minute drive. After some back-and-forths along a side road, cross-referencing of other maps, and general confusion, we couldn’t get closer than a mile to our destination without driving about 10km out of the way. Not wanting to take that route, we just asked our driver to drop us off where we were, apologizing for the added time.
As the crow flies, we were only a mile-ish from the wine farm, and there appeared to be a dirt road heading directly there. Shouldn’t be a big deal strolling through the vineyards, right? Well, turns out, it was only a mile. But, it also happened to be a mile over a mountain! Okay, that’s a little hyperbolic - more like over a really big hill. Naturally, we got more of a work-out than either of our fairly-out-of-shape bodies anticipated. Made for an extremely refreshing glass (or several) of cold, white wine when we arrived, though!
To wrap things up there, Chipp wanted to try a little bit of the local brandy, an understandably popular beverage in a wine-producing area. But, most South Africans - especially the Afrikaners - drink brandy and Coke, which made for an interesting exchange with our server:
Chipp: “May I also have a glass of brandy, please?”
Server, mildly confused: “Ummm, straight?”
Server, making sure he had it right: “You mean just a glass of brandy - nothing else?”
Chipp: “Yes, that’s right.”
Guess a glass of brandy, neat, isn’t as popular of an order as Chipp expected!
Muratie: Tradition vs Arachnophobia
In another cool historical experience, we spent an afternoon having lunch and wine at Muratie, a vineyard established in 1685. If you look at the website, it walks you through a timeline of all the different owners, from the 17th century to the present.
Delicious wine and beautiful grounds? Yes. Nightmare fuel for arachnophobes like Jenna? Also yes. Despite plenty changing over the years, Muratie has retained some of its original traditions. In particular, the proprietors take a unique approach to cleaning their wine cellars. In a nod to their predecessors, the Muratie owners only remove the cobwebs from certain areas of the cellars once every three generations.
To Chipp, this was a fascinating little historical tidbit - somewhat like the World War I era turkey wishbones in McSorley’s. To Jenna, an avowed arachnophobe, the spidery residue was a bit too much to handle. Fortunately, you can spend your entire time at Muratie in the fresh air of the shaded patio, enjoying great wine and a cool breeze - without a single cobweb!
Wine Region Cognitive Dissonance
Continuing the theme of income inequality in South Africa, it’s nearly impossible to visit Stellenbosch and not experience some cognitive dissonance. On one hand, the town has some of the highest concentrations of wealth in all of South Africa - if not the entire continent.
On the other hand, as you drive north out of downtown Stellenbosch, you pass a sprawling, apartheid-era township just off the road. In a roughly analogous situation, it would be like taking the most impoverished neighborhood in Oakland, picking it up, and dropping it off right in the heart of Napa Valley.
Leaving town to visit the northern wine farms, you spend a couple minutes driving past row after row of corrugated tin shacks. A few minutes later, you’re sipping wine among some of the most unbelievable vineyards in the entire world.
We certainly don’t have answers. Quite the contrary, we’re still trying to wrap our heads around the status quo. Bottom line, it’s just a strange experience.