The Layered Intrigue of the Cape Winelands

By Riaan Viljoen 01-11-2023

The southwestern Cape's wine region is a place of beauty, luxury, mystery, and wealth.

It has billionaire landowners and rolling hills against a backdrop of rigid mountains, Cape Dutch farmhouses, and beautiful nature reserves. How did this place come to be, and what secrets does it hold? We explore some of the different facets of this area that would entice both the luxury traveler and adventurer.

Old wine barrels in a cellar at a Franschhoek winery.

The History of Winemaking in the Cape

The Cape's winemaking tradition traces back to the first vineyards planted at "Groot Constantia" by Simon van der Stel in 1685. Van der Stel, the first Governor of the Cape, was of mixed Dutch and Indian ancestry, was arguably the most important figure in the Colony's history, and still lends his name to the town of Stellenbosch, but the arrival of the de Villiers brothers in 1689, expert viticulturists from a town 2 hours north of Bordeaux, was the starting point of what would become one of the finest winemaking regions in the world.

Starting the day off with a few tastings before having lunch at a restaurant with a view of the surrounding vineyards and Cape Fold Mountains is a must when you visit the area. Pinotage, a South African cultivar first created by South Africa's first Viticulture Professor, Abraham Izak Perold, in 1925, is grown all over and is worth a try if you're a fan of a dry, full-bodied wine steeped in local pride.

Cape Town and the Cape Winelands offer a great selection of fine dining options.

The Culinary Scene

Alongside the great variety of wine is an equally fascinating array of restaurants and culinary experiences for anyone interested. Among them are many fine-dining restaurants, some of which have made the Top 50 restaurants in years past.

Some standouts foodies looking for fine dining experiences shouldn't miss are La Colombe and Chefs Warehouse in Constantia, as well as Babel on the wine farm Babylonstoren or Rust en Vrede on a farm with the same name, both near Stellenbosch.

The list continues, however. Most wineries also have a restaurant to showcase their product and produce, as well as some of the unique flavors the local chef decides to incorporate, so I urge any visitors to get out and explore. With a rich culinary history that includes influences from South Asian, French, African, and Eastern Cooking, there is no shortage of culinary gems to find and exciting new flavors to savor.

A hiking trail through Jonkershoek Nature Reserve.

The Cape Floral Kingdom

Though vineyards were first seen in the 17th century, the area's natural biodiversity, part of the world-renowned Cape Floral Kingdom, has called this place home for millions of years. The Cape Floral Region includes most of the Western and Eastern Cape Provinces in South Africa. The Winelands mostly consist of Cape Winelands Shale Fynbos, a specific subgroup of this Floral Kingdom. Many nature reserves in the area, including the Table Mountain National Park, Cederberg Wilderness Area, and Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, are brimming with hundreds of protea, erica, and daisy species that decorate the surrounding mountains and hills with color year-round.

The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is an equally important place for conserving this natural heritage. It boasts over 6200 of these indigenous species, nurtured and protected on the slopes of Table Mountain.

According to Xhosa folk religion and oral tradition, Table Mountain was called "Umlindi Wemingizimu" or "Watcher of the South". It was said that the mountain came into being when giants that protected the land from the sea were defeated in battle and turned into rock. It is fitting then that today, the slopes of this great landmark are home to the many plants that give this land its majestic beauty.

Historical Cape Dutch Architecture.

Cultural Heritage

We have heard that the Xhosa are part of the cultural heritage of the greater Cape, but long before either the amaXhosa or the Afrikaners made the Cape their home, the tribes of the cattle-herding Khoi-Khoi and nomadic San peoples roamed this garden paradise. There are many heritage trails and attractions that tell the story of these people and showcase the cave paintings they left behind. Bushman's Kloof is a prime site that depicts histories of a bygone era. The Clanwilliam Living Landscape Project near Clanwilliam offers visitors insights into San culture and traditions. There are over 2500 painting sites in the greater Cederberg Mountain area for those who wish to explore more than 100,000 years of history in the Cape and Southern Africa more broadly.

Montagu, Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, and Paarl have some of the best-preserved frontier architecture and museums dating back to the first settlers in the Cape and the development of the Afrikaans language and culture.

Franschhoek is home to the Huguenot monument, commemorating the families that escaped religious persecution in France and Belgium in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and became Africans with their language and culture. Finally, art galleries are also quite common in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, as well as smaller towns such as Riebeek West and Darling, where many artists have functioning Ateliers. The Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch, an initiative of the late Huberte Rupert, wife of the South African billionaire Anton Rupert, has one of the finest collections of modern South African art, with this idyllic region often the subject of the artworks exhibited here.