South Africa Dispatch series
Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell departed for South Africa on March 21 to begin an eight-day trip sponsored by South African Tourism. David will be exploring "Africa beyond the safari," particularly South Africa's cultural health and sociopolitical environment 13 years after the end of apartheid. He'll be filing on-site reports to Travel Weekly's Web site on a daily basis (Internet access permitting).
On a brilliantly sunny day we left Grootbos in Gansbaai early in the morning and headed west to Cape Town. Our route took us through the Helderberg Mountains, past fertile farmlands, forests, apple and peach orchards and the vineyards of the Cape Winelands.
We stopped for lunch and a wine tasting at the Grand Roche Hotel on a wine estate in the mountains -- the Relais & Chateau property, an 18th Century manor house restored to a tasteful opulence worthy of its name.
Our group sat around a long table under umbrellas outside the front of the mansion. A cool breeze caressed our faces as we sat overlooking an immaculately tailored, walled-in garden and beyond that, acres of grapevines. At each place setting there was a row of seven sparkling stemmed goblets for the wine tasting.
Mia Martensson, a young Swedish woman with spiky blonde hair, began to lead us through the tasting. The wine buyer for the hotel restaurant, she spoke easily, with amazing verbal dexterity, about wine, without a hint of pretension and without relying on stock phrases. It became apparent quickly that Martensson lives and breathes wine culture with the unselfconscious focus of a virtuoso.
So passionately was she absorbed in wine that it seemed she might have devoted herself to the study even if she had not been paid for it.
Her descriptions were vivid, evoking subtleties of wine attributes that had never occurred to me. She discussed many aspects of the taste, such as the minerality, the saltiness, the fruitiness, the smokiness, and explained how those attributes were affected by such elements as climate conditions, soil content, size and composition of the barrel, time of picking and duration of storage.
As part of her job, Martensson spends portions of each year traveling around the world to evaluate and purchase wine for the hotel and to keep up on the evolution of the trade.
The wine industry of the world is evolving dramatically, she said, particularly in South Africa, where great varieties of soil types and climate conditions enable vintners to grow virtually every kind of grape. In the last three years, she said, the quality has gone up -- as has the economy, meaning that new people are coming into the industry with experience and capital. Difficulties in the economics of farming are causing landowners to turn to vineyards and French and German winemakers are buying South African estates and altering the way the wine is produced and marketed. Many new varieties and hybrid wines are being developed.
In 2004 there were 461 wine farms in the area, Martensson said. Today, it's up to 581. There is even a danger of overproduction of grapes.
Although the restaurant serves wines from all over the world, we sampled only South African varieties. We started with two kinds of sauvignon blanc, followed by two kinds of chenin blanc after eating our starters, then a merlot and a pinotage, finally finishing with a sweet chenin blanc.
En route to Cape Town we stopped at Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch and visited the shopping and dining village that is on the grounds as well as the Cheetah Outreach, where tame cheetahs lick the legs of their trainers (affectionately, one hopes).
We saw Capetown's magnificent centerpiece, Table Mountain, long before we arrived, then miles of shantytowns lining both sides of the N2 highway. When we hit the traffic jams we knew we were almost there. We pulled into the pulsing heart of the city at rush hour when the late afternoon sun was spotlighting the skyline, a most dramatic unveiling, and made our way to the Extreme Hotel, our home for the next few nights.
To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].