Travel

A Cheatsheet to Sipping Like a Pro in South Africa’s Famous Wine Region

The vineyards near Cape Town are a tipsy dream.

gg-foto/Shutterstock
gg-foto/Shutterstock
gg-foto/Shutterstock

There’s a magic spot where the sun lingers long but isn’t too strong, the winters are mild, and the terroir is just right. It’s here, in both hemispheres of the planet, between the 30th and 50th parallels, where you have a golden formula for a wine region. Think Tuscany, Mendoza, the South Island of New Zealand, and of course, South Africa’s Western Cape Province-the eighth largest wine producing region in the world, and by all accounts, one of the best. South Africa’s harvest is so good, it beat even the Napa Valley on Wine Spectator‘s 2017 vintage charts.

Even if you’re not a wine aficionado who gives a hoot about regions and soil composition, you might be interested in a boozy tour of vineyards. And in South Africa, you’ll know the tipples will be top notch without having to pretend or make stabbing guesses at the secondary aromas. In the Cape Winelands, there are dozens of wine tours for any budget departing from Cape Town every day. Some people opt to rent a car and drive through the region, staying overnight close to vineyards where they can indulge. Or if you time it right, you can even take the commuter train.

The Cape Winelands are huge, and while there isn’t a defined “route” per se, there’s an adventure to be had for everyone-day trippers, weekenders, and Garden Route absolutists alike. Whether you’re looking for can’t-miss spots to guide your DIY wine adventure or you’re a wanderlusting enthusiast looking for an itinerary, here’s a guide to the dreamy Cape Winelands that’ll have you packing for South Africa.

BARTON/Photodisc/Getty Images
BARTON/Photodisc/Getty Images
BARTON/Photodisc/Getty Images

When to visit the winelands and how to get there

There’s never a wrong time to visit the winelands, but if you’re hoping to avoid the rain, aim for October through February. Still, even in the winter, who could really say no to a flight of Pinotage and cheesemonger-curated accoutrements served in a three-hundred-year-old wine cellar, right?

Cape Town International Airport is your best bet for car rentals, especially if you want to compare prices and hit the road on-arrival. If you don’t want to drive, Uber is a safe and versatile alternative to renting a car all throughout the Western Cape. Wine tours operate out of Cape Town constantly, but if you want to curate your own adventure, stick to Uber, a rental car, or commuter rail. Train service currently reaches Malmesbury, Paarl, Worcester, and Wellington, with repairs underway for the Stellenbosch route.

Petri Oeschger/Moment/Getty Images
Petri Oeschger/Moment/Getty Images
Petri Oeschger/Moment/Getty Images

Pretend to be an expert with these quick South African wine pointers

Like every great wine region, South Africa’s has its greatest hits. Yes, you can find exceptional New World Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, and Cabernet Sauvignons. Some even say that South African Sauvignon Blanc gives French Sancerre a run for its money. But if you’re off to the winelands, you’ll want to taste some of South Africa’s bona-fide, “when-in-Rome” standouts.

Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s most commonly planted grape varietal. Historically known as steen (pronounced stay-in) in Afrikaans, this crisp and acidic grape makes for a delicious white wine that varies widely in sweetness but rarely fails to impress. For something bubbly, look to another South African white: Méthode Cap Classique. And then there’s Pinotage, arguably the most South African wine of them all. Originally cultivated about 100 years ago, Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut that produces a smoky, deep red worth checking a bag for.

Some other tips before you hit the road: Look for the “Wine of Origin” or “W.O.” certification on bottles of wine when you go shopping in South Africa. A “W.O. Durbanville” label guarantees that 100% of the grapes came from Durbanville, for example.

Also, a little Afrikaans goes a long way. Afrikaans is the first-language of over 70% of the winelands, so brush up on die taal before you go. Hoe gaan dit? (pronounced who-khandit) is “How are you?” Dankie (pronounced like donkey) means “Thank you.” And most importantly, cheers with gesondheit (pronounced huh-zon-tight).

Groot Constantia
Groot Constantia
Groot Constantia

Start your tasting in Cape Town

The Mother City is the best starting point for a trip to the winelands, and not just because you’re likely to fly in here. The Cape Peninsula itself is home to South Africa’s oldest wine estate. Founded in 1685, Groot Constantia should be on every traveler’s Cape Town itinerary. For just 115 ZAR (about $6 or so), visitors can indulge in a five wine tasting flight complete with a souvenir glass. To really take in all of Groot Constantia’s history and beauty, spring for the full visitors experience (it costs an extra 25 rand), which includes a tour of the estate, the manor house, and the cellars. Since Groot Constantia opens at 10 am, it’s an easy jumping off point for a full day of wine adventures.

After Constantia, you’ll want to have some lunch before heading to Stellenbosch. You could go straight there (the whole drive is under an hour), but you can’t go to South Africa and not stop for pies-think Cornish pasty, not granny apple. Any gas station will do, but Big Joe’s Pies in Goodwood is an easy enough detour as well.

Thelema Mountain Vineyards
Thelema Mountain Vineyards
Thelema Mountain Vineyards

Get fancy in the wine capital of Stellenbosch

Soon enough, garden-variety suburban sprawl will give way to the classic Cape Dutch architecture that dominates Stellenbosch, the de facto wine capital of South Africa.

Also known as the Oak City for the leafy canopy planted by Simon van der Stel, founder of Groot Constantia and Stellenbosch, this town is first and foremost a place to see and be seen. Feel free to dress the part as you dine alongside South African celebrities and an infamous billionaire boys club.

Central to everything in the winelands, Stellenbosch is the perfect place to settle in and get a lay of the land. As for accommodation, Stellenbosch has everything from backpacker hostels to boutique hotels. The food scene is a bit overblown, so it’s best to just eat sumptuously at one of the vineyards. You can find amazing tastings at Thelema, L’Avenir, and Spier.

John Wilkinson Photography/Moment/Getty Images
John Wilkinson Photography/Moment/Getty Images
John Wilkinson Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Pair your wine with history in Paarl

Now that you’ve seen the heart of the winelands, it’s time to venture further. Head toward Paarl for even more wines in a cultural epicenter of Afrikanerdom.

The town is steeped in South African history. It’s the third oldest European settlement in the country after Cape Town and Stellenbosch, and it’s also where Nelson Mandela took his first steps as a free man in 1990.

Paarl-literally “pearl”-takes its name from a pearl-like (but not pearly!) rock formation popular among gutsy climbers. Also overlooking Paarl is a monument to the Afrikaans language, whose complicated history is open to interpretation. For some of the best tastings, head to Joostenberg or Noble Hill.

Artie Photography (Artie Ng)/Moment Open/Getty Images
Artie Photography (Artie Ng)/Moment Open/Getty Images
Artie Photography (Artie Ng)/Moment Open/Getty Images

Take the wine tram to Franschhoek

Franschhoek, in a nod to the Huguenots (there’s even a monument), literally translates to “French corner.” It’s the Sonoma to Stellenbosch’s Napa. As for which one is the real deal? Well, it depends on if you’re interested in a three hour debate with an opinionated vintner. Simply board the Franschhoek Wine Tram-whose ten routes and multimodal connections are more sophisticated than the public transport networks of many mid-sized cities-and decide for yourself.

This is no theme park tram that’s actually just a kitsch-ed up van, it’s a literal railroad repurposed to transport visitors to the region’s wineries. Tickets secure admission to all of them except Babylonstoren. For tastings, try Boschendal, or Anthonij Rupert flaunts some reasonably priced flights.

Roger de la Harpe/Shutterstock
Roger de la Harpe/Shutterstock
Roger de la Harpe/Shutterstock

Go surfing and whale watching in Hermanus

By this point, you’ve probably had enough of the winelands. Head south from Franschhoek to Hermanus, a gorgeous, understated bookend to the classic Garden Route. Simply head east on Route 43 or connect back to the N2 to venture toward Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha) and the Eastern Cape.

Relish in the certified blue flag beaches, postcard-perfect rocky outcroppings, and some of Africa’s best whale watching. Hermanus is still within the wine producing part of the Western Cape, so if you’re really feeling it, you can taste-test the influence of salt air on a robust South African Pinot Noir at Hamilton Russell Vineyards. Or if you’re feeling wine’d out, swap out your wine journal for a wetsuit and surf some of the best waves in South Africa.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

John Besche is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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