STELLENBOSCH, South Africa -- It was Sunday afternoon, and we had just arrived in the heart of South Africa's rolling wine country. Would anything be open? The clerk at our inn pointed us in the direction of Spier wine estate, a veritable one-stop shop for those who love to eat and drink, and who have kids in tow. Off we went, gaping at the gorgeous landscape that unfolded around us: majestic mountains, terraced vineyards, and the stately Cape Dutch manor houses that anchor many of the "wine farms," as they are called.
Lunch at Spier was buffet-style, cooked in an outdoor kitchen and eaten in a huge open-air tent. We grazed at each food station, approaching the game kiosk, well, gamely. So many choices: venison, boar sausage, kudu , springbok , and others I didn't even want to identify. Moving on, we sampled from a dozen vegetables with various sauces and chutneys, a seafood station, and a chicken kiosk with the birds roasting fragrantly on a grill. One man presided over potjie, a traditional Cape dish cooked in a three-legged cast iron pot over an open fire. Another served up tagine, a North African dish cooked in a conical clay pot.
A basket of traditional breads and dips appeared on our table and finally we staggered to the desserts, starring the country's favorite: rich, dense malva pudding .
This is lunch at Moyo , located on Spier's sprawling grounds. We ate to the beat of indigenous drumming while watching traditional dancers. Waiters came by with their brushes and white paint pots, the better to dot our faces Xhosa style. We were offered a taste of wine for free; a more extensive tasting of five wines costs 10 rand, or about $1.50. Oh, and about the wine, which brought us to Spier in the first place: It's fabulous and quite affordable.
After lunch, we strolled down to the vineyard's cheetah farm, where for a small fee, you can stroke the gorgeous cats, orphans raised on the premises.
The whites who migrated to South Africa often described it as the land of milk and honey. Now, it has become known as the land of pinotage and chenin blanc. France and California may have the name brands, but South Africa's Cape Winelands are beautiful and bountiful, with climate and terroir perfectly suited to the grape.
South Africans like to say their wines combine the best of the old and new worlds. Since sanctions against imports were lifted at the end of apartheid in 1994, the wines are becoming better known throughout the world. Not that the industry itself is new: The first grapes were planted by a Dutchman 350 years ago.
Stellenbosch, with a population over 120,000, is the second oldest European settlement in South Africa, less than an hour east of the oldest, Cape Town. It is the seat of the wine industry, and makes a great home base from which to explore the nearby towns of Paarl and Franschhoek, with their wine estates. Because of the University of Stellenbosch, it has a college-town feel, with outdoor cafes, boutiques, and an active night life. Throughout the wine towns, the architecture is Dutch Colonial, with white-washed, gabled buildings and thatched-roof cottages.
Friends had told us about a class at Nederburg, one of the country's largest and best-known wineries. Katinka van Niekerk is the teacher, and a more passionate oenophile you won't find. Eight tasting glasses greeted each of us, along with several glasses on the table filled with oddities such as pencil shavings and coffee beans.
For the next couple of hours, van Niekerk schooled us in the art of pairing food with wine. ("Champagne and chocolate mousse. It's an absolutely ghastly combination.") She informed us that the old "white with white" meat and "red with red" is passe: "Forget the color of the wine; the sauce determines which wine."
Van Niekerk, who teaches at the Cape Wine Academy , taught us the cardinal rules of pairing. Balance the weight of the food with the weight of the wine; light food calls for a lighter wine. Be sure to match the flavor intensity with a similarly intense wine; a Taiwanese dish would call for a "more flamboyant wine."
Van Niekerk herself is flamboyant fun, calling shiraz "the old slut" of wines: "It's a very, very compromising wine. It's spicy. It shows a bit of cleavage. You see how friendly it is; it bends over backwards to please."
As the food came out -- a salad with petite potatoes and smoked salmon, a luscious butternut squash soup, beef in puff pastry -- she taught us how to identify whether they were sweet, acidic, bitter, salty, or "umami," a Japanese term used to describe intense flavors such as soy sauce and certain cheeses. We also sniffed the contents of the wine glasses in the middle of the table and tried to match scents with their twin wines. I never did figure out the pencil shavings.
Tips: Tomatoes call for a pinot noir instead of a cabernet sauvignon. Sweet food will make a wine taste acidic, unless the wine is sweet, too. "Forget the chardonnays with salad. It's ghastly. Try a Parma ham with melon instead." Salty food also likes a touch of sweetness in wine. Grilled asparagus calls for a chardonnay. "Cab is gorrrrrrgeous with lamb!" And, "Merlot is a cab in drag." Sauvignon blanc with blue cheese. Champagne with oysters. Chocolate with cabernet sauvignon.
If you go, take notes. After several samples of wine, one tends to forget.
Another stop should include Rupert & Rothschild , a partnership formed nearly 10 years ago by two powerful wine dynasties, Rupert of South Africa and Rothschild of France. (Years ago, Rothschild formed a similar partnership in the Napa Valley with Robert Mondavi , to create Opus One .) The farm, a beautiful property located at the foot of the Simonsberg Mountains , produces three wines, a chardonnay and two reds.
If you're serious about wine, pick up the country's bible, the "John Platter South African Wine Guide" (John Platter, 2007). Platter is to South Africans what Robert Parker is to American connoisseurs, and his book will steer you to the area's winemakers, restaurants, and inns. We stayed at the charming d'Ouwe Werf , South Africa's oldest existing inn, right in the heart of Stellenbosch. Its renovated 1802 Restaurant produces wonderful food you can eat outdoors in a vine-covered courtyard.
One night, we ventured down the block to the Wijnhuis (Wine House) restaurant. I ordered a Warwick cabernet franc based on its description alone: "Nose dominated by creaminess complexed by aromas of almonds, chocolate and pencil shavings. Full, round palate contains flavors of coffee, cherry, cigar box and licorice with ripe, chewy tanins."
I chose the curried chicken and wondered if van Niekerk would approve.
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.