Stellenbosch is becoming known as South Africa’s premier world-wide travel destination for a number of very good reasons. It is located just east of Cape Town, so it’s easily accessible as a day trip from the growing metropolitan area. But my first and best advice is to give the area a few days or you’ll miss out on the many things this beautiful and dynamic place has to offer.
The town of Stellenbosch and its surrounds have stunning mountain vistas and peak views of the Atlantic ocean. Both offer an unforgettable backdrop and an ideal growing climate for grapes. It is the grapes, and the wines produced from them, that draws most visitors to the region. Beyond these benefits, there are plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities including wild game viewing, hiking, biking and water sports. If all that weren’t enough, these experiences can be enjoyed along with 5 star hotel accommodations, gourmet cuisine from South Africa’s bursting food scene, and award-winning wines. All of this can be enjoyed at bargain prices in comparison to other notable wine regions around the world.
The winelands are located about 33 miles outside of Cape Town. They can be reached within a short 45 minute drive. Stellenbosch is actually the second oldest town settlement in South Africa. The town was founded by Dutch settler, Simon Van Der Stel, in 1679, who took the opportunity to name the new settlement after himself. Even today many of the buildings have retained their Cape Dutch style, some with restored thatched roofs.
The thick thatch was unfortunately a fire hazard, particularly during times when open fires were used for cooking and heating. Predictably, this resulted in the town being the victim of frequent fires. Today’s thatch roofs are treated with flame retardant, although the use of thatch is becoming less and less common. Which is unfortunate as seeing the exotic buildings adorned with thatch is an ever-present reminder that you are in a different, far away and special place.
South Africa is quickly becoming known as a mecca for foodies, and as you would imagine, the Stellenbosch region is right on the cusp of that trend. In Stellenbosch you can find classic South African favorites, such as bobotie (think meatloaf topped with a savory custard), Cape Malay curries and some of South African’s favorite grilled specialties (known as braii). Beyond some stunningly good beef dishes, there is also the opportunity to try wild game meats, such as ostrich and kudu. And the quality of the meats, whether cured, slow cooked or grilled, is fantastic. As a matter of fact, one of South African’s favorite snacks is a dried meat known as biltong. Best of all, beyond the quality, is that it can all be purchased at a fraction of US prices.
We sampled some of the best filet mignon we have had in a long time at Sellenbosch’s 96 Road Restaurant. The hollandaise pepper fillet is pan-fried in brandy sauce and flambéed tableside. I’d expect to pay about $50 for a similar steak in the US (minus the presentation), but paid a mere 225 rand (about $17 dollars). Another example is the Classic Sampler at the Oude Werf Hotel Restaurant, with a small chicken pie, bobotie with yellow rice and braised oxtail. The portions were generous, the quality was fantastic, and price, served up in an upscale setting, was $125 rand (under 10 bucks)
For a good overview of the area and food scene in Stellenbosch, we recommend starting a visit here with a food and cultural tour with Bites and Sites. You’ll get a nice tour of downtown Stellenbosch, a brief history of the area and the opportunity to meet some of the new up and coming local chefs and food artisans. Not to mention a little wine tasting and enough food to make you forget about making dinner plans all together.
In 1690, French Protestants fleeing from persecution (Huguenot refugees) settled in Stellenbosch. They brought with them their knowledge and passion for wine, and began cultivating grapes. Fast forward a few hundred years, and there are now over 200 wineries in the region.
Winemakers from all over the world have established partnerships with the South African growers and have brought their own expertise and creativity to bear on the wines produced in Stellenbosch. The results are some world-class small yield wines that can be enjoyed in unbeatable natural surroundings.
Stellenbosch is known for both red and white varietals. Getting a sampling of each, and then tasting the flagship wine at each estate we visited is of course a wine lovers dream. And Stellenbosch does not disappoint. Each winery has their own unique stories to tell and their own special wines to sample. We had many favorites, but some particularly stood out. One was the sparkling wine, Kaapse Vonkel (meaning Cape Sparkle) produced in the classic style of French champagne, at the Simonsig Wine Estate.
We also loved the wonderful dry rose, presented in a glass bottle embossed with South Africa’s national flower, the protea, at L’Avenir Estate. Another standout was the unique flavors of the Therona wine at the Stellenbosch Vineyard, with its subtle and pleasing hints of Indian spice.
We were also introduced to the region’s favorite wine, Pinotage, South Africa’s own grape varietal. We received tastings at several wineries, but had our most thorough education about the grape (and resulting wine) during a visit to the Beyerskloof Winery. The grape requires special care and expertise in order to coax it to produce fantastic wine. In the correct hands, it does just that. The red wine resembles a bold pinot noir, and is a must try during a visit to Stellenbosch.
Stellenbosch Wine Prices
We were able to taste some amazing wines and were honestly shocked at some of the prices, because they were so low. This was particularly true in restaurants, where a good bottle can be purchased to enjoy with your meal without having to pay triple the price that you expect to spend at a wine shop. Prices for bottles of wine at markets and vineyards ran the full range, but we found that we could purchase a good entry-level wine for about 65 rand ($5 US), and get a lower production aged wine starting at 150 rand (11.50 US) and up.
Food and Wine Experiences
Since there are so many wineries vying for your visit, many have developed food and wine experiences that take you beyond a simple wine tasting. Vergenoegd Winery offers the opportunity to taste and then blend your own custom bottle of wine.
Lourensford Estate offers a chocolate and wine pairing which you can enjoy on their spacious grounds, which includes a food and crafts market and plenty of picnic tables for whiling away the day.
At the Morgenster Olive and Wine Estate we were able to combine wine and cold pressed olive oil tasting, and, after the experience, will never think of olive oil in the same way. It was fun, educational, and so delicious.
And many vineyards have attached restaurants where you can have a light lunch or full dinner. We had a few meat and cheese platters that would have given our Italian friends pause.
Hiking, bike riding, and horseback riding are all easily accessible within the Stellenbosch region. It also neighbors a scenic coastal drive known as Clarence Drive (hint – don’t miss the penguins at Betty’s Bay).
Because of its location, there are many experiences, such as visiting a wild penguin colony, that aren’t available in any other wine-producing destination. The Villiera Winery, offers the opportunity to take a safari drive on their private game reserve and get up close in personal with animals such as giraffe, zebra, springbok and wildebeast.
Vergenoegd Estate produces its organic wine with the aid of Indian runner ducks, who do the job of pest control twice per day. They hold a “parade” featuring their prized tall-walking, web-footed and feathered workers several times daily that is not to be missed.
In 1971 a wine route was developed as a way to facilitate cooperation between the wineries and to make travel within the region more accessible for visitors. Visit their website, Stellenbosch Wine Route, to get a full list of activities and events in Stellenbosch along with a description of area wineries, maps, and other information to help you plan your visit.
Where to Stay in Stellenbosch
There are many options for places to stay in Stellenbosch that will match any budget, from hostel dorm rooms to 5 star hotels. We had a fantastic stay the L’Avenir Estate where we had a room with a private plunge pool and had the opportunity to while away an afternoon and take in the sunset in the tasting room.
The Wedgewood Country House and Spa features a relaxing pool area, big comfortable rooms and wonderful cook to order breakfasts.
A standard room during high season (January through April) will run about $150 US per night, including breakfast. Compare that to a minimum of $350 night if you were staying in a similar hotel in California’s Napa Valley.
When to go
Seasons in South Africa are almost directly opposite of the seasons in the US and Canada. Summer runs from mid October to mid February and temperatures can get up in the mid 90’s. Heavy rain and even snow is possible in regions with higher elevations during winter, which spans from May through July. Spring weather is August through mid-October. Fall, from mid February through April, has little rain and mild temperatures, which makes it our favorite time to visit.
Traveling to and Around Stellenosch
One misconception is that travel to South Africa is prohibitively expensive. Flights from Boston to South Africa run about $1,000 or less. We elected to rent a car to travel to Stellenbosch (about $11 US per day for an economy car), and took a local taxi when traveling the short distance between wineries for tastings. Our favorite cab option, Uber is available in Stellenbosch and was very easy to use to get around. There are also plenty of companies that will organize a full Stellenbosch itinerary, including transportation.
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A special thank you to Stellenbosch Wine Route for hosting us during our stay. Our opinions remain our own. Can’t wait to go return!!