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South African wine today – I took a trip to Africa… Part 2

by Helga H. Hampton [email protected]

German born Helga H. Hampton first came to the Algarve with her three children in 1972. After she and her husband retired, they became residents here and have been living in an old quinta in São Brás for 10 years. Helga has always been involved with music and was President of the Associação Amigos de Música de São Lourençco for 10 years.

Wines from the Cape no longer are just a banal liquid to quench a bawdy sailors’ thirst; nowadays South African wines rank among the world’s elite.

Few of us, however, have gone and seen where and how this liquid ambrosia is cultivated to become the proud oenological heritage of the Cape of Good Hope. We did.

One of the main ingredients must be the characteristic subtropical climate here between the Atlantic and Indian Ocean – mild and temperate. Further, the lovely landscape of The Cape, the southern most of the nine regions of South Africa, where the craggy profile of mountains that abruptly rise 1,000 meters from sea level, lace the verdant scene and create arcadian valleys and shady and/or sunny slopes on raised plateaux.

No wonder that cultivation of one or the other grape variety is particularly favoured. It must be every wine maker’s dream to be able to experiment here with grape juices unlike anywhere else.

We had the privilege of talking with many of them, and besides tasting and sampling their precious potions, I particularly enjoyed the terminology they used in describing their work, their art and their end product.

Modern cultivation includes, for example, “genetic work, clone choice and suckering (1st stage of pruning); lactic fermentation sees to tannins – grape-, seed- or root-tannins”.  The aim and aspiration is to create wines that are “food-friendly, perfume intense and fruit driven; wines that offer unctuous sweetness, wines that fill the mid-palate or have hints of chocolate on the profile and just the right intensity of oakiness”.

The most ear-popping endeavour for me was expressed by a wine maker who expected from the fruit and tannin profile that it” lift the tail” of the flagship wine in his portfolio. What poetry of a magical profession!

Other, more qualified, people have written about the wonders of wine making in legendary places like Constantia, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek and some of the other newer and upcoming vineyards in the Cape, so let me refer you to them for information and just invite you to enjoy the sound of some of the many imaginative wine labels: Glen Carou Gravel Quarry, Lanzerac Pioneer, Hawksmoor at Matjieskuil Barrel, Yonder Hill, Von Ortloff Quintessence, Bon Courage, Twee Jonge Gezellen and Teddy Hall Winter Moments, etc……

Most of these Big Wines are exported and are available in many European countries. For me they do not really represent a meaningful competition to Portuguese wines from the Alentejo, Douro or Sado. But isn’t it wonderful to have choices?

Kids in school attached to B&B.
Kids in school attached to B&B.

The sights

Lucky enough to have a blamelessly open sky, we took the rotating cable car up Table Mountain – no ‘devil’s tablecloth’ rolling down that day, as the locals say when very often and unpredictably fast a thick blanket of woolly cloud rises out of the Atlantic, crawls up one side of this iconic landmark and down the other. For us up there, what views!  

The busy, colourful, wide harbour down below, reaching out but not quite catching Robben Island in the distance.

That small, albeit historically pregnant, speck of land is far enough away from the mainland to guarantee segregation and close enough to be a visible punitive beacon. Here Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his 27-year prison sentence, which finally ended with the end of Apartheid.

We all lived to learn how this extraordinary man set about to build his presidency of the new South Africa on a policy of Tolerance and Reconciliation. This happened in 1994!

And at the foot of Table Mountain and spreading in all directions, the immense sprawl of four million Cape Town inhabitants.

The markedly different appearance of individual areas make the epic dimension of the local drama only too visible. For here in Cape Town, townships (nobody was able to tell me the origin of this expression) are not relegated to the outskirts, they are not “exurbs” like in Jo’burg,  Khayelitscha and Landa, two of the largest townships are in what is called the Cape Flats and very much central along the N2 highway to the Airport.

Also very much a “sight”, we were driven around in a guided bus and learned that around one million people live in Khayelitscha.

This word is Xhosa, one of the 11 official languages of South Africa, meaning “New Home”. “New” to 700 000 tribal people, who leave their traditional places in the countryside per year, in a constant migration to the cities – known as the “urban drift” and the most pressing contemporary problem.

Unemployment is great, crime rife and AIDS huge. We were appalled by the sub-human living conditions, mainly sanitary, as we observed from our luxurious perch in an air conditioned bus. And yet, at what is the “smallest B&B in South Africa”, right in the middle of the muddle, where we stopped, we witnessed what individual initiative and determination can do.

In small rooms attached to a two-storey school building (a rare sight among corrugated iron and plank shacks), a host of women teach hundreds of children between three and 12 years, keeping them clean, fed and entertained all day.

These women make the best use of ANC government money, private donations and the help of NGOs. In the vastness of this particularly “informal township” it seemed paltry, but where do you begin?

Politics play a minor role in this travelogue of mine, even though many questions were asked, many answers received, the main attitude of modern South Africans is:  Enjoy our beautiful land – lets not talk politics, please! We interpreted this as a wait-and-see attitude in times of development, some uncertainty and a lot of scepticism. We wish them well.