Cape Winelands & Stellenbosch, South Africa

Waterford Estate Wine and Chocolate Tasting Experience

In this broad South African valley surrounded by rugged mountains, sea breezes from the nearby South Atlantic create a climate particularly conducive to grape-growing, and for touring as well. The town of Stellenbosch and the first vineyards here date back to 1679, and today the region has more than 200 wine producers.

I knew better than to try and visit all of them, so I started with a few famous for a unique South African cultivar, Pinotage. A professor at Stellenbosch University, the seat of internationally recognized viticulture and oenology programs, created this wine in 1925 by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, once called Hermitage. These fruity, medium-bodied and affordable reds became South Africa’s signature wine.

I traveled from Cape Town with Brian Vandayar of Jorvan Tours, which offers full- and half-day trips that typically include tastings at two wineries and leisure time in the town. I was more interested in visiting wineries, though, so I chose a full-day trip but added a third winery.

We started with the Pinotage 2015 at Eikendal Stellenbosch, a winery on the slopes of the Heldberg Mountains with a tasting room overlooking a tranquil pond, which the locals call a “dam.” Winemaker Nico Grobler studied at Stellenbosch University and joined Eikendal in 2006. His tasting notes tout the pomegranate and fresh strawberry aroma of Eikendal’s Pinotage; I enjoyed its full body. The winery also specializes in its flagship Bordeaux-style Classique. Regular tastings include five wines and, for families traveling together, there’s good news: this is a kid-friendly winery with cookie tastings for the kids and a pizza and wine pairing.

Eikendal is a destination winery, offering cellar tours, picnics and two marked hiking trails through the vineyards. In February and March, visitors can pitch in and help harvest grapes. The property stocks its ponds for fly fishing and an on-site shop stocks all necessary gear. Eikendal Lodge has nine rooms, all with private terraces overlooking the vineyards, valley, and mountains, making it easy to linger and enjoy all these activities. A night’s stay includes a wine tasting and gourmet breakfast served on the patio, weather permitting. It’s a difficult place to leave, but we had more wineries to check out.

Our next stop, Stellenzicht, began in 1692 as part of a bigger property, one of the first established in what would become the Stellenbosch district. This winery’s Golden Triangle Pinotage 2013 has an enticing nose and winemaker Guy Webber notes its fresh, vibrant floral tones, gentle tannins and strong finish. Webber enjoys a reputation as an expert on Pinotage and considers it his favorite, calling the wine “a strong, masculine varietal that challenges the winemaker to balance power with elegance.”

This oh-so South African wine goes particularly well with one of the country’s signature dishes, Karoo lamb. Karoo is the name given South Africa’s semi-arid desert, a land of small shrubs with aromas similar to rosemary, thyme, sage, eucalyptus and lavender. Sheep feed on these shrubs, which gives their meat a distinctive flavor. An official certificate of origin marks genuine Karoo lamb and mutton, which range free in an area with at least two of six shrubs that characterize the Karoo.

Game is also popular in South Africa, with wild impala and springbok appearing on many menus. Restaurants here know how to prepare these and other lean game meats to make them tender and flavorful, and Pinotage complements them well.

Waterford Estate also grows Pinotage grapes, but I chose it as my third visit for another reason: its signature Chocolate and Wine tasting. Cellar master Kevin Arnold and Chocolatier Richard von Geusau created a series of dark and milk chocolates paired with the winery’s Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Natural Sweet wines. After that delicious experience, I spent some time wandering the scenic grounds, which have citrus groves, green lawns, water features and fragrant lavender beds among the vineyards. The winery, built with quarried local bedrock, stones from the vineyard ground and timber grown on the estate, follows the style of classic Bordeaux chateaus of France.

Waterford Estate also offers safari-style tours by Land Rover, including tastings in the vineyards that match the grapes in that tasting’s wines, and walks through the area’s unique biodiversity. The farm grows 10 other grape varieties in addition to Pinotage, including Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.

This region offers five specific wine routes: Greater Simonsberg, Stellenbosch Berg, Heldeberg, Stellenbosch Valley, and Bottelary Hills. My three destinations all fall into an area known as the Golden Triangle for its unique terroir.

“Unique” is a word that aptly describes South Africa itself, with its distinctive scenery, rich natural environment, long history and, of course, thriving wine scene. If I had it to do over again, though, I would spend much more than a day in the Cape Winelands.

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For a unique perspective on the Winelands, see it from the seat of a bicycle. Adventureshop in the town of Stellenbosch offers guided mountain bike tours that include bike, helmet, guide, snacks, a visit to the Jonkesrhoek Nature Reserve, and two wine tastings. The route totals roughly 18 miles and takes four to five hours, with an optional seven-mile loop add-on. The truly intrepid can simply rent bikes on their own and wander the mostly unpaved back roads, stopping at wineries as the spirit moves them.

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