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South Africa: Wine

Napa Valley on the Cape : The fruits of vintage vineyards draw wine fans to the tasting rooms of these lush valleys

November 24, 1996|MARGARET SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Sheridan is a writer for the Times' Food Section

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In South Africa, wine is as much a tourist attraction as Cape Town's Table Mountain, the endless waves that surfers live for and the game parks where giraffes, elephants and lions have pedestrian right-of-way.

By the time I arrived here last March, I was already familiar with South African wines. Yet I was unprepared for the beauty of the Cape's wine country, which is as enchanting as it is surprising.

Imagine an afternoon on the 1,000-acre Spier Wine Estate in a lush valley on the banks of the Eerste River outside Stellenbosch, a 30-minute drive east of Cape Town. I had been invited by Spier's director of food and beverage, Tim Cumming, whom I had known when he worked in Hong Kong, where I was living. But a personal invitation is not necessary to visit Spier. It's open to the public for tastings, tours and cultural events.

Spier's owner, a South African businessman and former member of Parliament named Dick Enthoven, bought the winery in 1993 and invested $30 million in the sprawling 17th century farm in an attempt to create a cultural village where opera, the arts, food and wine could be enjoyed. The original estate includes a 113-year-old manor house, stables, a coach house, slave quarters and the oldest wine cellar in South Africa. Within two years, Enthoven had added a conference facility, a theater, an equestrian center and a wine center. On the agenda is a golf course and a hotel.

Music and drama festivals are year-round but peak during the South African summer, December through March. (Tickets and schedules can be obtained by mail through government tourist offices and travel agents in major cities in South Africa.)

On this fine day there were nine of us; half from Hong Kong, the rest from Europe and South Africa. Our mutual connection was Cumming, who had recently returned home to South Africa after 25 years in Asia and Europe, and his friend Ann Wallis Brown, a public relations consultant from Cape Town.

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Our hostess wore something breezy; our host wore a boater. She filled our Champagne flutes with blush sparkling wine (a feathery Pierre Jourdan Cuvee Belle Rose); he identified the wildflowers and fish in the stream. Each of us received a hamper packed with linen and silver, smoked salmon and caviar, miniature baguettes filled with paper-thin slices of roast beef, a mixed salad, tiny fruit tarts, cheese and chocolates. I wanted to freeze the afternoon forever.

The wine buffs raised their glasses to the sun and inspected the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from local producers. They swilled ruby-colored Cabernets and Merlots and guessed vintages. We ate and clinked and exchanged safari stories. Three hours later, our host suggested we dash off to Spier's Wine Center before it closed.

When I asked for a recommendation, the man behind the chest-high display of bottles answered Pinotage: a dense, complex red, unique to his country.

The man dispensing advice was the wine center's director, Jabulani Ntshangase, the first black South African to earn wine credentials overseas and return home to run an international wine operation. The recipient of a U.N. scholarship, Ntshangase earned a business degree from Long Island University in New York, eventually becoming manager of Acker Merrall, a respected wine store in Manhattan.

Smitten by the language of wine and its heritage and commerce, Ntshangase got involved in the import and export business between the United States and South Africa. He returned to South Africa last year after living in the United States for 18 years.

At Spier, Ntshangase is overseeing development of the estate's wine center. The retail shop, which contains thousands ofbottles, including wines from 15 estates in California, is also a classroom for aspiring wine merchants.

"The wine industry here is changing. But before we market abroad, we need to educate here. We have fine wines, but young people need to be trained first, before we send them overseas." In an effort to do so, Ntshangase has helped create work exchange programs for oenology degree candidates at the University of Stellenbosch, where he is a trustee. It offers the country's first wine study degree program.

Yet wine is not a new product for South Africa. The country's wine industry dates back to 1655 when early Dutch settlers transplanted the first grapevines from France in their adopted country. The French Huguenots, who began arriving in 1688 and settled mainly in the Franschhoek Valley, contributed their skills by refining the wine production process.

Today, South Africa is the world's eighth-largest wine-producing region, known for its fruity Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Rhein Riesling, sparklers and dessert wines, as well as for Pinotage.

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