We've all done it – knocked back a glass of Sauvignon blanc without a clue about we've just drunk. We might know it's cooly crisp and deliciously moreish and, yup, we'd love another glass, please but could we really talk about it like a wine expert? I certainly couldn't. So while in Cape Town, where the clinking of wine glasses is the tinkly background to the social life of this uber good-looking city, the chance to go to fun wine school, all the while purring over the idyllic views of the Cape Winelands and without having to drive myself, was a no brainer.
I chose Wine Flies for my drinking and err... learning plans. Our guide, Lord V, got right down to the nitty gritty as soon as we'd boarded our minibus:
"We're going to try about 25 wines and change seats in the bus every time to make new friends."
I was tipsy with the thought.
First Cape drinkers and wine growers
The Cape Winelands roam over an area northeast of Cape Town featuring the famous vineyards of Stellenbosch, Constantia and Franschhoek. They're all set amid gorgeous sun-baked mountain scenery with some super handsome Cape Dutch architecture. On the journey out of Cape Town, on an intensely sunny day, Lord V filled us in on the history of this 8,000-year-old tipple, and its arrival in South Africa.
"In the 17th century a European settler, who'd worked for the Dutch East India Company, produced South Africa's first eight litres of wine. It was disgusting."
We all sniggered at the thought.
But it was Cape Town, itself, which had the wrong soil for stellar grapes. Cape governor Simon van der Stel found the perfect terroir at Constantia, nine miles south of Cape Town, in 1685. It was more suited to the delicate grape, and he planted the first vineyards. So good was the yield, Lord V said, that Napoleon was drinking Constantia wine on St Helena in the mid 19th century. Post apartheid, the South African wine industry fizzes with success: South Africa is now the 7th largest producer in the world making 1.1 billion litres of wine, Lord V announced as we pulled into our first stop at the Vergenoegd Estate in Stellenbosch.
The five steps of wine tasting
As well as its wine, the Vergenoegd Estate is famous for its impressive brood of more than 1,000 Indian Runner Ducks which waddle-run past the main estate house every afternoon. Under the shade of trees in the gardens, our group of Germans, Brazilians, Swedes and an Indian couple, were introduced, aptly, to the 2017 Runner Duck Sauvignon Blanc, as well as a 2017 Runner Duck rose, a 2015 Merlot, and a 2015 Shiraz. Lord V instructed us in the five steps of wine tasting – sight, swirl, sniff, sip, and savour. The Merlot was velvety and elegant, I shared with the group, but the Shiraz was my favourite and a little less intense than the Merlot. As a parting gift we were offered a 2008 vintage port.
Wine and chocolate
Our taste buds were certainly getting into training and by the time we reached the picturesque Lovane Estate we felt more confident, tasting notes still fresh in the mind. Beautiful long lines of vine on russet soils were set against a rugged mountain backdrop framed by azure skies. With its white Dutch Cape architecture, parasols, and glasses filled with wine glinting in the sun, why wouldn't wine lovers move in? Well, you can, as this boutique estate offers rooms with views over the manicured vineyard.
It's the second smallest estate in Stellenbosch, the staff explained, only producing 10,000 bottles of red a year. In its wine cellar we were treated to wine and chocolate pairing with the oval-shaped chocolates served up in beer paddles. My favourites were Lovane's Isikhathi, meaning "time" in the Zulu language, and "future" in Xhosa language. It's a Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc and was paired with a spicy chocolate of cinnamon and clove provided by Cape Town's CocoaFair. Lovane's Cape Vintage port, made with Cabernet Sauvignon, was paired with a dark chocolate with high cocoa percentage, studded with cardamom and citrus which brought down the sweetness of the port, we all reckoned.
How to steal wine
At the Middelvlei Estate, on a tour of its factory, we were briefed on the nuts and bolts of grape processing. We got a squint at the destemmer machine, the wine presses, and the fermentation cylinders. All of us got to siphon off some wine from the barrels using a long pipette known in the trade as a wine thief.
After a quick lunch, and a glass of Middelvlei Chardonnay Unoaked to savour with our sandwich and sausage, we headed to Uitkyk for bubbly. Uitkyk, meaning "Look Out Point", has recently been bought by Warwick Estate, a South African brand sold widely in the UK.
Uitkyk began making wine in 1712, but the gorgeous white neoclassical manor house painted with delicate murals of floral bouquets, dates from 1788. Out on the Uitkyk tasting terrace, bathed in sun, with birds tweeting and parasols blooming, we were eager for a sparkler. Our glasses were filled up with small bubbles; it was dry, subtly aromatic, and incredibly moreish.
In South Africa, sparkling wine is known as MCC or "Methode Cap Classique" which here at Uitkyk was made with a mix of Chardonnay grape and pinot noir, and known as Glass Memoires – a reference to love notes engraved by ladies' rings on the window panes in the manor house. Uitkyk honours this charming heritage by serving its sparkling wine in glasses engraved with a note remembering those who inscribed the messages, and toasting future memories.
Wine plus Wolfhound
Our last stop at Mitre's Edge was my favourite – for the personal attention of the family, the wine, the atmospheric cellar tasting location in the stately Cape house, and the nonchalant enormous wolfhound, "Quinn." The family run boutique winery specialises in reds owner Lola Nicholls told us as she paired our wines with cheese, and answered questions from the group. The Mitre's Edge wines were all highly drinkable. We were served Viognier white, a 2017 rose, the nvME; a Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc blend; and the winery's bestseller the 2015 Malbec, all paired with feta, gouda, camembert, and blue brie.
Sleepy, and less than sober, we headed home to Cape Town. Lord V had promised us a quiz on everything we'd learnt on tour. Facts had to be extracted from foggy brains! My team won but we were too sated to enjoy the winning prize of red Lord V handed to us!
Wine Flies' tour was an excellent primer. I'd definitely recommend a one-day tour like this for beginners, and I'd certainly head back for more tasting sessions on a return trip to the area.