A journey through South Africa's stunning wine region

Errol Barnett, CNNUpdated 2nd February 2012
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Western Cape, South Africa (CNN) — You can't help but be stunned by the visual splendor when walking around the Western Cape region of South Africa, in towns like Stellenbosch. Immediately you see why this part of the African continent is so well suited for the wine making craft, which was recently my mission for "Inside Africa."
The mountain ranges here reach upwards of 1,500 meters, circling a valley of rolling hills packed with rich soil. Winds become funneled forces of nature, sending gusts of clay and other minerals over the landscape. This kind of weather and topography help give Western Cape grapes their unique taste -- but to make really good wine people have to be smart.
I was surprised to learn special consideration has to be taken when deciding how rows of vines will be oriented, making the best use of direct sunlight for each individual grape. Decisions have to be made on what type of wine can be made from the variety of available vines. And choices have to be made on how much time each variety should live in the barrel before being bottled and sent to our neighborhood shops. It's much more complicated than stomp and sip and it takes a long time to learn.
Randolph Christians is the head winemaker at the centuries-old Rustenburg Estate. He worked in the area's vineyards for decades, toiling in the fields, learning every nuance of harvesting grapes. His parents immigrated to South Africa from South Asia at a time when opportunities for non-whites were essentially non-existent here. After apartheid ended he chose to join this estate working his way up from the fields to the farmhouse to the computerized offices.
He doesn't speak of resentment; to the contrary, he tells me how much he's learned and how close he is with the owner's family. In fact, Randolph shared all of his experience and technique with Murray Barlow, the owner's 20-something son. Before Murray went to university to study wine making he spent 18 months of intense field work with Randolph; learning how "read" a grape, create a tasteful blend and adapt to bad harvest conditions.
Randolph is fulfilled by working here, so much so that his own son decided to work on the property too, getting hands-on training -- and the occasional surprise test -- from his father. This familial method of expertise sharing is common in the Western Cape and part of the reason people here are so passionate about wine and making it better.
At another Dutch style vineyard across town I find indications the quality is improving. One man who knows this well is wine critic and local celebrity Michael Olivier. He's the eccentric editor for an online wine publication and greets me wearing his trademark straw boater hat. We're walking the tree-shaded grounds of Groot Constantia, a vineyard dating back to 1685, placing it among the region's oldest.
He tells me the wine here is becoming better because more people have taken a professional interest in wine making, or "vinification." With the masses studying it at university and becoming qualified, competition to make the best wine is amplified and the overall taste improves. Standing amid dozens of wine-filled barrels cased in wood imported from France, he laughs, "in the end that's good for all of us."
Beyond the established vineyards are younger upstarts on the outskirts of tow, like the M'hudi winery. It's the first black-owned vineyard in the Western Cape and has only existed for about a decade, proving just how hard it has been for black South Africans to become integrated in such an established and expensive industry. This doesn't mean they weren't welcomed. Neighbors helped them learn all aspects of making good South African wine, popping over to help out from time to time.
The M'hudi vineyard is family run; Diale Rangaka is the father working as the marketing director while Malmsey Rangaka, the mum, is CEO. The college-aged children helped develop the brand, and the concept of an organic vineyard. They use no artificial pesticides, allow for natural growth outside of the vine and constantly walk the grounds squeezing grapes making sure they're on track for the season.
Running this vineyard is the realization of a dream for the Rangaka's, a family that didn't even drink wine when they took over the farm. Malmsey told me how she started by filling half of her glass with wine and the other half with grape juice, slowly decreasing the amount of grape juice over time. I told her how surprised I was to hear this and she chuckled, saying not to worry, "the wine has kicked out the grape juice!"
So how do South African wines taste? I'm far from a connoisseur so as controversial as it may be to say, what I tasted was just like other wines from France, Italy or Australia. However, the most common white wine, the Chenin Blanc, did taste more dry, crisp and clean than others, possibly a reason this choice is most popular with international drinkers. I cannot say I was a fan of a special South African blend of grapes that make up the Pinotage variety. It's a much more acquired taste; full and fruity with an almost bubbly texture.
Wrapping up my trip, and emptying my glass, I realize the defining element for South Africa's wines wasn't the mountains, the soil, the history or even the taste. It's the daily determination of vineyard owners and their staff (if they have them) to nurture each grape, be involved in each step of the process and learn from every seasonal challenge. It's an inspiring realization that natural resources don't define the people who live among it: it's their own drive, their own self-improvement and their humility in helping others.
Next we venture to Cape Town's famous Table Mountain to meet special people working to protect its forgotten history.
Join me to see what my next discovery will be "Inside Africa."