Category Archives: South Africa

Wine is Too Cheap, and Other Lessons from a South African Harvest (Part 2)

This story is continued from “Wine is too cheap: Working Harvest in South Africa (Part 1)


Cradling Riesling. Paul Cluver makes far too little of this wonderful wine.

As a tasting exercise during meals, Burger pulled two bottles of wine for me and the assistant winemaker Drew to sample blind and guess the grapes and origin. We could ask four strategic questions to narrow down the answer. Swirling and sniffing, we discussed the attributes in each glass. “This wine has the aromatics of a Sauvignon Blanc,” I’d comment, and we’d ponder whether it included Sémillon as a blend. The cellar hands, peculiarly, had little interest in tasting wine with us, despite spending all day in the pursuit its production. Only one team member extended his glass for a sample, although he contemplated the wine quietly at the other end of the table. The rest preferred to drink hard cider (a new Cluver product using their orchard apples.)


The inside of the Cluver cellar.

In my mind, I could ascribe reasons for the local black employees’ lack of interest: they perceived wine as a white person drink or possibly it seemed complicated or expensive or maybe they felt intimidated to talk about it around their white, educated employers. Maybe they didn’t like the taste, or maybe working at a winery was as much a job to them as picking apples or working in a factory; a job they desperately needed in a country with 25 percent unemployment. Too desperate to worry whether the Pinot showed red or black cherry fruit. Whatever the impetus, their disinterest carried a tinge of sadness that seemed to allude to a larger socioeconomic dynamic within the country.


Part of the cellar crew.

When I first arrived at the farm, I asked Burger if any other interns would be joining us. “A few months ago I had two German wine students emailing me about flying down” he said. “However, this season I decided to give the work to the local men who needed the position – and pay – more than a foreign intern student [interns are unpaid].” His decision demonstrated a smart and solicitous attitude towards the welfare of his community.

Speaking to some of the cellar staff over punch downs or mopping, they seemed happy for the work they had. But few believed moving up in the wine industry – beyond a cellar rat role – would ever be possible. Did they want for enterprise, or believe in the existence of an employment ceiling, knowing better than I with my American optimism, that black South Africans just don’t get assistant winemaker jobs? (It’s important to note that most winemaking positions require viticulture and oenology degrees, and have become scarce even for those holding one, due to increased competition. Of course, aspiring winemakers need money to attend school in the first place.) Clearly these are complicated questions with roots deeper than my time in South Africa afforded me to dig.

According to Burger, programs to provide training and certification to cellar staff interested in pursuing long-term employment in the industry are growing. Also, the Cape Winemakers Guild, of which Burger is chairman, instituted a protégé program to help young students with demonstrated aptitude, finish school and gain winemaking experience through a three-year paid internship at Guild member wineries. It seems there is progress afoot.


Most gals sorted and cleaned, but she ran the forklift.

For two weeks, I aided a tight knit team of people in the process of moving grapes from vine to barrel (obviously I wasn’t there long enough to see any wine through to bottling). Ascending and descending ladders; lifting, bending, squatting, and standing all day on one’s feet. Winemaking isn’t for out-of-shape acrophobes afraid of injury and long hours. And, frankly, it is still a male-dominated industry, from the head winemaker, down to the cellar hands (at the majority of wineries I’ve visited around the world, not just in South Africa). It’s not that women can’t do the physical labor (yes we can, dammit), but it could be a limiting factor for some women when considering winemaking versus wine marketing, as a career path.

The experience also cemented my belief that consumers demand too much wine for too little money. The number of hands (and risks) involved in turning healthy grapes into a characterful, lively drink, let alone one with a soul that speaks of a singular time and place, are numerous.

Vines only bear usable grapes several years after planting. Pruning, pests, disease, weather, and now a changing climate: all these variables demand management and determine the quality of the fruit. Add training in proper picking and sorting technique, ensuring healthy ferments, keeping the power on so your temperature controlled tank stays cool. There are many critical points in the process where mistakes (not catching bacterial spoilage in the wine), accidents (falling into a tank and dying), and natural catastrophes (birds wiping out a vineyard), can lead to long-term consequences. Producers only get one vintage a year from which to earn an income.

Winemaking IS washing.

Winemaking is washing.

And what about the farm workers: the cogs in the wheel of the wine industry? Minimum wage for agricultural labor in South Africa is 130 rand a day (about $10 U.S. dollars). Many employees live on the farms of their employers; those that don’t, and can’t afford cars (most), are transported by trucks en masse from their villages to work and then home again at night. The Cluvers commendably provide education and health care for employees and their children, but these basic securities aren’t accessible to many others around the country. (Not to single out South Africa, the U.S. has a troubling reliance on cheap Mexican and Central American labor.)


Fermentation cap on an ambient yeast Chardonnay.

The wine business is fraught with fragility, tenuously held together by people who share a common devotion to its cause, not big salaries and handsome margins. But that doesn’t justify forcing producers to price wine arbitrarily at $11.99 because consumers have decided that’s all they want to pay or because they perceive, to use South Africa as an example, the wines to be cheap because they historically were. Government and our three-tier distribution system all take big bites out of that figure, too. Writers that argue solely in favor of drinking cheap wine do an injustice to the industry at large by perpetuating the notion that wine should be inexpensive and accessible to all at all times, while failing to acknowledge that often the only way to achieve low price points is at the expense of someone else’s livelihood, or quality, or worse, both.

Shouldn’t the producer turn some profit to compensate for their risk and investment in the business? Shouldn’t winemakers afford to pay off education loans and save for their future? Shouldn’t a laborer earn a living wage to buy a $20 dollar bus ticket to see a sister in Johannesburg, the equivalent of two bottles of weeknight Merlot from the supermarket?

Before my sojourn to South Africa, I admired winemakers for their labor of love, but mostly as a notion, an ideal. After spending two weeks with one – especially one making wines of purity and finesse (now that I’ve tasted Burger’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), while balancing the well-being of his team and minding the pesky bottom line – I’ve found that ideal chiefly congruent with reality. While I’m not sure I want to follow in his footsteps permanently back up that ladder, I might work another harvest; after all, in their line of work, I’m cheap labor.


Drew, Andries, Me, and Dr. Cluver

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Wine is Too Cheap, and Other Lessons from a South African Harvest (Part 1)

Looking at its narrow frame and spindly rungs, lashed to the top of a seemingly skyscraper-high steel tank by a single, knotted rope, I was briefly prompted into panic. But winemaker Andries Burger’s comment echoed in my head: “the two French girls we had last season did everything the men did. They carried buckets up those ladders.” With my right leg trembling, I fought the instinct to remain grounded and clambered to the top, balancing the metal handle of my plastic container of nitrogen addition (to keep yeast happy and functioning), awkwardly in the crook of my elbow.  It would be a small, short-lived victory. By the end of the day, ladders posed no more challenge than climbing into a car. I had a new problem: how to punch down Pinot Noir grapes without falling into the tank (and suffocating from CO2).Winemaking is a physically demanding job. Particularly during harvest when hours are long and grapes are waiting; days can start as early as five in the morning and continue well past the last rays of light for months. As a writer on the topic, I felt understanding the finer details of the process, set within the broader framework of the wine industry as I already knew it, would make me a better, more insightful journalist, and possibly more sympathetic to the challenges and choices winemakers face.

Riesling grapes waiting to be sorted.

To sample the experience, I elected to join Paul Cluver in Elgin, South Africa for an unpaid, two-week internship during the recent 2015 vintage. My participation was part of a larger initiative aimed at encouraging women to work in the wine industry, the brainchild of Kathy Jordan of Jordan Wine Estate in Stellenbosch.
The “women in wine” mentoring program elicited applications both from around the world and locally, in conjunction with the support of Jancis Robinson (the world’s most notable woman wine journalist), to join harvest with a member winery of PIWOSA (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa, a collection of likeminded producers pooling their marketing dollars and power.) Applicants needed to hold either a winemaking degree or the WSET Diploma. I carry the latter.My résumé was selected by a winery nestled in the cool-climate Elgin Valley. Burger, the longtime winemaker, earned a reputation for producing elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with one of the finest sought after Rieslings in the country. Not being available in the New York market, I banked on the Cluver reputation by flying to the southern hemisphere to work at a winery without having first tasted its wines.

Tall and burly with vivid blue eyes, I figured Burger for the winemaker as I exited Cape Town airport. We drove off in his bucky (South African for truck) and 45-minutes later arrived for lunch at the local Elgin farm stall/bakery/pie shop Peregrine. Eager to jump into the rhythm of the country’s meat-hearty diet, I opted for a taste of the native game and ordered springbok pie (antelope-gazelle, ubiquitous around southwestern Africa).


Zebras and an ostrich sharing a feeding bowl in the sanctuary. Likely a tenuous friendship.

My accommodations (like many of the winery employees, as well as the entire Cluver clan) sat two kilometers deep into the family farm, a sprawling property of apple and pear orchards, and vineyards, defined partially by mountain borders. The Cluvers carved out space for a wildlife sanctuary (home to two zebras and two ostriches, comically fed from jumbo bowls) and built a challenging mountain biking course to tempt ripped athletes in colorful Lycra from around the world. A natural amphitheater set within towering ghost gum trees drew a large domestic audience for monthly summer concerts.

I was assigned a modest cottage, an old laborer’s dwelling that sat at the base of several vineyards (the same Pinot grapes I’d be fighting with later in the week). A rondavel formed the attached bedroom. It had a conical thatched roof like those that capped traditional dwellings in the bush or luxury safari properties mimicking the experience for well-heeled tourists. My temporary home fell midway on the spectrum between the two (I had hot, running water, but lacked a dedicated gin and tonic butler.)

That first night, I collapsed on the bed; I hadn’t lain down in nearly thirty hours since departing New York. Peering into the shadows of the cone-shaped ceiling, I wondered if I might find a bird (or a bat) nesting in its cavity. Outside, the wind surged and retreated, beating at the hut’s walls like the pounding of ocean surf against an intruding rock. At that point, the reality of my location finally switched from dream state to “on.” I was alone, in the dark, on a wine farm, in Africa. Mercifully, sunlight washes clean the dramas of the nocturnal mind and I awoke fresh for the start of my first day.

Mornings at the winery started just past seven. One facet of the harvest experience I would escape was grape picking. Hand harvesting of bunches occurred in the chilled air of night. Local workers were trucked out to designated rows at ten o’clock P.M. where they snipped with shears and headlamps until dawn.  It looked difficult; exhausting. But the grapes, ranging from Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, to Pinot Noir, remained cool, plump, and taut for pressing the following morning, while the workers avoided the grueling daytime heat.


The ladies found me hilarious for a number of unfavorable reasons.

The days took on a fairly predictable, labor-intensive routine. After the dawn delivery of fruit (the pickers would head home to snooze until dusk), grapes were hand-sorted to pull out rotten, infected, shriveled, or generally defective specimens. Pictures posted near the table reminded workers what flaws to identify. The female team, composed of permanent and seasonal employees, always sorted. Never the men, who made up the core team of cellar workers. The ladies chatted and laughed about the daily soap opera viewed the night before (so they said). Speaking Afrikaans, their dialogue was inscrutable, but they seemed amused at teaching me words so they could snicker at my atrocious pronunciation.

After the sorting table, grapes went through the de-stemmer (unless left intact for whole bunch pressing, e.g., Chardonnay). White grapes then went to the Vaslin press, and red grapes went into tanks to start cold maceration. The rest of the day was spent monitoring the progress of presses, cleaning, tasting and recording the development of ongoing fermentations, cleaning, punching down red grapes (the act of puncturing the thick “cap” of grape skins and solid matter that float to the top of a tank so as to integrate it back into the juice below), cleaning, making additions with buckets on ladders (like the aforementioned nitrogen), transferring wine between tanks, cleaning, and then washing down equipment, followed by cleaning, cleaning, and cleaning. I started to believe winemaking was 50 percent cleaning. (Another winemaker I met estimates it at 75 percent).

We spent lunch as a family, or at least I felt like I carried the Cluver surname given the warmth they extended and interest they took in my city life back in New York. Burger actually is family: he married Inge Cluver, the eldest daughter of Dr. Paul Cluver (the patriarch and a former neurosurgeon), who works in the office alongside her brother Paul (the managing director), Karin (production director), Inge (financial manager), and sister Liesl (marketing director). For a family that lives a short stroll away from each other, and works an even shorter distance apart, they maintained a remarkable harmony.


Night picking by headlamp to avoid the heat of the day, for both worker and grapes.

Repast discussions toggled between updates on the vineyards to updates on the orchards. The other hot topic: installation of a new solar panel system. South Africans have endured a year of “load shedding,” a polite term for the equivalent of rolling power blackouts scheduled (and sometimes not) around the country, instituted by the mismanaged, national power company to deal with an aging, overloaded grid. With many more years of blackouts projected, the Cluvers had the foresight (and wherewithal) to reduce their carbon footprint as much as to protect their investments.

The energy at dinner was different. The cellar staff and winemaking team gathered for evening family meal (exclusive of the women who cleaned and sorted). Offerings cooked or purchased by the daytime staff, were simple and hearty — sausages, chicken, hot dogs, and salami sandwiches. Most nights, dinner only provided a break in the work before the men returned to the floor to finish the last press and then, of course, clean.

Continued tomorrow in Part 2: The life of a cellar worker.


Harvest ink.


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Why South Africa Is One of the Most Exciting Wine Regions in the World

Mullineux Vineyards in Swartland

Mullineux Vineyards in Swartland. All images by Lauren Mowery

If you missed my Village Voice column Unscrewed

Lurching forward, rocking back, the black Jeep fought for purchase on the jagged rocks and loose soil of the Paardeberg mountain slope. Perched on the edge of the leather seat, I grasped the roll bar above me to avoid swaying into my co-passenger’s lap. Four adults had squeezed into the barely three-person rear of the vehicle as rides into the eucalyptus forest, our destination that evening, were scarce.

The Jeep continued climbing parallel to a vineyard studded with waist-high, twisted, thick trunks. Old bush vines, clearly, given their knobby appearance and the vineyard owner’s penchant for working with them. We had alighted just above the A.A. Badenhorst Kalmoesfontein Farm, the site of the Badenhorst family’s annual harvest party, and the vintage had just concluded. As dusk descended, the Jeep’s driver, a harvest intern at the nearby Mullineux farm, snagged a shadowy spot cast by two towering trees. Getting out of the car, I was enveloped in glowing pinpoints of light. Dust particles suspended in the late summer air sparkled with the last of the waning sun’s luminosity, setting the tone for the dreamlike night ahead.

I found myself tagging along to the party after working a few weeks of the 2015 vintage in South Africa this February. The Paul Cluver winery in Elgin (a cool-climate region southeast of Cape Town) was my station, but after the stint concluded, I’d scurried northwest by two hours in time to catch the precious ride I’d sourced via email through stateside South African wine importer Pascal Schildt. Rumors about previous years’ antics — all-night alcohol-fueled debauchery — coupled with a few outsiders’ impressions of Swartland as an ego-driven, insular community, left me feeling vaguely like an interloper crashing the clandestine celebration of a wine-worshipping cult. Whatever I would find, my goal lay less in rallying with strangers in the inky darkness of the South African woods, than in seizing the opportunity to encounter a multitude of the region’s vinous visionaries in one spot, even if they’d likely be plastered.

While Swartland’s winemakers are not actual members of a cult, they do fervently profess to abide by a common ethos: to sustainably produce transparent, terroir-driven wines with natural ferments and indigenous yeast. And those wines have ignited a cult-like following, with Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wine, as the early de facto leader, soon joined by cheeky, charismatic Adi Badenhorst. Sadie’s study in syrah and mourvedre, blended to produce his now-legendary Columella (first vintage in 2000), first galvanized interest and investment in the region.

Swartland begins around 35 miles north of Cape Town, along with a creeping shift in scenery and terrain. It’s a hot, dry place with low rainfall and poor soils like schist and granite, once known for bulk production; vines planted decades ago in a burst of experimentation were practically forgotten as the fine wine industry moved on to focus firmly on Bordeaux-style blends in Stellenbosch or Franschhoek. Driving through its wide dusty expanse dotted distantly with golden, wheat bearing hills and rocky outcroppings, Swartland reminded me of a frontier region left to the devices of pioneers and ranchers, and evoked the last untrammeled enclaves of rural California.

Thus, the apparent chasm between Swartland’s wine producers and those of the rest of the Western Cape is not defined by miles, but by their collective outlook and ability to see opportunity in the region’s uniquely challenging growing conditions. Plus, they are imbued with an anti-commercial spirit (although prove shrewd at branding and pricing, which may strike outsiders as philosophically incongruous, perhaps explaining a measure of Swartland-directed enmity). With land priced much more economically than elsewhere, a likeminded set of younger, intrepid winemakers decamped for it, many seeking to plant new vines while rescuing some of the country’s oldest fruit — e.g., chenin, grenache — from demise by cash-strapped farmers on the brink of ripping out the low-yielding plants. The wines’ styles are largely unaltered; for example, producers eschew robust new French oak treatment (which requires money anyway) in favor of natural, balanced expressions that articulate the secrets shared between dirt and vine.


Loire (chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc), Rhone (syrah, grenache, viognier), plus Spanish and Portuguese varieties as well as South Africa’s hallmark pinotage, exemplify the diversity of plantings. Blends, especially for whites like Andrea and Chris Mullineux’s fragrant and full-bodied clairette, chenin, and viognier, and single vineyard expressions, such as their granite-based syrah, are a focus of production.

Swartland’s self-described “revolution” (actualized by an annual party in November celebrating the people and their wines), has spurred newfound international attention on the country as a whole. A rising tide lifts all boats, helping to spotlight the growing ranks of cutting edge producers hailing from other areas like Hemel-en-Aarde, Bot River, Elgin, and even a few newer projects in Stellenbosch. There has never been a more exciting time for South African wine, especially for American drinkers who now have access to them.

As for the rest of that moonlit night in the eucalyptus forest, what happened in Swartland, will stay in Swartland, although a highlight I can comfortably reveal was the sunglass-donning, cherub boy fountain urinating gin for self-serve G&Ts. I also discovered an eclectic, cautiously hospitable group of winemakers (shock that a New Yorker had made it to their remote party was a recurring conversational theme), who had developed a fierce sense of community. To move there, farm, and make wine paradoxically strengthens one’s independence while fostering dependence on one’s neighbors; such an endeavor will inevitably cultivate strong bonds.

Here are ten South African producers to watch (all available in NYC):

Mullineux, Swartland. White Blend ’13, $30. Husband and wife team. She’s originally from California. All of their wines are fantastic, from the entry-level Kloof Street label, to their high-end soil studies through chenin and syrah. White blend is one of their richer wines at a lower price point. It’s redolent of flowers, apples, and hay. Broad but focused. (Importer: Kysela)

Three Foxes Project, Swartland. Clairette ’13, $29. Joint project between importer Pascal Schildt, his brother, and Chris Mullineux. Made from 70-year-old dry farmed grapes rescued from destruction. A textural wine from skin contact, it’s bright, citrusy, and low-alcohol. (Importer: Pascal Schildt)

Fram, Swartland. Chardonnay ’14, $15. Young guy also making killer chenin, syrah, and pinotage at accessible price points. This chardonnay, the fruit sourced from Robertson, not Swartland, exhibits an unusual intensity of tropical perfume for the variety. Full of pineapple, ripe pears, guava notes, it’s surprisingly clean and refreshing on the finish. (Pascal Schildt)

David, Swartland. Grenache ’14, $45. Rising star with the last name Sadie, but since he’s unrelated to Eben, he uses his first name to avoid confusion. Wines coming soon to the U.S. The grenache is earthy and dusty with plums, red fruits, and a hint of mint on the finish. (Pascal Schildt)

Thorne and Daughters, Bot River. Rocking Horse White ’13, $30. Another promising young label blending wines with grapes sourced across the Western Cape. Roussanne, chardonnay, semillon, and chenin compose this broad, textured, floral, and fruity white. (Pascal Schildt)

Crystallum, Bot River. Peter Max Pinot Noir ’13, $30. Two brothers (descendants of pinot pioneer Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson brand) focusing on pinot and chardonnay out of Walker Bay. A savory, smoky, red fruit driven wine with firm tannins. (Pascal Schildt)

Botanica, Stellenbosch. Western Cape, Chenin ’12, $25. American female Ginny Povall moved to South Africa to make wine. She runs a wonderful guesthouse in Stellenbosch but sources fruit from all over, including from the same area as the acclaimed Sadie Family Skurfberg chenin. Similar old vine dry farmed fruit goes into her mineral-focused, slightly oxidative version. (Pascal Schildt)

Riebeek Cellars, Swartland. Cabernet Sauvignon ’13, $11. Value-focused producer with unbeatable wines for the prices. This cab shows dark black fruits, cassis, and herbs, with a soft structure. (Kysela)

Keermont, Stellenbosch. Red Blend ’11, $50. One of Stellenbosch’s newer projects, this merlot, cab franc, cab sauv, and syrah blend delivers a smoky, meaty, rich, dense and ripe experience. Filled with cassis, blue fruit, plum, spice, it makes a great swap for a Howell Mountain Napa Cab at a relatively economical price. (Kysela)

Tierhoek, Piekenierskloof. Sauvignon Blanc ’14, $18. Small, certified organic producer with a new female winemaker. The high altitude fruit for this wine brings a tingly grapefruit, citrus character with striking, fresh acidity. Not pungent like an NZ S.B.; rather, refreshing and well-priced. (Pascal Schildt)

Other notable producers available in New York include Swartland icons A. A. Badenhorstand Sadie Family, plus Savage, Alheit Vineyards, and Radford Dale. Paul Cluver in Elgin makes beautiful pinot, chardonnay, and riesling, but is not yet available in our market.

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Sleep Here: Le Quartier Francais, Franschhoek, South Africa


All images by Lauren Mowery

Le Quartier Francais

If a hotel can embody the spirit of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel Secret Garden, Le Quartier Francais comes close.  On Franschhoek’s main street, an unassuming front entrance adjacent to the outdoor patio of the property’s cocktail and wine bar belies the escapist fantasy waiting inside. Guests and visitors must funnel through common spaces, past très chic French décor punctuated by African accents, and whimsical rabbits perched on pedestals in anthropomorphic poses, to reach the rose- and jasmine-scented courtyard oasis. Echoing the sentiments of the book, time spent shuttered away within Le Quartier’s serene confines, provides a tonic for the neuroses and afflictions of day-to-day life.

The family-owned, boutique property offers more than just the curative aromatics of a lush garden in summer bloom. A range of “Le Quartier” rooms to various sized “Auberge” and “Four Quarter” suites, suit a spectrum of budgets and spatial needs. All rooms are immaculately dressed in sensuous textiles and warm, playful colors with bright accents (my color shock came in vibrant pink), feature touches like fireplaces and towel warming bars, and boast details such as wood-beamed ceilings to contribute old-world charm. Serving as the focal point of the courtyard, guests can relax poolside with views of the steadfast, cloud-capped Franshhoek Mountains, promising themselves to step foot off the property for a stroll through town. At some point. Or  maybe visit a vineyard (I recommend Chamonix followed by lunch at Solms-Delta). At some point.


Sparring rabbits and blooming gardens


LQF serves a thorough, fresh breakfast in the brightly-hued garden room which feels evocative of vacationing on a French island, St. “Somewhere” in the Caribbean (Saint-Barthélemy?). A buffet featuring enormous, flaky croissants, a selection of seasonal fruits and juices, three types of homemade granola, plus a hot breakfast menu, come with the room rate. The most acclaimed restaurant in town, The Tasting Room by chef Margot Janse, calls LQF home. (Note: the restaurant closes on Sundays. Such was my luck during my recent visit.)


Breakfast spread with the city’s best croissant


Highlights: A book, a mountain view, a cocktail, all by the pool in the afternoon. Croissants at breakfast: they must be the best in the village.


Tucked off the main avenue of the romantic, French-flavored village of Franshhoek in South African wine country, 45-minutes out of Cape Town.


Room #11



  • Full breakfast
  • Gym (nearby)
  • Wi-fi
  • Heated towel racks
  • Nespresso coffee and tea service in rooms
  • Pool
  • Restaurant and bar
  • Spa
  • Library
  • Secure parking

Bar and Lounge


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Postcard: Sunset Over Stellenbosch, South Africa

StellsunsetSunset over the Upper Blaauwklippen Valley, Stellenbosch, South Africa 


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Sleep Here: The Cellars-Hohenort Constantia Valley, Cape Town, South Africa


All images by Lauren Mowery


The Cellars-Hohenort

Transporting guests back in time to a more genteel epoch, Relais & Châteaux property The Cellars-Hohenort predictably attracts an older (almost elderly), stylish crowd.  One of three Liz McGrath properties (the iconic hotelier who also owns The Plettenberg in Plettenberg Bay and The Marine in Hermanus), the historic manor, adjacent to the stunning estates and vineyards of Constantia, dates back to 1693. Originally called the Klaasenbosch Farm, the Cellars-Hohenort was the expansive estate that belonged to the chief surgeon of the Dutch East India Company, Hendrik ten Damme.


Recently refurbished, today’s patrons can spend mornings at local wineries, and afternoons wandering the fragrant gardens blooming with rose and jasmine on the path to sunbathe at one of two pools.  A chic spa and hair salon ensure guests are relaxed and perfectly coiffed prior to dinner at highly-awarded The Greenhouse, run by R&C Grand Chef Peter Tempelhoff. The restaurant is bright and airy, enclosed in glass — hence the name — with white furnishings stamped in a green plant motif. No need to go off-site for a post-prandial; a range of wines and cocktails can be sampled at the Martini Bar.


Table Mountain is an impressive vision, made especially so from the privacy of a terrace room at Hohenort. Accommodation runs from luxury villas, suites, to smartly-furnished singles. My room, “almond,” was a charming space in eggshell white and seaglass blue, with French doors opening on to the pool. Outdoor furniture needs updating, and some edges of the property show the fray of time, but the freshest common rooms blend contemporary textiles, patterns, and colors with antique furniture and objets d’art.


Highlight: Exploring the gardens while in full, intoxicating bloom; breakfast of eggs Benedict and fresh summer fruit on the terrace.


Situated on 9.5 acres of lush, manicured gardens, the Hohenort lay a few minutes’ drive from the wineries of Constantia Valley and approximately 20 minutes from the CBD of Cape Town, South Africa.



  • Two award-winning restaurants, including The Greenhouse
  • Bar
  • Business center
  • Tennis court
  • Two pools
  • Spa and Hair Salon
  • Wifi
  • Private transfer available upon request
  • Acres of gardens



Ariana van der Merwe

+27 (0)21 794 5535

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Sleep Here: Vineyard Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa

Vineyard Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa 


Seamlessly blending old with new, the Vineyard Hotel on the fringe of Cape Town in South Africa, delivers the charm of a 200-year-old heritage house with the comfort of modern amenities and stylish décor, all set to a stunning backdrop of Table Mountain along the Liesbeeck River.

Contemporary architecture utilizing glass and steel, has expanded the property beyond the original wood structure, delightfully wrapped during summertime in green vines punctuated by shocks of pink blooms. Built in 1799 by British colonial servant Andrew Barnard for his Scottish wife Lady Anne Lindsay, the property’s name derived from the vineyards found near the grounds at the time. Notably, it was the first English country house built in South Africa. Lady Anne set to cultivating beautiful, meandering gardens along the riverfront setting, which still afford guests today the chance to enjoy indigenous flora and fauna and abundant bird life.

Chic rooms feature cool color palates in contemporary fabrics; mine was in soothing sandstone and sky blue. The mountain view reminded why I came to South Africa in the first place: It boasts one of the most spectacular landscapes on earth. The warm service at the hotel left me wishing I’d had more time to relax on the beautiful grounds or utilize amenities like the expansive fitness center, exceptionally equipped for a hotel gym.


Highlight of Stay

The Javanese massage at the spa. Poolside with views of Table Mountain.



Tucked into the leafy, upscale suburb of Newlands, the Vineyard Hotel is within easy walking distance of the up-market Cavendish Shopping Centre and is just 10 minutes away from the City Center and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.



  • 207 Rooms
  • Conference center
  • Free Wifi
  • Indoor and outdoor pools
  • Two restaurants, a lounge, plus patio and poolside dining
  • Angsana Spa by the Banyan Tree Group
  • Hair salon
  • Fully equipped fitness center
  • Garden walkways and jogging paths along the Liesbeeck River
  • Two tortoises, Herbert and Gloria


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Q&A with Paul Cluver Winery in Elgin, South Africa

Paul Cluver and Winemaker Andries Burger

Paul Cluver and Winemaker Andries Burger

Yesterday’s post posited the argument that wine writers should join a harvest at some point in their careers in order to better grasp the fundamentals behind the bottle. I’ve decided to take that challenge and have joined the winemaking team at Paul Cluver Winery for a short, but hopefully illuminating, two week stint over February and March.

The Cluvers pioneered winemaking in the Elgin Valley, touted as South Africa’s answer to the global call for “cool-climate” wines. A review of their line-up confirms it: they produce Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurztraminer. The family has owned the property since 1896, but came from Bremen, Germany originally. The vast farm boasts a renowned mountain biking track, and an amphitheater employed for summer concerts, in addition to commercial pear and apple orchards (and two zebras).

Prior to my arrival, Paul Cluver, managing director of the family business, answered a few questions about the farm, his best memories in 20 years at the winery, and the wines he likes to drink (other than his own Seven Flags).

Striped Donkeys or Zebras?

Striped Donkeys or Zebras?

When were the first vines planted and how have the vineyards/winery evolved since inception?

My father planted the first vineyards in 1987, and in 1990 Paul Cluver Wines became the first wines bottled as wine of origin in Elgin. We planted a wide variety of grapes in the beginning, including varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz.  Over time we have focused more on the varietals which we found we excel at: cool climate white varietals and Pinot Noir.   Our winery was founded after apartheid, so the dissolution of it did not affect our business.

How many wines do you currently produce? How did you decide on those varieties?

We produce a total of 10 wines from five different varietals.  Sauvignon blanc, two Chardonnays, three Rieslings, three Pinot Noirs, and a Gewürztraminer. Our focus is to produce the best wine we can within South Africa for each wine we make given the area we are in and what our terroir can produce.  Over the last 20 years we have started to better understand our terroir and which varietals do well here.

What are some of your best memories at the winery?

Being rated in the top ten wineries of South Africa, our winemaker joining the Cape Winemakers Guild, the release of our first Seven Flags Pinot Noir, and being recognized for our contribution to sustainable production.

Has keeping the winery a family operation been difficult?

We have an amazing family that has worked well together through the generations. Sure there have been challenges, but those challenges have helped us become better at what we do.

Has climate change impacted your region yet?

No, although it is something that we are very conscious about.

How has Elgin changed in the last decade?

The fruit industry in Elgin experienced a very negative cycle from the mid-nineties to about 2005. During this time, the wine industry took off in Elgin Valley.  Luckily, the fortunes of the fruit industry have improved in the last couple of years.

How has the South African wine industry changed in the last decade?

One of the major changes has been the fact that the world has opened up for South Africa.  This has given us the opportunity to travel and learn. Most South African winemakers end up working at least one season overseas, learning and experiencing the quality of what the world has to offer. At the same time, we have been privileged to be visited by some of the most passionate wine personalities in the world.

What excites you most about South Africa’s vinous future?

Our ability to pursue excellence without being limited by legislation like in European wine growing regions.

What frustrates you most about South Africa’s wine industry? What could be improved?

The fact that we have such a low image overseas.  I believe our wines offer exceptional quality but they are not recognized for the quality they offer.  We all need to work together to improve our image overseas.

Do you ever visit the U.S.? 

Yes.  I have been there every year for the last several years.  I usually go to the East Coast (New York, Boston, Richmond and Florida), Chicago and recently have also been to Seattle and Dallas.  I love New York City

Where do you like to go for a holiday?

My wife and I love going on safaris, although we also love travelling in general.  We have our favourites like New York, Paris and Burgundy although we also love discovering new places.

What non-S.A. wines do you like to drink?

I try to drink as many different wines from as many different places as I can in order to learn as much as possible.  My favourite areas are Burgundy, German Rieslings and Pinot Noir, and Loire wines.


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Should Wine Writers Join a Harvest?



Cradling Riesling Grapes

The fundamental physicality and mechanics of winemaking have eluded me until now. Raised in the uniformity of America’s Midwestern suburbs, and seeking their antithesis for the last fifteen years living and working in New York City, neither locale has afforded any opportunity for immersion in vineyard life.

As a wine journalist, I’ve often wondered if it’s fair to producers of this highly romanticized elixir, to proffer opinions, particularly harsh criticism, without having learnt in situ how it’s made. I’ve studied books, and taken courses in viticulture and vinification (and earned my WSET Diploma doing so); I’ve traveled to vineyards as close to home as Long Island and far-flung as New Zealand and Namibia. The countless tank and barrel room tours, and long repasts with winemakers discussing the trials of a particularly tough vintage, have been illuminating, but knowing and doing sit on two different planes of experience. I’ve never beheld firsthand the hand-wringing over picking in the face of inclement weather, or witnessed the minutiae of decisions, as they occur, that lead to a wine’s final expression in the bottle; decisions that culminate with the consumer’s delight or dissatisfaction, and a critic’s reputation-making or -breaking score.


Trimming Riesling Grapes

A deeper understanding of a subject always leads to a greater appreciation of it (e.g., oft bewildering modern art, with context, can become less so), so should participation in a harvest, then, be a prerequisite for a wine writer? What about a wine critic who calculates scores? Will knowing firsthand, for example, the struggle to grow healthy, sustainable grapes, while fighting pests and a changing climate, cultivate greater compassion, forgiveness even, towards the end product, especially a wine that might otherwise be determined unremarkable? Could it abrade objectivity? Conversely, a behind the scenes experience might dispense with part of the “backstory” illusion employed as a marketing tool (sometimes genuine, sometimes deceptive), and result in a more informed, and thus critical eye at tastings.

With these questions in mind, I arrived in South Africa last Saturday, to join the team at Paul Cluver Winery in Elgin, for two weeks of harvest.

My internship at Paul Cluver Winery came about after I learned of a global search for female interns by the PIWOSA group (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa). In an effort to encourage women to explore careers in the wine industry, the member wineries accepted applicants holding either a winemaking or WSET Diploma certification. The Cluvers, including longtime winemaker Andries Burger (married into the family) selected my application, and invited me to their winery and into their homes.


Winemaker Andries Burger

Prior to departing, I emailed a few questions about the farm, the region, and South Africa in general, to Paul Cluver, the managing director of the family business. To read that interview, click here.

I hope the culmination of my time at the farm will conclude with clarity on the winemaking process, and lend a deeper respect for the people who get grapes from the vine, into a bottle, and to our tables. But as is often the case with learning, it rarely settles curiosity and questions, but rather drives deeper inquiry.


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Postcard: Harvest at Paul Cluver Wines


Hands of assistant winemaker Drew Harty at Paul Cluver Winery in Elgin, South Africa, cradling Riesling grapes

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