This is a large, mountainous area, and you're best off exploring it by car so that you can choose your own estates and pace. Don't try to cover the entire Winelands in a day; tackle no more than four to six estates a day, and don't forget to book a luncheon table with a vineyard view. If you're serious about your wine, take a personalized guided tour with a specialist (tours offered by large companies or prearranged by the Wine Desk tend to focus on large producers and give no sense of the wealth of environments and tastes to be had). For tailor-made trips to a carefully selected group of cellars, including the lesser-known or those that require appointments, you can't beat a tour with Stephen Flesch. Former chairman of the Wine Tasters Guild of S.A., Stephen is an ardent wine lover and personally knows many of the winemakers and proprietors of the top wine estates, and his knowledge of South African wines spans 4 decades. He will take into account your particular interests or wine preferences, and create an itinerary that covers both flash estates and the rustic farms, including lunch at one of the Winelands' top restaurants. Rates are R1,500 per day for the first person, R700 extra for each additional person (a half-day starts at R1,000). You can contact him at tel. 021/705-4317 or 083/229-3581, but book well in advance by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org; or check out his website at www.gourmetwinetours.co.za.
Espousing the principles of "slow tourism," Bikes 'n' Wines (www.bikesnwines.com) is a great new company, with tours that start in Cape Town (you meet on Long St.), and then take you to Stellenbosch by train before handing over bikes for an excursion through the winelands, stopping at four farms to taste a whole lot of wine (R290-R350 per person). Then it's back on the train to the city.
If you prefer the idea of a self-drive tour, then purchase a copy of John Platter's South African Wines (www.platteronline.com) -- updated annually and now in its 31st printing, it's still the best in the business. The definitive guide to wine in South Africa, it not only lists all the producers, but provides ratings to all their wines (some 6,000 tasted annually). Note: Even though the majority of wine estates accept credit cards for wine purchases, you should keep some cash on hand -- most estates charge a fee (R10-R40 per person) for a wine-tasting session, though this may be offset against purchases.
Pit-stop in Paarl
Paarl, 56km (35 miles) east of Cape Town, is named after the great granite rocks that loom above the town. The first European party to visit the area in 1657 watched the dawn sun reflecting off the glistening boulders after a night of rain and named it Peerlbergh (Pearl Mountain). These 500-million-year-old domes are one of the world's largest granite outcrops, second only to Ayers Rock in Australia. The town's size and overdeveloped scruffiness makes it a far less attractive stop than the chi-chi village of Franschhoek, the oak-lined avenues of Stellenbosch, or the sleepy hamlet of Tulbagh. Still, there are a number of highly respected wine estates to visit; get a map from the Paarl Information Bureau (tel. 021/863-4937; www.paarlonline.com; Mon-Fri 8am-5pm, Sat 9am-2pm, Sun 10am-2pm), on Main Road, with its 2km (1 1/4-mile) stretch of preserved buildings, difficult to observe because of the incessant traffic. Most visitors find a visit to the Taal Monument (or Afrikaans Language Monument, the large phallic sculpture visible on the slopes of Paarl Mountain) worthwhile -- the views of the valley and False Bay are excellent. To get here, drive down Main Road, passing the KWV headquarters on your left, and look for the signs to your right. Cheese lovers should head for touristy Fairview wine estate, where goat's milk cheeses can be sampled in the popular Goats Shed restaurant (tel. 021/863-2450), one of the busiest tourist stops in the Winelands. Dedicated foodies generally arrive in Paarl having reserved for the three-course lunch at Bosman's Restaurant (tel. 021/863-5100; closed mid-May to July 31), the first hotel restaurant in Africa to achieve Relais Gourmand status. Unfortunately, fabulous cuisine is marred by service that confuses sophistication with cloying formality, and a request for a glass of tap water is likely to be met with an upturned nose (not to mention scandalous reports of guests being conned into ordering ultraexpensive bottles of wine). Fortunately, there are more relaxed places to dine hereabouts. With its large windows affording views of the Klein Drakenstein mountains and massive old-fashioned skylights letting in plenty of natural light or a view of the night sky, it's fortunate that new kid on the Paarl block Die Eethuis (literally, "The Eating House"), Pastorie St. (tel. 021/871-1432), doesn't rely solely on its looks. Chef Wesley Muller prepares fine starters (like duck and wild mushroom ravioli with walnut foam) and delectable grilled meats, but also offers unexpected dishes, like sheep's tails and sweetbreads. You can also try The Restaurant at Pontac (tel. 021/872-0445), where chef Tiaan presides over wholesome hearty fare; or grab a table in the big courtyard garden at Marc's, 129 Main Rd. (tel. 021/863-3980). Besides a great wine list, there's a wide array of Mediterranean-inspired dishes. A truly fabulous dining experience is The Victorian Restaurant and Terrace, at the Rhebokskloof Private Cellar (tel. 021/869-8606; www.rhebokskloof.co.za), where innovative South African fare, like crocodile carpaccio served with rocket (arugula) leaves, toasted pumpkin seeds, and chevin goat's cheese; or springbok Wellington, wrapped in mushroom and spinach, is served overlooking the estate's manicured lawns and lake.
While I'm not for one moment suggesting that you bed down in Paarl, you may be tempted by the beautifully restored 18th-century Cape Dutch estate in which Bosman's is located: World-famous Grande Roche, Plantasie St. (tel. 021/863-5100; www.granderoche.co.za) lures the well-heeled golfing crowd to its large and luxurious rooms, surrounded by lush gardens with the Drakenstein Mountains as dramatic backdrop. It's not cheap for a town with little to hold your attention (from R2,800 double in summer), but it has all the amenities you'd expect from a classy hotel, including a spa. Too rich for your blood? Then consider Roggeland (tel. 021/868-2501; www.roggeland.co.za), another gracious 300-year-old Cape Dutch estate homestead in the Klein Drakenstein Valley, this time a good-value pad (from R1,040 double, including a four-course dinner with wine) regularly raved about by travel writers and foodies.
Alternatively, if you decide to skip lunch in Paarl, you may want to stop at Diemersfontein, a boutique winery in the Wellington area. Here, Seasons (tel. 021/873-2671) serves up very reasonably priced contemporary country-style meals. The gorgeous views make it an ideal luncheon stop -- and you might like to stock up with a case or two of their famously chocolatey Pintotage. In fact, if you decide you like the wines too much, you might just consider overnighting here; ask for the romantic Manor House Suite No. 1 ★★ (tel. 021/864-5050; www.diemersfontein.co.za; around R1,110 double).
Getting There: From Cape Town, Paarl is a straight drive along the N1; turnoffs into town are posted. To reach Paarl from Franschhoek (some 33km/20 miles northwest), simply retrace your steps down Huguenot Road and take the R303 off the main road (after the turnoff to La Motte). In town, look for the first traffic circle and turn left onto Market; keep going until Market meets Main Street.