Jewel of The Cape

Words by: Amanda Barnes

A hand drawn illustration of a pioneer settler in Stellenbosch

Home to the Delaire Graff Estate in South Africa, the spirit of the first pioneers who founded the Stellenbosch Valley lives on in the region’s illustrious wine heritage, Cape Dutch architecture and spectacular 360-degree panoramas.

As so often happens in wine, a humble intention can lead to an unexpected and far more glorious result. The bubbles in Champagne were an accident of bottling wine with a little sweetness to soften the flavour; the creation of the great fortified wines of Port was a measure only intended to make the wines seaworthy; and, in the case of South Africa, the wine industry was essentially started as a cure for scurvy.

The sparsely inhabited tip of Africa was midway on the treacherous eight-month journey that Dutch sailors took from Holland to Indonesia. The spice trade was roaring, and business was good for the Dutch East India Company, which ruled the seas between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Aside from the unabating threat of shipwreck, the company had one other very serious problem – its crew kept perishing from scurvy. Following long stints at sea, sailors were blighted with the disease which, unbeknown to them, was caused by a lack of vitamin C. Although the cure wasn’t discovered until three centuries later, having some fruit, wine and rest seemed to help, and so the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town in the 1650s as a supply station to refuel and recharge during voyages.

The first Commander of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, fancied himself as a medic of sorts and declared Cape wine as the doctor’s orders to keep the scurvy at bay and lull the sailors into a relaxed mindset as they carried along the perilous spice route. He planted the first vines and fruit trees in South Africa, and on 2 February 1659 Riebeeck wrote home about his first vintage, praising God for the ‘very fragrant and tasty’ wine he had made from those original vines. Whether it was as fragrant or tasty as Riebeeck describes is debatable (the Dutch were far better brewers than winemakers).

While it is highly unlikely Riebeeck’s wine would be anything to write home about today, it was enough to attract attention in Europe and convince others to travel and settle in the Cape.

Deborah Bell sculptures

Simon van der Stel took over from Riebeeck as Commander of the Cape in 1679 and explored beyond the confines of coastal Cape Town, heading deeper into the great Floral Kingdom, where the fragranced and biodiverse Cape Flats promised greater prospects for cultivation. Vines were planted towards the hills of Constantia, over Table Mountain, and eventually made their way to the fertile valley of Stellenbosch. The rich soils, protected climate and higher lands were paradise found for viticulture, and Stellenbosch – named after its intrepid founder – remains at the heart of the African wine industry today.

Van der Stel was also smart enough to bring the Huguenots, fleeing from their own winelands in France, to the highlands of Stellenbosch in the late 1680s. They brought with them French wine expertise and knowledge, establishing the sub-region of Franschhoek – ‘French Corner’ – where the verifiably quaffable wines lent prestige to a growing industry.

Although wine production had flourished with relative ease, transporting the wines from Franschhoek to Cape Town’s harbour required a four-day, often hazardous journey crossing two particularly frightful passes. The first, Helshoogte Pass, translates to ‘Hell’s Heights’ because the 7km route winds around sheer drops and steep mountain faces – bends that could prove fatal for traders or their cargo-laden wagons. That pass was followed by Banghoek or De Bange Hoek, the ‘Scary Corner’. The heights were hairy, but its moniker actually came from the revealing vantage point where you could instantly see the resident herds of elephants, prides of lions, crashes of rhinoceroses, leaps of leopards and gangs of buffalos that lay in the valley ahead. At the turn of ‘Scary Corner’, you knew what fate awaited you, for better or worse.

In spite of frequent perils, the first pioneers succeeded. They gave seed to a wine industry that would not only keep the sailors happy and the scurvy at bay, but also outlive the original medical mission and create a legacy leading to something far more noble.

Fast-forward 300 years and Stellenbosch has not only become one of the world’s greatest wine capitals but a leading travel destination. The natural beauty and breathtaking landscape of the winelands have made this region one of the most sought-after destinations in Africa, which has given birth to a world-class hospitality industry and some of the best restaurants in the country. The colourful ingredients and complex flavours of Cape Malay cuisine reflect the different cultural influences in South Africa, which is also evident in the regional architecture.

Most emblematic of all are the thatched roof houses and white-washed walls of the traditional Cape Dutch farmhouses, built by the Dutch settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Ornate gables and dormer windows are hallmarks of Cape Dutch architecture, and there are several centenarian houses lovingly preserved in Stellenbosch town and its winelands. Within these quaint and humble Calvanist-inspired buildings lays a secret world of expression and a riot of colour.

When Laurence Graff first visited Delaire Estate in 2003, he paused to take in his surrounds. With its 360° panoramas and distinguished wine heritage, the view was utterly compelling. Situated at the apex of the Helshoogte Pass, the Estate overlooked the Banghoek Valley, and its vineyards ran up the slopes of Botmaskop Peak.

The imposing 914m peak had been named Botmaskop – ‘Boatman’s peak’ – because its remarkable vantage point was historically used as a lookout point to spot boats coming in to Table Bay over 50km away, and to alert the wine valleys below to load their wagons and restock the incoming ships with wine and fruit. The north-facing slopes of Botmaskop also proved ideal for high-quality viticulture and the panorama remains unparalleled. To Laurence Graff, the view over Banghoek was not scary, as its moniker implied, but electrifying. He knew he couldn’t live without seeing it again and purchased Delaire almost immediately.

A Dylan Lewis sculpture of a man on the Delaire Graff Estate driveway
Flowers and art within the Owner's Villa

It is serendipitous that the Estate had originally been planted by South Africa’s most influential wine critics, John and Erica Platter, in the 1980s, who named it Delaire – meaning ‘from the eyrie’ – for its sweeping, bird’s-eye views over the Valley. However, Laurence Graff’s vision for the Estate was not only to make world-class wines, but to also create a place for distinguished hospitality and a portal to the invigorating world of African art.

Within a few short years, Delaire had been transformed with a state-of-the-art winery, two celebrated restaurants and artfully landscaped luxury lodges. The jewel in the crown of Delaire, though, is Laurence Graff’s private art collection, pieces of which bring life to each wall, garden clearing and musing juncture.

The eclectic collection embraces the ancestral roots of Africa and boldly champions a new wave of up-and-coming artists, including works by Cyrus Kabiru and Zanele Muholi, as well as celebrating some of the continent’s most established creatives, such as William Kentridge, Dylan Lewis and Deborah Bell.

A Superior Lodge terrace

While the interiors of Delaire release a world of colour, style and contour, the graceful external architecture is styled to respectfully pay homage to the Cape Dutch vernacular. As the final touches are put in place for the new Owner’s Villa and six Superior Lodges, which open in December 2018, their aesthetic reflects the melding of Cape Dutch traditions, African influence and global comfort.

Delicate gables and thatch-textured roofs are keen reminders of those first pioneers that founded the wine valley, while bespoke natural-fibre wallpaper, marble bathrooms and emotive artworks celebrate African resources and heritage, and double-edged fireplaces and heated plunge pools offer opulence and escapism.

As you take in the sunset with a glass of wine on the outdoor terrace overlooking the Banghoek Valley below, it is hard not to agree that Riebeeck was on to something – some fruit, rest and a glass or two of Cape wine is still the best medicine of all.

Explore more about the estate

Portrait of Amanda Barnes wine writer

About Amanda

Amanda Barnes is an award-winning British journalist and editor who specialises in wine and travel writing. She is an expert in South American wine and regions and a regular correspondent international wine and travel publications (including Decanter, Fodor’s, SevenFifty, The Guardian & The Telegraph). She is currently studying to become a Master of Wine.

VISIT AMANDA’S WEBSITE

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