How Dan Nicholl spent this year's Stellenbosch wine festival: Sipping Chardonnay on a yacht

My wife is a successful lawyer, and thus has the real job in the family; she’s also Greek, which means winning an argument at home is not something I’m familiar with. 

And so, as much as she supports me and admires the work I do, convincing her that a weekend at the Hong Kong Sevens or a few days in New York hosting a conference is real work or, in the case of this weekend, sitting on a yacht in Cape Town drinking and talking about some of Stellenbosch’s finest wine.

If you’ve been to more than a few wine festivals, you might have found a certain sameness to the event: huge crowds surging around in pursuit of value for ticket, drinking everything poured for them by weary winemakers who the palates being served have long since dulled beyond reception. 

They can still be terrific platforms to engage with the wine drinking public, and I’ve made some wonderful discoveries over the years at assorted wine gatherings, but offering up a mark of distinction has become more and more of a challenge – one met most effectively with the Stellenbosch Wine Festival’s bold decision to have their latest celebration in the decidedly non-Stellenbosch surrounds of the V&A Waterfront.

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Stellenbosch Wine Routes has a newish chairman in Mike Ratcliffe, formerly behind Warwick, currently driving his Californian collaboration Vilafonté, and familiar to readers of this column has the founder of the Cape Wine Auction. 

Mike is unapologetic about playing around with convention and embracing new ideas, and took some criticism for the decision to bring the festival into the city; that criticism has gone very quiet after what proved to be an inspired decision.

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Nestled into an intimate space alongside the dry dock, just across from the Aquarium, the festival found a splendid home for the weekend: views across the water and up over the city to Table Bay, the natural buzz of Africa’s most visited tourist attraction, and 43 of Stellenbosch’s finest estates serving wine to the accompaniment of a range of food and fabulous music. Add in blue skies and blazing sunshine, and that just left the final space: tasting sessions on yachts, to complete the warm, welcome sense of indulgence.

And so I spent hours happily hosting winemakers and guests in the water: sampling Danie Steytler’s elegant, structured Pinotage Rosé, discussing the merits of Sauvignon Blanc style and age with Neil Ellis, getting an introduction to some of Beyers Truter’s newest Beyerskloof Pinotage from his son Anri. 

Enjoying wine while learning more about it, and doing so in great company (former rugby player John Bradshaw was there – I think I still have a poster of him somewhere), is one of my favourite ways to spend time, and all the more so when there’s excellent food to complete the experience, the Pick ‘n Pay culinary team had given the wine some strong competition for star attraction.

There were also wine stands to meander through, picking out assorted highlights, from Villiera bubbles and Bartinney Chardonnay to Guardian Peak’s young, fruity Shiraz, to Hartenberg’s The Stork, that sits second only to the dazzlingly good Gravel Hill – and while the sold-out signs on both days affirmed the event’s popularity, they also came out early enough to ensure the event didn’t turn into a packed wine-drinking scrum.

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The Stellenbosch Wine Festival will head north in early October, and there are suggestions of other events, including Durban; personally, I’m pushing hard for the Maldives and the Bahamas. It’ll all be work for me, of course, as wine tasting always is – and if my wife doesn’t believe that sampling Chardonnay on a yacht in Cape Town counts as work, then I might as well drink wine in a couple of paradise islands as well.

What I’m drinking this week: I mentioned Danie Steytler’s Pinotage rosé above, and it’s another example of the more serious pink wine that’s thankfully replaced the sweet and soulless fare that used to dominate the market. But the regular Pinotage was also a pleasant discovery: while not the lighter style we’re seeing more of, it’s still not as heavy and cloying as some Pinotage can be, and is a lovely example of South Africa’s own grape. Wine pairing? Chill it ever so slightly, and then drink it on a yacht in Cape Town, with a smiling winemaker called Danie, and a gorgeous waterfront and cityscape as a backdrop.