Where to eat and drink in South Africa's wine country

The chef's garden at Babylonstoren in South Africa.
The chef's garden at Babylonstoren in South Africa. Photo: Supplied

South Africa has long been a draw for its wonderful New World wines and culinary travellers to the winelands are also raising their glasses to the region's cuisine.

Late afternoon sunlight glitters through the vines that hem the sun-beaten earth around Mont Rochelle. The sprawling property is shaded by a sentry line of grey-green olive trees. Located 75 kilometres from Cape Town, it is owned by entrepreneur Richard Branson and is one of many "restaurants with rooms" dotted around South Africa's winelands.

We're dining at MIKO restaurant overlooking the property's clipped green lawns and it's here we kick off our South African eating adventure with an entree of biltong-spiced ostrich carpaccio and springbok loin main.

Mike restaurant near Cape Town, South Africa.
Mike restaurant near Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Jack Brockway

Apart from surfing and safaris, one of the best ways to sample the country on the southernmost tip of the African continent is through its Winelands. We're on a 13-day deluxe South Africa safari with Bench Africa and our trip has been tailored to include a few days wining and dining in Franschhoek and Cape Town ahead of five nights on safari.

The Winelands are located an hour's drive east of Cape Town and the first thing we notice is the Cape Dutch architecture. The logistics of moving around in the region is taken care of courtesy of the hop-on hop-off Wine Tram, which follows a rail route around an array of culinary attractions from Franschhoek to Stellenbosch.

Our focus is on the village of Franschhoek, which is crawling with a convivial mix of Capetonians and rookie safari-goers who fancy some R&R before they start prowling around Kruger National Park.

The Wine Tram that travels through South African Wine Country.
The Wine Tram that travels through South African Wine Country. Photo: Supplied

Franschhoek means "French corner" in Dutch, but despite the influence from the Dutch it's the French Huguenots – who fled persecution under Louis XIV – that have shaped this wonderful village, which has a population of about 20,000.

A weekend in the Winelands should start at the Big Dog Cafe, which began as a showcase for Terbodore Coffee. Order mushrooms on toast and a macchiato to enjoy on the furnished terrace under the shade of a spreading willow tree.

Chef Reuben Riffel is one of South Africa's best-known chefs with outposts in Cape Town and Franschhoek. Eat like a local at his Reuben's Restaurant & Bar and order the deboned bobotie-spiced lamb shank and peppered springbok steak.

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Vineyards have been in production in the Cape Winelands since the Dutch East India Company established the colony in 1652. La Petite Colombe is the sister restaurant to the highly regarded La Colombe, located in Constantia, one of the oldest winemaking regions in South Africa. On the menu are imaginative dishes spelled out in a staccato rhythm on the menu: tuna, avocado, coriander; quail, prawn, mussel, ham; oatmeal, honey sweetcorn.

Executive Liam Tomlin (ex-Forty One and Banc in Sydney) also courts a lively crowd at Chefs Warehouse at Maison, located on a farm in the Valley of the Huguenots on the fringes of Franschhoek. The carefully edited Maison menu offers tapas to share and everything looks good. Pay attention to the signature classics: Franschhoek trout with a tomato, red onion and fennel confit or the onion risotto. It's also worth driving to the great aircraft hangar that is Tuk Tuk Microbrewery at Leeu Estates, where a meditative Bokkie Garden is laid out like a colourful carpet designed to please the Hindu gods.

Francophiles will also fall in love with the artisan charms of the Franschhoek Village Market, where you can buy everything from pungent curry pastes to biltong and pastries that are a poignant reminder of the region's chequered colonial past. Visiting the village at the foot of the mountains is like stepping into a French painting.

Clear space on your phone for snaps of Franschhoek Country House when you check in to your garden villa in the rustic French-inspired country estate. The legacy of the French Huguenots lives on at Monneaux Restaurant, where the fare speaks a Gallic-Italian dialect and chef Calvin Metior is conscious about minimising the restaurant's carbon footprint.

Babylonstoren is one of the oldest Cape Dutch farms in the area and a popular place to alight from the Wine Tram north-east of Stellenbosch. Sample their Nebukadnesar (a cab sauv blend) and Sprankel (sparkling chardonnay) before hunkering down in the restaurant, Babel, to enjoy foods using veldkos (edible bush plants) grown onsite. The chefs here have taken the farm-to-fork philosophy and run with it, with most meals served plants such as papkuil, waterblommetjies and tulbachia bulbs grown in the ponds and riverbeds onsite. Order a glass of Babylonstoren chardonnay with the risotto, which arrives with three seared tiger prawns curled like commas on the plate.

Buitenverwachting was originally part of the Constantia Estate, founded by Simon van der Stel, the first governor of the Dutch colony. While the winemakers of the region have certainly made a name for themselves, the restaurateurs, too, are keen to showcase terroir. Waterkloof Wines is not on the Wine Tram route. But it should be on every visitor's hit list thanks to winning Restaurant of the Year at the 2019 Eat Out Mercedez Benz Restaurant Awards. History boffins should also weave in a visit to Groot Constantia Estate, the country's oldest wine-producing vineyard, which dates back to 1685.

Make your last stop off from the wine tram at Allee Bleue where you can enjoy a "chicnic" – a lavish picnic with a selection of local cheese, cold meats, farm-grown olives and a bottle of sauvignon blanc. While there are many more reasons to linger in the Winelands, it's not until the next day, when you're hanging off the back of a safari vehicle in Kruger National Park, that you fully comprehend how much more there is to see of South Africa.

Carla Grossetti travelled as a guest of Bench Africa.

DETAILS

Wine Tram, winetram.co.za

MIKO, virginlimitededition.com

Big Dog Cafe, bigdogcafe.co.za

Reuben's Restaurant & Bar, reubens.co.za

La Petite Colombe, lapetitecolombe.com

Chefs Warehouse at Maison Estate maisonestate.co.za

Tuk Tuk Microbrewery, leeucollection.com

Franschhoek Village Market, franschhoekvillagemarket.co.za

Babylonstoren, babylonstoren.com

Buitenverwachting, buitenverwachting.com

Waterkloof Wines, waterkloofwines.co.za

Allee Bleue, alleebleue.co.za

TRAVEL FACTS

Getting there

South African Airways flies daily from Perth to Johannesburg operating an A340–300 and A340–600 (connecting with codeshare partner Virgin Australia from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide). flysaa.com.au

Deluxe South Africa Safari

Bench Africa's 13-day Deluxe South Africa Safari features four nights in Cape Town, three nights in Franschhoek and five nights on a luxury safari near Kruger National Park. benchafrica.com