Clear, wind-scoured air, monumental sandstone topography and soaring perspectives: that's the Cape. I guided a long-awaited wine tour there in late February and early March. Perfumed frangipane blooms fell like weighty, luscious jewels onto the stream-lined streets of Stellenbosch. The winding path through Hermanus's intimate, intricate coastal fynbos was prettier than ever, even if the Southern Right whales which breach offshore there had moved on for the year. White cloths of cloud hung, perpetually unfurling in lavish sunlight, on the edge of the highest peaks. The red-wine tanks were gorged with berries.
It would be hard to write a better script than all of this for winery escapism; not coincidentally, many Cape tasting rooms have morphed into restaurants over the last two decades. Immaculately grown vegetables and exotic game meats have edged the old slabs of Boer beef aside. The sweet, close-textured and meltingly tender springbok we ate at Buitenverwachtung almost seemed to taste graceful, as if in mimicry of this delicate antelope's movements. The great ocean, where the forties roar, is not yet a larder plundered bare. Kanonkop's speciality for private guests is barbecued snoek, a word meaning 'pike' in Dutch. Pike, though, it isn't – that was just what the early settlers thought it looked like. It's snake mackerel, a meatier fat fish than North Atlantic mackerel; perfect for a spit and hiss over glowing embers. It's pike-like dentition, though, has claimed fishermen's fingers in the past.
Complex white-wine blends and old-vine chenin, pinotage reassessed, pinots and chardonnays and syrahs convincing enough to challenge prejudice in any blind tasting against European price equivalents: progress for the Cape's wines match that of winery restaurant kitchens. I don't know why, but the younger generation of South African winemakers seem readier than most outside Europe to let terroir emerge in their wines honestly, for better or worse, ignoring commercial compromises and oenological timidity. Perhaps it's the Calvinist streak. All of this blew up in Swartland, where old-vine wine grapes were cheap enough for even the newly graduated to buy, but a wind of watchful restraint in winemaking is beginning to drift over the whole country now.
It's not a guilt-free trip, though. The social disparities of life in South Africa are still troubling, and the township shacks haven't all become streets of close-threaded little houses. The mania for flamboyant security, threateningly advertised, does not yet suggest a society at ease with itself. Not everyone has a job in a winery restaurant; there aren't yet many mixed-race marriages among those owning glamorous wine estates, nor even rainbow-nation hand-holding along the Cape Town waterfront. Staying away, though, would hardly help matters: better to go, to look, to spend money, to ask questions. The final pleasure of a Cape visit, in fact, is the disarming, full-throated and often frank lexicon of South African English – and the way so many conversations with the workers of the Cape, no matter how dismal or banal the subject, seem to end in laughter.