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Golf in the Vineyards of Africa

Of course in various ways Cape Town is an outpost, long the most European city in Africa and not wanting to relinquish that distinction even as it strives to serve as the cultural heart of a newly conceived South African society. Whites account for about one-fourth of the greater metropolitan area's population, but Cape Town is still a predominantly white city -- a surprise to many visitors. You may well see more blond heads here than anywhere south of Amsterdam.

Years of international sanctions against South Africa (not to mention the former government's repressiveness) cut off Cape Town from the world, and have left it seeming slightly, and not altogether unpleasantly, anachronistic: a modern city a decade or two behind the times. Following the end of apartheid, fresh investment has been working hard to shake off the lost years. At least three luxury hotels have opened recently, and the newly developed Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area evokes Fisherman's Wharf or Boston's Quincy Market. Indeed the warehouse arcades and cutely named shops are so very familiar that this development will fail to enchant North Americans. But Cape Towners flock to it. It's the only thing of its kind on the whole of the African continent.

Americans are likely to take more pleasure in the quiet British colonial luxury of the Mount Nelson Hotel or the more contemporary Cape Grace, on the harbor. For a visitor, much of the city's attraction lies not in the sophistication of its amenities; instead, you are happy to be in a very comfortable place that also feels remote and puzzling. So much looks as familiar and strange as the antipodal sunlight. I dined for several nights in succession in Cape Town on foods I had never had before in my life. I didn't set out searching for novelty -- it's just that kingklip catches your eye one night, and mussel cracker the next, and so why not try loin of springbok?(I drew the line at the ubiquitous ostrich.)

And then there is the wine. Most people who know something about wine know South African wines, as a class, by reputation. But of all the New World wines, they are the least available internationally (another victim of sanctions, which took place just as many non-European countries were developing export markets). Dozens of wines are made here that cannot be found at all in the United States, and they are truly superb and distinctive. Most people are taken particularly with the crisp South African Sauvignon blancs, and with a variety seen nowhere else in the world: Pinotage, a fruity red with all the earthy finish of a Pommard. The domestic market is solid -- most South Africans drink nothing but the local product -- and output is high. One result of this is that (to eyes jaded by American wine lists) the wines are effectively free. You can find interesting bottles for a couple of dollars in the stores, and in restaurants if you spend thirty-five dollars they expect you to light up your cigar with a one thousand rand note.

For the golfer who happens to be an oenophile, there may be no better place than the area surrounding Cape Town, the home of several first-rate golf courses and the heart of South Africa's wine industry. Routes through the "Winelands," as they call the district, provide a logical way to organize trips outside the city.

"Wine farm" is the likable local usage for the place where grapes are grown, and for von Arnim the term has literal meaning. "You don't make wine, you grow it. I express the soil."

Von Arnim often conducts group tours of his winery in person, and he generously pours samples of five or six wines at the end, from an unusual Pinot noir-Chardonnay to his own light cognac. He also knows how to uncork a champagne bottle with the quick slice of a saber and will demonstrate that for you without much persuasion.


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