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Golf in the Vineyards of Africa

I was talking one day to a tennis-skirted woman in Constantia who seemed, in style, the very essence of upper-middle-class conservatism. She recommended a number of up-market restaurants in Cape Town. After we parted she turned and walked back: "I forgot the most important thing. You must visit Robben Island. You will find it very moving."

Societies do change, or at least discover parts of themselves hitherto suppressed, and it is part of the fascination in traveling here now that you see it happening before your eyes. A journalist named John Scott, at the Cape Times, explained it to me best. He said of the peaceful end of apartheid and the subsequent election, "It was a release. Even the conservative elite experienced it. It took them by surprise. They had been given their freedom. Not from the government, but from their own worst fears and prejudices."

Surprisingly, one of the best winemaking districts (though not officially part of the Winelands) is only a twenty-minute drive south of downtown, tucked behind mountains. This is Constantia, first planted with vineyards at the time of Dutch colonization and a leading producer since. It was famous in England by the eighteenth century (perhaps more so than it is today). A sorely tried Elinor, in Sense and Sensibility, takes a glass of "the finest old Constantia wine," and she reflects on its "healing powers on a disappointed heart."

Inevitably, given its closeness to the city, Constantia has become a residential as well as an agricultural area -- it's in fact one of South Africa's most desirable suburbs. But the prime grape-growing areas at the foot of the mountains have remained untouched and are apparently protected by legislation that can only be countermanded by the president of the country.

In Constantia, golf and winemaking form an actual business partnership at Steenberg, which for the traveler means you can play serious golf, and taste serious wine just a short walk down the road. The new course borders 170 hillside acres of Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Merlot grapes. (The whole operation, including the Steenberg Country Hotel and a real estate development, runs under the ownership of a large South African firm -- Johnnies Industrial Corporation Limited.) The course wasn't built without stirring local controversy. Some vineyard land outside the protected area did yield to fairways, to the distress of other growers in the area. But the new owners are quick to point out that only table grapes have been lost. And the owners' commitment to winemaking is obvious from the glistening facility they have built with an investment in excess of a hundred million rand (about twenty million dollars).

I spoke with one of the winemakers, an enthusiast named Sydney Burke, a native of Cape Town who, when he was about twelve years old, somehow got it in his head to make wine and has been on a career path ever since. He is a partisan of South African white wines and emphatic about his preference for the local Chardonnay -- the California style is excessively "oaky" in his view. That opinion seems to be shared by most South African winemakers and those of the country's consumers who have tasted California wines at all. Napa Valley routinely takes it on the chin here. "You've got to balance the fruit and the wood," says Burke, who buys his lightly toasted oak barrels only from France, guarding always against the barrel stealing the "spirit of the cultivar."

One can feel quite contained in the little world of Steenberg: a day of golf followed by dinner at the Steenberg Country Hotel, with a wine made from the vines that have enhanced your view all afternoon. Pick a wine from Steenberg or its near neighbor Klein Constantia and you will be enjoying one of the best the country has to offer.

For a golfer, the logical entry point to the Winelands is the Erinvale Golf Club, with its adjoining hotel, east of Cape Town in Somerset West. From this location, only a half hour from Cape Town, it's a short drive to Stellenbosch, home of several wineries -- notably Thelema, thought by many to produce the best single array of wines in the country. The stark mountains that now fill your eye are part of a series of ranges that begin south of the city and arc along the coast for a couple hundred miles. In between lie valleys heaven-sent for wine, as the Dutch settlers discovered long ago. For a sense of the great expanse and bounty of this country, you should push on to the towns of Paarl and, particularly, Franschhoek, the prettiest of the lot and an increasingly popular weekend home for Cape Towners.

In Franschhoek I encountered one of the wine industry's best known figures, the producer of Haute Cabrière wines, a man with the formidable name of Achim von Arnim and a military bearing to match. Von Arnim stands about six foot four and never speaks in less than a firmly declarative voice. He is dedicated to his calling but doesn't want to be understood too quickly. "I detest being called a winemaker," he remarks in the garden of his estate one noontime.

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