September is the month when we celebrate South Africa’s heritage, and an enjoyable way to savour the very best of local history and culture is to visit 319-year old Vergelegen wine estate in Somerset West. Rambling over 3000 hectares between the Helderberg and Hottentots Holland mountains, within easy reach of Cape Town, Vergelegen offers superb food and wine, extensive gardens, ancient trees, gracious architecture and fine art.
The estate was named the best winery in Africa this year, in the World’s Best Vineyard 2019 competition. It has also scooped the International Best of Wine Tourism, Cape Winelands accolade five times and was the first Biodiversity and Wine Initiative Champion.
A selection of the abundant heritage highlights includes:
Nguni cattle: As you enter the estate, you may spot some prime examples of this popular indigenous breed. The estate registered the Vergelegen Nguni Stud in 2010.
Gracious homestead: Beautiful antique furniture and blue and white porcelain represent French, Cape Dutch, Anglo-Indian and Asian influences over the past three centuries. The SA National Gallery has also loaned paintings and bronzes, acknowledging the role of one-time owner Lady Florence Phillips in restoring Vergelegen and helping to establish many cultural institutions in South Africa.
Big Five: Marvel at five enormous camphor trees (Cinnamomum Camphora) planted in front of the homestead by former Cape governor and Vergelegen owner Willem Adriaan van der Stel. These were proclaimed national monuments in 1942.
Stately oak: A hollow old English oak, about 300 years old, is believed to be the oldest living oak in Africa. The estate also launched an oak arboretum in 2012, planted with about 15 oak varieties.
Books for Africa: The old wine cellar is now a library housing 4500 books that belonged to formerVergelegen owner, Sir Lionel Phillips. One of the oldest tomes is Den Nederlandsen Hovenier (1696) with garden plans, a garden almanac and facts on pruning, grafting and tools.
River ramble: The Lourens River is the only local river that’s a Protected Natural Environment.
Winter camellias: Vergelegen is home to Africa’s only International Camellia Garden of Excellence, one of 39 such gardens in the world. Winter is the ideal time to enjoy late-blooming pink, white and red varieties such as ‘Laurian Brown’, named after the noted South African gardening writer.
Majestic yellowwood: This giant tree is estimated to be 150-400 years old.
Royal route: Britain’s royal family have visited the estate since King George VI and his family paid an informal visit in 1947. Take the ‘queen’s gate’ (used by Queen Elizabeth II) set in the wall surrounding the homestead, and view the Royal Oak tree, which traces its heritage back to King Alfred’s mediaeval oaks at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.
Silk road: A huge, ancient specimen of white mulberry (Morus Alba) grows near the homestead. It’s a living reminder of Governor Simon van der Stel’s ambitions to start a silk industry in the Cape.
Discover world-class wines: Visit the wine tasting centre and sample the estate’s award-winning wines, representing the very best of South African viticulture.
Feast on local flavours: Opt for South African favourites such as ostrich, line fish and venison at the family-friendly Stables restaurant, or sample hyper-seasonal dishes at Camphors signature restaurant.
Camphor forest: Stroll in alush expanse of sun-dappled camphor trees, seeded from the original giant camphors planted three centuries ago by Willem Adriaan van der Stel.
Craft and design: Enjoy the work of local craft producers and designers at Stables restaurant. Some highlights include a life-size wooden horse by Francois Marais; ceramic horse and Nguni cattle heads by Nicolene Swanepoel; and 20 botanical works by the Keiskamma Art Project.
Artworks: The Camphors signature restaurant represents artists such as William Kentridge, Shany van den Berg, Helen Vaughan, Michael Chandler, Lyndi Sales, Christopher Smart, Jenny Parsons, Marlene van Durkheim, Jacqueline Crewe-Brown and Iwan Labuschagne.