Best Cellar: The Vineyard Hotel & Spa, Newlands

The extended version of Sunday’s Best Cellar in the Sunday Times Travel Weekly.

The Vineyard Hotel & Spa in Newlands is a Tardis of a property with 200 rooms nestled under Table Mountain and a string of villas scattered along the course of the Liesbeek River that bisects the garden.  Yet it looks like the country cottage of a Georgian Lady (George III) with a few rooms added on.  Which is what it is; the erstwhile home of Lady Anne, wife of Andrew Barnard, Colonial Secretary at the Cape, who lived in Newlands from 1797-1802.

A bit of a cougar (she was a dozen years older than her husband) she had some very modern advice for ladies: “upon my word, virtue seems to be a very needless article at the Cape, girls thrive better without it than with it & make much better colonists.”  Advice preserved for posterity in the Lady Anne alcove in the hotel, along with some haunting watercolours painted on her many hikes up the mountain.

The Vineyard is also one of the few hotels in the Winelands to take the stuff seriously.  Which is quite appropriate, as the Constantia Valley, where it all started 360 years ago, is five minutes away.  A four star establishment at the top of its game, it’s so much more authentic (parliament hinges on the hall linen cupboards) than those five star palaces with ice in the urinals.

The hotel is well named as instead of fairies, it has a vineyard at the bottom of the garden.  Planted by Lady Anne and resurrected four years ago by GM Roy Davies who notes “we’re often asked to get involved in promoting spirits and cocktails but wine is really all there is for us and what we take seriously.”

He is not joking as two wine dinners a month are scheduled and a wine tasting every Monday afternoon.  “We even sent our schedule for 2013 to the Platter guide so they can include it.”  In August, Oldenburg from the Banghoek Valley was up.  Owned by Adrian Vanderspuy, who lives in Geneva, the venue would have been approved of by his granny Una, who died five days short of a century the previous month.  Her Old Nectar garden is the most beautiful in the Cape, if not the whole world.  Grandson missed the funeral as he was dodging the world’s largest plant, the corpse flower amorphophallus titanium, in the jungles of Burma.

Sixty Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted on a terrace above the Liesbeek in mini-Douro formation, along with forty of Semillon.  A reflection of the popularity of Bordeaux-style white blends in SA today, whereas Lady Anne would more likely have planted Muscat d’Alexandrie.  Probably sourced from her friend Hendrik Cloete junior who made the famous Vin de Constance from them on Simon van der Stel’s old Constantia farm.  A venue for such uproarious parties, Lady Anne was once forced to hide behind the curtains.

v4 300x224 Best Cellar: The Vineyard Hotel & Spa, Newlands

Vineyards need to be pruned each year, so one stormy weekend in August, viticulturalists from the five partner estates (Simonsig, Waterford, Meerlust, Klein Constantia and Warwick) arrived with secateurs along with some well-heeled and better shod farm workers from the southern suburbs.  Plus two from Port Elizabeth, who bought their berth on the Bid-or-Buy internet auction site.

“I don’t send my workers out in this” grumbled Stef du Toit, senior counsel from Johannesburg who owns Mont du Toit estate under the Hawequa Mountains in Wellington.  But he was “shushed” by his date, enthusiastic Canadian Norma Ratcliffe of Warwick fame, made of sterner stuff perhaps, and soon we were all looking like bluebottles washed up by the Liesbeek in our Paarden Island ponchos.

Head of pruning was François Malan from Simonsig who was concerned about snipping in the rain as this is what did for the apricot industry in Wellington in the sixties.  The trees were all infected with tandpyn (the fungus Eutypa lata, called “dead arm” Down Under and “toothache” in the Boland, both lethal in apricots) and today our apricots come from Turkey or Prince Albert, if you don’t shop at Woolworths.

“Horticulturalists from the hotel looked after the vines for the first year” noted François “and they may know everything about flowers but about vines, nothing.  They pruned them like trees – 1.5m tall with shoots extending with arms out like a tightrope walker on the top wire of the trellis.  We had to cut them right back and so lost a year.”

Delayed by tightrope topiary and shading of the vineyard by massive oaks, one of which fortuitously fell in the Liesbeek the previous week.  The tree canopy is slowly opening up as the Vineyard’s enthusiastic gardeners descend on riverside gardens as houses are sold and Roy offers to “clean up” the river frontage, showing good neighbourliness hard to find today.  While the Liesbeek littoral will never be as sunny as Sea Point, a first crop is confidently expected next April.

A bounty F&B manager Matt Deitchman and manager of The Square Restaurant and garagiste winemaker David Wibberley will be sure to feature as wine pairing is a feature of dining at the Vineyard.  They grow their own herbs and veggies so wine is a logical next step and an unbeatable locavore USP.  Wine and meat cooked sous vide, or in a bag, if your French is not yet up to speed.  Boil in a bag does amazing things to texture and is thus a technique very popular with some of the older guests who’ve said goodbye to their own teeth.

For food pairing turned up to the max, there is Mike Basset’s temple of gastronomy on a budget, Myoga.  Seven courses (and only one is a sorbet, so he’s not joking) for R255 effortlessly matched to the fermented fruit of the vine by Lisa Gorge, one of the few sommeliers in the Cape not Swedish.  Johannesburg diners will feel at home in the Alice in Wonderland chairs, pioneered in the Park Hyatt in the nineties, steel tables and Market Theatre arches.

80% of diners opt for the degustation menu and 40% of them go the whole hog and take the wine pairing for an extra R170.  Well worth the price if you’re staying at the hotel or have engaged Excite Taxis to avoid making the day for PC van der Plod and his roadblock.  My selection of seven dishes ended up with an all-white wine cast (two Rieslings, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Ratafia) while my date was paired with Barbera, Bukettraube, Syrah, Riesling and Red Muscadel which Mnr. Cloete would have enjoyed.  Confirming that pedestrian this wine pairing is not.