Tempted to escape this winter and soak up full-strength summer sunshine in the southern hemisphere? South Africa is the easiest place to head for, not only because there is no jetlag, but because it is so very welcoming with wineries spread across the Cape, most of which have tasting rooms, restaurants and accommodation.
On my last trip to South Africa I started my visits east of Cape Town and then drove west through the hot, arid region of Klein Karoo and then into the Robertson Valley, before heading though the mountains into Franschhoek.
This is one of the most stunningly beautiful places in the world of wine, with towering mountains on three sides of a narrow valley. It is where French Huguenots settled in the late 17th century and the area still has a Gallic feel to it, with many properties retaining French names. If you are tempted to explore just one wine area beyond the usual Stellenbosch then you should head here.
The mountains have a distinct effect on grape growing with vineyards spreading up the hillsides to cooler altitudes, while shadows cast by the mountains provide shade for longer, slower ripening. The result is that Franschhoek is a quality region for both reds and whites.
La Motte was established in 1695 and the estate still has a historic feel, despite extensive new development which has seen the opening of a visitor centre, art gallery and stylish restaurant.
I usually dislike diversions away from wine, but this art gallery is a must see, containing dozens of original works by Pierneef, South Africa's leading artist who painted the landscape in the early 1900s. The wines are good, in particular the fresh, citrussy Chardonnay and complex peppery Shiraz Viognier. Majestic stocks various wines from this range at about 10.99.
Tucked away at the top of the valley, where the mountains seem to close in around you is Boekenhoutskloof, one of my favourite South African properties.
The name comes from the local beech trees which used to be made into furniture, hence the chairs logo on the wine labels, but there is nothing stiff and wooden about these wines. Winemaker Marc Kent creates some of the best, deeply flavoured wines, in particular a stunning Semillon and an outstanding Cabernet. Look out also for the chunky, fruit laden Chocolate Block.
A visit here is a great opportunity to taste through the range, since many of the wines are on allocation in the UK. Harrogate Fine Wine (01423 522270) seems to have a direct line to Boekenhoutskloof, and frequently has stock when everyone else has sold out, although it is best to get your name on the list.
There will be a tasting of the new arrivals in the next couple of weeks so ring Harrogate FW to get details.
While you are in Franschhoek you should eat at Reubens for flavourful bistro-style food and Le Quartier Franais for world-class dining. Just 40 minutes away is Stellenbosch, a university town and the place where I usually base myself for easy access to most wine areas. This time I stayed at a chic new boutique hotel, Batavia, but I also enjoy River Manor for its stylish colonial feel.
From Stellenbosch you can plan days of exploration but there are several properties which will provide a good overview of the region.
Start at Warwick, an estate owned by the Ratcliffe family which has moved up several notches since my last visit, not only in visitor facilities, but in the sheer quality of its wines.
Trilogy, the flagship red Bordeaux blend is serious stuff with pure cassis flavours and polished tannins. The elegant First Lady Cabernet celebrates Norma Ratcliffe's 25 years of winemaking, while Three Cape Ladies is a good value, well structured Cape blend, including a portion of Pinotage.
Try them all in the tasting room, or with a gourmet picnic in the gardens. You could even take a ride in the safari truck which will take you through the steep vineyards to the penthouse picnic area with fabulous views across the vineyards to the mountains.
Once you get home you can buy these wines from The Wine Society as well as Penistone Wine Cellars (01226 766037).
Tokara is also well worth a visit, not only for the spectacular views and the terrific restaurant, but for its delicious wines.
Established 10 years ago, with seemingly unlimited funds, the winery is a polished statement of good winery design and winemaker Miles Mossop creates balanced, elegant wines, power-packed with flavour.
Try the Elgin Sauvignon Blanc 2009 which combines ripe, pineapple and fig aromas with cool-climate zestiness, while the Tokara Red 2007 is deep, rich and complex.
The beautiful Jordan Estate should also be on any itinerary, especially now it has opened a restaurant, but also because the wines, hand crafted by Gary and Kathy Jordan are consistently good. In particular their Chardonnays combine ripe fruit, restrained oak and palate weight to make them perfect with the food served up in the restaurant.
After lunch, see if you can spot some of the chameleons which live on the property as part of Jordan's nature conservancy project. For a less formal lunch, head to Beyerskloof where you can eat at the scrubbed white tables on the terrace at the Red Leaf restaurant and enjoy wines made by Beyers Truter, South Africa's undoubted King of Pinotage.
Round off your trip to South Africa's winelands with a visit to Cape Point Vineyards which you will pass on your way to the actual Cape and make sure you pick up a couple of bottles of Scarborough Red.
These are bound to confuse friends when you pour them back home, especially since the Scarborough in question is nothing like our own seaside town; the South African version is a tiny, quaint fishing village, now mainly inhabited by artists.
Another terrific way to round off a trip is to head for Hermanus, which is a couple of hour's drive from Stellenbosch. This is the place to watch whales which come in close to the shore and there is even a whale watcher who sounds a siren when they are spotted in the bay.
Hamilton Russell is an essential visit, for its outstanding Pinot Noirs which have developed another layer of complexity in recent years, and don't miss the estate-grown olive oil while you are there.
Then head inland to the Newton Johnson property in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde valley where the wines have taken a definite step up in quality, and there is an excellent restaurant on site to enjoy them all.
You will need a copy of the latest, 2011 Platter Guide to South African wines in order to navigate your way around the vineyards and www.sawinesonline.co.uk has a stock at 14.99.
Security always comes into any conversation about South Africa and I must admit that there are places I would not go to on my own – but that applies equally to parts of London and even some bits of Yorkshire. Straightforward common sense should ensure a trouble-free trip. Enjoy your visit.
YP MAG 29/1/11