Martine Bury tours South Africa’s modern art and wine scene. Already home to one of the world’s most captivating and most affordable wine regions, South Africa is fast becoming an exciting place to collect fine art. The eyes of the world are fixing their gaze on the continent’s largest economy, in search of something new.
Woefully underfunded by government entities, the biggest benefactors of South Africa’s creative output, until recently, have been wealthy local collectors and South African expats living abroad. In the last decade, this has been changing with the participation of the country’s artists and influential galleries at big international art fairs, such as Art Basel in Miami. For the layperson and the connoisseur wanting to see what’s taking root in South Africa, the hotels, resorts and winding vineyard routes provide the best entrée to a unique way of exploring the country’s visual artworks. Armed with this knowledge, I embark on a journey that pairs wine and art. Which, unexpectedly, reveals the soul of the country.
Living with art is far different from contemplating it. At Cape Town’s landmark Ellerman House in Bantry Bay, I begin my initiation on a routine trip from my suite through a hallway lined with paintings that span the 19th and early 20th centuries, including some of the earliest depictions of the then undeveloped Bantry Bay by South African artist Jan Ernst Abraham Volschenk. Elegant and sumptuous, this nine-suite and two-villa boutique hotel houses one of the most important and extensive private collections of South African art in the country, as well as a 9,000-bottle wine cellar. Yet there isn’t a stitch of pretention or stiffness. Beneath the neatly manicured lawn of the terrace, Ellerman Contemporary Gallery shows an impressive rotating roster of the country’s blue chip masters, like Jean Welz, an emerging talent. One would never assume such a formidable collection of modern art rumbles beneath the relaxed lounge chairs that face the stunning expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. There are no secret service-style security guards lurking and no groups of people competing for a view. In fact, there is no formal tour, and it is suggested that guests explore on their leisure. I appreciate the one-on-one time with the art but, mostly, appreciate that it’s merely there for our enjoyment.
Short List: Cape Town Art Crawl
Cape Town is a standout in the contemporary art world, attracting international collectors. Innovative galleries are the pioneers of up-and-coming neighborhoods like Woodstock and the powerhouses of the thriving city center.
Everard Read, 3 Portswood Road, Cape Town
Brundyn + Gonsalves, 71 Loop Street, Cape Town
The Ava Gallery, 35 Church Street, Cape Town
Worldart, 54 Church Street, Cape Town
Stevenson, Buchanan Building, 160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock
Ashanti Design, 133-135 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock
Clementina Ceramics, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock
The Test Kitchen, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock
The thread that connects Ellerman House to the Cape Winelands intertwines art and wine, most tangibly through the artists like sculptor Dylan Lewis, whose work is exhibited at the hotel. South African born Lewis is one of the world’s most renowned sculptors of the animal form. His imposing bronze figures are born out of his years of exploration of how humans coexist with the wilderness both existentially and physically. The concierge can arrange a visit to his studio, aptly located in Stellenbosch in the wine country of the Western Cape.
We break for lunch at The Steenberg Hotel’s Bistro Sixteen82 in the Constantia Winelands. A 20-minute drive from the city through bucolic country eases me into the scene. With sweeping views of False Bay, an emerald golf course and a pristine farmhouse in sight, the entrance to Steenberg Estate is a grand one. It’s the Cape’s oldest farm, a storied place founded by a farmer named Catharina in 1682. She had five husbands, one of whom was killed by a lion. Legend has it she summarily shot the murderous feline, and this is depicted in artworks around the hotel. We have two tastings, Graham Beck bubbly followed by the estate wines. Steenberg’s Catharina Red 2009 and Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2009 are revelations, taut and modern in this historic place. Bistro Sixteen82’s sleek, open-floor design and origami-inspired hanging art marries the nature outside through floor-to-ceiling windows. Farm-to-table standouts such as the Sweetcorn Velouté with Charred Corn and Truffle and sustainable fish are only topped by the best sticky toffee pudding I have ever had. A serious collector of fine art, Steenberg’s owner Graham Beck selected to feature the captivating, brutally modernist works of South African sculptor Edoardo Villa throughout the estate grounds.
On the road to Franschhoek, we enjoy a custom wine tasting at prestigious Anthonij Rupert Wine Estate. In this genteel country flanked by rolling green vineyards and misty mountains, the first sights that make an impression on me are two of Lewis’ towering bronze cheetahs at the entrance—a representation that is sinewy, fierce and raw. I take note that South Africans live with the paradoxical goals of taming the land through viticulture and farming and keeping it wild for the animals. Both are an intrinsic part of everyday life. At 300-year-old Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate, the cavernous, contemporary art gallery and shop strike a personal chord with exclusive collections of South African ceramics, glass and furnishings.
In 1688, French Huguenots fleeing persecution settled in the valley. Granted plots of land by the Dutch government, many of the farms they founded evolved into the Franschhoek’s influential wineries. Considered South Africa’s food and wine capital today, world-class restaurants line the main street. Among them The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français is considered to be one of the top fine dining experiences in the world. The handiwork of genius Chef Margot Janse, our meal there is one to cross off the bucket list. As an added treat we visit is art, Le Quartier’s small, well-edited onsite fine art gallery and shop, thoughtfully curated by the much-lauded Ilse Schermers.
While the whitewashed, gabled 17th century Cape Dutch Architecture dominates the quiet blocks and farmhouses of Franschhoek, La Residence hotel is a jewel on a private wine estate that evokes Provence with interiors that playfully nod to the gilded luxury of Versailles. As we step into the glamour, we are greeted like old friends back from a too long journey—with sparkling rosé and warm smiles. End to end, the main hall is an unfolding open floor plan with velvet-upholstered couches and antique chairs arranged into cozy vignettes in front of fireplaces or window views. It’s a moveable feast of lovingly restored furnishings and the singular vision of proprietress Liz Biden, doyenne of hospitality and luxury design. The skillful mix of natural light and mood lighting lends an air of epic romance as it bounces off ornate mirrors and silk cushions. A grand Indian chandelier, which adorns the palatial ceiling, enhances every detail of color saturated textiles and exquisite artworks throughout. If a living space could be a celebrity, La Residence would be a rock star. Even with the over-the-top décor, guests can really sink into the comfort of these rooms, eat off of fine vintage porcelain, live with rare artworks and carry a glass of their private label estate-made Syrah wherever they go. Only the guests are precious. Whether it’s a six-course wine pairings dinner, an in-room massage or cooking class for two, the attentive staff makes it all happen. As Mies van der Rohe put it, “God is in the details,” and here I am a believer. The journey from Franschhoek to Hermanus is a spectacular, 90-minute drive that includes scenic R44 along Walker Bay. Surrounded by pristine shores and dramatic cliffs, visitors flock to the region for the wildlife. It’s the best viewing spot for the southern right whale during the winter and spring. Many take the early morning, half hour jaunt to Gansbaai to dive with great white sharks. Dolphins, seals and penguins make up the remainder of Hermanus’ “Marine Big Five”.
When we check into Birkenhead House, we are immediately summoned to the window facing the bay to watch the welcoming committee, a large pod of dolphins playing in the waves. Perched on a cliff above a private beach, the 11-suite hideaway is everything a beach pad should be—easy, white slipcovered couches, a warm fireplace, candlelit evenings and a self-serve cocktail bar with board games stocked beneath it. As part of the Biden collection, interior touches such as ostrich feather lampshades and a seashell-covered wardrobe add panache.
The next morning a torrential downpour thwarts a shark diving expedition, much to my husband’s disappointment. What the sharks can’t deliver, the Hermanus Wine Route can. Proximity to the Atlantic Ocean makes this the coolest climate in South Africa. For good reason, the fynbos-sheathed valley along R320 is called Hemel-en-Aarde, “Heaven on Earth” in Afrikaans. If Franschhoek is akin to our esteemed Napa Valley, the area wineries are a bit less formal and more akin to the boutique vineyards of Sonoma. Dedicated to biodiversity, Bouchard Finlayson sustainably crafts gold medal Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blanc. Up the road, influential vintner Anthony Hamilton Russell has created a sensation with Southern Right Wine Farm’s Pinotage and Sauvignon Blanc vintages, reputed to have captured the aromatics of the fynbos, the plant species native to the Cape Floral Kingdom.
Singita Sweni, Kruger National Park
Tucked into the almost 40,000 acre Singita Reserve, the intimacy of six-suite Singita Sweni is a welcome experience after a week in civilization. The riverbank of the slow flowing Sweni River beneath the lodge is the spa retreat of Kruger’s wild. A crocodile languidly swims by. A herd of hippos belly flops into the water, their deep, snorting bass tones reverberating as they splash. And a nearby pride of lions roar after dark. Combined with the rich saligna woods and elegant earth tones of the furnishings, this interplay of silence, sound and camouflage is a seductive cocktail, flawlessly executed. Still, there is drama unfolding. A young bull elephant in musth has checked into the tall brush near the entrance for the night, and becomes the talk of the town. Post-game drive dinner conversation revolves around him. All the while, the wine flows. Throughout this adventure, I have fallen in love with the bright bouquet of Chenin Blanc. The sommelier introduces us to A.A. Badenhorst “Secateurs” Chenin Blanc Swartland, and then moves on to headier options from the premium cellars.
As one of South Africa’s leading buyers of wine, Singita takes the endeavor very seriously. On average, a wine list at a property features more than 180 wines, including limited edition and highly sought after vintages. Through the Singita Premier Wine Direct, a service that makes it easy for guests to bring South African wines home, the staff helps to develop a wine profile for each guest. They take note of any bottles enjoyed or purchased during a stay and offer future selections based on preferences and interests.
Singita Sweni and its highly stylized, award-winning sister property Singita Lebombo Lodge share a ‘village’ that houses a wine shop, gym, spa and cappuccino lounge. The most impressive tenant is the Boutique & Gallery, filled with a range of goods for sale including rare artifacts, wood carvings, vintage jewelry, custom Ndebele dolls, Nguni hide rugs, captivating black and white photography by area lens men and crafts that support local artisans. I want everything I see. Singita commissions a group of Zulu weavers to create intricate, colorful telephone wire tableware used in the daily table settings. Art in its own right, these handmade pieces are a beautiful way to bring the whole experience home.
As our last stop, the all-suite Saxon Boutique Hotel, Villas and Spa in Johannesburg brings the wine and art experience full circle by adding historical context. In these luxe accommodations, South Africa’s new story is told through collections of primitive woodworks, modern stoneware ceramic sculptures and the contemporary pieces that hang on the villa walls. A series of graphite sketches by Dean Simon documents the Douw Steyn family, who own the Saxon, and guests who have shaped the hotel’s identity. Nelson Mandela lived here and completed his book Long Walk to Freedom, in what is now the Nelson Mandela Platinum Suite, after he was released from prison in 1990. The many portraits of him over the years depict his journey since. During my visit, Mandela lies in the hospital, a reminder of the frailty of the hope that holds a nation together. In the days of Apartheid, travel to South Africa was unfashionable. The Renaissance of wine, art and conservation invites the world to see what South Africa can be. I get the sense the flower is just beginning to blossom.
FNB Joburg Art Fair: Since 2008, the Joburg Art Fair has pioneered to bring together top collectors, curators, artists and art lovers to broaden the audience for contemporary African art. Last year 10,000 art lovers attended the event, in addition to the participation of 27 galleries from six countries. The happening provides a unique opportunity to feel the electricity of Jo’burg’s burgeoning art scene.
September 27-29 | Sandton Convention Center
Three to try: One of South Africa’s top sommeliers, the Saxon’s award winning Xolani Mancotywa recommends three bottles that, he says, “are a real expression of South African wine and a treasure to have.” All are available for export to the US through Cape Classics.
1. De Morgezon Chenin Blanc
2. Raats CAb Franc
3. Kanonkop Pinotage