Guest enjoy the ambience of Friday Sundowners. PICTURE: Abingdon Wine Estate
Guest enjoy the ambience of Friday Sundowners. PICTURE: Abingdon Wine Estate
A table awaits guests in the garden. PICTURE: Abingdon Wine Estate
A table awaits guests in the garden. PICTURE: Abingdon Wine Estate
Abingdon's tree-lined driveway lures many. PICTURE: Abingdon Wine Estate
Abingdon's tree-lined driveway lures many. PICTURE: Abingdon Wine Estate
Inside the restaurant. PICTURE: Abingdon Wine Estate
Inside the restaurant. PICTURE: Abingdon Wine Estate

If you want to hone your wine-tasting skills, you don't have to head for the vineyards of the Cape. 

To stay ahead, one has to keep evolving. So the owners of Abingdon Wine Estate in the KZN Midlands are constantly upping their game. The latest move by owners Ian and Jane Smorthwaite is Sundowners on Friday. Within just a few weeks this has already become somewhat of an institution with many who live in the Midlands, as well as those who may be visiting the Midlands Meander, but have already heard all about the vibe.

Picture the scene late on Friday afternoons, or early evenings as stars begin to dust the heavens. Arriving along a long avenue of well-established, beautiful trees, guests spot fairy lights and lanterns scattered across the gardens. Fire pits have been lit, to add atmosphere, and people are settling down in small or large groups. If you are alone, somebody will probably invite you across to join them. A smile goes a long way!

Staff move among the guests serving tapas – charcuterie and cheese boards coupled with Jane’s famous pork belly bowls, tempura prawns, chicken satay, or goat’s cheese tarts. A gentle breeze in the trees adds to the ambience, punctured by laughter and the clink of glasses.

Saturdays and Sundays are given over to wine tastings throughout the day. "We are the first wine estate to produce certified single vineyard wines in KZN " says Jane. Basically, this means the grapes are grown, turned into wine, and bottled right here. It may not be the famed Cape wine estates, but Abingdon does not have to hide shyly in a corner. She is a fine vintage in her own right.

Ian is the winemaker, and their daughter Laurie, 26, runs specialised wine appreciation courses throughout the year. During these she takes guests through Abingdon's vineyards and cellars. The experience is enhanced by insight into the history of wine-making; an opportunity to ask questions, learn about pairing wine with food, and how to become a fundi in the art of tasting.

Of course, wine tasting is best accompanied by good food and this is where Jane enters the picture. Expect fresh, wholesome country produce. Abingdon is a member of the exclusive KZN Legends , and has picked up an American Express Platinum Fine Dining Award. On chilly days, lunches are served inside the restaurant and fires are lit to add to the ambience. When the sun sparkles, everything moves outdoors.
 It helps having a daughter who follows in your footsteps. Briefly, Laurie was working in the UK, holding down a London day-time job, and attending wine courses in the evening. "I did this just to alleviate the monotony of an office job," said Laurie. However, it did more than this, it showed Laurie where her heart really lay - with wines.

So she forged ahead with her studies in WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust), the biggest international wine qualification. The end result was an international WSET diploma; where she was among the top achievers in the world. She also received the 2014 Codorniu Raventos scholarship for sparkling wine tasting and theory – a high accolade for such a young student.

Returning to South Africa, Laurie qualified as a WSET instructor and set up the KZN School of wine, one of two instructorships in South Africa, helping aspiring student chefs and wine staff polish their skills in wine. She was also invited to join Michael Fridjhon's  judging academy, resulting in her greatest love, that of being able to judge wine competitions.

So, cheers. Travel can sometimes be enhanced through a glass of fine wine.

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