THE MOUNTAINS, THE VALLEY... & THE LITTLE BLUE BUILDING
Photographs Andy Lund
I should have known that this tale would take some unexpected turns upon entering Riebeek Kasteel. Ahead of us Kasteelberg towers, a proud kingdom onto itself wearing a cloak of clouds. It is afternoon and everything is gently touched by the softest of light. This moment calls for mutual eye contact followed by a silent nod of heads, subsequent slamming on of brakes and parking precariously on the side of the road. I am left in the car, taking everything in, husband is somewhere behind in the distance avoiding cars, capturing it all. I see a local family walking towards me. Mom this side and Dad that side with two kids jumping barefoot like young goats. I am perplexed until I see a never-ending trail of magical bubbles that Dad is blowing, ever so carefully and into the playful wind. And so our journey into the Swartland, where there is magic even in the smallest things, begins.
Slowing down to cruise through the aligned streets, we zigzag our way to the main street, Hoofstraat, complete with school, towering church and, of course, the grand olde Royal Hotel built in 1862, all fringed at the back with vineyards. Oh, we would buy that house or that house, no that house with the stoep, we mutter through our take-away lunch of home-made soetkerrie-pasteie and gemmerbier from Aitsa, further up the road. At the top, where the road tilts into the mountain we spot another church and what to any lady is a glimmering magpie collection of items next door. We are lured inside and meet Eugene, who instantly allows us to roam his special space. We move from shimmering chandeliers (his wedding rental business) to old books, Bibles and more in glass cases alongside, now the museum. Here, they also host concerts and special events, even pop-up bazaars – indeed a creative space. It is Eugene who directs us to speak with Anton Espost from The Wine Kollective, ‘Go find him right now, dis die blou geboutjie!’
We survey the land for a moment on our way back down. We are in the Swartland, only 75 kilometres from Cape Town, bordered by the West Coast, the Berg River to the north and the Paardeberg to the south, the beginning of which is marked by the town Malmesbury – the engine of the region – on the N7. Also encompassing, in town terms, Moorreesburg, Piketberg, Porterville and the Riebeek Valley. A region known for wheat and dotted with sheep and lambs, the Swartland bears some incredible vineyards and many a winery, ranging from large companies to private cellars, many of the latter unseen to the travelling eye. This is bush vine country, a sign says and we see many, amongst slightly too proud trellised cousins, rolling over the hills. Many Rhône and Mediterranean varietals thrive in this arid, but rich land with soils that range from granite and gravel to clay and slate. Apart from Chenin and Shiraz, you’ll find Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsaut, Carignan and Viognier, amongst others.
The area is vast, with a concentration of wineries around the Riebeek Valley, however, it’s worth considering driving the distance to discover farms further up the N7. The extensive Swartland Wine Route listing gives an indication of the number of wineries in the area, some big, some smaller, some smallest. Some land nurtured through generations, others tended to by new hands. Yet there is a sense of movement, as if the mountains, asleep for thousands of years are uncurling slowly, stretching out, before sinking back to earth. At the forefront is a small group with a big passion for the Swartland and its special wines who, in 2011, established a producer organisation called The Swartland Independent, with founding members Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Marc Kent and Callie Louw. Their philosophy is to work together with like-minded producers to raise awareness of the unique terroir whilst focusing on natural farming and winemaking methods, and placing high priority on old vines and their conservation.
Alas, we are too late and enter the building only to find that Anton had just left (movie-style perhaps, through a back door). Like most of the winemakers he too is away for the long weekend and we are left to recce, scout and fall more and more in love with the area, starting with the magnificent wine collection in his shop. Situated in the so-called heart of the town, the little square on Short Street houses Mullineux winery upon entrance and further down indeed a blou geboutjie marked with a red star. Bottles lure and call from stacked crates in this intimate space. We step slowly sideways and tread lightly on wooden floors, eyes transfixed ahead, in bookshelf fashion, as if secretly taking in someone’s personal collection before they appear.
We stop to warm ourselves up in the crisp early winter sun at Café Felix, en route to Riebeek West, a mere three kilometres to the right. Separated mainly by vineyards, the two dorpies are virtually an extension of one another, albeit Riebeek West being the slightly less fortunate-looking sibling when it comes to main roads. Even though they don’t only share the dramatic setting, Riebeek Kasteel is creative form (coffee shops, art galleries and restaurants) while Riebeek West is practical function (police, petrol pump and Pep stores). However in the latter, we are even more taken with the houses and, in a moment of inspired insanity, we call a listed estate agent.
We recover by checking in and lying down for 10 minutes in our room at Traveller’s Rest, owned by partners George and Michael, both originally from the UK. They live elsewhere in town, but this quaint inn has become their world. You’re allowed to come and go as you please, yet when you require anything, help is at hand. Dinner is prepared by Michael whilst George runs the front of house. Produce is sourced locally with eggs coming from down the road, meat from that side and tomatoes around the corner. One is immediately at ease and comfortable and I can’t wait to enjoy a nightcap at the rustic old bar, George as dapper barman.
But first, dinner back at the square, we don our ruby red slippers and hit the yellow brick road again to wind our way around the back to Bar Bar Black Sheep that we have heard about even before we arrive. Owned by chef Mynhardt Joubert this utterly delightful eatery fills us with warmth, not to mention the combination of incredible Babylon’s Peak Shiraz Carignan 2010 and the crackling fireplace next to us. They are focused on slow food and locally sourced wines.
We sleep tight, awake to the fresh Swartland air and head to Mullineux. Experienced husband and wife team, Chris and Andrea Mullineux have worked in France, California and South Africa, where they have settled in the Swartland, the land which they are passionate about. Tremaine, standing on a ladder at the first barrel when we open the door, later emphasises the unique soil of the area, the granite and schist-based terroirs, thanks to the master director’s perfect placement of the various surrounding mountains. Following the minimum interference philosophy and a physical, natural winemaking process, the aim is to create wines that are true to their origin.
The day ends with a walk about town only to discover Beans about Coffee, speciality roasted beans ground to perfection. Over steaming cups we climb the pass to the N7 via Malmesbury back to Cape Town. We shall return: next weekend is the Riebeek Valley Olive Festival.
Snaking down the pass, Riebeek Kasteel looks like a completely different town. They say that thousands of people pass through here during the Olive Festival weekend – we don’t argue that fact after seeing the second kilometre of parked cars, five kilometres outside of town. Many a person is walking under cloud-streaked skies, empty wine glass in hand while others ride on the hay-baled tractors, carting them between wine and olive farms. People are shuttled in and around town: Kloovenburg, Het Vlock Kasteel, Riebeek Cellars and Allesverloren. Yet it is all well-organised chaos and a sense of excitement prevails. We are back to find a handful of the region’s wine farmers. Eben Sadie is away collecting a tractor up North. Adi Badenhorst can see us at 09h00 on Sunday morning. But now it is Saturday. We have gained a sense of confidence that comes with the familiarity of having walked the streets before. We retrace our steps and find ourselves back at the blue building.
I ask after Anton, wanting to set up a time for tomorrow, but the next minute I am following a beautiful long-haired lady (his wife) through the crowds, spilling out of the once-quiet square. She zigs and zags purposefully towards the little back alley that runs between the buildings. Where once you could quickly slip through with no need to stop, tables have been set up against the wall. Wine is being poured into festival-goers empty glasses, held by outstretched arms. The air is jovial and alive with chatter. I fall in line and wait, introduce myself and the next minute I am whisked into the cellar, two chairs appear from nowhere and there and then I am sitting opposite this intriguing man with a passion for wine, someone else is standing in for him briefly. Net so.
In the short time that we connect I start getting a sense of the intangible. Here, there is also something different in the air. You have some top winemakers in the region standing together, personally connecting with intrigued guests. Together they create a vibe built on warmth and passion combined with honesty and personality. The latter, he says, comes through in a winemaker’s approach to winemaking. That and taking some chances, if not breaking the rules. There isn’t a revolutionary red star marking the building for nothing, Tres Estrellas being the umbrella label for, as he puts it, the anarchist wines made by and for the shop. The latter was born out of necessity for a solution, a garage full of their vintage without selling it was simplytoo much (insert: a shame). Now it is a unique outlet and an absolute must-stop for stocking up on the exceptional local wines at the added bonus of cellar prices. I ask about the best wines in the area and that is a difficult question to answer: there is a wine for when the sun is setting, when light is shining through the olive groves, then there is a wine to indulge in at a lonely bar with a complete stranger. Wines for different times.
Upon leaving the cellar, we look around and much to our serendipitous astonishment, there some of the winemakers are all in one place: Nuweland, Lammershoek, AA Badenhorst, Annex Kloof, Babylon’s Peak. I run into Adi around the corner and introduce myself, he in turns introduces me to Callie Louw from Porseleinberg standing alongside. There is a sense of familiarity in putting faces to these names. Stephan Basson, third generation winefarmer and maker from Babylon’s Peak, home to some of the highest vineyards in the area, also kindly spares a few minutes to chat around a barrel and shares more insights into the area: some of the older bush vines can well withstand the high temperatures in the area and the granite in the soil is key to providing minerals. The combination of soil and extreme weather produces berries with intense flavours which in turn makes for a characterful wine (vigneron’s personality aside). Along with his neighbour, (I imagine these as long connected childhood friends) Liam Viljoen from De Hoop, they have also embarked on a journey with Mediterranean marinated olives, Vil’Olien.
And so dawns Sunday, the sun rises over the Swartland and a soft mist is reclining gracefully as if lifting the curtain for the next act. We are visiting Adi on Kalmoesfontein, positioned alongside neighbours, on the horse-shoe dirt road in front of the Paardeberg, just off the R45, which runs through to Malmesbury. Neighbours include Porseleinberg, Annex Kloof, Lammershoek, Sadie Family Wines, Babylon’s Peak (where we later take photographs completely surrounded by silence and bathed in gentle heat) and Dragon Ridge. We are greeted by large tumbling friendly black dogs with Adi in tow. After working his magic in Stellenbosch, he settled here in 2008. We enter his office and from there proceed to take in the setup and lay of the land, and what a glorious Sunday morning it is. The reclaimed cellar contains concrete tanks and is a place where you can imagine an alchemist finding inspiration. With the magical hand of his décor stylist wife, whom we meet, as if on cue, secateurs in hand, the place has a sense of chic dishevelled beauty and embracing creativity. They may plan another open day, such as the one they held before; a day where they throw open the doors of their sanctuary and invite the world to come and just be. Until then you can book into the cottage or simply visit their inspiring blog. A family member is in the process of organising special tours to the smaller wineries, so watch this space.
We return to the ‘alley of the winemakers’ in town, as we now call it and catch the eye of Hugo Basson from Annex Kloof. He, like the others, is happy to chat at the drop of a hat (Anton’s wife will quickly man his stand) and takes us into another room within the cellar, which I now see is dressed with cured meat all round. On a desk is a large gamon. Hugo slices a piece, opens the latched window and passes some to the guys outside before he leaves to pour me some of his delectable 2009 Malbec. Another ou Swartlander, he emphasises without prompting what has been said – here they stick to the basics, but also experiment, exactly as he has done with this wine and it worked. He captures the essence that I have sensed but not been able to put my finger on – there is a camaraderie that exists here. Each one has their own unique style; they are individuals in their own right and amidst the infectious playful banter, there is a respect for what each one is doing. Can one come and visit on the farm? I ask. If someone is brave enough to take that road, man, then they are serious about wine!
Even though I sadly didn’t get to meet Eben Sadie in person, the universe aligns and we connect over the phone. Himself a pioneer, he captures the sense of change in his words: ‘Here you’ll find some really dynamic people; everyone is moving in the same direction and when people move in the same direction, they can get very far. Instead of people living in parallel silos, paths cross here and that’s when it gets interesting’. He is focused on the regional identity of his wines, which is centered around a sense of place and traditional winemaking: ‘To live here you need to be someone of the earth, and people who have come here in more recent years have come for the right reasons and attitude – you have to become part of a place, after all, the place itself calibrates the people. Everyone brings something different and each one does his thing, but they stand together.’ Eben captures it beautifully, as if in a closing scene, ‘The most important thing is this: the passion, soil, wine and the path ahead, the rest is merely detail’.
The Swartland Revolution
Brought to visitors by AA Badenhorst wines, Sadie Family Wines, Mullineux and Porseleinberg, this initiative is focused on growing awareness and showcasing the diversity of the wines from the area with a shared sense of place. in 2011 talks and tastings closed with The Swartland Independent Street party, an open tasting in front of the royal hotel. The third revolution will no doubt hold some exciting surprises and is set for 9 and 10 November 2012. To find out more, go to www.theswartlandrevolution.com.
The Swartland Wine Route
for more information on the Swartland wine route as a whole, go to ww.swartlandwineroute.co.za. Visit for the day or stay as long as you wish (calling an estate agent optional). Follow the N7 or N1 to Wellington and from there the r44. Find day trip options under Suggested Itineraries and more information on the respective members. Remember to book 48 hours in advance for facilities and cellars that are open by appointment only. Be open to experiencing some magical moments. Other useful sites: www.swartland-independent.com; www.thewinekollective.co.za; www.riebeekolivefestival.com.
Source: Winestyle Magazine