Words by Graham Howe, pics by Anthony de Klerk
“It all started with ''n goeie ongeluk' (a lucky accident) back in the 1970s when Shiraz vines we bought from a nursery turned out to be Tinta Barocca,” laughs Carel Nel, cellarmaster at Boplaas Family Vineyards. From those early vines planted in the ancient red soils of the Little Karoo, Calitzdorp has grown into “the port capital of South Africa” a legend emblazoned on banners around the small country town.
Descending through the red ochre mountains via Huisrivier Pass on Route 62, we arrived in Calitzdorp, a quaint Karoo town of church steeples, shady stoeps, old Victorian and Georgian homesteads, vineyards and cellars. The jewel of the far-flung Klein Karoo wine route, Calitzdorp has a cluster of eight wine cellars set in the heart of the village and on the outskirts. Port-lovers come here to taste a wide range of award-winning ports and wines made from traditional Portuguese grape varieties – Touriga Naçional, Touriga Francesca, Tinta Barocca, Tinta Roriz and Souzão – made at family-owned cellars with oodles of country charm.
Armed with a map to the wine route, you can follow the port trail around Calitzdorp to the eight cellars – Axehill, Boplaas, De Krans, Du’Swaroo, Calitzdorp, Peter Bayly, TTT (Things Take Time) and Withoek. A good place to start is on the lower side of town at the tasting rooms of Boplaas, Calitzdorp and De Krans, the three main port cellars open to visitors Monday to Saturday – within easy walking distance. The five boutique cellars on the outskirts of town are open for tastings, tours and sales only by appointment – so you need to plan ahead if you want to visit these rugged vineyards located out in the foothills among old ostrich and tobacco farms.
We started our tour in the old tasting room and deli of Boplaas Family Vineyards. If you’re in the right place at the right time, father-and-daughter winemakers Carel and Margaux Nel might welcome you to the tasting bar set beneath the old low timbers of this old homestead. “You must have ‘fire’ in a port”, declares Carel, one of the few winemakers in the Cape who distils his own grape spirit in a potstill to fortify his acclaimed ports. He believes the hot, dry climate of Calitzdorp is ideal for cultivating port varieties. The climate is similar to the Douro valley in Portugal – the birthplace of port – with low rainfall, hot summers and cool winters.
Boplaas is a good starting-point to experience a range of South African port-style wines – vintages released since 1 January 2012 are labelled under their new Cape trademark as Cape Vintage, Cape Tawny and Cape Ruby. Try your luck and ask your hosts if you can taste three reserve ports which won Boplaas the best in class awards at the Cape Port Producers Association Port & Wine Challenge in 2013 – namely, Boplaas Cape Tawny Vintner’s Reserve Non-Vintage (overall trophy winner), Boplaas Cape Vintage Reserve 2010 and 2003 (best CAPPA museum class).
Boplaas also offers tastings of an innovative new range of (unfortified) wines made from Portuguese varieties – known as the Calitzdorp blend. Try Gamka, “The Portuguese Connection” and Ring of Rocks, named after the Stonehenge of the Karoo in the gardens. Authenticity, heritage and hands-on hospitality make a visit to Boplaas a very special experience. Winemaker Margaux Nel says, “We’ve been making wine here since 1880. I grew up in the house right next door to the cellar. The whole family helps to make up our new blends. The Calitzdorp terroir is perfect for getting the right acidity, tannins and balance. We don’t have to tweak the Portuguese varieties in the cellar”. And don’t forget to pat Tawny the ridgeback on the way out of the cellar.
You can walk from Boplaas down a country lane lined with bougainvillea and prickly pears to De Krans, your next port of call on the Calitzdorp port route. I did. Brother winemakers Boets and Stroebel Nel keep it all in the family too. The spectacular views of the red kloofs of the Gamka Mountains from the tasting room are enhanced by a vineyard walking trail around some of the old gnarly vines. Boets likes to talk about “the p-word” – and released The Last Cape Vintage Port 2010 to mark new EU legislation which now protects port as a Portuguese trademark.
At De Krans, port fans have a unique opportunity to taste a rainbow spectrum of ruby, tawny, white and pink ports made from Portuguese varieties like Touriga Naçional, Tinta Barocca, Tinta Roriz (aka as Tempranillo), Tinta Amarela and Souzão. Watch out for the signature Karoo herbal/fynbos fragrance and dusty, spicy wild berry character of many Calitzdorp wines and ports. Touriga Naçional, the king of the Douro, is the lead variety in many De Krans ports – and also in their new Tritonia blend (named after a Karoo flower). Ask the staff if you can taste the Cape Vintage Reserve 2009, a benchmark for South African port rated five-stars in Platter’s SA Wines 2013.
If you thought port was an older man’s drink, think again. In recent years, De Krans has pioneered a new generation of port wines for younger consumers. Try De Krans Pink Port and White Port as aperitifs on crushed ice – which comes with recipes for trendy cocktails by top mixologists. Also taste De Krans Espresso (best served chilled with summer berries), a new dessert-style wine, and Tinta Mocha. All are made from traditional port varieties – and express vibrant ripe red and black berry flavours.
Heading up the hill, your next stop is at Calitzdorp Cellar – opposite the jukskei court at Calitzdorp High School where I once attended the annual port ball and helped pick the port poppie of the year and Miss Klein Karoo. A landmark, founded in 1928, the cellar sources fruit from forty members scattered throughout the Little Karoo. After two decades, veteran winemaker Alwyn Burger is proving he has the same staying power as the longevity of the ports of Calitzdorp. The views of the vineyards from this quaint tasting room and terrace are also fabulous.
You might easily get distracted by the legendary range of fortified hanepoot, red and white muscadels produced here. But we’re here for the port, so first try the vintage and Cape ruby ports made from those trusty Touriga Naçional and Tinta varieties. Over a long table brunch on Sunday at Calitzdorp Cellar the twentieth Calitzdorp Port & Wine Festival in June 2013, I enjoyed breaking bread with the local farmers while tasting the cellar’s ports and wines over Karoo delicacies such as mushroom soup, olives, figs, dried fruits, farm cheeses, biltong, sausage, ostrich and lamb sosaties. The Calitzdorp Cape Ruby Non-Vintage, a port with distinct Karoo herbal flavours, was rated one of the top three ruby ports at the Cappa Port & Wine Challenge in 2013.
Take note that all twenty cellars on the Klein Karoo wine route are closed on a Sunday and on religious holidays – including the eight cellars of Calitzdorp. But if you’re out there for the weekend, you might be able to pre-arrange tastings at the cellars on the outskirts of Calitzdorp. Whatever you do, don’t miss Axehill, the legendary port cellar founded by the late Tony Mossop in 1993 – which has produced some of the Cape’s finest vintage ports over the last two decades. Cellar master Mike Neebe is at the helm of this acclaimed cellar today. Pop in and taste the signature dried Karoo herbal, scrub and spice flavours of his Cape Vintage 2009 – from Souzão, Touriga Naçional and Tinta – as well as his Cape Ruby.
Make sure you try one of the top rated Calitzdorp Blends of Portuguese varieties.
Axe Hill Machado 2011, an unfortified blend of Touriga Naçional, Tinta Barocca, Souzão (and Shiraz), was best in class at the CAPPA Port & Wine Challenge in 2013.
If you have the time, taste the Cape Vintage and Ruby ports of Du-SwaRoo and TTT (Things Take Time) – two of the three smallest cellars on the Calitzdorp port route. Then head along country backroads into the Groenfontein Valley – and enjoy the wonderful views of the grape, fruit and ostrich farms en route to Peter Bayly. Portuguese varieties planted in these remote hillside vineyards go into an acclaimed Cape Vintage Port – and Cape Late Bottled Vintage (best in class at the CAPPA Port & Wine Challenge in 2013). The buck and baboons are sorely tempted by the rich fruits of these vines. Make sure you try the Peter Bayly III Blend 2011, an acclaimed Calitzdorp blend.
Last but not least visit Withoek on the way back into town and sample a trio of Fick’s Ruby Port, Geyser Cape Vintage and Geyser Cape Ruby. “Is the port named after a hot spring on the farm?” I asked. “Nie wat, it’s named after my family” exclaimed Fanie Geyser, the winemaker. Geyser, geyser. You say tomato, I say tomato.
*Graham Howe is the wine and food editor of Habitat magazine – and a wine columnist for wine.co.za, ClassicWine and Business Day Homefront. Graham has been visiting Calitzdorp, the port capital of South Africa, for over twenty years. After attending the twentieth Calitzdorp Port & Wine Festival in June 2013, he picks his favourite cellars on the Cape’s most authentic little wine route.