Valley of the Wagonmakers
Words Brandon de Kock, pics Gareth van Nelson/hsmimages.co.za
The French Huguenots stumbled into this valley, looked up at the Hawequa Mountains and proclaimed it Val du Charron, ‘Valley of the Wagonmakers’. The English were so enamoured that, in 1840, they named the town after their greatest military hero, the Duke of Wellington – who squashed Napoleon like an overripe grape. But, for modern travellers, it’s mostly ‘that place on the R301’ you have to pass through en route to breathtaking beauty, Bainskloof and beyond.
On the wine front, it is seen as a provider rather than a producer. Its decomposed granite earth drains excellently: a bonus if you want to avoid soil-based nasties. Ergo, most of SA’s vine root-stock material comes from these slopes around the Groenberg. But if you’re up for it, and looking for a wine route that isn’t yet ‘up its own spittoon’, next time you turn north off the N1, make it on to the R44 to Wellington.Head straight for Bovlei Road (an absurdly scenic stretch, mostly dirt, that’s home to enough wineries to justify a designated mini-route) and make sure you’ve phoned ahead to book a tasting at Andreas.
I recently met one of the new owners, David Croft, and farm manager Eugenie Potter. Within minutes, I understood the passion and energy that keep the juices flowing at this boutique farm – juices that land up in an irresistibly sexy little Shiraz. Although winemaker Etienne Malan has con-sulted since the brand’s inception, Eugenie is its champion. ‘Our grapes were only planted in 2002. The owners got professor Eben Archer out to test the soil, he declared it Shiraz land and that was that. Now we have four different clones of Shiraz.’
With less than 10 ha of land in play, one quirk of this operation is a space-saving horizontal trellis system with the vines leaning alternately one way, then the other. ‘Shiraz, given the right condi-tions, turns into a totally bushy, mad, wild thing,’ says Eugenie. ‘You’ve got to stress it a bit to get quality fruit. We’ve got very sandy, stony soil that makes the vine struggle and the result is small, intense berries with great flavour extraction. It is why Wellington’s becoming known as really good Shiraz country.’
Lay your hands on one of the 16 000 fruit-driven 2013 vintage bottles and you’ll catch her drift. Andreas is a sell-out success: one that often has the word ‘cult’ attached and hints at a paradigm shift in the valley.
‘When the tannery was here, they called us Smellington,’ quips Eugenie, ‘or Hellington, because of the heat, and when it came to wine, they associated us with co-ops such as Bovlei and Wellington Wineries. Now, we’ve got loads of smaller wine farms popping up and making really good wines.’
One of which, on the other side of town, is home to the Burger family – legends of South African rugby. The boys grew up in Wellington because Schalk Snr started working for what is now Douglas Green Bellingham. After buying the neighbouring farm in 1996, he purchased Welbedacht the following year and started a new chapter in the book of Burger.
The responsibility for winemaking rests in the large and capable hands of Hardus van Heerden, but general operations fall under the friendly grin of Schalk Jr’s equally laid-back younger brother, Ti-aan, who’s quick to point out just how family oriented the business is. ‘We’re really hands-on and do all the marketing ourselves, whereas most people send their winemakers. I do the wine tastings – or Schalk Snr does – which people still love. We can, we live 50m from the cellar!’
And it’s a cellar tour worth taking: Tiaan’s got stories to tell and Schalk Snr pretty much designed the whole thing himself – down to the ingenious raised cement maturation tanks that allow gravity and common sense to do much of the hard work.
The resultant wine list kicks off with the value-driven Meerkat series, sidesteps through an award-winning estate selection and scores under the poles with a proprietor’s range that’s spearheaded by the limited-release red blend No. 6. ‘The names all connect with family,’ says Tiaan. ‘I played in number 6 for Boland, Schalk Snr played in 6, although he was known more as a lock, and Schalk Jnr became world player of the year in the number 6 jersey – but these days, he’s much more a 7 and 8 as he gets older!’
Then there’s Myra, the white blend named for their mom: ‘For 2015, she has all five white varieties on the farm. And, being Schalk Burger and Sons, sometimes we have to remember that we have a sister as well, René. She was always complaining that she didn’t have anything, so now we’ve made her a 100% Chardonnay MCC called Mon René and the back label tells how it’s as bubbly as her personality.’
Visiting Welbedacht is obligatory. When you do go, leave plenty of time to discover why there is a Newlands-sized cricket pitch on the farm, get the backstories to the wines and still settle in for lunch at the No. 6 restaurant.
Having celebrities in town certainly helps generate awareness, but in recent years, if one farm has raised the bar, it has to be Diemersfontein, the home of coffee/chocolate Pinotage. From the resi-dential development to conference facilities, an airy restaurant with a view and a world-class tasting experience, it truly is a ‘wine and country estate’. And the dozen or so varietals and blends on offer prove that winemaker Francois Roode has broader tastes than caffeine and cocoa.
Apart from a charitable range, For the Birds, the Diemersfontein estate label and the top-tier Carpe Diem, there’s Thokozani. ‘It means “to celebrate” and it’s owned by us, the farm workers,’ explains Francois. ‘We’ve got an 80% share, so it’s a great upliftment programme.’ At the end of 2015, Thokozani won a pitch to be listed in Woolworths as a BBBEE initiative under the label Ovation – a deserved victory for a passionate winemaker who’s clearly paid his dues.
When he first arrived at Diemersfontein, Francois worked under Bertus Fourie – famous for creating chocolate Pinotage back in 2001. ‘When I got here in 2003, they said “smell this” and I was like, “Whaaat’s this?” It was totally different. We produced 15 000l of coffee Pinotage then, and now we’re at about 200 000, so it just grew. I still think it’s a great way to introduce people to red wine.’
Pinotage remains Diemersfontein’s flagship varietal for good reason: they have seriously good fruit and know how to use it. Interestingly, when you taste the Carpe Diem Pinotage, there’s almost no hint of the more coffee/choc obvious flavours of the estate variety.
‘The owner, David [Sonnenberg], says it’s a bit like having two daughters. One is the precocious middle child – always out and about, and every-one knows her,’ says Francois. ‘The other one is quieter, but classically beautiful. Yet people go to a tasting and their first thought is the more out-spoken one. It’s just the difference of playing with oak staves versus barrels, but we love them both the same!’
Wellington, in the greater scheme of Cape wine routes, is a similarly unassuming older sister, but if you take the time to engage and get to know her, you’ll discover there’s something really wonderful going on. It’s only a matter of time before she shines.
Book a Tasting
Andreas Wine Farm
Tastings by appointment only
Bovlei Road, Wellington
021 873 2286, www.andreas.co.za
10 am – 5 pm daily
Jan van Riebeeck Drive (R301), Wellington
021 864 5050, www.diemersfontein.co.za
Schalk Burger & Sons
Open Monday to Friday 9 am – 4 pm,
Saturdays 9 am – 2 pm
Oakdene Road, Wellington
021 873 1877, www.schalkburgerandsons.co.za
Pics Gallo/Gettyimages, Courtesy images
What to do when you’re not tasting wine…
1. Hike Bainskloof Pass
Engineer Thomas Bain’s masterpiece opened in 1853 and it remained the only gateway to the northern reaches of SA until Du Toitskloof opened after WWII. It’s an awesome pass in a nature reserve that offers beautiful hiking and biking trails – you’ll need a permit for these activities.
Visit the Wellington Information Office for maps and more.
Open Monday to Friday, 8 am – 5 pm, weekends 10 am – 1 pm
Cnr Burger and Malherbe streets, Wellington
021 864 1378, www.wellington.co.za
2. Play Wellington GC
Fancy Cape golf courses abound, but for a traditional country experience, book a round at the visi-tor- and beginner-friendly nine-hole Wellington Golf Club. The game has always been strong in the Boland, and the pride that the locals take in their little patch of heaven will show you why.
Cnr Distillery Road (R44) and Lower Pentz Street, Wellington
021 873 4762, www.wellgolf.co.za
3. Visit Jorgensen’s Distillery
Yes, it’s by appointment only, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want visitors – just that it’s a small, working operation. This passion project of distiller Roger Jorgensen produces premium-quality firewater: an excellent gin, the highly acclaimed Primitiv Vodka, a local absinthe and other interesting things guaranteed to raise your spirits.
Versailles Farm, Regent Street, Wellington
021 864 1777, www.jd7.co.za
4. Picnic at Doolhof
You’ve spent the morning sampling fine wines. Now picture the scene: a picnic basket, a bottle or two of Doolhof’s best and a scenic stroll along the walkway on the banks of the Kromme River, looking for the ideal spot to lie down and while away a perfect afternoon.
Open Monday to Saturday 10 am – 5 pm, Sundays 10 am – 4 pm
Bovlei Road, Wellington
021 873 6911 (for picnic bookings),
5. Stay at Val du Charron
Andreas’s neighbours are Jozi escapees Cathy and Stuart Entwistle, who have built a truly modern wine and olive estate, complete with tasting room, guest house, spa and The Local Grill steakhouse. Their five-star rooms, with a private pool, could easily win the ‘best view in the Winelands’ title.
Bovlei Road, Wellington
021 873 1256, www.vdcwines.com
Source: Cape Etc