* this article first appeared here on food24.com
Traveling Easterly from Cape Town, Route 62 is an inland alternative to the N2, and invites travellers to discover a string of charming towns along the way. For three days I explored Robertson, discovering unique food and wine experiences to be had in the Valley.
1. Jan Harmsgat Country House and Boutique Wines
A giant white arch greets you as you drive into the gates at Jan Harmsgat, a farm with an impressive 295-year history. I’d come across their wine at a tasting function in Cape Town, and ever since have been keen to visit the farm. I was surprised to discover that their core business is pomegranates for export. After having to waste several tonnes of sun-burnt fruit, the decision was to make pomegranate juice. I’ve discovered that the world’s oldest fruit has some remarkable medical properties. A shot of pomegranate juice a day keeps the doctor away!
I was however, most interested in tasting their wine. An intimate 16 hectares are under vine, and all the wines are from single block vineyards. This allows for a full expression of the wine, as each varietal is a pure reflection of its relationship with the terroir. I was totally charmed by the Chardonnay: made with completely natural fermentation, then 10 months on 4thfill oak, results in a beautiful marriage of citrus and vanilla. The 2016 Pinotage is a new release – and is absolute velvety wonder. I was delighted to discover that the farm offers a rather unique tasting option.
Most afternoons, there is a ‘Backlands Farm Tour’ on offer, where you have the chance to experience the property from a game drive vehicle: on our short drive, we spotted a pair of Cape Foxes, a Scrub Hare and a herd of Black Wildebeest. The drive pauses on the top of one of the hills, offering astounding views of the valleys around, and the perfect place for a wine tasting. The experience costs R150 and often includes a sunset fire and a picnic. If you’re in the mood for some classy country cuisine, then their restaurant, Just Amy, is bound to hit the spot. If this all sounds too lovely for a mere afternoon’s visit, then you’re in luck as the farm boasts a five-star Country House. Come for the wine and stay for the weekend.
2. Rooiberg Wines
My second stop was the legendary Rooiberg Wines. The name has also become synonymous with a variety of quirky red art installations along the road. I discovered these pieces are an expression of the creativity and innovation embodied by the team at Rooiberg. The most recent of these is the giant Red Chair – the largest of its kind in Africa, and even has a range of wine named after it! But what about the wine: does a larger establishment lose some of its focus on producing top wines? I had the privilege of being escorted around the property by winemaker André van Dyk, and was about to find out.
Twenty farms contribute their yield to Rooiberg’s cellar, from an impressively combined 760 hectares under vine! I knew there’d have to be a rather large cellar to handle that kind of volume. I felt completely overwhelmed standing among the soaring 90000-litre steel tanks – each holding 120k bottles of wine! A staggering variety of wines are produced at Rooiberg, found not only under their own name, but also branded for Woolworths, Protea Hotels, and more. Most winemakers have a favourite child in their bouquet of wines, and for Andre it’s his Pinotage. He told me it’s a “truly South African wine and can be your best friend or worst enemy depending on how you handle it”. I was satisfied after tasting that he knew what he was doing. Even the easy drinking Red Chair Pinotage was a great wine – especially at only R44 a bottle.
Perhaps what will remain most firmly etched in my mind, was the ‘Wine High Tea’. Expecting a usual wine tasting, I was completely taken back discovering a full setting for a combined high tea and wine tasting. A variety of fruits, pastries, and cakes awaited, all to be experimented with the various food options. Creative tasting options have become par for the course at wine farms, but this was a first for me, and hopefully not my last. Rooiberg may not be a conventional wine farm but is an exciting option not to be overlooked.
3. Mont Blois Wines
On my last visit, waves of gentle rain welcomed us to Mont Blois Wines, with the clouds occasionally lifting and providing haunting beautiful vistas of the towering mountains that surround the farm. Although plans are afoot for a unique tasting room, currently you’re treated to an intimate tasting experience as the winemaker meets and greets you on the veranda of their stately Cape Dutch manor house. Nina, a daughter of Pretoria, wasn’t interested in following her father’s medical footsteps, rather deciding to pursue winemaking at Stellenbosch. Not only did she fall in love with the trade, but also Ernst Bruwer, a fellow student from Robertson.
The fruit of their relationship is now the exceptional wines produced at Mont Blois, with Ernst at the helm of viticulture, and Nina the winemaking. She chuckles: “He gives me the perfect grapes, and I just mustn’t mess it up.” Within minutes of our tasting, it’s clear she doesn’t… at all. The Bruwer family have been farming on the property for six generations, with the wine production starting from 1884. Originally the farm was known for its Muscadel, which is now complemented with some exquisitely delicious white wines.
The wines are all hand-picked, hand-pressed and made with all-natural fermentation. There’s also no batonnage or stirring of the lees, so the wines are leaner, but still have distinctive flavouring. My first favourite was the Kweekkamp Chardonnay – grown above terra firma in a sheep camp, and below in limestone. Secondly, the Groot Steen, the farm’s wooded Chenin Blanc is also a winner, both complex and inviting. Very limited barrels are produced, so after your intimate tasting experience, make sure to take home some wine.