* This article first appeared here in Khuluma Magazine, March 2021
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the Winelands were all about sipping your way through tasting sessions that, after the third, all start to sound the same. Thankfully some of the Western Cape’s wine regions are setting themselves aside from the rest by offering some slightly offbeat, non-stereotypical experiences, with some rather interesting stories as an accompaniment. Robertson is one such region; our journey starts, however, in a rather surprising location.
Robben Island has played various roles over the past centuries, including a post office, grazing ground and most notably a prison. You may know that Nelson Mandela penned the bulk of his opus Long Walk to Freedom in the prison and hid the manuscript in the prison garden. But what you may not know, is that he buried the script only metres away from some grapevines.
It would be over a decade later when Philip Jonker (a winemaker from the Robertson Valley’s Weltevrede Wine Estate) discovered the old and neglected vines…and it didn’t take long for a plan to be formed.
After being appointed custodians of the vines, many visits were made to the island to ensure the vines were nurtured to full health. Frustratingly, the two harvests were gobbled up by ravenous birds before the team could get to them. Luckily after the use of nets, in 2012 the first vintage could be made with the yield of 182kgs of fruit. Nelson Mandela was given a bottle of wine, aptly named Parable, for his 94th Birthday.
This is one of many fascinating stories in the Weltevrede depository: a visit the farm to hear the others remains one of the most memorable wine encounters I’ve had. The experience is made more ethereal by the fact that it happens underground. Many of the farms have disused underground storage tanks, and Weltevrede is one of a few that have broken some of the containing walls, creating a lair of underground passages. It is at the end of one of these that you’ll find a candlelit tasting room – and some of the finest Chardonnays that I’ve sipped. weltevrede.co.za
You don’t have to venture far for another unique encounter. Fifteen minutes later and you have turned the tables at Zandvliet. Instead of being the recipient of a tutored tasting you can play winemaker and blend your own wine. The farm is well-known for its Shiraz; you’re also offered Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvedre to experiment with. You’ll go through the whole process of blending, bottling, corking and labelling your own creation. The experience lasts just under an hour, includes a cellar tour and the best part is that it only costs R150 per person, including the bottle of wine that you get to take home. http://weltevrede.co.zazandvliet.co.za
Continue to meander down the valley and you’re at Esona for another underground tasting experience, but with a twist. We’ve all heard the wino highbrows claim that it’s all about the right glass, and a visit to Esona puts it to the test. A variety of specialist Riedel glasses are used to taste the farm’s wines, and yes, you’ll probably not ever look at a wine glass the way you did before. It’s a fully sensorial experience that includes music, snacks, and art. esona.co.za
Ask many diehard Bordeaux fans what the varietals are in the region’s famed blend, and they’ll happily roll off the five usual suspects. Most, however, don’t know that there is a forgotten sixth varietal – Carménère. Thought to be lost for centuries, only in 1994 was it discovered that there were some plantings in Chile masquerading as Merlot. Lozärn Wines is now South Africa’s premier producer, and you can join winemaker Salome for an information tasting in the heart of the cellar and learn about one of South Africa’s most intriguing wines. lozarn.co.za
John Loubser is no new hand in the wine industry. After decades of winemaking for some of SA’s biggest names, it seems he has left some of the best for Silverthorn Wines…his own brand. In the recently opened and beautifully renovated tasting room, you have the pleasure of being introduced to each of the three MCCs in his range. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better blend of boutique and bubbly bliss. silverthornwines.co.za
For those who may have started their drinking careers with Four Cousins but later parted ways, it may be time for a family reunion. The brand home in Robertson is a rather debonair endeavour, offering countless quirky tasting options, notwithstanding a spacious and stylish restaurant. Arrive hungry. fourcousins.co.za
Where to rest your head
Thankfully the Langeberg has no shortage of places to rest your head after a day’s exploring. Montagu Country Hotel is South Africa’s original Art Deco hotel and period fans will revel in both the architecture and impressive furniture collection. Be sure to sign up for a drive in one of their three American Dream Cars. montagucountryhotel.co.za
Technology and sustainability are perfectly paired up at the LAB (a trio of new lodges in the Western Cape). The Robertson edition offers starting views from their chic lodgings, and for a small fee, you can hire their e-bikes and go explore the area. thelab.africa
If it’s a remote and rustic escape you’re really after, Windfall Wine offers mountainous getaways in their various cottages. They’re affordable and from the tranquillity of your veranda you can sit and watch the clouds fall over the mountains, of course enjoying a glass of their boutique wine. Windfallwine. windfallwine.co.za
On a conscientious last note – in the interests of responsible driving – you may be relieved to know that Robertson sports a rather unique transport option. The Wine Valley Safari truck whisks visitors around a few of the Robertson routes, from set tours to custom-built itineraries. winevalleysafari.com