Arguably the most dynamic of South Africa’s wine regions, Robertson is a hugely enjoyable place to visit, with wineries and restaurants galore
Many travellers to South Africa’s Cape Winelands do not venture beyond Paarl and Stellenbosch. However, if you keep heading east on the R62, the main road that goes all the way from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, you come to Robertson, the valley of wine and roses, where there is much more fun to be had with none of the stuffiness that can sometimes be found further west.
On Route 62
An hour and a half from Cape Town, Robertson forms part of the longest wine route in the world on Cape Route 62, which passes through Paarl and Wellington before reaching the Breede River Valley, and then continues on to Klein Karoo. The Robertson Wine Route follows the Breede River via the R60 and R317, with the majority of the wineries lying along the R317 between Robertson and Bonnievale.
Although the wineries are all relatively close to each other, a car is essential. But this is no hardship at all. When I drove to Robertson, I emerged from a tunnel to find baboons running around at the side of the road – the landscape and wildlife are extraordinary.
There are now nearly 50 wineries in the area, many of which have restaurants and accommodation. Wealthy South Africans like Graham Beck (who already had an association with Robertson through his successful stud farm) and Dewald Louw (owner of Major’s Hill since 1994) have put money into Robertson, as well as the Germans Menno Schaafsma and Sasha Hoffmann of Bushmanspad, and Fraai Uitzicht’s Axel Spanholtz and Mario Motti. The enviable lifestyle is certainly an attraction, but Robertson also has land prices that cost less than a fifth of those in Stellenbosch or Paarl. A nice place to build a holiday home.
"Robertson is not commercialised like some of the other wine regions. Here you do not even pay for wine tastings and it is very likely that you will meet a wine maker during your visit to a farm," says Michelle du Preez of Bon Cap, the biggest privately owned organic wine farm in South Africa, and home to the delightful du Preez family.
Good places for a pit stop in and around Robertson include the Bon Rouge bistro, which serves South African cuisine inside a Cape Dutch manor house next door to the Bon Cap Organic winery. Weltevrede winery, home to the Jonkers, has the Under the Vines Bistro, where a platter of local cheeses can be enjoyed whilst admiring local artists’ paintings.
For a wine tasting with a difference, Viljoensdrift, on the R317 between Robertson and Bonnievale, offers a cruise down the Breede River on its riverboat, Uncle Ben. Fred Viljoen owns a Cessna at the local airstrip and occasionally takes lucky guests for a flight over the vineyards.
Accommodation in Robertson includes Weltevrede Guest Farm at Eilandia, which – confusingly – is actually at Bon Cap’s estate, and not that of Weltevrede. There are six fully equipped, self-catering country cottages, each named after a grape variety, with a swimming pool and antique chapel available to guests. There are leopards in the surrounding hills, says Roelf du Preez, though guests are unlikely to see anything more ferocious than the farm’s guard dogs. Roelf’s father Rudolph, who tends to confuse English accents with French, built several of the estate’s buildings himself.
Strictly speaking, the Joubert family’s beautiful Lentelus Farm at Barrydale is actually in the Klein Karoo wine region, about 35 miles east of Robertson, but the hospitality and food are so good that it’s well worth the drive. You can stroll through the vineyards to the tiny Joubert-Tradauw winery near the farm, where Meyer Joubert creates the R62 Merlot/Cabernet blend and a richly flavoured Chardonnay.
Tradition and transformation
In vinous terms, Robertson is dynamic and has undergone a transformation over the last decade. The original winemaking pioneers of the area, like Danie de Wet (of de Wetshof) and Lourens Jonker (of Weltevrede) have handed the reins to a new, younger generation that is more interested in clean, fresh, modern wine than the area’s traditional dessert styles. Lourens’ son Philip is third generation cellar master at his family’s estate, and Roelf du Preez of Bon Cap and Kobus Burger of Rietvallei both represent the sixth generation of their families to farm in Robertson, often in an attractive husband/wife team. There is also young talent emerging at some of the larger producers, like Jacques Roux at the enormous Robertson Winery.
For winemakers, Robertson’s unique vineyard soils (which contribute a great deal to the style and flavour of a wine) are a big attraction. Some of Robertson’s best wines allude to this intimate knowledge of the earth, like Springfield’s Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc; Zandvliet’s Kalkveld (limestone) Shiraz; Goedverwacht’s An Acre of Stone Shiraz; Graham Beck’s The Ridge Syrah; and Weltevrede’s Place of Rocks Chardonnay.
The climate is also important. Robertson is very hot and dry, with less than 200mm of rain per annum, though the hot mornings are tempered by cooling afternoon breezes. The 5,000 ft high Du Toitskloof Mountains overlook the area and trap the clouds that blow in from the ocean 50 miles away to the south, causing night-time temperatures to plummet and thus lengthening the ripening of the grapes – and making an evening drink outdoors even more pleasurable.
Robertson’s champion eccentric Abrie Bruwer of Springfield has done strange things to his wines in recent years. Two hundred bottles of his 1997 Méthode Anciènne Cabernet Sauvignon spent 21 months beneath the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa. ‘The sea-aged wine was showing us where the cellar-aged wine was heading to,’ explains Abrie’s sister Jeanette. ‘We were interested in tasting the difference and we like to play around a little – as well as any excuse to get to the sea.’
Springfield planned a small media launch but the wine was nowhere to be seen. It was finally rediscovered nine months later and only two bottles had been broken. ‘We opened a few bottles of the ‘97 sea-aged wine and we were very impressed with all of them,’ smiles Jeanette.
Who says that red wine doesn’t go with fish? In Robertson, all things are possible.