The Swartland Winelands – Sizzling!
While areas like Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are synonymous with good South African wines, the Swartland has gained a reputation for its sublime, soulful wines. A tough area to tame, new-age winemakers have taken to the sun and soil here, drawing on a sense of community. Non-commercial, with a striking background of mountains, rivers and valleys, the Swartland is the ideal terrain for the bold wine lover to explore.
*A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Travel UK magazine Dec/Jan 2015*
Outside the car windows, the landscape dazzles in zebra-stripes of bright emerald and brazen gold. ‘The name is misleading,’ says my husband: Swartland means ‘black land’ because of the indigenous renosterveld shrub that turns charcoal after the rains. But this is also fertile wheat country and it’s gaining a reputation for its vivacious greens vines – the reason we’re here.
While some regions in the Cape Winelands, such as Stellenbosch and Franschoek, are firmly on the tourist map, the Swartland has remained resolutely below the radar. The bigger names are undoubtedly lovely, but you have to share them with countless other tipsy foreigners who come for the posh restaurants and bargain booze. Meanwhile, the Swartland produces some of the country’s finest wines but there are no belching tour buses interrupting the wide-angle views of big blue skies, velvety green vines and hazy mountains.
Not that you have to be a particularly adventurous tourist to come. The Swartland, with its glassy rivers and verdant valleys is a visually-rewarding hour’s drive from Cape Town – it’s fast becoming Capetonian’s favourite spot for a weekend of sipping and stocking up –and while not all wineries have cellar doors, call ahead at the ones that do and you’ll get leisurely tastings with growers that will take the time to natter about the rich terroir and how investment from wine-visionary Charles Back and publicity around feted local winemaker Eben Sadie has meant that the region is starting to get a bit of a reputation.
Don’t be surprised to find a crush of crowds during The Swartland Revolution (theswartlandrevolution.com), a November wine festival set up by local winemakers such as Sadie, Andrea and Chris of Mullineux and Leeu Family Wines (mullineuxwines.com) – tickets sell out to an international audience before you can say ‘renosterveld’.
Winemaker spouses Andrea and Chris Mullineux were attracted to the relatively untouched old vines, settling in 2007 and setting up Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines. Together with a collaborative band of the region’s top winemakers, Andrea and Chris founded the Swartland Revolution, a festival to showcase the region’s wines and its makers to the industry, restaurants and wine lovers. Today tickets sell out before you can say ‘renosterveld’. While visitors can’t traipse around their wine estate, they can book a tasting at the wine cellar located in Riebeek Kasteel. Which is what we do. I’m familiar with their Kloofstreet old vine Chenin, a favourite any day sipper. The straw wine they’ve famous for smells enticingly of peaches, apricots, almonds and honey and it’s hard to resist buying a case. We try the Schist and Granite Syrahs, from the premium Terroir series and start to place Andrea’s emphasis on flavour, fragrance and balance attributed to the soil. What the wine cellar lacks in expansive views and expensive decor found in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, it makes up for with an intimate, unrushed wine tasting.
My husband has been careful to swirl, sip and spit. I, on the contrary have been indulging in gulps and the drive out of town with the air-conditioned blasting revives me somewhat. Along with the sweep of the Kasteel Mountains, at 300-year-old Kloovenburg Estate’s graceful manor house, we get a little more than we expect: an olive oil tasting. The Swartland is known for its fine olives, olive oils and figs, in season if you’re lucky. Turns out, I am. The Savingnon Blanc is popular at Kloovenburg, but I prefer the chocolatey mildly tannic Shiraz and see it paired with a juicy steak or a seared duck breast salad.
At this point, hunger calls and we heed it, driving out of the estate. We pick the offbeat town of Riebeek Kasteel that we’ve visited in the morning, to lay our heads for the weekend. It’s easy to feel at home with the motley crew of artists, writers and big city escapees we meet at shops and restaurants. Of the latter, there are plenty of great choices, which is surprising considering the town’s size and population of less than 3000. We pre-book a table Café Felix, enjoying cooling pitchers of water in the courtyard, followed by a selection from the blackboard. Tom yum prawn salad, pan-fried chilli squid and for mains, we both order beef fillet paired with the Kloovenburg Shiraz. My husband is glad to be able to tuck into the local wines now, and we designate the rest of the afternoon to reading and a well-earned nap.
We make dinner an early one with tapas of grilled lamb hearts, chorizo, mussels and prawns at cozy Bar Bar Black Sheep. It pairs well with a bottle of local Lammershoek LAM white blend.
Our car boot fills up with enough Swartland wine for the next few fiestas at home. I’m tempted to tuck in a keepsake sprig of renosterveld too.
The next day, I have one more boozy box to tick. I’m keen for a chat with the region’s most famous winemaker, Eben Sadie – his Columella white is one of my all-time favourites. But after repeated calls to The Sadie Family Wines in Malmesbury (thesadiefamily.com) I fail to secure an appointment. He’s out on a harvest, I’m informed. I console myself at The Wine Kollective in Riebeek Kasteel, a tiny shop packed with an exhaustive collection of the region’s wines. Sadie’s pricey Palladius, Pofadder and Collumela wines have gained much global acclaim, but I nab them here at cellar door prices. The Swartland remains a real working wine region of families who toil the land – it’s devoid of the gloss and P.R slick found elsewhere, and long may it stay that way.
GET ME THERE
The Swartland is best accessed by car, as the region is vast and there is no public transport. Two nights is enough time in the region – plan your route and winery itinerary here: swartlandwineandolives.co.za
Thrifty (thrifty.co.za) has car hire from Green Point in Cape Town from £10 per day.
Stay in one of the cosy rooms at the Old Oak Manor guesthouse in Riebeek Kasteel, the lodging arm of Café Felix (0027 22 448 1170, cafefelix.co.za). Doubles from £62, room only.
For a really luxurious experience, book one of the swish rooms at Bartholomeus Klip Farmhouse (0027 22 448 1087, bartholomeusklip.com). Dinners of local lamb are worth it. From £222pp per night full board.
Five Famous Cape Wine Regions
Prefer the big names? How to do the better-known Cape wine regions
This is one of the prettiest places in the Cape, with many top-notch wineries. Some of the region’s most fancied restaurants are found here, too and many of the best-known spots are linked by a handy wine tram (winetram.co.za; from £10).
Drink MCC, a local méthode champenoise sparkling wine is a must-try.
Where? Môreson (moreson.co.za) produces carefully crafted bubblies. Solitaire Blanc de blanc MCC (£6) is 100 percent Chardonnay, while the evergreen Miss Molly (£4.50) is a perfect everyday treat. La Motte (la-motte.com) is one of the most prominent South African wineries – a fine-dining restaurant and art collection on the premises add to the appeal. Try Pierneef Sauvignon Blanc (£6), and the bold berry Cabernet Sauvignon (£8)
The oldest wine producing area in the Cape is famous for expansive homes and sweet wines. It’s 30 minutes from Cape Town, and Cape Point is around the corner. Drive to combine the two, or hop on the wine route sightseeing bus (citysightseeing.co.za/wine-tour; £8).
Drink Vin de Constance was a favourite with Napolean
Where? Klein Constantia (kleinconstantia.co.za) has been creating wine since the time of the Dutch settlers, and recreates their famous sweet wines (Vin de Constance £39) – while also producing top Sauvignon Blanc and white blends. Steenberg (steenbergfarm.com) is a relative newcomer with a very popular restaurant, Bistro Sixteen82, that serves excellent breakfasts and tapas. Try their premium Magna Carta Sauvignon Blanc Semillon blend (£29).
Hemel en Aarde, Overberg
Combine the cool-climate wines in this postcard-perfect region south of Cape Town with watching Southern Right whales calving in nearby Walker Bay. The popular seaside village of Hermanus is an ideal base.
Drink Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wines.
Where? Hamilton Russell Vineyards (hamiltonrussellvineyards.com ) specialises in excellent value Chardonnay (£16) and Pinot Noir (£17). La Vierge (lavierge.co.za) is the newer of the estates with a tasting room, restaurant, deli and deck to relax on. It makes relatively rare Italian varietal blends such as the Sangiovese/Nebbiolo (£36 for six bottles)
This is the heart of the local wine industry, with over 300 producers and a well-developed tourist trade. Tuk Tuks are a novel way to get around the vineyards (0027 76 011 3016, firstname.lastname@example.org; half day tour £22).
Drink There are many you won’t want to miss: start with the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah (Shiraz), bold Cabernet Sauvignon and red blends.
Where? Bartinney (Bartinney.co.za) a ‘Biodiversity in Wine Conservation’ champion is a new winery rehabilitating the land. Set high up on the Helshoogte pass, enjoy an elegant wooded Chardonnay (£6.50) while watching the sun set. They run a popular wine bar (of the same name) in town as well.
De Morgenzon (demorgenzon.co.za) specialises in hand-crafted wines, notably old-vine Chenin; try the De Morgenzon Reserve, £10. The owners play baroque music through select vineyards – beneficial to vine and visitor.