How the Breede River Valley tells its story through wine tourism
By Samarie Smith-Meletiou Dipwest - Photographs: Courtesy of the estates, posted on 09 January 2023
South Africa's burgeoning wine tourism sector sprouts from Cape wineries willing to embrace change, and constantly exploring innovative ways to adapt. Its picturesque landscape spurs visitors to discover its wine routes, and the Breede River Valley is close enough to Cape Town for city dwellers to immerse themselves in its countryside hospitality for a day.
Bon Courage is home to elegant Cap Classique wines that owes it character to lime rich soils.
What moulded the South African landscape as an excellent wine producing country is its geographical wealth of soil, mountains and valleys, creating micro and meso climates within its predominantly Mediterranean climate. The wine industry extends from the Olifants River in the North to the blue-green spectacle of mountains framing the Cape South Coast and Coastal regions. Moving inland, the red rocky peaks of the Klein Karoo reveal vast plains bedecked in vineyards. Although the Breede River Valley is poised in the centre, it has shed the middle-child notion, excelling in its diversity of styles and price points.
It would be a grave fallacy to assume anything about one of these growing areas until one has physically stepped into its wine womb. But, unfortunately, the gift of abundant sunshine has also often been misconstrued as a barrier to boot assumptions associated with warmer New World wine producing countries. While in fact, as far as South Africa is concerned, no vine is planted in vain after three centuries of refining its viticulture.
The expected, and the unexpected
Mountains abound in the Breede River Valley, with various scenic routes leading here. Home to various co-ops and bulk-producing wine facilities, wineries located in its production areas, namely Breedekloof, Robertson and Worcester, have also successfully positioned themselves as leading producers of award-winning Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadel. Fortifying their strengths and the confidence in what they offer makes them a sought-after supplier of grapes to other wine producing areas in the Cape. Additionally, the Breedekloof Makers Initiative, founded eight years ago by the younger winemakers, has also seen great success in promoting Chenin Blanc as a local value proposition.
DTK was founded in 1962 as a co-operative for bulk wine production and celebrated its 60th birthday this year.
From Cape Town international airport, the route cuts through the Huguenot tunnel, with motorists passing the belly of the towering Du Toitskloof mountains through this impressive tunnel built by Italian prisoners of war between 1942 and 1945. The tunnel was completed in 1948, providing a safer journey between Paarl and Worcester than facing the treacherous Du Toitskloof Pass. Needless to say, majestic, often misty mountain views await travellers on the other side, its winter snowcaps contesting the argument of a "warm" region, followed by waterfalls meandering down its slopes in spring. Not far from here, Du Toitskloof Wines (TDK) awaits.
Ed Beukes, export and marketing manager, explains how they have shifted the brand focus to DTK, of which Du Toitskloof is now one of its brands, along with Lands End and Quest. "Our strategy is to offer consumers something expected, like Chenin Blanc, and something completely unexpected like Nebbiolo."
As an ode to the Italian prisoners of war, this Italian cultivar has found its home in this valley, scoring a whopping 90 points from Gilbert & Gaillard's expert wine tasting panel. The Du Toitskloof Nebbiolo 2020 is one of six varietal Nebbiolos found in South Africa, deeper in colour as one would expect from an Italian Nebbiolo with softer, lighter tannins and a seductive medley of red fruit and florals.
Ed Beukes, export and marketing manager at DTK.
"We love that it challenges people's perception of the valley," Beukes continues. Thirty years after its inception in 1962, DTK entered the packaged wine sector, following three decades of building a reputation for consistent quality. They maintained this momentum and purchased Land's End in 2016 (fruit from the Cape South Coast), making them the largest seller of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc in the country.
"From producing 600,000 litres of Du Toitskloof Chenin Blanc to a mere 2,500 litres of the Quest Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2020 (scoring 95 points at the IWSC) affirms our versatility. These old vines were planted in 1985. We invite visitors to learn more about our philosophy through an immersive cellar door experience at our newly refurbished tasting room”.
The heart of the South African wine industry
Entering the valley from Worcester en route to Robertson, Overhex Wines has anchored itself as a heavy-weight producer in a short time since the owner and executive chairman, Gerhard van der Wath, founded Overhex in 2006. With brands punching at different price points in local and international markets, they have recently pioneered a new certified category for South Africa: Orange Sparkling Wine, naming the range, Get Lost. For their premium wine range, Survivor, they source grapes from Swartland, Elgin and Stellenbosch. According to Overhex cellar master Ben Snyman, the valley's geographical assets are phenomenal in creating a canvas of styles.
Gerhard van der Wath, executive chairman and founder of Overhex Wines.
Ben Snyman, cellar master at Overhex Wines.
"The mountains and valleys create meso and microclimates that will contest any assumption of a homogenous valley. The Breede River Valley produces 690,000 tons from 32,400 hectares, so one can truly regard the valley as the heart of the South African wine industry. The character of the soils changes over small distances, and one only needs to look at the diverse Chenin Blanc styles to know that the wineries are playing to their strengths."
Overhex's Balance range is a commercial phenomenon, focusing on thiol-driven white wines. As for reds, they experiment with oak alternatives to build texture into the wines.
"Our natural sweet range is a stepping stone for new wine drinkers while our classic range offers wine with berry, rather than sugar richness, coaxing consumers into trying different wines."
Off the traditional wine track
Nuy caters to families as one of many drawing cards in the valley.
Further up the valley, it is impossible not to notice Nuy on the Hill.
"It was a strategic decision to move the tasting room to this highly visible location where approximately 8,500 cars pass by in peak season," shares Christo Pienaar, the cellar master at Nuy Winery and chair of the South African National Wine Show Association.
Situated at the foot of the Langeberg Mountain with annual rainfall of less than 200 mm, the Keerom dam is the saving grace, feeding 800 hectares of farmland. It is the largest of its sort in South Africa, boosted by melting snow in spring to ensure a year-round supply of water.
"We have to be mindful with water management. To mitigate climate change, we have also undertaken new planting areas in gorges higher up the mountain. Besides contributing to slow ripening, the mountains influence the wind and rain patterns. Every afternoon, the South Easter wind is guaranteed to blow from around 4:30 pm until about 8:30 pm, presenting a cooling effect that keeps the vineyards healthy."
Nuy has also benefited from the surge in wine tourism, and since building the restaurant on the hill seven years ago, traffic has doubled.
Interactive cellar door experiences are part and parcel of Cape Wine Routes, like at Nuy on the Hill.
"Everyone in the valley benefits from this renewed interest in wineries off the traditional wine track, and it created a platform to review our price points. We offer visitors various price points and aim to persuade them with packaging and different wine styles to try something new."
With only 3% of the cellar's total annual production of 10,000 tons bottled under the Nuy label, Pienaar agrees that the Breede River Valley is a bonafide supplier of sought-after grapes to other wine regions.
"The Nuy Valley as a ward basks in the same Chardonnay limelight as Robertson, with a rich bank of limestone originating at Nuy, travelling all the way to Robertson."
They have joined the rosé revolution in time for the South African summer, and with Muscadel, which is now also exported in cans, it is a guaranteed hit.
"It is important to be recognised for something unique. Most of the time, visitors leave with Chenin and Muscadel, and it pleases me to say that craft gin has paved the way for consumers to explore our pot still brandy."
Bag in box to beautiful bubbly
Chardonnay thrives on the lime-rich soils found in the Robertson Valley.
The Robertson wine district triumphs Chardonnay, from big producers to boutique wineries sharing the success.
Rianco van Rooyen, cellar master at Robertson Winery, confirms that they supply many wine farms beyond the Breede River Valley borders. With an 81-year narrative, they were the first to certify bag in box in the 90s, and Van Rooyen comfortably reiterated the volumes produced of each cultivar, equating to 47,000 tons, all wine of origin Robertson.
"We manage 100 lines with the motto "More to Share" with different styles and price points. We want to be everyone's wine.”
Robertson Winery will soon launch a new underground wine experience for wine tourists.
Lingering longer in Robertson will undoubtedly include a visit to Bon Courage Wine Estate, much smaller in size with an annual crush of 6,000 tons. Here, they have honed in on the intrinsic value of individual vineyard pockets producing exceptional quality. The winemaker, Philip Viljoen, believes there are more discoveries to be made and that the past decade has brought about the renewed intention of illustrating terroir.
Bon Courage cellar master, Jacques Bruwer, and winemaker Philip Viljoen.
"I follow a house style for each cultivar, and fortuitously, judging by the sales, it appeals to the consumer! I am very grateful for that, but one can never become complacent, especially regarding Cap Classique."
The Jacques Bruére Brut Reserve 2013 is a testament to that, scoring 91 points from Gilbert & Gaillard.
"It endorses our objective to pursue the absolute best quality, and we subsequently acquired more land to realise our full potential. We want to create wines that exude individuality within a diverse profile that satisfies different market segments. We have the privilege of ageing our Cap Classique on the lees for a significant period before releasing it”. You will have to search far and wide to find an elegant vintage Cap Classique aged 48 – 60 months and available at this price (R230), offering a beautiful richness, fine mousse and lively acidity. They offer a nougat and Cap Classique tasting as a fun way to explore the range.
Travelling through Robertson down a tree-lined road brings you to the door of Weltevrede Jonker Family Wine Estate, situated in the Bonnievale ward of Robertson. Here, a profound wine tourism experience awaits as an ode to French Champagne that subsequently led to South Africa creating its own category of sparkling wine made in the traditional method: Cap Classique. Curated educational experiences introduce their wines in a global context of wine history, Champagne and the emergence of South Africa's own Cap Classique category. Visitors can also indulge in a hands-on experience, followed by lunch.
Visitors to Weltevrede can immerse themselves in the history of winemaking before lunch at the restaurant called Kapokbos.
Proprietor-winemaker Philip Jonker has been committed to making Cap Classique since the beginning of his winemaking career. Still, it was time for refreshment after 110 years, he says.
"We were ready to materialise the vision we've created in our mind's eye. Weltevrede is arguably the longest-existing family wine brand in South Africa, with a captivating story that needed to be told more interactively. As custodians, we must share our fascination with our terroir in a way that conveys the wonder, the attention to detail, and the humility," Jonker explains.
The arid limestone geology of this Bonnievale-Robertson terroir laid the foundation for their pursuit of excellence, creating Chardonnay with a distinct lime-like vibrance and minerally aftertaste.
Their serious pursuit for quality Chardonnay was acknowledged by Gilbert & Gaillard, scoring The Poet's Prayer 2021 a well-deserved 92 points, and both the Place of Rocks 2021 and The Ring Brut scored 91 points.
A curated experienced awaits at Weltevrede.
"The broken shale slopes with calcrete deposits on Weltevrede bear complex and elegant Chardonnays. We have an Old World style, creating Cap Classique with a pure, crystalline clarity. Stylistically, we regard the Calcrete Chardonnay in the same context as Chablis, our Place of Rocks Chardonnay in the league of a good Meursault, while with the Poet's Prayer, we aspire to the intrigue like a Grand Cru from the Côte de Beaune."
Weltevrede launched its first Philip Jonker Brut Cap Classique 26 vintages ago when Jonker bewedded his bride, Lindelize. It was also the first wine he made at Weltevrede and serves as a constant reminder and celebration of their bond of love.
The Poet's Prayer is made from a small selection of old vines on lime-rich soils that offers that ethereal balance they are after, with intensity and complexity wrapped up in a luminous mineral gloss. The grapes were hand-picked, whole-bunch pressed and fermented in 228-litre Burgundian barrels before the wine was matured on its lees. The fruit for Place of Rocks hails from the slope where the vines are anchored in shale. It fermented in a combination of 1st, 2nd and 3rd fill barrels and spent eight months on the lees with regular batonage. The result is a wine with mouth-watering acidity and a long, limy finish.
A valley of passionate farmers
Marthinus Rademeyer, production manager at Bonnievale Winery.
Bonnievale Winery is also situated in this last ward of the Breede River Valley. Marthinus Rademeyer started here in 2009 as an assistant winemaker and today fulfils the role of production manager overseeing four premises within an 8 km territory, including Wandsbeck (Wine of Origin Robertson)
"While 90% of the wine produced here is destined for bulk wine, we also experiment with smaller pockets. We broke through the bulk stigma when our Bonnievale The River Collection 2022 was awarded an FNB Top 10 accolade earlier this year. Our wines offer that mouth-filling tropical fruit pungency while it is hemmed with a slight herbaceous tone that adds freshness."
The Bonnievale Winery winemaking team.
From the 30,000 tons of grapes supplied to them by "passionate farmers" from an enormous playing field of 100 km by 50 km, 50% of the wines produced are exported. Their offering attracted the attention of French and American importers, with the likes of New Zealand and Senegal now also pursuing their wines.
Rademeyer affirms: "We really have a plethora of North and South-facing slopes to choose from, vineyards planted in different directions and cultivars that are blissfully happy on the best-suited soils. It is all about balance and finding that sweet spot. And as soon as the white stinkwood trees outside the tasting room are embellished with lush canopies in summer, visitors gather here for pizza and delicious wines. Ultimately, it is the pleasure of drinking that the consumer is after."
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