WE LOVE – The wine route less travelled: Part 1 – Elgin Valley

“For those who are keen to avoid the tourist masses and venture off the beaten track in search of a different wine tasting experience, there are some real hidden gems to be found in the winelands of the Western Cape and one of our particular favourites is the Elgin Valley.”

“For those who are keen to avoid the tourist masses and venture off the beaten track in search of a different wine tasting experience, there are some real hidden gems to be found in the winelands of the Western Cape and one of our particular favourites is the Elgin Valley.”

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For those who are keen to avoid the tourist masses and venture off the beaten track in search of a different wine tasting experience, there are some real hidden gems to be found in the winelands of the Western Cape and one of our particular favourites is the Elgin Valley.

The winelands are a major draw for most international visitors to Cape Town and for their first tasting most head out to Stellenbosch the unofficial capital of the wine region. However the wine lands are rapidly expanding, with new large commercial vineyards, boutique wineries and a growing garagiste movement now stretching out over 2 hours in all directions from Stellenbosch.

With over 400 wineries (and counting) and more than 6,000 different wines, there are now nine different official wine routes offering a diverse range of scenery, landscape and choices of things to do.

The Elgin Valley is still the centre of the apple producing industry in South Africa, but is now also home to a thriving wine industry and I recently ventured down its wine route less travelled on a two day tasting that I organised myself. I found an area characterised by small family farms, world class wines and top young wine makers, some real characters and a sense of peace away from the tourist path. All this nestled amongst the beauty of rolling hills, forests, rivers and rugged mountains.

Just 50 minutes South East of Cape Town we drove out along the N2 motorway, rising over the stunning Sir Lowry pass, which offers awesome views back over the expanse of False Bay to Table Mountain and Cape Point in the distance. Dropping down quickly into the Elgin Valley beyond, our first stop was the village of Grabouw.

Wines to look out for?

Our first tasting was at Shannon Vineyards next to the Rockview Dam, where from the family farm James Downes probably produces the best and most exclusive Pinot Noir in the country. A small boutique winery this is a real gem where James himself took us on a tour of the vines on his quad bike, explaining his own wine making philosophy, before taking us through a tasting himself. Hugely informative and interesting the wine itself is awesome. Watch out for his new release the Mount Bullet, named after the mountain overlooking the farm, a Merlot that is also bound to get a top rating.

A few minutes away Belfield is the smallest winery in the whole valley and literally is a family affair, where the Krefts are building an international reputation for their red wine from just five hectares of land. We sat with father and winemaker Mike in his living room, sampling the latest release of the 2006 Magnifica, a Cabernet Sauvignon that has been rated one of South Africa’s best. Magnificent it was too and at Belfield you enjoy a real warm welcome and unpretentious tasting experience, in fact I think Mike is genuinely surprised by how highly his wine is rated. But he is not about winning awards or status, this is a man who makes wine that he likes to drink and wants others to enjoy. No tourist bus to be seen here, but this is as authentic as it gets, we loved it and walked away with six bottles.

Niels Verburg

At the far end of the valley in the small village of Botrivier are two other small wineries that punch well above their weight and should not be missed. At the Luddite vineyards they exclusively produce Shiraz, the passion of winemaker Niels Verberg. Perched on the top of the hill overlooking the valley, the focus at Luddite is simply on quality and individuality and we sat in the new tasting room, with Neils sampling the 2005 Shiraz, a top rated wine which already has a cult following in South Africa and Europe. A real character Niels is famous in the valley and beyond, not least for shaving his head at the beginning of each harvest, he says he doesn’t have time to comb his hair. He also makes his wife Penny number each bottle of wine by hand and to ensure quality of his wine when he opens a bottle to taste, he drinks all of it before approval!! Fortunately after a small glass we managed to escape but we will be back to spend more time with this engaging man and his brilliant wine.

Just down the road our final stop was at another family concern the Beaumont winery, where son Sebastian is fast becoming one of South Africa’s top young winemakers. Chenin Blanc is Sebastian’s passion and the farm Hope Marguerite has already achieved 5 star ratings. Amongst a range of wines we tasted we also loved their 2006 Pinotage, the Goutte d’or a velvety dessert wine and the Ariane a red blend named after Sebastian’s sister, who took us on a tour of the farm including the recently restored water mill.

Other wineries that are well worth a visit are the Iona vineyards and Oak Valley for their Sauvignon Blanc and the Paul Cluver estate, the oldest vineyard in the area for their famous Chardonnay.

For all the wineries mentioned I recommend ringing beforehand to check they are open for tasting and it is also worth stopping at the Peregrine Farm stall in Grabouw where you can pick up a map of the wine route. Some of the wineries are not well signposted but it’s worth persevering.

Where to stay?

The wineries we stopped at can easily be visited in a day and you can still be back in Cape Town for dinner. However I think it is well worth an overnight stay to sample the beauty and charm of the region.

We stayed at South Hill guest house, a small, but modern and stylish four star property sat in the middle of its own vineyards. Run by Emma and Gordon Manuel, we were given five star treatment, including the honeymoon cottage, standing by itself in the vineyards at the edge of the lake where we even had our own private jetty.

Gordon is also a top class chef and lunch outside on the terrace was fantastic, made even more memorable as we were sat next to a table where the grandmother was celebrating her 101st birthday.

Where to eat and drink?

South Hill restaurant is also open for dinner. It really is fine dining and has an excellent reputation amongst the locals.

For breakfasts we suggest the Jailhouse deli in Grabouw, where eggs Benedict and healthy muesli and fresh fruits, were washed down with proper cappuccino.

The Highlands Road Wine Estate deli does excellent outdoor lunches, including local cheeses and crusty breads on a deck overlooking the dam.

There are also two excellent Farm stalls the Peregrineand the Houw Hoek both on the main road through that valley that serve excellent home cooked lunches and sell fresh breads, pies, fruits and jams.

Where to play?

We think a trip here is all about adapting to the pace of the valley, taking it slow and enjoying the scenery and the surroundings. However for the more adventurous, hiking trails, kayaking and quad biking activities are amongst the pursuits on offer.

On the way back?

If you are in a rush to get back to Cape Town then the N2 motorway gets you back quickest, but if you want to explore there are two alternative routes that we highly recommend.

The first is a stunning drive along the coast, with the mountains on one side and the vast expanse of False Bay on the other. From Botriver, head to the coastal town of Kleinmond (a great place to stop for lunch at the simple fish restaurants). From there the route takes you through quirky fishing villages like Pringle Bay and Bettys Bay, before winding its way along the coast to Gordons Bay where it rejoins the N2. This route takes on average around 2 hours.

The second route is just as dramatic and scenic but takes you inland and also takes around 2 hours back to Cape Town. From the village of Grabouw, take the road towards Villiersdorp which meanders through farmland before reaching a huge dam that provides Cape Town with its water. From there follow the signs to Franschhoek and the road which hugs the contours of the dam, before rising into the hills and the dramatic Franschhoek mountain pass.

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