Walking the Walk

By Joanne Gibson

“Variety is in our nature” has been the slogan used in generic South African wine promotions abroad over the past few years. The argument being, the Cape can produce a hugely diverse range of wine styles because of its remarkable biodiversity: 9 087 plant species, to be precise, of which 6 218 are found nowhere else on earth. “So of course we can grow 13 different grape varieties on a single farm, dammit…”

And there’s the rub. The introduction of crops including Vitis vinifera—not to mention far more invasive alien plant species—has resulted in over 80 per cent of the Cape’s indigenous renosterveld and lowland fynbos being wiped out. And the disconnected fragments that remain (mostly on privately owned land) soon won’t be able to maintain the ecological processes required for long-term species survival.

Happily the wine industry partnered with the conservation sector in 2005 to form the BIODIVERSITY AND WINE INITIATIVE. Across the winelands farmers are now working tirelessly to clear aliens, restore indigenous vegetation and implement better waste, water, soil and fire management, chemical control, carbon reduction, energy efficiency and recycling. 

From hiking trails to game drives, many have also come up with eco-tourism innovations—and at the forefront are producers dotted around the Groenland Mountain in Bot River, Elgin Valley, Grabouw and Villiersdorp. These producers have joined forces to create the world’s first biodiversity wine route, the GREEN MOUNTAIN ECO ROUTE.

It was a ‘natural’ step for members of the Groenlandberg Conservancy, established in 1998 and now spanning 34 000ha, at the very heart of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site boasting 1 880 different plant species per 10 000 square kilometres, which is four times more than the Amazon rainforest. 

“There’s a raw beauty here,” says Paul Cluver IV, managing director of PAUL CLUVER WINES on Elgin estate De Rust (in the Cluver family since 1896). “Fynbos still dominates the landscape, whereas other areas are a patchwork of vineyards and gardens. It’s not as neat, but it’s natural.”

It was his father—neurosurgeon, fruit farmer and philanthropist Paul Cluver III—who established commercial vineyard growing in Elgin in the 1980s. Prior to this, its cool climate was deemed better suited to apples and pears. It was also Dr Cluver’s decision to set aside more than half of his family’s 2 000ha property for conservation in perpetuity through a stewardship contract agreement with CapeNature. “We use the fruit of the land, but we are merely its guardians,” says Paul Junior, a philosophy which has seen the estate achieve BWI champion status.

Also a BWI champion is neighbouring OAK VALLEY ESTATE, established in 1898 by Antonie Viljoen, a senator in the Cape Parliament who was later knighted for his attempts to reconcile Boer and Brit after the Anglo-Boer War. He may have planted the 4 000 oak trees which gave the estate its name—not to mention the invasive alien black wattles which helped it to become South Africa’s largest charcoal manufacturer. But his great-grandson Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen is more concerned with farming apples, pears, cut flowers and gourmet meats—as well as wine—in a sustainable way, and with conserving 282 hectares of Kogelberg Sandstone Fynbos.

“We now take great pleasure in burning all the alien wood in our artisanal bread oven,” he laughs. This is a feature of Oak Valley’s new restaurant, THE POOL ROOM, which opened to great acclaim last November and has a “pasture-to-plate” food policy. “We can show you how everything was farmed, as naturally as possible—using no hormones, no antibiotics, none of the nasties. It’s food with integrity.”

The same is true of FRESH, the lovely outdoor restaurant at Paul Cluver, as well as the newPLATFORM 1 EATERY in the historic Elgin station building on GLEN ELGIN. This farm, purchased by the philanthropic bachelor brothers Ted and Harry Molteno in 1903, is now home to the WINTERS DRIFT wine brand, and a third BWI champion in this relatively small area. Held by the Molteno Brothers Trust, all profits go towards “educational, cultural and charitable interests”, with 500ha of pristine natural areas set aside for conservation.

“We don’t farm organically, but we look after the soil,” says marketing and wine manager Gerhard Bruwer. “It’s all part of the legacy the brothers left behind.”

Winters Drift’s so-called TASTING STATION is also a showcase for Glen Elgin’s other offerings, from cut fynbos and potted proteas to honey and fresh fruit, the sort of natural products that have long made the Peregrine and Houw Hoek farm stalls popular stops for Capetonians belting along the N2 to Hermanus or the Garden Route.

The big difference is that people now have several reasons to stay in the area for longer. Whether visiting cellars producing cool-climate wines or taking part in eco-friendly activities, including hiking (or slack-packing the four-day Green Mountain Trail), mountain biking, rock climbing, horse riding, and even off-road Segway tours. Against this natural backdrop there’s also art and music, from the sculpture garden at WILDEKRANS COUNTRY HOUSE to the outdoor summer concerts in Paul Cluver’s FOREST AMPHITHEATRE. “The best venue I’ve ever performed in,” said veteran rocker PJ Powers during her concert in March. 

Admittedly it’s still quite easy to bypass Bot River. “But this has helped to keep it unique and unspoilt,” argues winemaker Sebastian Beaumont. Sebastian’s parents, Jayne and Raoul, purchased the historic farm COMPAGNES DRIFT (an 18th century outpost for the Dutch East India Company) in 1973. “It was completely derelict,” recalls Jayne. “There was one straggly Chenin vineyard and a field of onions; the rest was just dust and gum trees.”

Today the Beaumonts produce a range of highly acclaimed wines in their rustic “rabbit warren” of a cellar, but only 34ha of vines are cultivated on their 400ha estate. The rest consists of fynbos on the south-eastern slopes of the Groenlandberg, with accommodation offered in two restored farm cottages. These provide an ideal base from which to explore what Jayne (an artist) describes as “a special part of the world, where conservation and creation go hand in hand”.

A relative newcomer to Bot River is GABRIËLSKLOOF, purchased in 2002 by Bernhard Heyns, who immediately set about clearing alien Port Jacksons, black wattles and pine trees, and set aside 50ha of his 130ha farm for conservation (the rest is planted with vines, olive trees and lavender). Fynbos has been rehabilitated on the slopes below winemaker Kobie Viljoen’s house by scattering seeds collected over a period of time. It’s an inspiring work environment in which to make wines for Winters Drift and Rivendell as well as for Gabriëlskloof, whose white blend Magdalena 2011 was named Best White and Bloggers Choice in the BWI category of the 2012 Nedbank Green Wine Awards. “We use only half our cellar capacity so it makes sense to make wines for others, too.” 

If the scale of the underground cellar comes as a surprise, the excellent “soul food” served at the restaurant shouldn’t, given that owners Frans and Mariaan Groenewald developed their passion for fresh, local ingredients while running the Houw Hoek Farm Stall and Restaurant. 

Where local dining options were once limited, it’s now tough to make a choice—a compelling reason to spend some time exploring the Green Mountain Eco Route. Accommodation ranges from Elreda Pillman’s fairytale-rustic GOEDVERTROUW B&B on the dirt road between Botrivier and Villiersdorp to the four-star self-catering cottages at PORCUPINE HILLS. But “greenest” of all is the TENTED LODGE at Triactive Events Management, where you sleep in safari-style tents or timber cabins that are nonetheless roomy and well equipped. Here, business partners Cany and Anton Bugler specialise in team-building activities ranging from archery and wine blending to their own version of popular reality TV shows Survivor and The Amazing Race. 

As Paul Cluver sums it up: “There’s more to do here than ever before. You can easily spend a whole weekend exploring—and drinking fantastic wines.” 

Members of the Green Mountain Eco Route

Wine Producers

Beaumont Wines. Tel: 028-284-9194. Web: www.beaumont.co.za

Eerste Hoop. Tel: 028-841-4190. Web: www.eerstehoop.co.za

Gabriëlskloof. Tel. 028-284-9865. Web: www.gabrielskloof.co.za

Goedvertrouw. B&B and Wines Tel: 028-284-9769

Oak Valley. Tel: 021-859-1989. Web: www.oakvalleywines.com

Paul Cluver. Tel: 021-844-0605. Web: www.cluver.com

Villiersdorp Cellar. Tel: 028-840-1120. Web:www.villiersdorpcellar.co.za

Wildekrans Wine Estate. Tel: 028-284-9902. Web: www.wildekrans.com

Winters Drift. Tel: 021-859-2527. Web: www.wintersdrift.com

Others

Appletiser. Web: www.appletiser.co.za

Houw Hoek Farm Stall. Tel: 028-284-9015. Web:www.houwhoekfarmstall.co.za

Green Mountain Trail. Tel: 028-284-9827. Web: www.greenmountaintrail.co.za

Nature Discovery. Tel: 021-859-1989. Web:www.naturediscovery.co.za

Oude Molen Distillery. Tel: 021-859-2517. Web:www.oudemolen.co.za

Peregrine Farm Stall and Red Tractor Café. Tel: 021-848-9011. Web:www.peregrinefarmstall.co.za   

Porcupine Hills. Tel: 028-284-9066. Web: www.porcupinehills.co.za

The Shuntin Shed. Tel: 028-284-9443. Web: www.theshuntinshed.co.za

Triactive Events Management and Tented Lodge. Tel: 021-844-0975. Web: www.triactive.co.za

Wildekrans Country House. Tel: 028-284-9827. Web:www.wildekrans.co.za

Green Mountain Eco Route. Web: www.greenmountain.co.za

BWI. Web:www.bwi.co.za