Port of Kings

Words and Photography by Clifford Roberts

The first thing most newcomers to Calitzdorp probably learn to appreciate is not port, but ice cold Coca Cola®. This is the Little Karoo after all—a wide valley of thirst-inducing scrubland, dun hills, and mountains of twisted rock.

Irrespective of the modern-day tarmac, travellers have come this way for centuries, drawn to the confluence of rivers and fertile land. By the mid-1800s the land was being farmed, giving rise to the village of Calitzdorp. Visitors these days arrive sometimes by accident, intending only to pass through, but finding themselves drawn into its cottage-lined back streets. Others come, assessing its renown as a producer of port wine—especially around the time of the Calitzdorp Port & Wine Festival. The town is the HQ for SA’s Port Producers’ Association.

Soon all visitors, however, come to love the town’s remoteness, community legacy, and the splendour of biodiversity that survives in such harsh surroundings.

At its extremities are a number of geological wonders—among them the molten landscapes of the red stone hills; the perpendicular rock towers on either side of the narrow Seven Weeks Poort, apparently haunted by the ghost of a toll-keeper; and the Rooiberg Pass, with a 360 degree view of the Little Karoo from the top.

For hikers, mountain bikers, mountaineers and amateur naturalists, this is a playground beckoning to be explored. A good place for information on routes, tour operators, and the like is the local tourism office. Consider taking the Donkey Trail on a former settler route over the Swartberg.

Approaching Calitzdorp, some 17km from the village, one finds the Calitzdorp Spa with its big pools and thatched cottages, where holidaymakers flock to wallow in hot mineral spring water. The same mineral wealth is evident in fruit from the region’s vineyards, among them producers of the country’s finest port wines. Many of the wine estates welcome visitors.

The town itself, with its art galleries, 19th century architecture and country restaurants, is best explored on foot, and there are suggested historical routes and guides available. The historic Dutch Reformed church, where a highly-recommended weekday recital on the original church organ takes place, was built in the neo-Byzantine style and completed in 1912. The town museum is just next door, in the old Standard Bank building.

When the sight-seeing is done, settle down along the Gamka River for a picnic and some bird-watching. As for climate, April to June is a cooler, more comfortable time to visit. From September to November the temperature starts climbing, and the Cokes at the local garage begin to get a lot more attention.

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The Low Down on This Year’s Festival

Kicking up proverbial dust, the Calitzdrop Port & Wine Festival netted a major new headline sponsor this year and presented an expanded programme which highlighted the town and its natural treasures, as well as the versatility of port. A feast of Indian food, highlighting links with traditional South African boerekos and a sumptuous culinary connection with port, was also part of the unusual festival mix presented this June.

Festival co-ordinator Nita Bailey said that relocating the festival, previously held in 2009, from the sports grounds to the old railway station was significant in its development goal to become a refined, upmarket wine and lifestyle event. “A lot of work went into it, with a very small budget.”

The heavy backing of ABSA, and more hard work, allowed the festival to increase not only its offering, but also its contribution to community development.

Nita was especially happy with the community art initiative. She calls it a “legacy project”, referring to its contribution in assisting talented local artists, many of whom don’t have access to galleries or the means to show their work.

There was also Francois Ferreira’s five-course ‘Boerekos, Port, Bollywood & Ballroom’ extravaganza; tastings of chocolate, port and wine by Belgium trained chocolatier Marita Lamprecht and Cape Wine Master Junel Vermeulen; and pairings of port and unusual cheeses by Brian and Jo Dick.

The liveliness of the festival in Calitzdorp—dubbed ‘South Africa’s port capital’ because of the comparability of its soils and climate with the long-time port region of Douro, Portugal—is good news for local producers of fortified wine. According to Mike Neebe, owner of Axe Hill, while South African ports match some of the finest examples in the world, South African production and consumption is “somewhat flat”. Axe Hill is one of the eight wine cellars hosting the festival; the others are Boplaas, Calitzdorp Wine Cellar, De Krans, Du’SwaRoo, Peter Bayly, TTT Cellars and Withoek. The festival, which has been running since 1992, helps to raise awareness of port and contribute to “deepening and broadening” consumer markets, which is required for growth.

Renowned port producer Boets Nel of De Krans reckons there is much to be done to introduce traditional consumers to the versatility of port as well as introducing the wine to an entirely new emerging market of younger and black consumers. “We had some tastings for the Johannesburg trade the end of last year, and the ports went down very well,” he said. “But there is still a lot of work to do. For example, we need restaurants to offer ports after meals with cheese platters; and maybe also include ports in dessert menus, as well as on the main wine list.”

Certain innovations in the industry itself are also chipping at the mould of traditional port, seen by many solely as a winter drink. Try a chilled port as a refreshing drink on hot days, for example. Consider the development a couple of years ago of De Krans’s fortified rosé or Pink Port. Organisers of this year’s festival in Calitzdorp treated visitors to new offerings such as White Port, Chocolate Port, Tinta Chocolat, Tinta Mocha, and Original Espresso”.

The festival started out as an annual event, but later became biennial. With the change in pace since 2009, however, organisers are considering reinstating the annual event.

Alongside the promotion of port and wine, this year’s festival again filled the streets of the quaint village with visitors exploring the town’s galleries and restaurants; visiting the biodiversity exhibition in the station’s former ticket office; taking part in events such as a competition of traditional French boules; and flying through the countryside on two wheels, in the Klein Karoo Klassiek three-stage mountain bike race. Country-style shuttles—dressed-up tractors— transported visitors between participating cellars and event venues during the day, while special dinner functions continued into the night.

There may yet be a lot of work for port producers, but the party in Calitzdorp was one the port-lovers who were there are unlikely to forget in a while.