Robertson Round Up

By Karen Rutter

Photography Tracey Derrick

“Shake. Sniff. Slurp. Swallow.” These are the rules for olive oil tasting. Clive Heymans shows us with such infectious enthusiasm we’re soon slurping away like professionals. Who would have thought a shot glass of oil could be so delicious?

But then, we’re getting all sorts of surprises on this road trip through the Robertson Wine Valley. The Marbrin Olive Farm is one of them. Clive’s partner, Briony Coetsee, explains that her dad bought the land in the 1990s and started planting olive trees, much to the scepticism of his grape-growing neighbours. But more than a decade later they have 8 000 trees spread over 25 hectares, and have picked up several awards for their oil. The family-run boutique farm now also holds tastings and tapas sessions, where they explain the olive growing process. “We use three different cultivars—Frantoio, Coratina and Mission—and two-phase decanter technology. This basically means our oil is extra virgin, and has a unique flavour,” explains Briony. She and Clive pour bowls of the honey-coloured nectar and encourage us to soak up the taste with bread. Later, we sample different tapenades and green fig preserve, and are splashed with a tot of homemade Limoncello to “freshen the palate”. When we finally leave, we feel we are gliding...

Marbrin forms part of a horseshoe route known as the Klaasvoogds Meander, which leads off the road to Ashton. Here you can find the upmarket Rosendal Winery and Wellness Centre,Kranskop Wines and Mo and Rose Bistro and Guesthouse. And there are also other gems that add to the surprise factor—such as the 65-year-old Sheilam Cactus and Succulent Garden, boasting around 2 000 species of plants. You can take a stroll through prickly swathes of cacti, succulents and cycads, some with the most beautiful bright flowers and others with evocative names such as “Mother in Law’s Chair” and “Horse’s Teeth”. Johanna Geduld, who has worked here for several decades, helps us choose a small selection of baby cacti to buy, while owner Minette Schwegmann tells us international clients are among her biggest customers for seeds. “Especially the Japanese,” she says. “However, we are very careful about what we export and how—the rules are very strict.” Minette, who has a Botany degree, says she often gets emails or calls from people if their succulents are ailing. “I’m like a kind of botanical Agony Aunt,” she laughs.

Further up the road, different plants are cultivated for different reasons at Owl’s Rest Olive and Lavender Farm. Martha Hattingh holds demonstrations of lavender harvesting and the steam distilling process that produces lavender water and essential oils. She creates a whole range of bubble baths, natural soaps, lip balms and more out of purely natural elements. Martha shows us her simple but effective method of extraction using a home-built distiller that includes a kettle she “borrowed” off her husband Jack’s yacht (they plan to sail to the Caribbean at some point). Martha explains the many advantages of lavender water, ranging from being an anti-bacterial agent to an asthma retardant. “And people with birds use it to stimulate feather growth in their parrots and budgies,” Martha smiles. Later, sitting chatting in her heavenly-smelling workshop, she pours us a drink of rose geranium cordial mixed with sparkling water. “Come sundowner time, you can add gin or vodka,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

The problem with the Robertson Wine Valley is there is just so much to do. One needs to spend quite a few sundowner sessions in the area to get a fair grasp of things. We are lucky enough to spend one evening at the five-star Robertson Small Hotel. Situated in what was one of the original Robertson houses—complete with wrap-around stoep and beautiful broekie-lace filigrees—the boutique hotel has expanded to include several pool-side rooms, stable rooms and a honeymoon suite. The accommodation is state-of-the-art comfortable, but with only ten rooms in all, there’s a warm, intimate feel. The service is outstanding, and the menu at their on-site Reuben’s at The Robertson restaurant is stylishly divine. The Ragout of Field Mushrooms with Basil Butter and Onion Soubise is worth driving all the way to Robertson for.

It’s the little touches and gestures—including homemade chocolate fudge and a specially printed-out Emily Dickinson poem on my pillow when I go to bed—that make the place memorable.

There is plenty of accommodation both in town and on neighbouring farms and estates, which makes an extended exploration of Robertson relatively easy. There are various different routes stretching spider web-like out of the hub of the town itself, leading to Ashton, Montague, Bonnievale, McGregor and the R62 back to Cape Town. On the latter road we are very amused to see a massive red chair perched on the side of the road at Rooiberg Winery. We stop to look, and a sign informs us it is the “biggest chair in Africa”, which, at nine metres tall, is easy to believe. There’s also a “love wall” where romantic partners are encouraged to affix a padlock and then throw away the key, symbolising their eternal love. PR and Export Manager Marianne Lochner, says people really like having their pictures taken with the chair. “We have queues when there are special occasions, like during the Wacky Wine Weekend,” she smiles.

We also explore the onsite restaurant and bakery, which is exuding irresistible wafts of all things non-Banting. Marianne says the two young men responsible for the croissants, breads and pastries on display were initially working on the Rooiberg wine farm. They expressed an interest in baking, were trained, and now Neville Olckers and Wilfred Jacobs have a reputation that stretches all along the R62.

Also along the stretch is the eco and art-conscious Graham Beck Wines; the estate, named Madeba, is known not only for its award-winning ranges but for the conservation work being done on its private nature reserve. These efforts have in turn inspired the Game Reserve Range, seven wines which are individually named after animals which are endemic to the region—with beautifully illustrated labels for each. The Graham Beck tasting room also has to be one of the most visually pleasing venues, not only for its sprawling view of the vineyards and mountains, but for the selection of artworks from Graham Beck’s private collection that grace the space.

If you venture down a different strand of the Robertson web, you hit the R317 to Bonnievale. The road winds through a plethora of vineyards and wine farms, making it very difficult to choose a place to stop. There’s Springfield and Cloverfield, Bon Courage and De Wetshof, for tastings. And then there are alternative activities, such as taking a picnic cruise at Viljoensdrift, where you can stock a basket at their deli and then float down the Breede River while sipping something cool. For the more adventurous, there’s the Fish Eagle Biodiversity Hiking Trail at Van Loveren. The 7,5km route starts and ends at the cellar, and offers beautiful views as well as educative signposts along the way.

We push on a little further to Weltevrede, a wine farm that has been in the Jonker family for over four generations. Here, PR Manager Elzette Steyn has something special in store—a walk through some of the original underground wine cellars, which cover more than a hectare of ground. She’s lit candles to guide our way through the narrow passageways, some of which are lined with thousands of bottles of sparkling wine, waiting their turn to be declared ready to drink. “They’re in here for four years,” explains Elzette. She leads us to a small chamber where she and her team usually have group wine tastings. It’s dark, but the candles provide a warm glow and there’s a pleasing, faint, musty smell of old wine. Sometimes couples request the cellar tour, for a special romantic occasion, says Elzette. “But then I try to hang in the background—it’s embarrassing to get in the way,” she grins.

We wind our way back to the centre of Robertson and find yet another surprise, this time one suggested by the friendly staff at the Robertson Small. We find Art Metal Works, the premises of Pieter Heunis, a steel and metal-worker. He has become somewhat famous in the town—and further afield—because of his sculptures, made out of hundreds of horseshoes. “I used to fix horseshoes for the local farrier, and for some reason I got this idea to try and make a horse,” says genial Pieter, when asked how he started. “This was about three years ago—I never had any art training, but I always liked drawing, and I like music, so maybe that counts. I did the one horse, and then somebody wanted me to make another, and so it has gone,” he says modestly. Pieter’s sculptures can now be seen as far away as KwaZulu Natal, and he has been featured on the Mooiloop TV programme. “But this one here I won’t sell,” says Pieter, patting the neck of a pretty horseshow horse with a metal flower in her mane. “Her name is Blommetjie, and she’s the legacy I’ll leave for my family,” he explains.

The Robertson Wine Valley has so much to offer—from the established beauty of a family wine farm and quirkiness of a cactus garden to the graceful opulence of a five star hotel. Then there are the many things to do, from hiking and canoeing to mountain biking and beyond. And you still have to make time for olive, wine, grappa and cheese tasting. We’ll be back, that’s for sure.

Famous for Its Festivals

The Robertson Wine Valley has a festival for every season. Make sure to mark down at least one of them on your calendar.

Hands on Harvest, 7 Feb-29 March: Held over the two-month harvest cycle, this festival takes the format of a boutique event that offers wine aficionados and budding vintners a chance to experience the magic of harvest for a day.

Wacky Wine Weekend, 4-7 June: Seen as South Africa’s biggest regional wine festival, it has close to 40 wine farms and boutique producers taking part.

Robertson Slow, 7-10 August: Wineries and guesthouses from Ashton, Bonnievale, McGregor and Robertson welcome visitors into their homes, to their dining tables and onto their farms for a food and wine experience.

Mmm McGregor, 25-27 September: McGregor links its creativity to a celebration of comestibles, in its mmm...McGregor festival of food and drink.

Wine on the River, 16-18 October: Held on the banks of the Breede River, you can taste over 300 wines from 42 wineries. Add to that live music, great food, kids activities, boat trips, tutored tastings, local produce and more.