The Hills Are Alive

By Hilary Prendini Toffoli

Photographs by Hetty Zantman

I have to admit my memories of Calitzdorp are weirdly sensual. The last time I was there I spent a lot of time thigh-high in the juices of hand-harvested cultivars. Purply-black mounds of crushed Touriga grapes that whooshed in oozy clumps around my legs as I trod them.

They were on their way to becoming Tony Mossop’s delicious Axe Hill port wine. Sadly Tony has since moved on to the great vineyard in the sky, but Axe Hill wines are still trodden by foot. It sounds like fun, but don’t let anyone get the idea that making port is anything short of stressful. It all happens in a concentrated three-day spurt, and if you’re not careful, you can blow it.

This is all stuff it helps to be familiar with when you attend the Port and Wine Festival in Calitzdorp this month—more on that in the sidebar.             

Advantages of Port’s Name Change

It also helps to know that, thanks to the European Union, Calitzdorp’s port has been forced to undergo a name change. Though the region’s soils are similar to those of Portugal’s Douro valley where port originated, Calitzdorp’s fortified wines are now known as: Cape Ruby (younger and lighter), Cape Tawny (darker after more time in the barrel), Cape Vintage (at least two years in barrels, and higher priced), and Cape Vintage Reserve (usually made in good years only).  

“Portugal can’t compete with our prices. Our quality is good and we do the volumes,” Boplaas marketing manager Rozanne Nel tells me. Her great great grandfather Daniel was already, in 1880, exporting to London the Boplaas brandy that would later be served at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration banquet.  Her sister Margaux, Boplaas’s winemaker, thinks the ban is a blessing in disguise. “As South Africans we’re being forced to make our own unique products for the world market.” Which explains why Boets Nel and his brother Stroebel of neighbouring De Krans are now using traditional Portuguese cultivars to make a distinctive dry red they’re calling Calitzdorp Blend. Its flagship Tritonia has just been selected for the ‘Top 100 South African Wines’. 

The Gem of Calitzdorp—The Groenfontein Valley

While the town of Calitzdorp is appealing—with its unspoilt back streets lined with tumbling bougainvillea and Settler and Victorian cottages that haven’t yet been revamped to extinction—its real gem is the Groenfontein Valley.

Since early last century a twisting 49km loop of gravel road has run from the town into the valley. It was a pretty forgotten stretch when I was here last, but the tumbledown buildings and barns are being fixed up, and there’s more than just the scenery to enjoy now on what’s being called the Groenfontein Meander.

Starting and ending on the R62, the road winds past Calitzdorp’s navy blue dam and along Nel’s River. Fruit and ostrich farms lie beneath lush green hills and a brilliant blue sky. Square cottages calling themselves “Outa Piet se Huis” cling to the slopes. You see baboons and thorn trees, cactuses and cattle, and sweeps of up-churned red sandstone. Magical.

What has helped make this a viable arts route is the art gallery opened here in a converted barn, by celebrated ceramicist Clementina van der Walt and her partner Albie Bailey. You come across Kraaldoring Gallery quite suddenly, about 11km from Calitzdorp. It sits against an imposing aloe-covered hillside, across the road from the country home, once the local schoolhouse, of this energetic Woodstock-based couple.

Their gallery has a wide range of engaging artworks to choose from. Art world names such as Colbert Mashile, Willie Bester and Claudette Schreuders, along with Clementina’s new Karoo one-offs—“I was so overwhelmed by the landscape and the San paintings I got into something a bit mystical”—and her Wabi Sabi range—“It celebrates the beauty of imperfection, of just letting things be.”

At a hairpin bend a little further on, a signpost with the words “Peter Bayly Winery” alerts you to where Peter and Yvonne Bayly have been making their port and red wine for more than a decade since leaving Cape Town’s Ellerman House—which Peter built with Paul Harris. Life now is blissfully different. They walk the skins, rely on diesel-generator-backed solar power, and are happy to welcome you to taste their wine, in beautiful Lalique-look acid-etched black bottles. You can also check out their portly pigs, stuffed charmers made by local women during the lean farming months. But call first, 044-213-3702.

Close by is the alluring little Oude Postkantoor coffee shop and gallery of Mike Muuren and Peter Giani, who live in George and come here at weekends. “Neither of us are chefs,” says Mike with a disarming grin. “We just make things we know how to make.” Smoothies, open sandwiches and a Valley Platter with cheeses and pâté, which you eat on a two-tiered wooden deck shaded by trees, a rietdak and cool Vivaldi.  

Artworks here cover the spectrum from high end to the cheap and charming paintings of local artists mentored by Calitzdorp’s ceramics luminary, Hylton Nel. Other more quirky stuff on offer includes Mike’s colourful pyjama-style pants for men and a bird feeder I couldn’t resist, made by Yvonne Bayly with enamel bowls strung together with beads.

More irresistible goods pop up at Groenfontein Toy Project, another women’s community initiative. These captivating little rhinos, elephants and giraffes in shweshwe fabrics have even found a market overseas. They’re at Oasis on the hill behind Aloe Aloe Restaurant.

Aloe Aloe is a newish place to eat, in a 200-year-old barn, once a fruit warehouse. If you happen to arrive at breakfast time as we did, treat yourself to chef Johann du Plooy’s delicious Eggs Benedict—served on his toasted sourdough bread—and enjoy the view from the stoep of the Swartberg Nature Reserve, a World Heritage site. Johann’s blackboard menu caters for everyone: gnocchi, tagliatelle and risotto; bockwurst and smoked pork; good old rump steak.  

Where to Sleep and Eat

It’s from here that the famous Donkey Trail into Die Hel starts. You walk for two days through beautiful Swartberg scenery, with the donkeys carrying your gear, and down into the Gamkaskloof valley where you stay in one of Die Hel’s original cottages. For an easier way to enjoy the mountains there’s Groenfontein Retreat, a Victorian farmhouse in a spectacular setting. The rooms have breathtaking views and are in converted sheds once used for weaving, milking and making butter.  

Smaller but equally engaging is Tienie Bekker’s guesthouse Boesmanskop further on, in a farmhouse dating back to the 1700s. A heavenly hideaway, as well known for its rustic chic ambience as for Tienie’s cooking.

Your last but by-no-means least stop is at the gallery and coffee shop run by Roger Young and Phyllis Midlane in another beautifully renovated old schoolhouse. Roger is a woodworker and photographer. Since most of his handcrafted pieces are commissioned, there are only a few on show. However, his compelling Karoo images are all there, and worth the trip. So are the biscotti of the beautiful Phyllis, who’s on the creative team of the Handspring Puppet Company. With its lovely tranquil garden, this little haven makes for a very different stopover.

Then you hit the red sandstone hills, and before you know it you’re back on the R62, with paradise behind you.

Calitzdorp Port and Wine Festival

Calitzdorp’s Port and Wine Festival takes place on the weekend of 14-15 June. Centred on the historic railway station, it involves tastings of the products of the town’s nine port wine estates, plus a variety of events that include pairings of port with biltong and brownies, solar bread baking, sustainable bee keeping, a gourmet street market, a safari dinner, and a long table brunch. Tickets are R40 a day. Go to www.portwinefestival.co.za.

For contact details on the star attractions of Calitzdorp:

Axe Hill Winery: Tel. 011-447-4366. Web. www.axehill.co.za
Boplaas: Tel. 021-33-326. Web. www.boplaas.co.za
De Krans Wine Cellar: Tel. 044-213-3314. Web. www.dekrans.co.za
Kruisrivier Gallery: Tel. 044-2133-296. Email. phylliscostumes@crysp.co.za
Groenfontein Retreat: Tel. 044-213-3880. Web. www.groenfontein.com
Calitzdorp Cellars: Well known for their fortified and dessert wines, Calitzdorp Cellars are gaining recognition for their red wines and Portuguese cultivar wines. Activities during the festival include a secret dinner with celebrity chef to a long table brunch and more. Tel. 044-213-3301. Web. www.calitzdorpwine.co.za