Wandering Wellington

By Karen Rutter • Photography by Mike Snethlage

The meerkat sniffs the bottle appreciatively. Then she eyes the label. I’m sure I see a glint of approval on her face. Clearly, this wine gets the thumbs up. 

Which is entirely appropriate. We (a couple of humans and five meerkats) are on the spacious lawns at Welbedacht farm, where The Fabulous Burger Boys are based. The Meerkat range of wines is included in the much-lauded portfolio of former national rugby star Schalk Burger Senior, and his sons Schalk Junior and Tiaan. Together with cellar master Jacques Wentzel and assistant winemaker Mariette Coetzee, they bring out bottles that move from easy-drinking to seriously-take-note. In a way, this reflects the atmosphere on the farm itself, which has a wonderfully laid-back appeal—Shar Pei dogs lolling on the lawn, the gentle burble of a pond—yet is set in a buffed piece of paradise.

For now, we’re giggling at the antics of the meerkats. Schalk Senior, a giant of a man, towers over them with a genial smile. Tiaan explains that they rescued a male/female pair from the Karoo and brought them home, not expecting them to breed in captivity. But they did, and the result is a perky family package that feels right at home at Welbedacht—and must be pretty proud of their namesake wines.

Getting to the Wine Route

We’re busy exploring the Wellington Wine Route, an easy-to-reach and pretty grouping of some 26-odd wine farms and five potstill brandy producers. It’s a space that’s pretty easy on the eye—the Hawequa Mountains soar above a spread of vineyards and old Cape Dutch homesteads, with the Kromme River flowing in between. The route is small enough to feel comfortably accessible, and the eclectic nature of the valley means the trip is never boring.

For example, you can take a break from wine tasting and sample some excellent farm cheeses at Foxenburg, if you like. Or combine horse riding and wine tasting through the vineyards at Bovlei. Or get active and take a bike ride on a mountain trail at Welvenplas Farm.

The Ford Everest

We’re driving the new Ford Everest, so bike and horse rides aren’t on the schedule. It’s a big boat of an SUV, a seven-seater with loads of leg and cargo room and a very credible off-road reputation. Our version is automatic, and our mild off-road excursions are barely noticeable, so solid is the ride. It’s been described as a “go anywhere family adventure vehicle with a crate of creature comforts”, and that’s very fair. For just two people, and with three rows of seating, there is a surfeit of space for camera bags and daypacks. 

The nice thing about the Wellington Wine Route is its compact nature. In some sections there are up to nine vineyards in a small circle, making visiting extremely easy. The road leading out of town to the historic Bain’s Kloof Pass takes us on one such loop. Here you can find Andreas Wines, Nabygelegen estate, Kleinfontein, and several other picturesque pit stops.

The Dogs of Wellington

We are attracted by the clean, sculpted painting of a Pointer dog, aptly pointing the way to Dunstone winery. According to manager Cathy Scholtz, the farm is “not as small as a garagiste and not as large as a boutique winery. It’s somewhere in between”. Well, obviously the space in between has been carefully nurtured, because the Dunstone is highly acclaimed for their 2008 Shiraz. “Yes, we’re very pleased,” says Cathy, modestly. Just like the meerkats and Shar Peis at Welbedacht, Dunstone also has its own special menagerie—the two dogs are called Shiraz and Merlot, and the farm horse is called Cabernet.

 Take it Easy

We don’t see dogs at Doolhof, but we do see a labyrinth—and hear how the farm got its name. Perched at the top of the Bovlei valley, the estate was first settled in 1707. According to Hillary Wagenstroom from the tasting room/brand development team, “Doolhof means labyrinth, and there are many hidden, magical pathways and streams within the valley.” There is also a human-built labyrinth, which looks peacefully calm beneath the late autumn sun. 

In step with the Doolhof theme, the farm produces a range which includes names such as Dark Lady of the Labyrinth, a rich, sensual Pinotage. 

Also on the property is the extremely upmarket and seriously chic Grand Dedale Country House. Situated in the restored Doolhof manor house, the five-star venue features six en suite rooms, each individually designed and all leading onto a cool, deep patio with sweeping views of the valley. There’s also a separate ‘honeymoon’ cottage for those who want more privacy. According to hospitality manager Tina Casu, it’s great to book the whole venue, for a function or special occasion, and take over with family and friends. “We have a pool and a spa room, we cater exclusively for guests with an on-site chef, and we can even organise picnics down in the valley alongside the river,” she explains.

Walking around the spacious, elegant rooms and resting on the patio, I think it would be extremely easy to sink into genteel country sloth here at Grand Dedale, with nothing more pressing to worry about than whether I want scones or muffins for high tea. Or both.

Surprises to Expect

But then Wellington seems full of these kinds of surprises. Take Diemersfontein, where we stopped for lunch. The estate includes private housing, space for conferences and weddings, a small art gallery, wine tasting facilities, and a restaurant. Yet one would hardly realise this from the road, so understated and lushly landscaped are the surroundings.

This year the estate is celebrating 10 years of winemaking, with associated competitions and festivities. One prize is a house on the estate, which is pretty generous, I reckon! Meanwhile, lunch on the Seasons restaurant patio, with its big sky view, is a restful affair. Choices range from Prawn and Avocado Tortellini to Lamb Knuckles to Roasted Garlic and Goat’s Cheese Risotto. All good!

The Ford Everest is keeping us gliding smoothly along the roads. Although it has been criticised for its ‘old-fashioned’ shape—it’s not nearly as aerodynamic as, say, the Touareg, the Audi Quatro or even the Toyota Fortuna, its nearest competitor—the SUV nevertheless cruises easily on both dirt and tar surfaces. I like its stability, and the fact that there’s plenty of power under the hood to tackle the tricky spots.

In Town

There’s nothing tricky in the centre of town, however, as we glide to a stop outside the double-story Breytenbach Centre. It used to be the home of the famous poet, author and artist Breyten Breytenbach, and his parents, and has been turned into a community centre where local people can learn crafts, take music lessons, perform drama productions, and more. Olivia Ockhuis, who works in the centre, shows us a beautiful garden of mosaic-covered statues, and leads us through cool rooms where one young student is having a guitar lesson, while another is reading. “We have concerts and shows here, and they’re always very popular,” she says.

Right next door is another little oasis, The Book Traders store, where Esther Kotze deals in second-hand books. I browse the shelves and am impressed with the range, which includes not only light entertainment (I’m a sucker for detective novels, and she has good ones) but also Africana, award-winning literature, and a decent children’s section. Again, another surprise in a route that’s offered its share of pleasant breaks.

There’s another reason I’m glad we’re in the Ford Everest. By the time we head back home, the back seats are packed with wines we have bought from many of the estates that we visited. I’m not sure a smaller car would have coped. But we swoop back easily into town, a mere 45 minutes away.

It’s been a fine day on a fabulous wine route. Marvellous views, mouth-watering food and wine—and meerkats. What more could we ask from Wellington?