A long weekend in the Elgin Valley
About an hour’s drive from Cape Town lies the Elgin Valley, ‘the place you drive through on the way to Hermanus’. It’s worth stopping over, however, as we discovered during a long weekend spent cycling, hiking and tasting wine in the valley…
Our weekend starts at Wildekrans Country House, a historical Cape Dutch homestead at the foot of Houw Hoek Mountains. Owner Alison Green and her architect husband, Barry Gould, moved here from Johannesburg in 1999, after Alison’s father gave her the property as an early inheritance.
We set out for a walk in Kogelberg Nature Reserve with our guide, Patrick Mapanje, whose vast knowledge of the fynbos habitat is astounding. We see so many protea species that it’s hard to keep count.
It’s worth exploring the Kogelberg area on foot. Two slack-packing trails include Wildekrans on the itinerary: the 60 km Green Mountain Trail and the 50 km Blue Mountain Trail. They combine guided hiking – carrying only a daypack – with comfortable accommodation, home-cooked meals and top-notch wines, which the Elgin Valley has become known for.
After I’ve had a refreshing swim, Alison opens A Simple Red, a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend that Barry made himself in his kitchen.
In the morning, a scenic drive via Viljoenshoop Road brings us to Almenkerk Wine Estate, where friendly staff greet us at the modern tasting room. This family-owned estate is a partnership between husband and wife Joris and Natalie van Almenkerk. The Belgian/Dutch Van Almenkerk family bought the farm in 2004 and bottled their first wine in 2009. Through trial and error, 11 years later they have become one of the top wine producers in the region. This, Natalie says, is mainly thanks to her husband’s determination to learn more about winemaking and the chemistry behind it. We search for him in the cellar, where he suddenly appears, whooshing down a fireman’s pole from the office on the first floor.
Joris makes the wine and Natalie is in charge of sales, marketing and admin, or, as she calls it,
‘the boring stuff’. ‘I always feel left out during harvest time,’ she says. ‘Everyone is having so much fun in the cellar.’ That’s why Natalie makes one wine every year: a Petit Verdot.
Besides the Almenkerk single varietals, there’s also the Lace range, which includes a Bordeaux blend, and the Flemish Masters, which pay tribute to the family’s heritage and their love of art – the labels feature paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens.
The farm has been a WWF SA Conservation Champion for six years now. It’s hard work but totally worth it, Natalie says. ‘When you see frogs, when birds make nests, when there are a lot of snakes around, you know you’re doing a good job.’
The family all love spending time on the farm but, Natalie says, Joris always has a notepad with him to make notes of what needs fixing, so they try to get away too. They used to make regular trips to Europe as it is their main export market, but these days, like the rest of us, they have to settle for Zoom meetings.
One of the oldest wine farms in the valley is Paul Cluver – about 2 500 hectares of natural beauty and the producer of a range of award-winning wines. Half of the estate has been set aside in perpetuity for conservation.
We explore the farm on e-bikes, one of many ecotourism activities in the area. Our guide, Quintin Smith, explains that the bike does 90% of the work for you, and I’m happy to report that’s true – the 14 km doesn’t feel like work at all!
Liesl Cluver Rust is there to welcome us when we get back. She points out the beautiful garden, her mother Songvei’s handiwork. It was Liesl’s grandparents who originally bought the farm for summer pastures and to grow everlasting flowers. Her grandmother, a formidable woman, planted apple trees after World War II, and in 1957 she started the De Rust Futura Academy in Grabouw. It was difficult then to get support for the school, but she persisted. Today, the no-fee school has more than 1 100 learners, they have a feeding scheme, and they sponsor learners to go to university.
The Restaurant @ Paul Cluver is known for its seasonal, fresh cuisine. Chef Stacey Lee Chan’s inspiration is rooted in simplicity – the essence of fresh ingredients treated simply and served generously, and the beautiful balance that comes from considered
food and wine pairing. ‘We were very lucky to get her!’ Liesl says. Their signature dish is the pulled pork burger, and Stacey makes a Cluver Jack Cider emulsion that will make you come back for more.
We decide on a whim to visit Iona Wine Estate – and it turns out to be a treat! The sun is setting over the lush green lawn as I take a couple of pictures of owners Andrew and Rozy Gunn.
In the tasting room stands a rare silver 1958 Porsche 356, a reminder of the time Andrew spent climbing the corporate ladder in Johannesburg many years ago. As he puts it, ‘The corporate world didn’t agree with me, and I didn’t agree with it.’ So he took a year off and ended up looking at farms for sale in the area. When he discovered this property overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in early 1997, it was completely rundown but had great potential, he thought – and now the renovated Herbert Baker homestead is their home.
Their tasting room features artworks that chronicle their lives in many ways, including a quirky sculpture by Rozy called Dorothy’s
Little Tantrum and cartoons by her late husband, Derek Bauer.
‘Wine farming can express your little piece of soil; it reflects your ideas, your ambition, your intellect and what it is you’re trying to do,’ Rozy says. Her holistic approach to life is reflected in their natural farming practices, which she says are not very different from how her grandparents used to farm – like using beneficial insects rather than insecticides to control pests.
Andrew says the Elgin area is not nearly as popular as Stellenbosch in terms of wine, but what happens is that people taste their wine at a restaurant and then take the trip to come and see where it’s made.
He and Rozy have an uncompromising belief in how things should be done. ‘Your intention is everything. It will eventually filter through in all you do,’ he says.
We stay over at one of the three cosy cottages at Paul Wallace Wines. In the morning, I sit with owners Nicky and Paul Wallace on their patio overlooking a vineyard with ‘ready-to-pick’ Malbec grapes.
‘Our family has alcohol in the veins from both the maternal and paternal side!’ Nicky says, laughing. She grew up working in her father’s bottle stores (her ancestors are the Sedgwicks who launched the eponymous Old Brown Sherry). Years later, under the guidance of John Platter, she became the wine buyer for Woolworths.
Paul, who is a viticulturist, tells the story of how they came to live here: ‘We were on our way to the Wild Coast for our honeymoon 33 years ago when we drove through this valley and I said to Nicky, “One day we’ll have a farm here.” Sixteen years later, we made it happen.’
Their sons, who were city kids from the Cape Town Southern Suburbs when they moved to Elgin, now both work in the wine industry.
The winery is renowned for its Malbec, named Black Dog after
their furry friend Jake, who was Paul’s shadow for 15 years. Visitors are welcome to bring their dogs with them to the farm as long as they don’t bother the 20 free-range chickens. ‘One rooster lost his personality when he lost his tail feathers after a dog got hold of him,’ Nicky says.
For lunch, we make our way to South Hill Restaurant & Art Gallery. Besides excellent wines the restaurant offers country-style meals, and the gallery has a rotating collection of contemporary South African art on display. The King family has always been in the hospitality industry, so it was a natural progression to move into wine. Today, South Hill is one of the top wedding venues in the area. It is renowned for its tapas, either served as a starter or as a winepairing experience. There’s a guest house and a honeymoon cottage, as well as a houseboat that sleeps two families comfortably.
On our last night we book into Cheverells Farm, a working apple and pear farm in Grabouw. Owner Catherine Boome says she and her husband decided to leave city life, and they haven’t looked back since.
A dietician by trade, Catherine is in the process of transforming an old shed on the farm into a health and wellness retreat. Her dream is to offer an experience where children and adults can pick apples and enjoy a day on the farm. ‘There’s a need for kids to see that apples grow on trees and don’t come out of plastic packets on shelves,’ she says. There’s a dam for swimming and catch-and-release bass fishing, and dogs are allowed.
The farm offers two country-style cottages with a big fireplace each, fully equipped for self-catering. Outdoor adventure enthusiasts often use them as a base to explore the world-class mountain biking, running and hiking trails in the valley. They’re well positioned for accessing the mountain bike trails at Oak Valley Estate and Paul Cluver Wines, as well as Lebanon MTB Trails. ❖