The R45 heading north out of Wellington is an unlikely place for a revolution. Pomegranate orchards are heavy with fruit in the summer, dams blossom with waterblommetijies in the winter, and the rows of vine are filled with fresh green shoots come spring. It’s a bucolic scene that whips past my Nissan’s window as I head north.
But I’m here in search of revolutionaries: radicals stirring the pot with their counter-culture philosophies, men and women with a devil-may-care attitude that like nothing more than breaking a few rules. This might be an election year, but these mavericks don’t want your vote. They’re after your wine glass.
Adi Badenhorst is one of the winemakers leading the charge in the so-called Swartland Revolution. With a silver-tinged ponytail and piratical beard, I reckon he could carry a beret off with aplomb.
Like most estates around here, when you step into the winery on his farm Kalmoesfontein you’ll see none of the trappings of big commercial cellars. No price-lists or branded merchandise, no anodyne staff pouring meagre tasters.
Instead, a poster for Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle adorns one wall; a Wega coffee machine takes pride of place in the corner. Barrels and concrete tanks line the walls of the old farm building. Beyond the doorway, vines planted back in the 1960s scramble up the sides of the Paardeberg.
A new respect for old vines and a resurgence of top-notch Chenin Blanc are the hallmarks of the winemaking revolution sweeping the Swartland. Its public face is the Swartland Independent Producers (SIP) organisation; a collective of winemakers dedicated to creating wines that embody the region’s unique terroir.
Their wines have to tick a number of boxes to carry the striking SIP logo of an old bush vine reaching for the Southern Cross. Only wild yeasts are used, oaking is kept to a minimum and only varietals that thrive in the Swartland can be used: that’s Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Cinsaut and Pinotage for reds; and Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, Clairette Blanche, Palomino and Semillon for whites.
“We encourage a regional identity to our wines; when people drink wine from the Swartland we want them to know what to expect,” explains Badenhorst.
Like many in the area, he puts much of his efforts into Chenin Blanc. His entry-level Secateurs range sells out faster than he can make it, while the flagship AA Badenhorst is a remarkable white-blend driven by Chenin from the farm’s old vines.
It’s a white-blend that is the hallmark of Badenhorst’s comrade-in-arms around the mountain too. Eben Sadie is one of South Africa’s most respected winemakers, not least for his nine-part Chenin-led blend Palladius. As with his Columella red-blend, it scored five stars in the 2014 Platter’s guide.
There is certainly no shortage of star-spangled wines out here: Lammershoek Winery’s flagship range all scored four stars and above in this year’s guide, thanks to the organic approach of winemaker Craig Hawkins. Over at Porseleinberg, great things are expected from winemaker Callie Louw, who’s working in partnership with Marc Kent from Boekenhoutskloof.
If there’s a downside to driving the dusty roads between the vineyards, it’s that few wineries are open for tasting or sales, unless by appointment. Great if you’re organised, disappointing if you’re not.
So I point my nose north and head for Riebeek Kasteel and The Wine Kollektive, one of the best wine shops in the Cape. The Kollektive stocks dozens of wines from local boutique cellars, with complimentary tastings and knowledgeable staff on hand to guide you through the region’s producers.
And right across the square you’ll find the current cellar-celebrity of Riebeek Kasteel, where a plain wooden door hides one of the country’s most lauded wineries.
California-born Andrea Mullineux first fell in love with South Africa on a visit in 2004, but it was a harvest in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape that saw her fall for a South African, and set her on the path to making wine with husband Chris in the Swartland.
But here’s the thing: Mullineux Family Wines has no vineyards. Instead, grapes are bought in from 26 carefully chosen blocks across the Swartland, and crafted into Mullineux’s three bottlings: the entry-level Kloof Street, Mullineux Family wines, and a range of world-class single terroir releases.
It’s an approach that’s paying off handsomely: Andrea was recently admitted to the prestigious Cape Winemakers’ Guild, and Mullineux was named Winery of the Year in the 2014 Platter’s Guide. Not bad for a winery just seven years old.
For Riebeek Kasteel is a town with plenty of history. Statesman Jan Smuts was born on a farm nearby, and estates such as Allesverloren and Kloovenburg trace their lineage back to the early-1700s.
With its cool, quiet tasting room, Kloovenburg is one of my favourite estates in and around town. Although established in 1704 it was only after winemaker Pieter du Toit and wife Annalene bought the farm 27 years ago that it became known for its high-quality wines – particularly Shiraz – and award-winning olive oils.
Kloovenburg is also home to one of the more charming places to sleep in town; the renovated Pastorie. A traditional Victorian parsonage, this three-bedroom guesthouse is decorated in a classic country style and is ideal for families and small groups who can make full use of the shared lounge, gardens and swimming pool. A night the Pastorie also puts you just a short walk from the village’s many cosy restaurants.
Mama Cucina is perhaps my favourite eatery in town these days. Owners Coenie and Johan used to run the ever-popular Auntie Pasti, now closed, so they certainly know their way around an Italian menu. Wood-fired pizzas fly out of the oven, but here’s also a daily blackboard menu of pastas and meaty dishes.
Around the corner, the quirky Bar Bar Black Sheep is another favourite haunt, with a shady terrace for hot summer lunches, and a cosy fireplace for rainy winter ones. The viskoekies are famous, but I find it impossible to stop myself ordering the bacon-topped Bar Bar Lamb Burger. Quirky décor, friendly service and good food make it a must-visit in town.
But then there are so many places I’d say you can’t miss.
The terrace of the Royal Hotel for a G&T on a searing Swartland afternoon; Beans About Coffee for artisan-roasted beans and a perfect flat white; Bartholomeus Klip, a short drive from town, for idyllic country hospitality. While the Paardeberg may be generating the buzz when it comes to wine, Riebeek Kasteel is where the excitement is on the foodie front. Whichever you visit for, one thing’s for sure… there’s a revolution coming to this corner of the winelands.