Wacky – not Tacky – in Robertson
WACKY WINE WEEKEND
1-3 June 2017
Dense mist was little more than head high as I entered the Breede River Valley – colloquially known as the Valley of Wine and Roses – at the heart of Route 62. My destination, at least to start the day, was Rooiberg Winery. This was where I had arranged to pick up my ‘Passport’ for the Wacky Wine Weekend. I had not been to Robertson before, either to this major wine-growing area or to the event.
My excitement overcame the frustrations of ticket purchase. It had not been a simple experience. I had had to choose my start point from a bewildering 20 or more locations when buying my Weekend ticket. This was not an easy exercise, not knowing the local geography nor seeing the miniscule link to a map on the WebTickets portal. To make matters worse, successive SMSs sent the preceding week had the times for Passport collection on the Thursday morning that were at odds to the official Programme. It took me several attempts over the week to clarify.
I cannot but think that Passport collection from a central point would have been so much easier. It surprised me too that an event of this size and stature – the 14th edition and expecting 16,000-20,000 visitors – was not better supported for visitor enquiries before start.
Wine Tasting and Other Activities
The Weekend offers much more than wine-tasting, as many participating vineyards hosted their own activities. The Passport (excellent value at R180) included a festival wineglass, bottle of water, wristband, tasting coupons, programme and map. This gave access to more than 40 vineyards all within a 10-15 kilometre radius of Robertson. I reflected on the words of John Platter in his preface to the 2017 South African Wine Guide in which he comments on the growing trend for ‘vinotourism’ and the ‘lifestyle experience’ being offered by many wine farms. The Wacky Wine Weekend must have been at the forefront of this. The programme included cellar tours, tutored tastings, live music, family fun, food and wine pairing, outdoor sport, arts, crafts and country cuisine.
My primary aim was to taste the wines of the region. I was not so bothered about the associated events, some which required advance booking and others that did not. In the 2½ days, I tasted at 12 out of the 40 vineyards. I am sure this was more than most. It too goes to show the scale of the Weekend. One great advantage is that the vineyards are relatively close to each other. All are within easy reach of Robertson. The programme listed the GPS co-ordinates for each location. This was really helpful for easy navigation from wine farm to wine farm.
I took advice beforehand about which days to go to Wacky Wine. All had said that the Saturday and Sunday become exceptionally busy. I was fortunate enough to be able to choose to go on Thursday and Friday, returning to Cape Town early on the Saturday afternoon. This was certainly a wise decision for a wine enthusiast like me. It allowed me to taste in relative peace, to chat with the winemakers and owners at several vineyards, as well as comfortable access to activities that did not need booking in advance. I soon realised too that many wine farms were open outside the official programme times and so I could take an even more flexible approach. It was great fun exploring the region and also to experience a number of ‘firsts’: blending my own wine (including printing my own bottle label); disgorging, bottling and labelling my own MCC; garagiste wine; and tasting single variety Colombar wine.
The Robertson Area
The Robertson area is dominated by the flat River Breede valley floor. Mountains, with their gentle sloping foothills, border North and South. Most of the wine farms are close to the river from which they gain an adequate water supply and without which the grapes could not be grown. I noticed in several locations the irrigation channels to bring water to the vines. Most vineyards are carved out of the fynbos but do not extend far up the lower mountain slopes, instead growing in the rich alluvial clay and loam soils below. I read a sign on leaving that read “Lime = Fine Wine” and the high lime content was evident in many wines.
Robertson vineyards make up some 15% of the total area of South African vines. A staggering 50 million vines are planted in more than 530 hectares. White wine cultivars dominate (61%), mainly Chardonnay, Colombar and Chenin Blanc, as the growers move away from the standard distilling varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinotage are the predominant red varieties that are grown.
Accommodation in McGregor
I left booking my accommodation until the week before. All the Robertson hotels and bed & breakfasts were fully booked – I am told some people book 4 years in advance. This turned into a blessing as I chose instead to stay in McGregor, some 17 kilometres on the ‘road to nowhere’ and 20 minutes away. I hadn’t been to McGregor before and fell in love with this charming village. Parents in the Breede Valley would tell their children, “Behave! Or I’ll send you to McGregor”. One hundred and fifty years old, the quaint village with its white painted thatched houses set in quiet streets, truly captivated my heart. I loved the relaxed atmosphere, mix of coffee and arts & craft shops, and Langeberg mountain surrounds. McGregor reminded much of my village childhood and a place where ‘time stood still’.
I stayed at Millstone Pottery (R950 for 2 nights) on a gravel side street barely 200m from the main street. Paul and Nina were welcoming and accommodating. The simple room, with double bed and en-suite bathroom, was quiet, comfortable and all I needed. Breakfast was in their kitchen – a mug of tea (home-made pottery of course) and muesli – and quite adequate for the tasting ahead. I didn’t get to see much of their pottery activities that seemed quite extensive from the pieces I saw in the property. The adjacent workshop was full of interesting artefacts too. I shall certainly stay at Millstone Pottery when I visit Robertson next time.
I hadn’t booked my evening meal either and was lucky to find space in Tebaldi’s restaurant – named after the great Italian opera singer Renata Tebaldi – that was part of the Temenos Retreat Centre. The restaurant opens on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and I ate there on both evenings (I would have sampled the popular Karoux Restaurant on the Friday eve but it was fully booked with Wacky Wine diners). Tebaldi’s was built in 1856 and is one of the oldest houses in McGregor. It was bought in run down condition in 1996 and became the starting point for building the Temenos retreat. It was hard to believe that just 6 trees stood on barren land; 14 self-catering cottages, yoga and healing therapy spaces occupy the plot today.
The food served by Graham and his team was superb. I chose a wholesome sirloin steak and chips (R160), cooked to perfection, with a delicious Mozart Pudding (light layers of soft meringue and hazelnut cream, R50) to finish. On the second night, I enjoyed a chunky, tender lamb shank with coffee after. Needless to say, I chose not to drink wine with either meal! I would recommend Tebaldi’s to any Wacky Wine Weekender and shall definitely return.
Where I Tasted
My choice of vineyards was made with many considerations. Rooiberg was the sensible start point for anyone coming from Cape Town via Worcester. Robertson Winery, in the town centre, made sense next. Thereafter, I asked wine enthusiasts where the best wines were. There were also vineyards that offered interesting events that did not require booking in advance. It made sense too to leave the McGregor wine farms to the Saturday and before I returned home. As it turned out, I spent most of my time exploring along the river in the Bonnievale direction. I didn’t venture at all into the Klaasvoogds, Hoopsrivier or Vinkrivier `pockets’. The vineyards that I visited are listed below (see the reviews for each too). These are but a quarter of the total – and I visited hard! – and so there’s plenty more to visit in future years.
- Thursday: Rooiberg Winery, Robertson Winery, Excelsior Wine Estate, Bon Courage Estate, Springfield Estate
- Friday: De Wetshof Estate, Arendsig Single Vineyard Estate, Quando Vineyards & Winery, Weltevrede Family Estate
- Saturday: Lords Winery, Bemind Wyne, Tanagra Winery & Distillery
Unsurprisingly, the range and quality of the wines varied as the vineyards (open for tasting from 1000-1700) cater for differing markets. I had expected more ‘warm climate’, fuller bodied, big fruity vintages. The Mediterranean type of climate and rain shadow from the surrounding mountain ranges, together with the mineral soils, combine for a terroir that produced some quality, elegant wines. De Wetshof, Springfield and Arendsig stood out for refined wines for the connoisseur. Tanagra (I didn’t taste the extensive Marc, Grappa and Eau de Vie), Excelsior, Lord’s, and Quando produced some decent and interesting wines too. The choice and wide range of those showcased at the more popular Rooiberg and Bon Courage farms gave excellent value for money. Cheap and cheerful wines, eminently drinkable, were offered by Robertson and Weltevrede for a different clientele. Bemind was different still and my first garagiste tasting.
I bought wines from all, for my enjoyment and for future Cape Wine Lovers’ Society tasting meetings. I feel sure there’ll be one that focuses on Robertson wines. The Passport coupons – 6 tastings per vineyard – were little used. The wine farms were too busy (even on Thursday and Friday) to tear off and collect the fiddly vouchers. Many wineries too were content to let me taste more than 6 wines (I tasted 14 at De Wetshof) and so little bothered either. I wondered even if the Passport coupons were worth the effort to print and make up at all, albeit I didn’t experience the peak busy Saturday and Sunday periods.
Quality – Not Tacky
I much enjoyed the Wacky Wine Weekend. It was my first and not my last. The Weekend brought me to a wine-growing area that I had not been to before – and that must be a major aim for the Weekend organisers. The range of activities and experiences on offer cater for all. I could easily have spent longer at many vineyards but chose instead to visit as many as I reasonably could. I was pleased too it was possible to plan around the highly popular wine farms by judicious timing. Indeed, the event was less busy than I had expected. Next year, I shall visit different vineyards but stay in McGregor.
There was a sign as I left Robertson to advise the 2018 dates: 31 May to 3 June. I had much to reflect on for my return to Cape Town. The early morning mist had gone but heavy winds blew up a huge dust storm that still necessitated my car headlights.
Wines tasted (* bought):
See individual vineyard reviews
Bon Courage https://www.boncourage.co.za/
De Wetshof http://www.dewetshof.com/
Robertson Winery https://www.robertsonwinery.co.za