When in the Breede River Valley ..... Graham Beck Winery

Graham Beck is a household name in South Africa, mostly for the wines produced by their estate in Robertson. While visiting the farm to taste some of the famous bubbly, none of us knew who the man behind the farm was. So I told the others that I will read up before I blog about the farm. Here goes:

He grew up in Cape Town and during his first year at UCT, he failed academically and his dad told him that he is not going to pay for his university fees any more. So, Graham borrowed £250 from his mom to start a home renovation business and called it Kangra (the name was derived from his own name and that of his carpenter partner, Kannemeyer).

He then moved into coal mining, acquiring many mines in KZN and pioneering the centralised transportation of coal exports through Richards Bay. Once he established his fortune with the Kanga group, he made huge investments into his two great passions, wine and thoroughbred horses. He owned South Africa's leading thoroughbred breeding farm Highlands and well as other farms around the world. Beck's billionaire status was publicly confirmed in 2006 when he sold 60% of the coal operation to a Spanish group.

He passed away in July 2010 at the age of 80 after being diagnosed two months earlier with advanced lung cancer.

I also learned that the Graham Beck vineyards are located on diverse farms in the Western Cape, enabling the Robertson Cellars to have access to grape varietals grown in the climatic conditions and soils to which they are best suited. When we visited the farm, we saw one of the walls covered with wonderful illustrations, showing how the Robertson area’s soil is perfect for growing grapes, how the grapes are made into wine and how Graham Beck Wines became the farm it is today.

One of the illustrations shows that in 1994 Graham Beck Brut NV was chosen as the celebratory drink at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa's first democratically elected president. A second picture shows Barack Obama. The story behind that is that after declaring his intention to run for president, Barack Obama took his wife, Michelle, to one of their favourite restaurants in Chicago. The sommelier recommended two glasses of Graham Beck Brut NV. The Obamas were so impressed with this bubbly that they ceremoniously popped the same bubbles to celebrate his election as the 44th American president just before he addressed the world at Grant Park.

You can visit their website here or like their Facebook page

Creating memories

I told you yesterday about the lunch we had at the Fig Tree House on Tierhoek farm where we carried the table right to the edge of the lawn. Here are a few photos of that occasion. We had plans to go to one of the local wine estates for a picnic on the banks of the Breede River, but you will see why we never left the house and rather just leisurely enjoyed the beautiful surroundings and the privilege of spending time with people we love – the food and the view both seemed to be feeding both the friendship and our bodies.

When in the Breede River Valley ... the Fig Tree House

For the last part of our week in Robertson, we met up with very dear friends of ours to spend some time on an organic fruit farm on the slopes of the Langeberg Mountains. Tierhoek is a working farm with a few holiday cottages located all over the farm. We booked the Fig Tree House for 4 nights. 

Although I did my homework and knew what the placed looked like from photos I saw on the internet, nothing prepared me for just how amazing this house was!! I loved the personalised note (and plenty of firewood) welcoming us. The main house had two en suite bedrooms and a third bedroom with a separate bathroom. The cottage had another two en suite bathrooms with a small kitchen. The living area was huge with a 10 seater table and a wonderful kitchen with all the possible equipment you might need.

The house is situated in the foothills of the mountain, which gives it views in both directions - either from the patio down the valley over the fruit orchards or from the swimming pool area up to the Langeberg Mountains. With no cell phone coverage, no man-made noise except for a bit of farming activity during the day, the isolation was splendid. We spend time in front of the fireplace or in front of the inside braai at evening, all reading quietly or chatting noisily. We had lunch at the outside braai and on another occasion carried the table right to the edge of the lawn, for a lunch with an amazing view. Deciding where to drink our morning coffee was the hardest decision of the day.

I cannot recommend the Fig Tree House at Tierhoek enough! We will definitely return.

You can visit their website here or like their Facebook page.

When in the Breede River Valley ..... Van Loveren

Another farm we visited during our wine tasting day in the Robertson wine valley was Van Loveren, a household name in South Africa and also one of the country's largest privately-owned wine brands. The vineyards were originally purchased in the late 1930’s by Hennie Retief. The property was part of a farm known as Goudmyn (the Afrikaans term for “goldmine”, reflecting the perceptions around the large sum paid for the original farm) and his section was named “Portion F”. His wife did not like the name (as wives sometimes do) and convinced her husband to rename the farm after one of her ancestors, Christina van Loveren.

Hennie made his first wine, a red muscadel, in 1939. As his sons, Nico and Wynand, grew older more vines were planted and a new cellar was built. Until 1980 all the wine was sold in bulk and it was only after they launched their Premium Grand Cru that they started to bottle Van Loveren wines. Nico and Wynand’s four sons joined the farm in the mid 1990’s as they completed their studies. These four cousins are the driving force behind the company that now owns 15 farms in the area, hence the Four Cousins wine label. Two cousins are viticulturists, one is the winemaker and the other the CEO looking after the business side of things.

The white cellar boasts modern gables and a brand new very slick tasting venue. We planned to eat pizzas at the estate restaurant, Christina’s but our visit was on a Tuesday, the only day of the week when the restaurant is closed. Our bad luck did not turn out to be bad at all. We bought some of the goodies in the deli to make our own olive/cheese platter and lazed the afternoon away on the deck outside under huge trees. The deck overlooks a beautiful garden with trees that each has a significant meaning or story attached to the family. It seems the older generation planted trees to commemorate special occasions or important historic events in the Retief family’s life.

You can visit their website here or like their Facebook page.

When in the Breede River Valley ….. collect stories

On a very misty morning, we loaded Emma into her car seat, and took the very scenic road from Robertson to Bonnievale. By the time we arrived at the Weltevrede wine estate, just outside the town, the mist lifted and our day of “tasting our way back” to Robertson could start. Little did we know that this would be a day of sampling interesting stories and anecdotes as well as the wine.

We specifically stopped at Weltevrede to stock up a bit for winter on their CherryChoc Merlot (we tasted it while dining at Karoux in McGregor). While tasting their bubbly, we noticed a photo of Nelson Mandela and asked the staff to tell us the story. In his time as chairman of KWV, Andre Jonker from Weltevrede met Jakes Gerwel, who told him about a grapevine that grew in the courtyard of the prison on Robben Island. This vine gets a specific mention in Long Walk To Freedom as being one of the places where Nelson Mandela hid parts of the handwritten manuscript. Through Gerwel’s mediation, workers from the Weltevrede Farm trust nursed the vine back to health over the course of seven years, after which it finally yielded a crop large enough for 18 bottles of wine, which was named The Parable. One bottle of the unknown white cultivar was presented to President Mandela on his 94th birthday last year, and another to President Obama on his recent visit.

The next stop was Esona, a small boutique winery with only 9ha under vines. Here we learnt that the current owner bought a vegetable farm and transformed it into the wine estate that it is today. But, when he lifted a concrete manhole in the old vegetable storeroom, he discovered 90 year-old underground muscadel fermentation tanks, and these have now been converted into their tasting room.

At Dewetshof we heard the intriguing story of how vines were smuggled into the country. Danie de Wet, with some help of his friend, Jan “Boland” Coetzee, smuggled a few cuttings of Chardonnay from Beaune in Burgundy, hidden in a “box of chocolates,” into South Africa in the early 1980’s. The cultivar was not grown in South Africa at the time and now, 30 years later, the Bateleur is still made from the same block of vines. All very unexpectedly ‘James Bond’ for such a genteel place.

Excelsior Estate has been owned by the de Wet family since 1859. Like many farms in this valley, there use to be an equal emphasis on race horse stud farming and wine. Excelsior have the charming habit of naming their flagship wines after some of these champion racehorses, and each of these seem to have their own legend attached – a few of them being at deaths door (and apparently saved by a deep look in their owner’s eyes while standing – literally – over their graves) before staging miraculous recoveries and winning big races mere months later. In at least one instance, horse race winnings saved the entire farm following devastating floods! Today, they don't have any racehorses and concentrate entirely on wine (and some citrus).

Zandvliet was proclaimed a 5000 hectare farm in 1838 but was later subdivided into Zandvliet, Prospect and Excelsior. Now, 130 years later, the fourth generation De Wets own the farm. The interesting thing here is that estate was always a wine farm, but over the years became a well-known ostrich farm as well as a racehorse-breeding stud (which explains the labels with horses on it). I know nothing about horse racing, but learned that one of South Africa’s greatest ever race horses, Pocket Power, comes from this farm.

At Springfield Estate we were stopped in our tracks by the beautiful and inspiring story of Thunderchild wine. After the Great Flu Epidemic in 1918, the Robertson community built an orphanage for the children left destitute. In the grounds of the Herberg children’s home was an aged, unproductive apricot orchard that originally helped the orphanage to be self-reliant for food. It was suggested in 2003 that they must do away with the orchard and rather plant a vineyard. All the planting material, soil preparation and irrigation were donated by the local vintners. Farms such as Springfield became involved by maintaining the vineyard and producing the wine for them. Now all the grapes for this blend is grown on the orphanage’s grounds and all the profit is donated to the children!

To learn more about these farms, click below on the link for their websites or Facebook pages:
Weltevrede - website or Facebook
Esona - website or Facebook
De Wetshof - website or Facebook
Excelsior - website or Facebook 
Zandvliet - website or Facebook
Springfield - website 


Allow me to interrupt myself today (I will continue sharing our Robertson holiday with you again tomorrow) by telling you all about my grandmother! She was born 90 years ago today, in the small Transvaal town of Bethal and was baptised Engelina Johanna Adriana Basson. We call her Ena. Her dad was Johannes Basson and her mom Helena Adriana (Lenie) de Jongh.

Her dad was a teacher and when Ena was 2 years old the family moved to Riebeeck-Kasteel. He worked as an accountant at Bokomo, but later in life found his true calling as a boarding school house master. Malmesbury had a “rich” school hostel and a “poor” school hostel, splitting the kids from the farm workers from their wealthy employer’s children. My great-grandparents had the ambition that all these kids must be together and with church funds transformed some of the bigger “herehuise” into hostels for the kids. Later a big hostel was built and Johannes and Lenie became the hostel parents until Johannes died.

Ena grew up in Malmesbury and went to school there. In her words she was an average scholar, but to her credit she could play the piano (“was nie te slim nie, was nie te soet nie, maar kon darem klavier speel”). But “playing the piano” does not begin to tell you how great she was. During her final year in Stellenbosch doing a teaching degree, she received full marks for her rendition of Clair de Lune by Debussy!!

After school she became a teacher, and at all the schools she worked, she was given all the musical tasks, especially doing revues with song and dance.

Her cousin Albie Louw use to swim with his friend Hennie Albertyn at the local swimming pool. He told his friend that he wanted to introduce him to Ena and again in her words, “that’s when the trouble started”! They got married, he opened the first ever bioscope in Malmesbury and after some success, opened a furniture store. He was so successful that he opened more of them all around the Boland and retired at the age of 46! The two of them where quite the couple, The Jones’ of their time, dashingly beautiful, outgoing and vivacious. Ena turned out the be the socialite of Malmesbury!! Always with red nails and off the shoulder dresses even before they became fashionable! Even I can remember her weekly appointment at Hester’s Salon – every Friday she had her hair done. My mom recalls/complains about the many hours of sitting through appointments and having her own hair also permed at a ridiculously young age on Ena's instructions.

They had two daughters, Adlene (my mom – also a Helena Adriana) and Rosanne. Oupa Hennie died at a young age and Ena remarried. She met Jacques Malan on an overseas trip and the two of them settled in Umtata, where Oupa Jacques was the registrar of the University of Transkei. When he retired, they moved to Somerset-West. After his death, she stayed on in her house in Somerset-West as long as she could before moving to an old-age home in the Strand.

She is 90 years old today, still drives her own car (!) and has a wonderful, generous heart. And SHE IS STILL SO BEAUTIFUL! I love her.

Last weekend Emma and I jetsetted to the Cape to celebrate her birthday with her. Her two daughters, all her grandchildren (except for my brother living in France) and almost all the great-grandchildren, including little Emma, attended a luncheon at Gabrielskloof in the Overberg. Even Albie, the cousin who introduced her to Hennie, was there! Looking at the assembled crowd I knew what the writer of Proverbs meant when he said a man with many sons is the possessor of great wealth…

Gabrielskloof is a beautiful wine estate just outside Bot Rivier on the Swartrivier Road. Their restaurant is located inside a large barn style building with great seating outside. We had a grand time.


Thanks to Callie and Elanie Fourie who helped me with these photos.