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 

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