Graham Howe explores the Slanghoek Valley, a destination in the Breedekloof which has got the right mix of wine tourism, family heritage, good value, the great outdoors and real country pie at the cellar-door.
Pieter Carstens, cellar master at Slanghoek Cellar, has seen a big growth in wine tourism to the Slanghoek Valley on the Breedekloof wine route since he settled here a decade ago. He’s a relative newcomer in a region which many families have farmed for six generations - and where winemakers have put down roots as deep as the vines.
He says “We don’t get the same number of feet through the cellar-door as Stellenbosch and Franschhoek - and we’re not on the main road. To attract people “oor die berg” we offer good wine and good value - and popular events like Breedekloof Soetes & Sop (19 - 20 July 2013), Breedekloof Outdoor & Wine Festival (11-13 October 2013), and Blend your own Wine Saturdays at Slanghoek Cellar.”
Located over the mountain, Slanghoek Valley is a mere fifteen minutes from the wine mecca of Paarl and Franschhoek but a world away from the city. Wine and the great outdoors are the major attractions with fly fishing, canoe/river rafting, 4x4, mountain bike and hiking trails. Slanghoek Cellar, Jason’s Hill, Mountain Oaks and Opstal in the Slanghoek Valley are among the 24 cellars in the Breedekloof (Breede River, Goudini, Rawsonville and Slanghoek), marketed as “much more than a wine route”.
“Time is something we have plenty of in the Slanghoek Valley” says the cellar assistant at Jason’s Hill when I arrived late for a tasting. Winemaker Ivy du Toit is one of the sixth generation descendants of JC Rousseau, the pioneer who first settled the Slanghoek Valley two centuries ago - and left a farm to each of his nine children. Founded in 1844, Jason's fontein is named after the young shepherd who worked on the farm - and inspired the Jason’s Hill estate wine brand launched in 2001.
Ivy says the appeal of the Slanghoek Valley as a wine tourism destination is its rich family heritage, the beauty of the mountains, and the un-commercialised, unspoilt landscape. Looking up, she says, “The Slanghoek mountains curve like a snake. The vineyards are so close to the mountains. We sell our wines at the cellar-door price in our bistro. We don’t charge for going up the stairs! And we don’t charge corkage for Breedekloof wines”. Over a big country breakfast at the cellar bistro with awesome views, I spotted Jason’s Hill Chenin Blanc at R31 - not for a glass, for the bottle!
At the French-inspired bistro I spotted a footnote on the menu, explaining “pomme frites is French fries (skinny chips)” whereas “pomme puree is mashed potatoes!”
Does Slanghoek Valley have a signature variety? Ivy, Diner’s Club Young Winemaker of the Year in 2003 and Woman Winemaker of the Year 2004, exclaims, “You’ll probably get a different answer at every winery! Chenin Blanc is very versatile - I also make it in a wooded style and white blend in some years. I pay a lot of attention to Merlot (planted in one of the highest, coolest sites in the valley) and Shiraz. You have to be full of courage to plant vines in these rocky soils.”
Every vine tells a story at Opstal, which dates back to 1847 when JC Rousseau, the forefather of the Slanghoek Valley acquired the farm called De Opstal bij de Fonteine. Seven generations later, family winemaker Attie Louw still lives in JC’s original homestead - and was elbow-deep in punching down Cabernet Sauvignon in his third vintage. The restaurant with fabulous mountain views and a model vineyard of every variety planted is a popular attraction in the Slanghoek Valley.
Attie says, “Our restaurant is in its ninth year - and has really helped us to develop the Opstal brand and sales at the cellar-door. It is full every Sunday. We only add a small amount (R10) to our wines sold at the restaurant. When it comes to signature varieties, the talk these days is ‘We’ve got options’! I believe Chenin Blanc is king - a variety that isn’t yet owned by any wine route. Our winery is seventy years old - my great-grandfather went independent with our own estate wines in the 1940s.”
“We’re naming our new flagship range Carl Everson after my great grandfather. We’re about to release a new barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc under this label made from 33 year-old vines. We’ve also honoured our third-generation farm workers by naming our Sixpence range - Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon and Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot - after a legendary farm shepherd who worked here.” (The delightful Sixpence label was designed by Fanakalo, the innovative design studio which created inter alia Sadie’s Sequillo, Gilga, Boer & Brit, Carinus, Alheit’s Cartology and Beau Constantia labels - as well as the Swartland Independent logo.)
Versatility is one of the key strengths of the wines of the Slanghoek Valley according to Pieter Carstens, cellar master at Slanghoek Cellar. He takes up the story. “The terroir in the Slanghoek valley - the different soils, altitude, slopes and valley floor - favour a wide variety of cultivars. We have 25 member growers from the same families which founded Slanghoek Cellar in 1961. Slanghoek Valley is around ten kilometres long - and the furthest grapes come from only seven kilometres away.”
At Slanghoek Cellar, I experience one of the team-building wine blending workshops where “corporate groups learn to work together” and tourists get to experience wine-making firsthand. Working with three components - typically barrel samples of single vineyard Shiraz, Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon - visitors get to make three versions of a blend under the tutelage of one of the winemakers who explains the need to balance fruit flavours, structure, palate and tannin. At the end of the exercise, participants get to bottle, cork, label, seal and take home their blend for a fee of R40.
This unique cellar-door attraction in the Breedekloof is a winning exercise in wine tourism. Up to thirty participants can attend blending Saturdays at Slanghoek Cellar. The day I visited, a party of German tourists left with cases of wine after tasting Slanghoek’s best-selling Camerca Bordeaux blend (under R30) and award-winning Natural Sweet Crème de Chenin, dry Chenin Blanc and Noble Late Harvest (R95).
On the picturesque road through the Slanghoek Valley, we passed signposts to accommodation, cellars and restaurants from boutique guest-houses to Slanghoek Mountain Resort, a cottage, camping, wedding and conference venue owned by wine farmer Sakkie du Toit. We stayed on the mountain slopes in a luxury self-catering chalet at Platbos (www.platboslogcabins.co.za) in the Slanghoek Valley. Set on stilts on the farm dam, the three cabins have magnificent mountain views from the terrace - and lead onto delightful hiking trails through the fynbos up to a waterfall in the kloof.
While driving in the vineyards, I gave a lift to a father and son out hiking who asked, “Are you the local farmer? Your bakkie has local plates but your accent is so English!” After a few laidback days in Slanghoek, you’ll be looking like a local too.
* For more info, see www.breedekloofcom. Obtain a free map and guide to the Breedekloof which lists all wineries, restaurants and accommodation from The Breedekloof Wine & Tourism Office open daily - also see www.slanghoekresort.co.za