Just outside Prince Albert in the Great Karoo, the winds blow in the afternoon, and the sweetest water and topsoil fall from the Swartberg. It’s a recipe for the finest wines…
Words and Pictures: Sue Adams
So Russell Inggs from Reiersvlei Wine Cellar and Susan Perold from SoetKaroo Wine Estate discovered. They were both passing through Prince Albert and the next thing had bought land for wine farms.
“Such serendipitous accidents are what make your dreams come true. Winemaking is a hobby that gets out of hand,” says Russell, gesturing at his tasting room and cellar.
Nine years ago he retired from corporate life in Joburg and was on his way to Ladismith with his wife, Elsie, when they decided to overnight in the little Karoo village of Prince Albert. The rest is history.
“It’s a nice way to live in the country without going feral,” he says with a grin.
Fortified wines are what attracted Russell to the wine industry.
“At my age we have to be careful of our expanding midriffs so it was always better to have port than ice cream at dinner,” he says. “My problem is I do both.”
Reiersvlei – 24km from Prince Albert on the R407 towards Klaarstroom, and so named for the ‘reiers’ or herons that live nearby – is most famous for its fortified wine Alchemy, but Russell also produces a 2010 Cape Vintage Port, a Tinta Barocca and a Red Muscadel. Bottling between 10 000 and 12 000 bottles a year, Reiersvlei is a little bigger than a boutique wine farm, but Russell is quite adamant about quality rather than quantity.
He loves to be involved. “You either have to be a gentleman farmer and give instructions or you have to get stuck in. Part of the enjoyment is to be involved, and I don’t ask people to do things I can do myself.” With 10 hectares of vines, life is busy on Reiersvlei. They control the weeds manually, try to be as organic as possible and have a policy of minimum intervention.
More than 800 metres above sea level, the winery is one of highest in South Africa. But conditions are perfect. Afternoon winds and low rainfall make this valley a relatively disease-free environment, with unpolluted water that falls straight off the mountain, and soil that has an underlayer of clay with sandy topsoil washed down from the surrounding mountains.
“Wine tasting is a social event and we see people when they are rustig and on holiday. They leave the lousy parts of themselves behind,” says Russell.
“We meet some fascinating folk from across the world – from rugby players to Russian tycoons.” And unlike some other wine farms, Reiersvlei welcomes students. “They are the drinkers of the future,” Russell adds with a grin.
A little further along the road towards Prince Albert is Bergwater Wines, 22km from the town. Owned by brothers Heimie and Stephan Schoeman, the farm moved from sheep and ostrich farming to vines, with its first harvest in 2002. With 60 hectares under vines it’s by far the biggest in the area.
Winemaker Jacques Kruger, who has been there for three seasons, shows me their flagship red wine, a 2010 Royal Reserve, which he proudly tells me, “is wine fit for a king”. It was served along with their 2009 Shiraz Reserve at the royal wedding of Prince Albert and Charlene Wittstock in Monaco. They have about 15 wines to choose from so wine tasting there can be a long affair. But Jacques reckons his favourite wine “is what’s in my glass”.
On the same road, and only 16km from Prince Albert, is Fernskloof Wine Farm, where Diederik le Grange is the fifth generation to farm. This family has been farming since the 1800s and has a long history of winemaking. Great-grandfather le Grange planted vines to make witblits and brandy, but this came to a halt when the old South African government decided to regulate the wine industry and forced them to abandon their vines and put away the copper kettles.
“My late husband, Joseph, always wanted to replant the vines,” explains Amelie le Grange, “and when my son Diederik decided to study viticulture we began to replant.” Fernskloof used to sell its grapes to KWV. “But when Bergwater Wines opened their doors we could rent harvest space and make our own wines there,” says Amelia. “From next season we will do it all on our farm.”
Wine tasting takes place in the 128-year-old farmhouse, with Amelia at the helm. Her favourite is the Fernskloof Cabernet but she says the Chardonnay is very popular. The farm is called Angeliersbosch so I ask why the name Fernskloof. “Our farm name is too hard for foreigners to pronounce and we have a kloof on the farm called Fernskloof which is easy to say,” explains Amelia.
As we roll into the small town of Prince Albert and stop at SoetKaroo Wine Estate we find even negotiating the furrows of fresh mountain water a challenge. This might be one of the tiniest wine farms (all of one hectare) but winemaker Susan Perold has a big personality.
Susan was head of the Agricultural Library at Stellenbosch and she and husband, Herman, love their wine. “We went to Prince Albert on holiday, bought a house and realised after a few months that it [the oldest gabled house in Prince Albert built in 1841] needed too much looking after and we couldn’t just keep it for holidays,” says Susan.
Susan is decided about most things and strangely enough does not like sweet wines. But she makes some of the best fortified wine in South Africa and, when she enters competitions, she usually wins. “But you have to send in too much wine to enter a competition,” she explains, “so I don’t really like entering.”
SoetKaroo has four cultivars in their little vineyard. Susan particularly likes the pale pink of red hanepoort and refuses to darken it with the other cultivars, as many other winemakers might do. So she makes four different wines including a Cape Vintage Port and a Dessert Wine Muscat. The wines vary according to what Susan feels is a good blend that year. “Recently the wine conveyed to me that it was a more serious type of wine,” she says. “So I had to change the bottle style to a more traditional port bottle.”
Herman, Susan’s husband, manages the vineyard and Susan is the winemaker in the cellar – a tiny almost garage-like building at the back of the house. “Our marketing is word of mouth,” she says, “and our wines, particularly our flagship Dessert Muscat, get sold out.” That’s pretty good going when you have picked two tons of grapes in a season and bottled 1 000 litres of wine.
It’s wine fit for princes that you’ll find here in Prince Albert Valley, which is also the heart of Karoo hospitality. Quite a formidable combination that might turn a quick visit into a very long and sociable stay.
- Buy some delicious cheese from Gay’s Guernsey Dairy & Deli in Prince Albert, fresh bread from the Lazy Lizard restaurant in town, gather up your many bottles bought on the wine tour and take a picnic up to one of the lovely view sites overlooking Prince Albert.
- Note that all the wine farms offer wine tasting but phone ahead.
- Reiersvlei Wine Cellar – 023 541 1983, Tuesday to Saturday 10h00-15h00 or by appointment.
- Bergwater Wines – 023 541 1703, Monday to Thursday 08h00-16h30, Fri 08h00-16h00, Saturday and Sunday 10h00-15h00
- Fernskloof Wine Farm – 023 541 1702, Monday to Friday 09h00-17h00, Friday 09h00-16h00
Saturday 9h30-17h00, Sunday closed.
- SoetKaroo Wine Estate – 023 541 1768, Monday to Saturday 09h00-13h00, afternoons by appointment.
- For more info on what to do and where to stay – 023 5411 366, www.princealbert.org.za
READ MORE: 5 Things to Do in Prince Albert