Bonnievale’s chalky soil breeds pioneering people with a passion for doing things differently in this valley of cheese, wine and roses
Words and Pictures: Marion Whitehead
Just what kind of a place honours a racehorse rather than a poet, I wondered, as I drove past the serried ranks of lush vineyards in the Breede River valley, towards Bonnievale.
Writer Breyten Breytenbach is perhaps the most famous person with roots in this dorp, but it was Jungle Warrior, the country’s top-earning racehorse at the time, that was awarded honorary citizenship of Bonnievale in 1991, after notching up more than R1.4 million for its owner, Oom Danie le Roux, whose stud farm is nearby.
I had plenty of time to ponder this, as you don’t arrive in Bonnievale in a hurry. The R317 from Robertson follows the broad sweep of the river and is lined with one wine estate after another, so deciding where to stop is tricky. Viljoensdrift was an obvious choice as it offers more than just fine wines made by descendants of French Huguenots. Moored next to an eatery on a deck beside the river was Uncle Ben II, their cruise barge. I was just in time to leap aboard and found the other passengers far better prepared – they’d filled picnic baskets with goodies to go with their choice of wine at the on-site deli, and were enjoying what must be one of the laziest ways of tasting wine.
Marius Minnaar, captain of the double-deck cruiser for the last ten years, admitted to having one of the best jobs in the valley. “Those are cormorants over there, but watch out for our Fish Eagle too,” he said, showing how to skilfully avoid spoiling the chances of a fisherman on a small paddleski. A few farms further on, I pulled into Van Loveren Family Vineyards, famous for the Four Cousins who have done so much to popularise wine in South Africa. “This large estate goes back generations,” marketing manager Bonita Malherbe said, as she gave us wine-pairing tips on the spacious deck surrounded by gardens, starting point of their mountain-bike trails.
My next stop was a complete contrast. Esona is a small boutique winery in the middle of a vineyard, where we were led into a tiny candlelit cellar for a wine tasting paired with fine chocolate that melted rather well in the mouth with the help of the wine. “A vertical tasting is when you go from a young to an older vintage of the same wine,” petite Daneen Pienaar explained.
I hardly realised I’d arrived in Bonnievale as there were so many orchards and vineyards; older plots are so large people grow persimmons and olives, and keep not just chickens but ostriches. Even the police station sits next to a big vineyard. Shops on the main strip in this agricultural community are without pretension: a few low-end chain stores, local businesses, a country museum and more junk and antique shops than you’d expect in a dorp this size. It’s no cutesy heritage village and the commercial architecture is plain functional.
“Here, what you see is what you get,” remarked architect Theuns Coetzee, who has had a hand in giving many local buildings a facelift, including the old art deco hotel. He left the big-city scene in Cape Town eight years ago to return to his birthplace with his young family. They live next door to his mom, artist and former schoolteacher Irena Coetzee, who welcomes visitors into her home studio, decorated with bright paintings inspired by her travels around the country.
“Here we don’t need a big fence and my daughter can play outside safely and walk to school,” said Theuns, enumerating some of the reasons for their move. His own daily ‘commute’ has been reduced to the time it takes him to climb the stairs to his loft studio, while his wife Elana cooks breakfast downstairs for guests at their bed and breakfast, A Place in Thyme.
Here, people with passion have been doing things differently and taking risks for a long time. A big fat clue is on the wrappers of Mooivallei’s cheese and butter. It features a little, stone, Norman-style church that encapsulates a sad story around Bonnievale’s origins in the early 1900s. The Myrtle Rigg Memorial Church was built in memory of the daughter of the town’s founder. Christopher Forrest Rigg was a doughty Scot who gave the dusty valley life by blasting a canal through solid rock with 80 cases of dynamite. Five-acre plots were laid out and so the town was born. There’s a faded photo of Rigg in a jaunty white suit and natty boater hat standing triumphantly on a dam wall, in the little country museum on the main road, along with a collectionof Breyten Breytenbach’s books and Oom Danie le Roux’s famly memorabilia, including the colours worn by the jockey riding Jungle Warrior. While the town thrived thanks to this leiwater, disaster struck on a personal level. The Riggs’ daughter fell ill and died in 1911, aged just seven years. On her deathbed, she asked her daddy to “build a proper church for the people of Bonnievale, so they can all become good people.” The little church still stands solid, under the watchful eye of the statuette of little Mary Myrtle.
At Weltevrede Jonker Family Estate wine farm, I met another family of great innovators. Philip Jonker is the fifth generation to farm here and his great-granddad worked on Rigg’s canal and planted the first vines here – plants that still bear well enough to produce Oupa se Wyn, a sweet muscadel celebrating the family’s centenary on this land.
As we sat in a historic, beeswax-coated wine cellar and tasted some of Philip’s remarkable Chardonnays by candlelight, he told me the story of Weltevrede. “My grandfather started this cellar, building it with river stones brought here by donkey. Some of the walls had to be rebuilt. They were skew because the builders sampled some of the wine while they worked.”
Each generation has made further changes and pioneered new techniques in the valley. “My dad Lourens renovated the cellar and modernised it, installing stainless steel tanks, and was the first in the valley to bottle on the farm.” Philip studied viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University, then spent a year in the vineyards of Bordeaux and California’s Napa Valley before coming home and gradually making his own changes. Today his Brut MCCs are attracting the right kind of attention.
East of the village, at Merwespont farm, I found an innovative couple striking out in a new direction. Jan and Maretha van der Merwe were the first to plant Israeli pomegranates on a commercial scale here in 2003 and are producing pure juices as well as a delicious range of ruby-red salad splashes under their Passionate Pomegranate label. “Some of our cultivars are tart and others sweet. We mix them to get a good taste – that’s why the taste of batches can differ, just like wine,” explained Jan. “All our fruit is peeled by hand here on the farm and even the Israelis prefer the taste of our juice.”
New pioneers in town are the Two Karins, dubbed Klein Karen (Kleingeld) and Groot Karin (Biggs). The Joburg gals with a financial services background fell in love with Bonnievale while on a road trip through the countryside, and bought some land on the Breede River in 2010 with the idea of growing olives. “It’s not the prettiest town, but the surrounding area is very pretty,” explained Klein Karen. “And it offers the best of both worlds: real platteland living with no stress, but it’s only two hours from Cape Town if we want the shops and the buzz.”
Next thing they opened a bistro, Karins on Main. “I always dreamed of having a restaurant in Spain!” laughed Klein Karen. Then they couldn’t resist buying the neglected art deco hotel and restoring it. Their restaurant is in one section, with a bar and gallery space taking up the rest of the ground floor and stylish accommodation upstairs. “This is just what we want to do. It feels like we’re semi-retired,” agreed Groot Karin as she wandered in from the community project she’s involved in.
Even the shops are different here, with factory shops for cheese and wine. Next door to Parmalat, at De Wijngarten, the wines of 27 local estates are available under one roof in case you can’t visit them all, and Oom Jan van Wyngaard makes his marvellous Timjan aloe tonic, preserved with port wine.
Hours can slip by rummaging in shops stuffed with collectables. I spied bargains on items I’d forgotten existed and admired the patina on old furniture, like the innovative monk’s bench that converts into a table, which I found at Bonnievale Antiques.
Feeling peckish, I headed out to Montanara farm for a cheese and wine tasting with Shantal Beetge, the livewire who runs the Montagne Deli in the shadow of the lovely Langeberg mountains. On the way I tried to figure out what gave Jungle Warrior the edge on Breyten Breytenbach. These solid country folk didn’t seem the kind to be swayed simply by money. Perhaps they didn’t like Breyten’s politics? Or their rural paradise is poetry enough? Perhaps the answer is simpler: Bonnievale folk just like doing things differently, so why not give top honours to a horse?
Don’t Go Hungry
- It’s in the Valley of Cheese and Wine so expect the very best of either wherever you eat.
- In town take your pick from the finest coffee and cake, fantastic thin-crust wood-fired pizzas and home-made burgers, and renowned breakfasts, plus daily specials at the restaurant/deli in town.
- If you’re planning a picnic or need padkos and takeaways, don’t forget a large basket – fill it with home-made preserves, jams and rusks, as well as freshly baked breads, muffins and scones, ready-made meals, fruit juice, fresh herbs and greens, local cheeses and cold meats. And that’s just the start of it.
A Good Night’s Sleep
- You’ll be living in the slow lane wherever you stay, and there’s a great selection, from a stylish B&B in the dorp and campsites on the banks of the Breede River, to self-catering cottages on a wine estate or a working fruit farm. The old hotel in town has also had a great revamp and is quite the meeting place.
Out and About
- Enjoy tastings at the nearby wine estates, or a mellow cruise down the Breede River (don’t forget your picnic basket), while the more adventurous take on fishing and canoeing.
- Pop in to the museum on main road or indulge in some serious retail therapy at the collectable, antique and other intriguing shops. There are also several cheese factory outlets.