Fiona McIntosh takes a slow drive down the Redford Road just outside Plettenberg Bay to taste how the town’s fledgeling wine route is coming along.
It was the mayor’s skill with a sabre that piqued my interest in the Plett Wine Route (and, yes, it was also the route’s tenth anniversary). In my youth I was a fencer, so when I watched Mayor Memory Booysen decapitate a bottle of MCC at the opening of the Sasfin Plett Wine & Bubbly Festival, I complemented him on his mastery of the art of sabrage. He introduced me to Peter Thorpe, pioneer of wine farming in Plett. As we studied the location of the various farms on a map my eye was drawn to the cluster of tasting rooms along Redford Road in the Crags. The chance to visit five wine farms within five kilometres was an opportunity that I simply could not pass up.
The Crags Bubbles Over
The next day I pulled off the N2 at Bramon Wine Estate, with its cellar and restaurant, which is the first of the five boutique estates that comprise the Plettenberg Bay-Crags section of the Plett Wine Route. But it’s not just the geography that makes Bramon my logical starting point: this is where it all began. In 2000, realising that the local climate and soil conditions were ideal for cold-climate varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Peter and Caroline Thorpe started planting wine grapes.
“Everyone thought I was mad,” says Peter with a laugh. “Initially I took my grapes in refrigerated trucks to Pieter Ferreira at Graham Beck in the Cape Winelands. But it just got too much. Pieter knew that I was looking for a cellar master so a few months later he phoned and asked, ‘Do you want the second-best winemaker in the country?’”
Peter called Anton Smal, who at the time was working for Villiera Wines. “Anton started with Villiera when it was a small family organisation, but now they’re massive. He wanted to get back to what he enjoys most, working for a small, boutique wine farm where he could be creative. He comes from George so was delighted to be coming home to the Garden Route.”
Anton started producing wine at Bramon in 2011 and is now vinifying all the grapes on the Plett Wine Route. “People ask me if the wine won’t taste similar if I am making it all, but that’s not the case. Although Plettenberg Bay is the country’s smallest wine-growing region it stretches for 57km from Harkerville to the Crags. Every vineyard is unique in its terroir and microclimate. We can’t dominate; nature dictates what we produce.”
And all the wine-farm owners are very hands on, passionate and committed to their own goals, so the wines they bottle reflect their diverse backgrounds, interests and choice of varietals. Each wine has a unique flavour, although there is common thread. “Our vintages just get better and better,” Anton claims, a fact borne out by Bramon’s two double-gold Michelangelo Grand d’Or medals for their 2012 and 2013 MCCs.
My next stop is Newstead Lund Family Vineyards, on the other side of the N2. Owners Sue and Doug Lund welcome me in and crack open a bottle of their Brut, the first wine from the region to win Michelangelo double gold.
The setting, at the base of the Tsitsikamma Mountains, is divine with orderly rows of vines stretching as far as the eye can see. I comment on the magnificent buildings and classic contemporary decor. Although the ambience is very chilled and relaxed, this is one chic place: Newstead smacks of style.
“Wine farming is both a passion and a hobby for us,” says Doug. “I suppose my background of playing professional sport has taught me resilience and commitment.” Doug played polo for South Africa and is a well known polo-horse trainer. He’s also a relentless farmer while his wife Sue is a passionate gardener. As if to make the point, she disappears, returning with a gourmet picnic, beautifully presented in a wine box. “We grow everything on the farm so I pick whatever’s fresh.” The same goes for meals in the restaurant, which consist mainly of slow roasts, vegetables and salads that ooze flavour.
I’m not surprised to learn that everything at Newstead is farmed in a sustainable fashion using organic fertilisers and recycled grey water. They even put nets over their vines to ensure that the grapes are top quality. “You must come back to the Bubbles Bar this evening,” they insist as I leave. “A glass of our MCC Rosé is the perfect toast to the pink sky at sunset.”
Redford Lane Wines, further down the road, is very different to the other wine estates and it’s this individuality that makes these Plett boutique wine farms so interesting. When she bought the farm in 2006, Leanne Lane had no intention of wine farming; she was breeding race horses. “This was a wattle plantation, there wasn’t even a boundary fence. But I put in a dam and moved here with my dogs and horses. Then, in 2008, Brendan and I got married. It was about that time that the cellar was starting at Bramon. We enjoy our wine so put in a one hectare Sauvignon Blanc vineyard.”
As we sit on the large wooden deck of the tasting room and restaurant, nibbling from a big platter of country-style wors, pâtés, cheeses and freshly picked lettuce and herbs, and sipping their Sauvignon Blanc, Brendan tells me that they’re glad they waited instead of doing everything at once. “We built a tasting room to see how we were going to move forward before planting more.”
Leanne laughs and adds, “We’re the Voortrekkers here. Brendan built everything himself using wood from the farm. It’s rustic, but it fits our style.” Brendan explains that the Stellenbosch and Paarl wine estates go back to the 17th century, and that the Cape Dutch style is part of their heritage. “We haven’t got that, and don’t want to imitate it. This is our home. But we love to invite people into our sanctuary.”
It’s a sanctuary indeed, particularly for families. Kids play on the swings as the horses graze in the paddock. “We want Redford Lane to be cosy and relaxed,” he continues. “If you’re on the beach and the weather turns nasty, you can just come in your shorts and flip-flops. We’re always open; you don’t need to book.” And apart from the great wine and cooking from Leanne, children have plenty of space outdoors, and visitors can borrow a rod and fish. “The restaurant is very rustic and low key,” says Leanne. “It’s a plaaskombuis.”
Holding back and not planting grapes on all their land means they now have space to experiment with other ‘out of the box’ varietals. “For wines suited to our personalities, which are a bit eclectic and out of the box themselves,” says Brendan. He says they’re developing a three-hectare section this year, planting Malbec, Cabernet Franc and a bit of Viognier.
I feel so at home that it’s hard to move on, but I finally tootle around the bend to the neighbouring farm, Kay & Monty. “I’d been playing polo for several years,” says owner Chick Legh, “but living in Joburg and moving my horses backwards and forwards around the country was too stressful for them. So when this farm came up I thought it would be a great polo base. Shortly afterwards Peter Thorpe decided to plant vineyards as he believed the area would produce great wines. So we decided to try wine making as well. We’re very small at this stage, with only 4.8 hectares under vine, but are producing two great varietals; ‘Sav’ our Sauvignon Blanc and ‘Champu’ our Blanc de Blanc MCC, which is 100 per cent Chardonnay.”
It hasn’t been plain sailing. They lost their first crop of Pinot Noir to baboons, but managed to pull their first successful harvest earlier this year. “The baboons have been a real challenge for us,” Chick reflects. “They’re cheeky. They walk through the vineyards and squeeze one grape from each bunch so we lose the whole bunch. We had to employ guards in the vineyards until the electric fences were installed. It’s funny to watch their antics, but very frustrating.”
He describes how the farm was originally a protea and orchid farm so they recognised that legacy by using the existing structure of the hothouse at the dam for the tasting room. They have also converted the original farmhouse into luxury accommodation.
“It’s exciting to be part of this new and successful wine route. There are some fantastic wines coming out of Plett. We recently won gold at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Awards, the Oscars of the wine industry. To be honest, I think we were as shocked as anyone else that we won. We love our wines, but it was a proud moment to have that recognition. Anton really does an incredible job; the wines just keep getting better.”
Lodestone Wine & Olives, my final port of call, is a short drive away. Jon Tonkin and his wife Ingrid relocated to The Crags in 2012, bringing a desire to find a challenge that fell outside their city-slicker comfort levels. Wine farming, a long cherished dream, met that desire completely.
It was a steep learning curve. “I had absolutely no understanding of the work involved or how demanding wine farming is. Which is probably just as well,” Jon, a commercial lawyer and corporate financier, says. “I learnt from my own research, the freely given advice of others and by trial and error. Good wine relies on good fruit, which in turn relies on good farming practice.”
Lodestone’s first wines, of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, were released at the first Sasfin Plett Wine & Bubbly Festival in October last year (2014). “We have now released our second vintages of both and are particularly pleased with our 2015 Sauvignon Blanc. We have very high hopes for it. Our first Méthode Cap Classique has just been bottled and we’ve also released our first rosé called Stoepsit. Recently we branched out and established a new vineyard with Semillon and a Rhône-style Pinot Noir suitable for still wine rather than just bubbly.” At the moment they do tastings in a temporary, rustic ‘shed’ but when their new, dedicated tasting room opens in December (2015) they’ll be offering snacks, starting initially with a choice of food platters, using their home-grown produce.
As if wine farming isn’t sufficient challenge, Jon and Ingrid have ventured into olive farming, planting 550 olive trees. “Our 2016 crop looks very promising,” says Jon, “so we have bought our own olive press – the first in the greater Plett/Knysna area – and expect to be producing olive oil for others as well.”
Sounds like the perfect excuse to revisit the Crags next year. Watch this space.
Words Fiona McIntosh
Photography Glenn Murray, Charmaine Wild and Plett Tourism