Encompassing the best of what the valley had to offer, the Robertson Slow festival features an array of curated activities for those looking to immerse themselves in wine culture.
From lengthy dinners with the winemakers, to informative tastings and country markets filled with goodies to eat and drink, the Robertson Slow festival is designed to encourage one to take one’s time and really enjoy every aspect of life in this picturesque valley. While not the oldest wine-producing part of the Western Cape, this area is one that keeps on surprising; and is subsequently one of my favourites.
Held in the first weekend of August, with Robertson and the surrounding towns of Ashton, McGregor, Bonnievale and Montagu still in a wintery embrace, the festival makes for the ideal getaway for those craving layers of wool, roaring log fires and the mellow reds cultivated in the area. I had previously visited Robertson last year and fell in love with the diverse array of landscapes and the wines borne by them. This time around I was ready to explore a whole new host of estates and find out just why the Robertson Slow festival has visitors raving about it year after year.
First up was an informal braai with the winemakers of Mont Blois estate, Nina-Mari and Ernst Bruwer at their grandiose historical home in the hills. Anything but ordinary, the house itself is a sprawling Cape Dutch manor replete with acres of manicured lawn, a giant avocado tree and my personal favourite – Nina-Mari’s spacious farmhouse kitchen. Dinner was served across a beautifully-set table and consisted of juicy steak and a selection of salads. Best of all, guests were treated to a tasting of the estate’s excellent array of wines. Like many estates in the area, Mont Blois is situated on a combination of soils – namely limestone chalk and rich red clay. The wines are shaped by this unique terroir with their sapidity dictated by what soil the grapes were cultivated in. Known mainly for their easy-drinking white varietals, Nina-Mari (who is the only Cape Wine Master in the valley) took us through Mont Blois’ range of Chardonnay and Chenin. The latter – known as Groote Steen – is grown in alluvial clay along the banks of the Breede River and subsequently has a richer taste. My preference ran to the Kweekkamp Chardonnay; a 2016 varietal grown in well-drained limestone soil that lent the wine a deliciously dry appeal.
We also had the good fortune to sample an as-of-yet unlabelled Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdoux which turned out to be a deliciously easy-drinking red that I could imagine enjoying slightly chilled over lunch. As the hour grew late, we ended the meal with Nina-Mari’s decadent Jan Ellis pudding – a spongy dessert topped with vanilla custard, not dissimilar to Malva pudding – paired with Mont Blois’ fortified wines.
Because of where Mont Blois is situated in the valley, their wines carry a Hooprivier wine of origin label – and after taking in the breathtaking scenery of the area, one can appreciate why. While I haven’t the means to spontaneously jet off to Switzerland, the magical scene of Mont Blois’ fantastical grain silos made me imagine that I had. Turreted roofs give the buildings a fairytale atmosphere while the cathedral of surrounding mountains, forest of silvery birch trees and a peach orchard filled with delicate pink blossoms added up to a scene from a storybook. I’m certainly hoping to return – I’d love to see the silos when the mountains are dusted with snow.
Because we were overnighting on yet another wine estate – Arendsig – meant that I could awaken as early as the previous evening’s festivities would allow me to and take a walk amongst the dormant vineyards. Coming in at my top three wine estates in the valley, Arendsig specialises in an artisanal form of winemaking, with their single vineyard varietals an absolute treat to taste.
The sun was just rising through a bank of heavy clouds and the wind off the river was refreshingly crisp. Copses of cottony reeds were silhouetted against the early morning light as it reflected off the leiwater canal that runs through the estate. Over the course of my walk, many a seasonal scene was revealed; wild flowers nodded in the breeze and I couldn’t help by think what a boon it must be to live in the country and see the changes in nature – from the minutiae of the tiniest flower to grandiose mountains capped in fresh snow. This is the beauty of the Robertson Slow festival – it advocates the luxury of taking one’s time and appreciate the small details, the finer things that can so easily be overlooked.
Arendsig has recently refurbished a couple of unused farm labourer’s cottages, one of which was our home for the previous night. Compact and yet cosy, each cottage overlooks the valley and has a wonderful sunlit verandah, a barbecue and an inside fireplace to ensure comfort through every season. Peace and quiet is ensured; with the only sounds apart from the birds may be the padding footfalls of Boereseun – Arendsig’s cuddly bear of a St Bernard.
While the temptation was to remain on the stoep, drinking tea with Boereseun for company and listening to the early morning call of a fish eagle, the valley awaited exploration.
A short drive later and we were met at the door of the impressive façade of De Wetshof Wines. Heinrich, our host for the morning offered up chilled glasses of the estate’s delicious MCC – rather decadent for 10am in the morning but that’s what Robertson Slow is all about. Next came a comprehensive tour of De Wetshof’s cellar and surrounds. I was so enthralled with the beauty of the estate that regrettably I lost out on much of what Heinrich was telling us as I was so busy taking photos – I’m easily distracted. But what I did catch is that the original De Wetshof farm was founded in 1947, with the estate’s buildings styled on various historical buildings in Cape Town. Boasting a vast cellar, all wines cellared here are kept at an ambient 11 degrees Celsius, with the red wines cellared in oak barrels. Predominantly known for their white varietals – namely Chardonnay – De Wetshof gives the illusion of woodiness to their white wines through the use of a drum filter. Back in the opulent tasting room, Heinrich took us through the estate’s range.
First an introduction to their famed Chardonnay, with the popular Limestone Hill proving to be my favourite with its light crisp flavour and delicate fruit undertones. Wanting to highlight how well white wines can age, Heinrich allowed us to sample De Wetshof’s Bon Vallon Chardonnay – one from 2017 and one very special bottle from 2008. Already suitably wooed, the 2008 Bon Vallon was the cream on top of what has already been an exemplary experience – an unwooded Chardonnay matured on the lees, the wine has refreshing citrus flavour, leaving a warm yeastiness on the aftertaste; an especial treat that I look forward to enjoying again.
To end off, a Riesling was tasted; I’m still relatively new to this rather retro wine of Teutonic origin, but I found De Wetshof’s version to be pleasantly well rounded and not too sweet. As Heinrich explained, this wine is known in Germany as halpe trocken, or half-dry and so makes an ideal lunchtime wine. We discovered that Robertson is also South Africa’s largest producer of Chardonnay and MCC – a fact that is certainly plausible what with the impeccable options in both varietals available in the area.
Bidding goodbye to De Wetshof for now (and I can’t wait to return!) we headed on to Rietvallei Estate. Situated on the other side of the valley and featuring acres of lush garden and a newly renovated tasting area, Rietvallei is certainly appealing on the eye. Hosted by the lovely Cara Roussouw, we chose from the estate’s extensive range of wines and sipped each one over a much-anticipated cheese platter. Bathed in temperate sunlight, a glass of chilled Rietvallei Classic Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2018 in one hand and a slice of fresh farm bread piled high with oozy Gorgonzola in the other is the ideal way to balance the scales over a weekend such as this. All around the tasting area people were enjoying the warmth, the food and the atmosphere of contented relaxation. Satiated for now, our final stop for the day would be back where we began – at Arendsig Single Vineyard Wines.
Headed by Lourens van der Westhuizen, the wines produced at Arendsig are truly spectacular. Each one a masterpiece, Lourens also cellars wines for other estates, so one has to know how good of a winemaker he is. Although the Arendsig Estate is five generations old, Lourens is the first winemaker in his family and his passion for the grape is evident. Tastings are made by appointment only and guests to the tasting room on the hill are welcomed to sit along communal tables, the valley stretched out below them, while Lourens personally takes you through his range of wine. Each one of single vineyard origin, it’s the Sauvignon Blanc selection that I was most intrigued by. After a morning of Chardonnay, I needed something a little drier and the Blok A10 delivered. Not that there was a lack of choice – to this date, Arendsig has produced over 37 registered single vineyard wines. Not only offering tastings to Slow visitors, Arendsig has also introduced a bring-and-braai of sorts that invites people to bring their own meat and salads and set up along the river for an afternoon of food and wine. Arendsig will organize the seating, the fire, the cutlery and crockery and the wine. They’ll also handle the cleanup afterwards, meaning patrons are free to enjoy the fruits of cooking over an open fire without having to cart their accouterments back up the hill afterwards.
Now that’s my kind of braai!
After a much-needed early night over at The Kite House in nearby McGregor, breakfast at the Sunday market was calling. Held just outside Robertson town centre, the market is the weekend’s final celebration of Slow. Many of the winemakers we had met were there, along with many stalls offering tempting homebakes and fresh produce. As usual I get entirely carried away at markets and ended up with a haul of wine and olives from Exdiem, fresh lemons, a bunch of white proteas, a vintage rice cooker, paper bags filled with spanakopita and a whole smoked rainbow trout. Farmed in the valley by Two Dam permaculture, rainbow trout is as sustainable as it is delicious and I walked away with not only my whole smoked fish but also a packet each of gravlax and cold-smoked trout.
All in all, a good morning at the market.
Our final stop was with bistro manager Anthya Dunn at Overhex Wines to pick up a wine that wasn’t from the Robertson Valley but rather from my beloved Swartland. Survivor Wines don’t only feature a brightly coloured Nguni cow with a great back story on their label but also a Sauvignon Blanc with all the flintiness of a West Coast white. For me, the wine epitomized the Robertson Valley – an exciting, adventurous place that is still able to offer up a reminder of home.