3 must-try wine festivals in the beautiful Robertson valley

Looking to enjoy some of the best Cape wines, while soaking up gorgeous country scenery? Dax Villanueva, the writer behind popular Cape Town food, wine, travel and lifestyle blog Relax-With-Dax, gives the low-down on three special wine festivals to try in the Robertson valley.

Many people associate the Robertson valley (two hours’ drive from Cape Town) with the Wacky Wine Weekend, which is a crazy wine festival with over 10 000 attendees. But Robertson also has some other amazing wine festivals that are much calmer!

The Robertson Slow festival is all about doing very special things in small groups on various local wine estates. Booking in advance is essential so that the organisers can cater properly for all attendees.

Robertson also hosts Wine on the River, which happens on the Goudmyn farm on the edge of the Breede River. It’s beautiful on the river and festival goers can take a cruise on the river or, if you prefer dry land, you can take a tractor-ride through the vineyards. Many wineries take part in the Wine on the River festival and there is an array of great food options, making it a very special day. Robertson is about two hours away from Cape Town so it’s a good idea to book some accommodation nearby.

Big Bottle: a wine festival where bigger is better!

Dax Villanueva, the writer behind popular Cape Town food, wine, travel and lifestyle blog Relax-With-Dax, is a man of healthy appetites. No surprise then that he says his favourite wine festival in and around Cape Town is one where more is definitely more.

There are some great beer festivals in Cape Town, but wine festivals are more my thing. They are more sophisticated!

There are many great wine festivals in and around Cape Town, but the one that always impresses me is the Big Bottle Festival, which takes place in winter in Cape Town. At this festival all wines are in big bottles, from magnums up to the 27-litre “Primat”.

Not only is it a rare opportunity to try wines that have matured in big bottles, but the winemakers are at the Big Bottle Festival, so you can chat to them and ask them questions.

The food is provided by top chefs and is always superb to match the excellent wines. All tastings and food are included in the ticket price. For the real wine-heads, there are ‘master classes’ with tastings of rare vintages and the like, but those cost extra.

Can you judge a wine by its award label?

There are dozens of wine competitions held in South Africa each and every year, but do those shiny stickers on the bottle really mean anything? Mike Bampfield-Duggan, local expert and owner of boutique store Wine Concepts, gives his take on whether awards are the best way to discover the finest wines in Cape Town.

“People are drawn to awards stickers on bottles, but when we taste wines to put on our shelves we don’t look at the awards at all. We taste the wines ‘blind’, and then look at what will work for our customers.

They tend to trust our judgment rather than look for stickers on a bottle, but in commercial retail outlets awards and stickers certainly do count, because people feel there are guarantees about the quality of the wine.

But I think it’s very important that people remember there are a lot of top wineries and wine producers that simply don’t enter these competitions. They’re happy with their product, and they don’t feel they need affirmation from competitions.

However, if you are looking at awards, I think the annual Veritas Awards still carry a lot of weight. The Michelangelo International Wine & Spirit Awards is up there as well. The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show by Michael Fridjohn is also well respected.

Then there are the more specific Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon Reports by Christian Eedes, which are also excellent.”

Cape Chardonnay wins ‘best in the world’

Not so long ago it was “ABC” when it came to choosing white wine: “Anything But Chardonnay”. Times have changed, and the wine estates beyond Cape Town are producing world-class Chardonnay to teach Burgundy a thing or two.

In the world of Chardonnay, competitions don’t get much more prestigious than the Chardonnay du Monde. In 2015 this annual competition was held at Château des Ravatys in the heart of Burgundy, the traditional home of Chardonnay in France.

Can you imagine the Gallic unhappiness when a New World wine from South Africa beat the Burgundians at their own game? Judged against 800 entries from across the globe, Groot Constantia’s 2013 Chardonnay was judged the best in the world.

“Our Chardonnay has always been an over-achiever,” says Jean Naudé, chief executive of Groot Constantia, an estate with a wine tradition stretching back 330 years.

The vineyards’ sea views had plenty to do with the award, says estate viticulturist Floricius Beukes: “The summer breezes from the Atlantic Ocean have a big impact on our vineyards, keeping them healthy and retaining the amazing fruit character.”

The Cape vineyards are no one-trick-pony in the world of Chardonnay, though. Stellenbosch cellar Fleur du Cap bagged a gold medal for its Unfiltered Chardonnay 2014, while the likes of Boschendal, Glen Carlou and Tokara were awarded medals at the global Chardonnay showcase.

Beyond the mantelpiece of awards, also look out for Chardonnay from the likes of Elgin estate Iona, DeMorgenzon outside Stellenbosch, and the glorious unwooded Chardonnay from Robertson estate Springfield.

Cape Town brings its own version of Portugal’s dessert wine to the world with Cape Port

With warm days, rich soils and old vines, Cape Town’s wine estates are crafting superb Port-style wines to give the best of Europe a run for their money.

Just as the French got their noses out of joint with the use of the word “champagne”, so the Portuguese decided that the word “port” on its own was theirs and theirs alone. Say hello then to “Cape port”, the excellent local version of this much-loved dessert wine.

For over 30 years local producers have been crafting world-class fortified dessert wines, made in a variety of styles.

Cape White and Cape Pink are the entry-level options, aged in a barrel or tank for a minimum of six months. Easy drinking and best enjoyed on ice, they’re ideal for hot summer days. Cape Ruby is a step upmarket: at least half of the wine must be aged for a minimum of six months in tank or barrel, although these wines are often aged for up to three years.

Cape Vintage is where local port-style wines start getting interesting. Made using the fruit of a single vintage, these complex dessert wines are aged in a barrel or tank for a minimum of 12 months, and must be vintage-dated. Cape Vintage Reserve and Cape Late Bottled Vintage Reserve use the best fruit and are aged for longer to produce a premium wine.

Lastly, Cape Tawny is a charming offering from many local estates: 80% of the wine must be matured in oak casks, delivering an attractive tawny colour and appealing nutty finish to the wine. Perfect with a platter of local cheeses.

Cape Town wine tasting: your questions answered

New to the world of wine tasting? The Cape winelands are a relaxed spot, but there are a few simple guidelines to follow if you want to get the most out of your Cape Town wine-tasting experience.

What does it cost?

This will vary from farm to farm. Some wine farms offer tastings free of charge, while others charge a nominal fee (rarely more than R50) to taste their range of wines. Generally, the closer the estate is to Cape Town the more chance they will charge for tastings, with most Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek wine estates asking a fee for tastings. As you explore further into the Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde valleys, as well as the Breede River Valley near Robertson, wine tastings are typically free of charge.

Must I book ahead?

Most wine estates are open from 09h00 to 17h00 Monday to Friday, and usually half-day (09h00 to 13h00) on Saturday, and welcome walk-in visitors. Most estates are closed on Sundays, although a good range of Stellenbosch farms now welcome visitors on Sundays too. Smaller boutique estates typically only offer tastings “by appointment” only, but are usually happy to welcome visitors who call ahead. Tourist maps of the wine regions will list opening hours and contact details — always check ahead to avoid disappointment.

Can I drink and then drive?

Absolutely not! South African authorities are becoming increasingly strict on drink driving, and after one to two glasses of wine you will be over the legal limit and risk prosecution if stopped by traffic police. Instead, select a designated driver or book a guided tour with a driver.

Can I buy wine at the estate?

Yes. All local wine estates offer what they call “cellar door” sales, and many will even be able to arrange shipping to your home country, or connect you with their local agent.

Cape Town wine: a quick guide to the best vintage years over the last decade

Like most major wine-producing regions of the world, the quality of wine produced in a specific year comes down to the characteristics of the vintage. Here’s what to expect from Cape Town’s past 10 years.

So you’ve explored the Cape winelands to your heart’s content, discovered your favourite local estates and now want to stock up before you travel home. But how do you know which years – or which “vintages”, in wine-speak – are best?

Well, it’s simple. Odd years good. Even years bad.

That, in a very over-simplified nutshell, is the rule of thumb when it comes to analysing vintages in the Cape winelands.

2015 is said by some viticulturists to be the best vintage in living memory, but most winemakers will tell you to wait and see what ends up in the bottle when the better wines are released in 2016 and 2017.

2014 was a cool wet vintage, with lower yields and generally less powerful wines.

2013, on the other hand, boasted the biggest crop on record, with excellent conditions promising exceptional reds and whites. You’ll rarely go wrong with a ’13.

2012 and 2011 were both tricky years, but the best producers managed to work their way through the variable wine producing conditions. 2010 was also a tough harvest for most winemakers, so taste carefully before buying.

2009? Ah, now we’re talking. Billed as one of the greatest ever vintages in Cape Town — actually in all of South Africa. Both white and red wines were superb this year.

2008 saw plenty of elegance in the red wines, while in 2007 it was the turn of white wines, although there was plenty of concentration in the red wines.

2006 remains one of the finest white wine vintages of the past decade or two, with Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin both exceptional.

2005 was forgettable in challenging conditions. Overly alcoholic red wines and pedestrian white wines. Rather buy more ’09.

Cape Town’s organic winemakers keep it real

It’s tough to produce organic wine; tougher still to do it biodynamically. Two Cape winelands winemakers are proving it can be done, with style.

It’s easy to talk a big game when it comes to crafting wines using natural processes, but two winemakers in the Cape winelands take their organic and biodynamic credentials seriously. But can the quality stack up at the same time as keeping it real?

Johan Reyneke of family-owned Reyneke Organic is one winemaker who quietly goes about crafting award-winning organic wines on his estate, a short drive from Stellenbosch. Their Syrah and Chenin Blanc are the showstoppers, but also stop in for a taste of their superb Sauvignon Blanc.

If farming organically is challenging, biodynamic is a whole new ballgame. Here the Grieve family is setting the bar on Avondale estate outside Paarl.

“Soil is life” is the Avondale philosophy, and they take caring for the land seriously. Snail-hungry ducks keep the vineyards clear of pests, grapes are harvested by hand, chemical fertilizers and insecticides are banned, only natural yeasts are used for fermentation, and everything from farming to harvesting takes place according to biodynamic principles.

“We are all about putting the focus on terroir, which is only possible through natural production,” explains Avondale’s owner Johnathan Grieve. “Biodynamics is the homeopathy of agriculture; it’s about kick starting and using the natural rhythms that already exist.”

And the results are certainly impressive: their elegant full-bodied wines have picked up legions of fans and awards along the way. The La Luna is a blend of five Bordeaux varieties and well worth a taste, but it’s the Cyclus white wine you shouldn’t miss: a fabulous full-bodied white blend of Viognier, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Chenin Blanc and Semillon. The Samsara Syrah is also exceptional.

Cape whisky conquers the world!

South Africa may be more famous for its wine, but at a small distillery outside Cape Town you’ll find a talented Master Distiller turning out world-class whisky.

In the heart of the winelands, an easy 30-minute-drive from Cape Town, the sight of the traditional ‘pagoda’ chimneys of a whisky distillery may catch some visitors off guard.

However, South Africa is now the sixth-largest consumer of whisky in the world and while the Cape may be more famous for its wine, the region is also turning out world-class whiskies.

That is largely thanks to Andy Watts, Master Distiller at the James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington, the only commercial whisky distillery in Africa.

Watts, who spent time honing his skills on the Scottish island of Islay, has been at the helm of the distillery for over two decades and his Three Ships brand of Scottish-style blended whisky has become a firm favourite at home.

It’s also picked up plenty of fans further afield: his 10-year-old single malt was recently awarded the Worldwide Whisky Trophy at the annual International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) in London, while his Premium Select 5-Year-Old also picked up a Gold medal.

Unfortunately the James Sedgwick distillery doesn’t yet welcome visitors, but look out for Watts’ fine single malt and blended whiskies on the shelf or in your favourite Cape Town cocktail bar.

Cape winemakers not afraid to experiment with new tastes

Combining Old World elegance with New World sense of adventure, winemakers in the Cape winelands are pushing the envelope with a host of new varieties. Mike Bampfield-Duggan, local wine expert and owner of boutique store Wine Concepts, talks about some of the new styles coming out of the Cape Town winelands.

“One of the wines we’re seeing a lot more of at the moment is Grenache Noir. Jean-Vincent Ridon from Signal Hill Wines was one of the first to make this, but there are plenty of other producers at the moment too.

Pinot Gris, which is a very popular white wine in Europe, is also growing in popularity here.

Mourvedre, a Rhône variety, is a great blending partner with Shiraz, but is also being produced on its own more and more. The same applies to Marsanne, another wine from the Rhône valley.

There are very limited plantings of Barbera here, but Altydgedacht [in Durbanville] has had plantings for many years. Not many people have followed on, but there are a few producers making it.

Carignan is another wine that has become popular. Francois Haasbroek from Blackwater Wines [in Stellenbosch] makes his wonderful Omerta Carignan.

Cinsaut is another wine coming back. It disappeared into box wines for many years, but has now made a big comeback, especially in wines from the Swartland.”