If ever there was a spectacularly misnamed place in South Africa, it’s the Helshoogte Pass… a 7km stretch of paradise linking Stellenbosch and Franschhoek that is finding favour as the latest “must-do” Western Cape winelands tourism destination.
Dominated by Simonsberg to the north, Helshoogte (prosaically known as the R310) has not enjoyed the same critical acclaim as other wine-producing areas in the region. The road has traditionally been flanked by “respectable” estates – superlative Thelema being the exception – but the past decade has seen the emergence of several award-winning labels. Thelema has featured on Tim James’s list of South Africa’s top 20 wine estates more consistently than any other on Helshoogte – ranking last year at 12 – but it’s recently been eclipsed by Tokara, which came in at five.
Also making serious claims for glory are Oldenburg and Delaire Graff, while boutique winery MolenVliet further down the pass (on the Franschhoek side) is producing some tremendous blends… albeit in very limited quantities.
One thing these estates have in common is that their businessmen owners have pumped a shedload of capital into them and, though Tokara’s GT Ferreira has talked about “return on ego” being more important than return on investment, it’s clear the profit motive is crucial in their daily running.
What the owners of these nouveau estates have done is largely eschew the traditional retail route of marketing their wines in favour of private tastings and food-pairings (mainly in Gauteng), and sales from the estates themselves. To ensure the latter, they have had to further prettify their facilities and expand their product offerings to attract well-heeled visitors.
In many cases, this has entailed establishing elegant hotels and lodges as well as top-class restaurants that draw upon magnificent scenery. In all, a visiting couple could spend a romantic (and boozy) weekend without having to travel more than five minutes by car from the place they’re staying.
MolenVliet (www.molenvliet.co.za) is a 15-hectare estate owned by former Springbok rugby forward and member of the ill-starred 1981 Bok tour of New Zealand, Ockie Oosthuizen. On retiring from rugby, Oosthuizen moved into sports marketing before prospering in the financial world. He bought MolenVliet in 2005.
There are 9ha under vine, currently producing about 8 000 bottles of blended wines – there’s an interesting, powerful “Meraz” merlot-shiraz – that score highly in John Platter’s annual wine guide. The “contracted-in” winemaker, incidentally, is Vriesenhof’s Jan-Boland Coetzee, another ex-Springbok.
MolenVliet’s accommodation comprises four cottages, a three-bedroom guesthouse and an über-beautiful manor house with sweeping views over the Banhoek Valley.
The semi-detached cottages (refurbished workers’ dwellings) nestle under enormous oaks that hiss and creak as the night winds sough through the treetops. They’re comfortable rather than extravagant, with enormous glass-fronted fireplaces that suggest the dwellings will be at their best in the wetter winter months.
It is primarily the guesthouse (referred to as River Manor) that has helped MolenVliet become popular as an upmarket wedding venue. A short walk through a vineyard away from a converted shed that was first used for nuptials when Oosthuizen’s eldest daughter got married in 2008, the thatched structure is a step up in luxury from the cottages and is ideal accommodation for bridal parties.
The Manor House is an exclusive-use facility that is spectacular beyond spectacular. It abounds with artworks and religious iconography (a passion with Oosthuizen’s wife, Susan), and has a private lapa. The windows of the main suite open to glorious views of the Jonkershoek mountains.
Rates range from R950 per person per night sharing for the cottages to R15 000 a night for the Manor House. Continental breakfast, in the form of a picnic basket, is included.
Having to leave MolenVliet for lunch or dinner isn’t much of a hardship, however, since Tokara (www.tokara.co.za) is less than a kilometre away.
Ferreira, one of the founders of FirstRand and chairman of RMB Holdings, bought Tokara in 1994 with the initial aim of turning it into a housing estate. Thank goodness he didn’t. Quite apart from its wines, Tokara distinguishes itself with its delicatessen as well as the à la carte restaurant.
The delicatessen offers a weekend lunch buffet of freshly prepared seasonal salads, vegetable and meat dishes at R18/100g but perhaps the best value-for-money are the charcuterie, cheese or antipasti platters at R65 for one or R95 for a couple.
The main restaurant hangs over the vineyards and looks back towards Stellenbosch. The kitchen is presided over by chef Richard Carstens, whose sunny summer menu includes tomato terrine with watermelon, fennel, peach and feta; smoked, cured and ceviche of rainbow trout with melon and pineapple ponzu; Korean marinated beef fillet with kimchi, broccoli, pomme anna and tom yum jus; and, for dessert, a “three-minute chocolate tart” with Grand Marnier ice-cream or vanilla panna cotta with fruit sorbets, meringue and mint.
In addition to the estates mentioned earlier, other specialist or boutique wineries (each of which offers luxury accommodation) on Helshoogte include Zorgvliet, Clouds and Alluvia. One that concentrates exclusively on its core business, though, is Oldenburg.
Like so many others in the area, Oldenburg is the baby of a financial whizz … in this case overseas-based private investment banker Adrian Vanderspuy. He was inspired to buy the farm out of his own family's trust in 2003, recounts Oldenburg regional sales manager Raymond Noppè, when drinking a bottle of Thelema’s finest while on a visit to Cape Town.
Vanderspuy spent a fortune bringing in consultants to analyse the soil and make recommendations. In the end, all the existing vines were ripped out of the ground. Replanting started in 2004 and continued for the next four years.
The first Oldenburg vintages to come to market were the 2008 (red) and 2010 (white).
“We're currently on the 2009 reds and 2011 whites,” says Noppè. “We're new kids on the block and, although not many people know about us yet, we've received critical acclaim for the quality of our wines to the extent we battle to meet demand.
“The wines can only improve as the vines age.”