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Route to grape expectations

Published Mar 7, 2013

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Cape Town - If ever there was a spectacularly misnamed place in South Africa, it’s the Helshoogte Pass – a 7km stretch of paradise linking Stellenbosch and Franschoek 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.

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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 has 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 Franschoek side) is producing some tremendous blends – albeit in very limited quantities.

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One thing these estates have in common is that their businessmen owners have pumped a shedload of capital into them, and although Tokara’s GT Ferreira has talked about “return on ego” being more important than return on investment, it’s clear that the profit motive is crucial in their daily running. Who cares?

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.

This has entailed establishing elegant hotels and lodges as well as top-class restaurants that draw on magnificent scenery.

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MolenVliet (www.molenvliet.co.za) is a 15ha 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, 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 on-site accommodation comprises four cottages, a three-bedroom guesthouse and an über-beautiful manor house with sweeping views over the Banhoek Valley.

It is the guesthouse, River Manor, that has helped MolenVliet become popular as an upmarket wedding venue.

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A short walk through a vineyard away from a converted shed that was first used for nuptials when Oosthuizen’s oldest 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 and is spectacular. It abounds with artworks and religious iconography (a passion of Oosthuizen’s wife, Susan), and has its own private lapa. The windows of the main suite open to glorious views of the Jonkershoek Mountains. Rates range from R950 a person a night sharing for the cottages to R15 000 a night for the Manor House. Continental breakfast, in 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 present chairman of RMB Holdings, bought Tokara in 1994 with the initial aim of turning it into a housing estate. Thank goodness he didn’t.

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Quite apart from its wines, Tokara distinguishes itself with its delicatessen as well as à la carte restaurant. The delicatessen offers a weekend lunch buffet of freshly prepared seasonal salads, vegetable and meat dishes at R18.00 per 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 such dishes as 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.

A good alternative to Tokara’s fine dining is the more traditional fare offered by nearby Le Pommier (www.lepommier.co.za). The menu features traditional South African dishes such as potjiekos of the day and specialties like lamb shank, pork belly and smoked eisbein.

Le Pommier also offers country lodge accommodation and a spa.

Restaurants and lodging can be seen as sideshows to Helshoogte’s main attraction, wine.

In addition to the estates mentioned earlier, other specialist or boutique wineries on Helshoogte include Zorgvliet, Clouds and Alluvia. One that concentrates exclusively on its core business, though, is Oldenburg.

It is the baby of 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.

“It struck him that his late grandmother’s farm was nearby and possessed identical terroir.”

Vanderspuy spent a fortune bringing in consultants to analyse the soil. “He left no stone unturned in his research,” says Noppè, “and, in the end, all the existing vines were ripped out of the ground.

Replanting started in 2004 and continued for the next four years.

Like with MolenVliet and many other boutique wineries, the size of the Oldenburg harvest does not justify the cost of having full winemaking facilities. The grapes, however, are too good to be sent to a co-op, so they’re sent to Stellenbosch’s Glenelly estate, where the wine is made and bottled.

The first Oldenburg vintages to come to market were the 2008 (red) and 2010 (white). “We’re on the 2009 reds and 2011 whites,” says Noppè. “We’re new kids on the block and … we’ve received critical acclaim for the quality of our wines, to the extent we battle to meet demand.” - Weekend Argus

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