Vine of the times: exploring the KwaZulu-Natal wine route

Posted on 19 June 2023

The Midlands Meander is an epicurean Eden that straddles the pretty pastures between Mooi River, Hilton and Karkloof, tapering off at the foothills of the imposing Drakensberg. It’s known for many things – a few pubs included, but certainly not for wine.

In fact, most assumed it would be impossible to grow grapes out here, never mind make wine in this region, which is just a hop, skip and a jump from the near-tropical climes of Durban and the beach resorts that line the coast north and south of it. 

But a few committed pioneers have proven the naysayers wrong. For starters, there are the folks at Abingdon Wine Estate. 

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Message in a bottle

Wine estate? In the misty Midlands? I can hear you scoff. 

Family-run Abingdon was the first farm to produce a certified estate wine from KwaZulu-Natal grapes with their maiden vintage in 2007. Jane Smorthwaite, who owns Abingdon with her husband Ian, said: ‘Winemaking is a lesson in patience.’ 

She told me this, grinning, from behind the counter of the Abingdon tasting room where visitors line up at weekends to taste the regional wines. 

Brought up among the gloomy grapevines of Lion’s River, Laurie Cooper (daughter to Jane and Ian) is now the assistant winemaker at Abingdon and was named the Moët & Chandon best young sommelier of South Africa for 2019. The following year, their tasting room was the recipient of the American Express Dining Awards South Africa’s Best Kept Secret.

I immediately loved this winery because Abingdon embraces us, the amateur wine lovers. ‘Ian is completely self-taught, and Laurie studied wine more formally,’ Jane explained. ‘He says, “Right, my gut says this” and she’ll respond with “Don’t be ridiculous, science says this.” They have an amazing synergy.’ 

The resulting wine is something of a compromise between them. 

‘We don’t want to be an anonymous bottle on a shelf,’ Jane says. ‘We want you to come and sit with us for an hour or two, hear our story, and become an Abingdonian, as we call them.’ 

Like the bubbly that lines the shelves of the cellar, Jane is effervescent. Such a spirited quality undoubtedly aided in making their wild idea work. ‘KZN is capable of making fabulous, fabulous wine,’ she said. With plenty of rain and rolling green scenery, the environmental conditions of the Midlands are similar to those in parts of Europe. ‘We’re getting such a name for incredible wine because it’s so different. It’s got an old-world nature that’s much more delicate. In a blind tasting, you get a leaner style and a lovely minerality. Why dilute it? ’ Jane continued, her dogs snuggling deeper into the rugs beside the blazing fire in a quintessential Midlands scene. Here, there’s no snooty sniffing and spitting (at least, not during my visits where every sip was swallowed). Instead, there’s a culture of learning and a sense of wonder about wine. 

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Sip happens

‘Our biggest challenge is the weather. If it’s not rain then it’s hail. There are also vervet monkeys,’ Jane gestured to some of the vineyard’s electric fences. ‘We’ve had rain for seven months this year. The only reason our vineyard isn’t diseased is that we’re out there every day thinning the vines and we are pedantic. We have not set foot off this farm. Yes, we’ve proven it can be done, but it is hard.’ 

The whole family has put their heart and soul into making wine work. Laurie is in her second year of the Master of Wine qualification (she’ll be the third-ever South African with that title if she gets through it) and she runs the WSET-accredited KwaZulu-Natal  School of Wine to train up-and-coming wine aficionados. 

‘I did all my qualifications overseas and there’s a wine school around every corner in London, but in South Africa, the only school was in Cape Town. So I opened one here in 2015,’ Laurie explained. It’s been met with a tremendous reception garnering support from renowned chef  Jackie Cameron (born and raised in the Midlands, she gained fame for her fantastic food as head chef of Hartford House before leaving to start a culinary school based in Hilton) and you’ll find graduates at The Oyster Box, The Living Room at Summerhill and Qambathi Mountain Lodge. It’s not all serious sommeliers, though. I’m definitely returning for the beginner’s course one Saturday. 

‘We want to teach people to be brave with the wine lists! They also go into the vineyard and cellar, followed by a long, boozy lunch. It’s di-vine!’ Jane promised. I had to truly tear myself away from such contagious enthusiasm, but leave I must (with a designated driver). At least it was as a proudly appointed Abingdonian with several bottles to savour later. 

Read between the wines

A trip to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site 5km from Abingdon was sobering, to say the least, but I’d peg it as the best museum in South Africa right now. Featuring a metallic sculpture that lines up to form Nelson Mandela’s face, the complex has a robust exhibition with fantastic video installations and a varied display that begins with the Bhambatha Rebellion, proceeds to ​​Nelson Mandela’s arrest at this very roadside on 5 August 1962 and outlines the struggle for freedom from apartheid that followed. 

Back on the R103, I followed the winding tar road for another 5km to Piggly Wiggly. Lunch at Highgate Wine Estate didn’t feel nearly as homely as at Abingdon but the larney high-ceiling restaurant scored big points for its fabulous feast.

Customers ranged from besties out on a girls’ weekend to families treating grandparents to a swish meal. After a grilled goat’s cheese and beetroot starter, I sampled the beautiful blush Blanc De Noir from the tasting selection. The refreshing rosé was certainly my favourite, but the Syrah (very light, almost like a Pinot Noir) and Pinotage did not disappoint. However, I did miss having the winemaker on call to answer all my questions. 

As with the Cape Winelands, you needn’t only taste or buy wine. Highgate is next door to Piggly Wiggly and I never miss the chance to peruse Huddy’s Books (a great way to walk off Highgate’s panna cotta dessert) or stock up on local cheese made by The Gourmet Greek or Indezi River Creamery at The Pantry on 103. 

My next stop was like stepping through a time machine and revisiting the Midlands Meander of old. The Wine Cellar supports pensioners with pickles and jams and there’s a cluttered bookshop that funds the region’s SPCA, but the friendly chaos and bric-a-brac entrance belie a cool cellar stacked high with excellent wines from across South Africa (ones you’re unlikely to find in Woolies). ‘We started in 1996 as one of the first wine speciality shops in Natal. They didn’t know what to give us when we asked for a licence!’ owner Margie Spowart said. Her daughter, Sarah Adam, worked in the Cape for nine years (many of them with Riaan Marais of Alvi’s Drift) before returning home to the family business. 

The cosy camaraderie reminded me of Abingdon, and something Jane said echoed in my head. ‘I often wake up thinking, “What am I doing!”, but it’s blessed us. For all the hard work and tears, the vineyard brought our family home.’

Sarah added: ‘We’ve also got a little vineyard on the property. Greytown was the first to plant vineyards in KZN between 2002 and 2004 and they were then transplanted here. The varietals do very well here in the cold.’   

Time to wine down

‘We drink wine every day. My wife is a bit of a wine snob,’ hotel owner Jon Bates joked when we met for a quick walk at Fordoun Hotel and Spa. After a day of overindulgence, the bracing farm air and rolling views were a tonic. I was introduced to the chickens that lay some 90 eggs a day for breakfast and saw where the head chef, Jonathan Kalika, forages daily for fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables. ‘We produce as much as we can for consumption on-site, farm to fork is our goal,’ Jon told me. I also learnt that the Farm Village hosts an annual bubbles festival and last year had a worthy cause for celebration as it marked 50 years of Cap Classique production in South Africa. 

The self-catering cottage at the Fordoun Farm Village presented a difficult choice: craft my own cheeseboard for the wines I’d stacked up so far or treat myself (again) at the Skye Bistro. Saving my treasured bottles, I opted for the latter. I knew I’d made the right decision when scrutinising the menu. Food took up two pages and the wine list made up the balance of 20. There were affordable blends from Robertson, exciting Swartland finds and Cederberg Savs, but I picked a Pinotage because it was called “Hell Yeah”, which nicely summed up the weekend away. 

Trip planner

Where to sip

Granny Mouse Country House has a room dug deep below the hotel to ensure perfect temperatures and is a fun escape from run-of-the-mill Meander with macaroon and wine pairings or liqueur and chocolate tastings. 

From R130 per person

033 234 4071  

Abingdon Wine Estate is the real deal. Book a table for tapas below the eaves and enjoy wine by the glass with the family who made it. Open Friday, Saturday and two Sundays a month from 11am to 5pm (unless there is a wedding). The Beginner’s Wine Appreciation Course is run on set dates at the on-site KZN School of Wine.

083 463 8503

Highgate Wine Estate offers fancy fare, casual bar-stool tastings and pretty picnics across the grounds. Open Friday to Sunday, between 11am and 4pm. Wine tastings are first come first serve and R100pp, picnics are R350pp and must be booked 48 hours in advance.

066 449 2620

The Wine Cellar and Mouse Trap Deli just outside Rosetta is a low-key, relaxed wine-tasting venue with an impressive variety and a table set up beside the fireplace. You’ll also find local cheeses for sale. Open Monday to Friday between 10am and 4pm and until 3pm on weekends.

082 923 8781

Fordoun Bubbles is a chance to dress up and will take place on 19 November 2022.

Tickets are R200 pp

033 266 6217   

Cathedral Peak Wine Estate lies beyond the Meander in the fertile Winterton Valley. Sip wine with views of the vineyards and the Drakensberg beyond. Visit from 9.30am to 4pm (closed Tuesdays).

R10pp per tasting

063 075 1123  

Stay here 

Africamps at Gowan Valley consists of five thoughtfully equipped tents with decks set into the landscape and prioritising privacy from one another – all the better to make use of the outdoor hot tub. 

From R705 pp pn 

021 300 5694 

Three Tree Hill With the cellar of dreams and offering every single cultivar, and from each region, you’ll also find ‘proudly KZN’ finds, such as Abingdon, as well as many organic and biodynamic wines. AslinaWines are also to be found.

From R2 080 pp pn full board.  

087 059 9016

Qambathi Mountain Lodge An hour from the Midlands Meander in the Kamberg Valley, it’s a romantic refuge that stocks Abingdon’s wines to go with its five-course dinners.

From R1 500 pp pn 

072 188 0797 

Fordoun Hotel and Spa The Farm Village is a collection of modern self-catering cottages that sleep two, four or six. With fireplaces, porches and rolling hillside views a short drive (or pleasant walk) from the main hotel, luxurious spa and Skye Bistro, the units are pet-friendly, too.

From R1 765 pn per cottage at the village; from R1 795 pp pn at the hotel.

033 266 6217 

Wild Hare Cottages So close to Abingdon you could walk there, the self-catering cottages are cute, comfortable and won’t obliterate the budget. 

From R950 pn for two 

079 491 3823 

By Melanie van Zyl

This article originally appeared in the September 2022 print issue of Getaway

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