Visit Robertson: bourgeoisie for beginners

Posted on 15 August 2016

Think wine tastings and gourmet food are too poncey for you? So did Tyson Jopson, until he went to Robertson, where connoisseurs are gracious and barmen generous.

Of all the booze in all the world, I never thought a plucky white would be my undoing. But here I am, in the cool stone-walled cellar at Springfield Estate at 10am on a Monday morning, staring at my nemesis: a quarter-filled tasting glass of Sauvignon Blanc. I’ve just taken a sip and on the other side of a stately countertop, Alett Bruwer would like me to tell her what it tastes like. Her large doe eyes twinkle in the dim light. On a shelf below the counter, an old PC plays a subtle violin track. The label on the bottle reads Life from Stone, the vineyard’s flagship wine, I’m told. It might as well say Blood from Stone. I’ve got nothing.

These beautiful canals have been supplying the Robertson Valley with water used for irrigation for more than 100 years. Photo by Tyson Jopson.

These beautiful canals have been supplying the Robertson Valley with water used for irrigation for more than 100 years.

It’s no surprise, really. As a connoisseur, I’ve always been in arrears. Asking me to pinpoint flavours in a sauce, stew or Sauvignon is like asking a vulture what kind of carrion it prefers. My palate was cast in the iron fires of boarding school. I drink Ricoffy and I think the craft-beer revolution is a conspiracy to flog large stockpiles of unused potpouri by mixing it with ale, until it’s pale. For me, there’s no culinary disaster more charcoal can’t fix and I certainly don’t know what the hell you mean when you say something has ‘a subtle hint of vanilla on the nose.’

Still, the question hangs in the air, buoyed by the increasingly less soothing sounds of classical violin. Finally, like a cornered president, I blurt out the first thing that pops into my head, “Wedding vibes?”

Alett is gracious. She laughs and swings her head to one side. A dark wave of hair lifts and disappears behind her neck, enjoying a brief moment of balletic weightlessness before settling back into her nape like a pet cat. ‘Fantastic!’ She says, brushing aside my obvious ineptitude, and continues to tell me the story of Life from Stone, a wine so named because the rocky ground it’s grown on is impossibly stubborn. But, every year, the Bruwers battle the elements to produce it. Four Germans appear (it’s mid-March, statistically the most likely time of year for Germans to appear in the winelands) and ask for the Wild Yeast Chardonnay. One says, ‘Vee bought zis last time because of ze terroir.’ Clearly this ‘terroir’ is a big deal. I make a note to look it up on Google when I get home. They take four glasses outside and sit on a wooden bench and watch a paddling of ducks drift aimlessly around the farm’s large dam; its grass edges are still heavy with dew from the night before.

Freshly harvested grapes at Rooiberg Winery, on their way to becoming another delicious bottle of wine. Photo by Tyson Jopson.

Freshly harvested grapes at Rooiberg Winery, on their way to becoming another delicious bottle of wine.

The sun has only just crested the Langeberg, honeying the valley in late-morning light. But its inhabitants have long since been up; men and women in half- slung blue overalls swinging their arms down roadsides lined with red cannas. They smile and wave at passing cars. Behind them, the vineyards – rows of epicurean soldiers – march toward the horizon, past tractors and old oaks. It’s harvest time and throughout the valley workers pluck, gently, grape for grape, toss them in buckets that are tipped into trailers, rinsed, crushed, barrelled and left to ferment, sometimes for years, until just right. It’s more art than farming. And that’s why, if I’m honest, I’ve never really gotten it. There are those that eat to live and those that live to eat. To me, the latter always seemed impractical and bombastic.

But, recently, I’ve been urged to at least try to enjoy the finer things in life. So that night, I sideline my inner cynic and book a table at Mo & Rose, a gourmet restaurant just outside town. Eight immaculate tables are set inside a glass-walled patio bathed in warm light. Outside, cactus silhouettes glow in the moonlight. I’m shown to my seat, a napkin is flapped onto my lap and I’m presented with the set menu. It reads like a poem. A really expensive poem. The last time I ate something that cost this much I was three years old and almost had to have it surgically removed. Still, I persist and order the porcini mushroom soufflé, followed by the beef fillet with sauce Béarnaise, ratatouille tarte and pommes allumettes with a bottle of unwooded Chardonnay from Kranskop Wines, just down the road.

Left, the cactus garden outside Mo and Rose invites an easy wander; right, patio living at The Robertson Small.

Left, the cactus garden outside Mo and Rose invites an easy wander; right, patio living at The Robertson Small.

Suddenly, I remember something about red meat and white wine being some sort of culinary faux pas. I look at the waiter anxiously, expecting admonition. Nothing. Just a warm, assuring smile. The food arrives. And it is glorious. Inside my mouth, everything makes sense. Flavours flirt, swirl and dance – every bite is a revelation. I may not know exactly what I’m eating but I know what delicious is. And this, most certainly, is it. “Bring me more wine, for I am king,” is something I almost say but realise it’s late and I am the last person in the restaurant. So I ask for the bill, like a king.

The next morning I crack an egg over 2-minute noodles to claw back some sort of equilibrium and then head out to Rooiberg Winery, armed with the definition of ‘terroir’ and a newfound sense of appreciation. There, Enrico Abrahams starts me on a tasting selection of Rooiberg’s finest reds. He lives in uptown Robertson and somehow his gossamer smile and casual style lead me to tell him my secret before I’ve even had my first sip. “Enrico,” I say, swirling and sniffing a 2014 Pinotage Reserve like I’ve seen so many people do, “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

He laughs and says, “You know, not many people do. And that’s the beauty of it. Whatever the wine tastes like. There’s no right and there’s no wrong. Just guess, pretend. When it’s taken too seriously, that’s when it stops becoming fun.” I buy a bottle of the Cab Sauv because it smells like a leather armchair and tastes like I imagine a well-earned retirement might.

Bright lights, small city.

The spire of the NG church, and endless Robertson vines.

At dusk, I take a slow drive through town. The spire of the NG Church on Paul Kruger Street catches the late glow. Whitewashed broekie-laced houses perch atop manicured lawns and a gentle breeze barely sends a shiver through bleached jacarandas. Uptown, it’s a different story. Slender, ramshackle houses lean against one another and the ground is hard, a stark contrast to the fertile estates on the Breede River valley below. Old towns with old money built on even older politics – they’re all the same. It’ll still be a long time before they change. But there’s something magic happening up here. Men and women chat loudly over rusted gates and kids play cricket in the streets and on dusty lots, wherever there’s space to set up an old crate. Mothers lean on doorways and stir large metal pots with long wooden spoons. The light fades, but the children stay out. I imagine they’ll come in only when they can’t see the ball anymore. Some pretend to be Hashim Amla, others war-cry ‘Dale Steyn’ and kick up dust devils as they run in to bowl. I wonder when last suburban kids had that kind of freedom to stay out that late and play pretend.

This cricket match went on well after sunset. Photo by Tyson Jopson.

This cricket match went on well after sunset.

That night, I head to The Robertson Small, a boutique hotel downtown. I dress uncharacteristically smart. Maybe two days of wine tasting has gone to my head but here, in this warm-hearted valley, where there’s no air of prestige, no high-brow swishing or condescending tut-tutting, everything – the wining and dining, swirling and twirling – takes on a wicked sense of levity. It feels like everyone’s in on the gag. I sit down at the bar, and jot in a Moleskine notebook while a slow-turning ceiling fan casts even slower shadows across a polished wood floor. I turn to the barman and order an Old Fashioned because I imagine it’s something Hemingway might have drank (turns out he didn’t). The barman says, ‘I don’t know what that is, sir, but if you tell me, I can make it.’

‘I have no idea what’s in it,’ I say, ‘I’ve never had one before.’ So we do the next best thing: Google the recipe on my phone. He turns to the spirit-filled cabinet behind him and gets to work. Two minutes later there’s a glowing ochre tumbler in front of me, complete with a bobbing short straw. I taste it. ‘And, how did I do?’ He asks. ‘Nailed it,’ I say. And we both laugh.


Things to do in Robertson

Visit Marbrin Olive Growers. This family-run farm occupies the No.1 spot on things to do in Robertson. It’s no surprise. Clive Heymans is delightful and takes visitors through the process, from growing to producing. Buy some olive oil (from R75) and get a free tasting.

Picnic on the Breede River. Make up your own cheese and charcuterie picnic basket from the Viljoensdrift deli, or order pre-made meals and take an hour-long cruise on a river boat. Grab a bottle of wine too. From R60 pp (includes a free wine tasting).

Tour the Klipdrift Distillery and learn how this famous brandy is made. There’s also a mobile distillery and bar. From R65 for a tour and a tasting. Do both.

Taste wine at Springfield or grab a bottle and sit at one of the wooden tables next to the reservoir and watch the birds entertain themselves in the water. Life from Stone is R90 for a bottle.

Taste wine at Rooiberg. A gigantic red chair marks the turn off to the winery, and the ceiling of its tasting room/shop is designed to make you think you’re inside a wine barrel. Tastings are free if you buy a bottle.

Visit the Ceramic Factory. It’s just opened and features cool, contemporary decor, some with a pop-culture influence. The Darth Vader utensil holders are from R499 each.

The ceramic factory puts a pop-culture spin on a classic art with items such as Darth Vader utensil holders. Photo by Tyson Jopson.

The ceramic factory puts a pop-culture spin on a classic art with items such as Darth Vader utensil holders.


Where to stay in Robertson

Merlot Manor is in the centre of town, newly opened and the owner has taken the time to make it feel as comfortable as possible. There’s a lounge with a decent bookshelf in the upper section and the rooms are neat and beds super comfy. Pick one of the four rooms upstairs – they share an open balcony. Rooms from R550 per person sharing B&B.

Klaasvoogds Cottages has the feel of staying on a working wine farm without the price tag. It’s unpretentiously plopped among the Kranskop vineyards and totally secluded. Self-catering from R590 per person.

Galloway Guest House at Happy Days Farm in Klaasvoogds is brand new. It looks out onto the Langeberg. Rooms are simple and contemporary and there’s a long pool for dipping after hot days. From R550 per person sharing B&B.


Where to eat in Robertson

Mo & Rose is not cheap but I can live with having spent that amount of money on something so delicious, at least once. Go in the late afternoon and wander the cactus garden before sitting down for a meal. Set menu from R310 per person for three courses, wines from R120 a bottle.

The Robertson Small is classy and loungey with a modern-spun 50s chic vibe, and there’s always something cool playing. Drinks from R20.

Strictly Coffee reminded me of a London coffee shop; the kind of place where you can get a window seat and read the paper and watch the main road go by. Coffee from R14.

Bourbon Street is great for hearty fare and especially popular with bikers. If you’ve had enough of gourmet for a day, grab an eisbein here. Meals from R72.


This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Getaway magazine.

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