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LLocated inland on the Cape west coast, a small community of winemakers tends the Swartland’s picture-postcard vineyards to produce award-winning wines. That is when they’re not giving old-world Rhône-style wines a run for their money or raising conventional hackles by preaching the gospel of old vines and intervention-free winemaking.
The Santam Swartland wine and olive route covers one of the Western Cape’s largest wine-producing areas. The landscape here is idyllic; quaint yet trendy villages surrounded by expansive fields of wheat and canola, dairy pastures, vineyards and olive groves, all framed by distant mountains that are snow-covered in winter.
Stretching from the Paardeberg mountains in the south to the Piketberg in the north, the Swartland is a coastal wine-growing district with 2 wards – Malmesbury and Riebeekberg. Owing to the geographic extent of the region, however, the west coast wine route is demarcated into 4 regions for ease of exploration: Paardeberg, Riebeek Valley, Malmesbury, and Berg River.
Swartland winemakers refer to the unique terroir of each area as its ‘DNA’. Further, the Swartland is distinct from other wine regions by virtue of the enormous diversity of soil types. Granite, shale, clay and slate are found here, along with dryland bush vines.
Since the 1800s bush vines have been the traditional way of cultivating vineyards in the Swartland. This method – where untrellised vines are allowed to grow naturally in the region's Mediterranean climate, with minimal human intervention or irrigation – produces low yields of small but intensely flavoured berries. The minimalist (some might say old-fashioned) philosophy is at the centre of a wine-making revolution spearheaded by a new generation of boutique, family-run garagiste producers from the Swartland.
Outspoken proponents of hand-harvested and crafted natural wines that are produced sustainably and in small quantities, many Swartland winemakers use technically unproductive or ‘old’ vines (vines that are 40 to 60 years old and more) and wild yeasts from their vineyards to make the wines.
In so doing they are defining themselves and their wines in the context of terroir, with a fervour that borders on an artistic movement. Even the local corporate wineries are on board.
Whether you regard Swartland winemakers as visionaries or cowboy cranks, the region’s wines – that range from double-gold medal winners for just a few rands a bottle to top dollar for a handmade elixir – speak for themselves.
Classic Rhône-style white blends and particularly chenin blancs made from unfashionable old vines, exhibit structure, complexity and layers of flavour that are causing the rest of the wine industry to take note.
Add the Swartland’s signature shiraz, mourvédre and grenache – characteristically dark in colour, full-bodied and layered with smooth tannins – and it seems that the region’s 20-odd winemakers aren’t so crazy after all.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Drakenstein Local Tourism Association
Tel: +27 (0)21 872 4842
Tel: +27 (0)21 864 1378
Tel/ Fax: +27 (0)22 487 2989
Santam Swartland Wine Route
Tel: +27 (0)22 487 1133
Fax: +27 (0)22 487 2063
Tel: +27 (0)22 487 1133
Fax: +27 (0)22 487 2063
Riebeek Valley Tourism
Tel/ Fax: +27 (0)22 448 1545
How to get here
Malmesbury, the centre of the Sanlam Swartland wine and olive route, is about 70km from central Cape Town. From the centre of Cape Town head north, taking the N1/Table Bay Boulevard onramp. From the N1, take exit 10 (Sable Road), keep right, and follow the signs for the N7/Malmesbury. Stay on this road for about 60km. From the N7, exit left onto Voortrekker Road (R45), which loops around, and follow this road for approximately 800m until you reach De Kock Street.
Best time to visit
Spring, from late October to mid-November, sees a patchwork of yellow canola fields and green vineyards, as well as indigenous flora in bloom. Very few Swartland vineyards receive visitors during harvest time, typically January to April.
Around the area
Nearby are the towns of Darling, Tulbagh, Wellington and Paarl. In Malmesbury there are historic churches, a museum and a 9-hole golf course. The Groot Winterhoek Nature Reserve and various other small nature reserves in the area offer 4x4 trails, hiking, mountain biking and fishing.
Tours to do
The Santam Swartland wine and olive route website offers information on a variety of immersive tasting experiences.
You’ll need your own car to tour the Santam Swartland wine route. The closest car rental companies are in Cape Town, Paarl or Langebaan. Many Cape Town tour operators also visit the Swartland.
What will it cost?
Most Swartland wineries do not charge for a tasting or will waive the fee in the event of a purchase.
Length of stay
Plan at least a weekend stay, especially if you’ll be visiting a few wine and olive farms and local restaurants.
What to pack
The Swartland is typically very hot in summer, and cold in winter. Temperatures are moderate between March and November. Sun protection in summer is essential.
Where to stay
A number of wine farms in the area have chalets and cottages, ranging from self-catering accommodation to serviced 4-star venues.
What to eat
Swartland restaurants, notably the Bar Bar Black Sheep in Riebeek-Kasteel, serve regional, locally sourced produce. There are also fast-food outlets and a number of coffee shops serving light meals.
The Riebeek Olive Festival takes place on the first weekend in May and is a must-do if your trip happens to coincide. The Swartland Heritage Festival takes place in November and is a celebration of independent winemakers from the region.
Olives, olive oil, homemade jams, preserves, pickles and wine.