The micro-cellar craze ...

Tuesday, 4 May, 2004
Graham Howe
... on the new McGregor wine route
The basketpress has turned full circle. The boom in boutique wine labels has led many long-established farmers to revive old winemaking traditions in micro-cellars. The generation of grape growers who produced high-yield harvests for the old co-operatives is handing over the plunger to a new wave of winemakers going back to their roots.

Cilandia is one of the newest Cape labels. Winemaker Albie Cilliers, a volume supplier of a range of grapes to African Terroir for export, says, ‘Before producing grapes for the co-ops became fashionable, all the farmers used to make their own wines in the old open fermenters. The economy of scale, cost and marketing dictated the co-op route. Now my father enjoys drinking our own wine straight from the barrel - a sundowner on the stoep with views of the vineyards.’ As to the name, the Cilliers of Eilandia = Cilandia.

We had planned to reach the remote cellar on an old sheep farm in the Eilandia Valley on horseback but our planned ride was foiled by a torrential downpour over the Easter holidays. Made in limited quantity of 5 000-7 000 litres, the French-styled Cilandia Shiraz 2002 is set for release in May 2004 - while the maiden Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 and 2003 vintages are still in the barrel. A Pinotage 2003 is made from the grapes that used to go into Rooiberg's award-winning Pinotage. Cilandia's own low-yield wines are made from a selection of best blocks held back from the 700 tons sold on to big producers.

On the road to McGregor we came across an embryonic micro-wine route emerging on century-old farms. Father and son teams working together to restore family pride in wines with a sense of heritage. Across the Breede River at Buitehof, Johannes and Gideon van Zyl epitomize the revival of winemaking on farms where the grapes are grown. Long-established suppliers to Robertson Winery, they are allowed to hold back ten of 1 050 tons of grapes to make their own wines at a micro-cellar that releases its first Shiraz in June.

Johannes van Zyl, chairperson of the Robertson Winery, has sat on the board for over twenty years. His son Gideon, the young winemaker, says, ‘My father wasn’t too excited at first about me taking his best grapes to make my own wine. Now he's really proud of our wines - and we're taking out the plums to plant more grapes! I wanted to control the quality of winemaking from A-Z.’ His sister, a graphic designer, created the slick label on condition he named 3 000 bottles of wine after her - Colette Chardonnay 2003.

Wine with a sense of origin doesn't get closer than an entrance via the special block where the Cabernet Sauvignon were grown for Buitehof's maiden 2002 vintage, vinified in open fermenters and matured in French oak for 15 months. After admiring the mini-crusher, we carried on down the road to the foothills of McGregor to find the equally new Koningsrivier cellar. Gideon van Zyl explains, ‘Buitehof bought the crusher. They bought the basket-press. The winemakers work together in the Robertson Wine Valley.’

Father and son Schalk and Niel Colyn welcomed us to their remote micro-cellar on their fifth-generation 200 hectare farm first planted with Hermitage and Hanepoot in 1895. After showing us a 60-year-old bottle of ‘stookwyn’ (strong stuff) and the old kuipe in the garage to prove they really did used to make wine at Koningsrivier, we proceeded to the new cellar in the old stables. Drawing samples from the French oak barrels kept in a converted farm schoolroom, we tasted a single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 and a first release non-vintage blend of Cabernet and Merlot - due for release in May 2004.

The young winemaker is currently researching a master's degree on South Africa's wine co-operatives and their ability to compete with new-world wine producers. He comments, ‘Winemaking is more of a hobby for me, a sideline to growing grapes, peaches and apricots. I'm really enjoying working from ground-zero, from growing the grapes to making the wine. It's so much more fulfilling to handle the whole spectrum through to the end product.’ The proof is in the quality - the Limited Release Koningsrivier Cabernet 2003 was a class winner, taking gold at the South African Young Wine Show last year. Of course, they only made 5 500 bottles of the stuff - so you'd better get your order in quick.

* McGregor is part of the Heart of Route 62 initiative linking five towns in the region. For a new guide, telephone: +27 (0) 23 626-3167

McGregor Tourism Bureau
Tel: +27 (0) 23 625-1954

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."