Despatches from the Cape Winelands


New Member
Hi all. I live in the Western Cape Winelands of South Africa, in a little blip on the map called Wellington, which has just been declared its own wine-making district, despite producing fabulous wines for years.

By way of introduction, here's an article I wrote on the area for a major Cape newspaper. Please forgive the Afrikaans words - it's the Dutch-based dominant language of the area.

Wellington - the Boland’s best-kept secret, until now

Mention Wellington to the average Capetonian, and you’ll invariably elicit one of three responses: “Shoo, that’s doer-and-gone, hey!” “Better known as ‘Smellington’, ha, ha…; and, “I hear it gets pretty hot in that neck of the woods.”

Actually, ensconced in the beautiful, bucolic epicentre of the Boland, a mere 45 minutes from Cape Town, Wellington is neither “the back of beyond”, nor malodorous (the modernised tannery having relocated some years ago).

Furthermore, warm summers, tempered by cool, wet winters, provide a sublime environment for fruit cultivation, and the valley's bountiful harvest includes guavas, avos, mangoes, olives, figs, peaches, apricots and table grapes. Wellington is S.A.’s primary manufacturer of dried fruit, organic produce is a burgeoning business, and the indigenous medicinal herb, Buchu, is big news, but - above all – the valley is literally the “cradle” of the South African wine industry, with 28 nurseries propagating over 85% of the country’s grafted, Phylloxera-resistant vine cuttings, locally known as “stokkies”.

Wellingtonians claim that great wines are not just born but raised in their valley, and this has proved no idle boast, for the previously untapped area has suddenly emerged as a trendsetter on the South African wine scene, and an exciting tourism destination.

Compared with its slicker, more sophisticated neighbours, Wellington has long been unfairly regarded as a sleepy Plattelandse dorpie, untouched by time, progress and innovation - perhaps because it was literally the “Last Outpost” of the Colony, beyond which only the doughtiest explorers ventured...

Once populated by San hunters and Khoi pastoralists, the valley nestling beyond the Berg River, between the perennially-verdant Groenberg and the soaring purple folds of the Hawequa mountains, was first discovered in 1657, by a bailiff despatched from the Cape fort to barter cattle, who dubbed it Limietvallei (Boundary Valley).

The earliest farms were granted to Dutch Free Burghers in 1687. Twelve years later, French Huguenots settled the area they named Val du Charron (Wagonmakers’ Valley), which later evolved into the Dutch, Wa(gen)makersvallei.

The town of Wellington, which arose around the landmark Dutch Reformed Moederkerk, was proclaimed in 1840, to honour the English Duke who trounced Napoleon at Waterloo.

In 1853, the spectacular Bain’s Kloof Pass became the official “Gateway to the North”, and the diamond- and gold-fields. Ten years later, the Cape Town to Wellington Railway transformed the rural hamlet into a bustling terminus. For several halcyon decades, Wellington was a boomtown - along with Paarl, the “Detroit” of wagon-manufacture in the Southern Hemisphere, and renowned for leather-tanning, grain-milling, dried fruit, jam, pork and tobacco.

In 1907, Bovlei (South Africa’s sole remaining independent co-operative winery) was founded, later followed by the now-amalgamated Wamakersvallei and Wellington cellars.

Wine farming flourished, and today, Wellington’s compact wine route incorporates some 30 estates and wineries, from boutique to bulk producers - many of whom receive accolades in prestigious local and international competitions. Having been awarded SA Terroir Top Wine Area in 2010 (and placed second in 2011), the proudly-indie former backwater has evolved into one of South Africa’s most celebrated wine districts.

Wellington also boasts an artisanal, pot-still brandy route, manufacturing premium, handcrafted spirits. It is the birthplace of South Africa’s only organic Port, Grappa, Absinthe, Vodka, Gin and Limoncello, and first indigenous grain Whisky, so visitors to the sybaritic 6th annual Wellington Wine Harvest Festival (March 17th and 18th) will be spoilt for choice!

But there’s far more to Wellington than just great grog…

Fruit, vegetables, herbs, honey, nuts, mushrooms, pork, venison, goats’ milk cheeses and genuine Buffalo Mozzarella provide chefs at gourmet restaurants like The Stone Kitchen and Oude Wellington with abundant local provenance from which to create sensational seasonal dishes, bearing Wellington’s unique gastronomic fingerprint.

Set amidst stunning natural scenery and idyllic, unsullied countryside, graced with serene Cape Dutch homesteads, the small town is steeped in heritage and culture. A prominent educational and theological centre, it is a treasure trove of historic, architectural gems and National Monuments (including South Africa's most Southerly Anglo-Boer War block-house, and one of the oldest steel bridges).

Beyond the village, guided wine-walks and horse-trails meander through farmland and fynbos; Bain's Kloof Pass and the Limietberg Nature Reserve offer unsurpassed vistas and a rich endowment of rare, indigenous flora and fauna, and the Agter-Groenberg incorporates the largest remaining tract of pristine Renosterveld, where game drives on Bontebok Ridge Reserve afford an opportunity to see endemic buck and birds in their natural habitat.

Wellington’s no slouch when it comes to culture either. The crucible of Afrikaans language and literature, it remains a haven for contemporary artists, actors, writers and musicians. The Sonnenbergs of Diemersfontein have long nurtured local opera, while the Breytenbach Centre, and funky, intimate Bôrdienghuis Theatre (former bedroom of iconic artist-activist Breyten), provide a multi-disciplinary creative platform for top performers, including sons of Wellington Koos Kombuis and Valiant Swart.

Wellington is also the only place outside the Mother City where every January, in a proud, century-old tradition, the infectious Ghoema rhythm and strident brass of the valley’s Klopse troupes resonates from the famous Boland Stadium, during the annual Coon Carnival Competition.

Just outside town, vibey Chippa’s Place in Mbekweni Township (home of the applauded Mbekweni Black Bafanas a capella group) offers visitors a rare taste of traditional Xhosa fare and entertainment, in an urban setting.

The discovery that Wellington is not quite the one-horse hick-town one imagined necessitates a stay at one of the many well-appointed guest-establishments, from five-star Grand Dédale, to four-star 5 Mountains Lodge & Spa, three-star Cummings House, and others too numerous to mention. (Wellington also boasts an exceptional, world-class conference and wedding venue, Kleinevalleij.)

Amongst the myriad of reasons to “come and kuier”, perhaps this picturesque place’s most piquant draw-card is a sense of authenticity; an unpretentious character that defines the valley and its people. They’re friendly, not faux. A little rough around the edges, perhaps, but hospitable and courteous; keen to share the delights of the best-kept secret in the warm heart of the Winelands, and prove that Wellington isn’t just hot - it’s hip and happening too.

A little bit country, to be sure … but lately, a lot more rock ‘n roll!


New Member
Every now and then I'll be updating my despatches from the Cape Winelands with new information and interesting facts about what our wine and spirits producers are up to, especially the "indie" ones, so watch this space.