Exploring the Santam Swartland Wine & Olive Route

Close up of Zebra grazing dry meadowIt’s a leap year. What will you do with your extra day?

Well, since much international travel involves “losing a day” either to time in the air or making up sleep, you might want to consider targeting 2016 as the year you finally take that big wine-focused trip.

If South Africa has been on your radar, an amazing wine experience awaits a mere hour’s drive north of Cape Town.

Post-apartheid, the first wine region of South Africa to gain widespread attention was Stellenbosch. But thanks to a group of quality-focused vintners in Swartland, visitors now have more options when planning a wine-focused vacation.

Swartland is an ideal day trip destination from South Africa’s largest city, while tourists heading toward the West Coast, the Northern Cape or Namibia along the N7 will find a detour along the Santam Swartland Wine & Olive Route a delightful journey of discovery.

The 20 members of the Wine & Olive Route include cooperatives, private cellars and wine merchants. Visitors can explore the winemaking history of the region at some of the historic estates, or enjoy exquisite wine experiences at modern tasting rooms. Smaller wineries present intimate wine tastings in rustic cellars, while family concerns dating back generations will welcome visitors with the customary Swartland warmth and cheer.

The Swartland area of the Western Cape encompasses a uniquely diverse geographic region, from the undulating hills of the Paardeberg in the south to the rolling waters of the Berg River in the north. There lie the charming, historic towns of Malmesbury, Piketberg and Porterville, and the twin villages of Riebeek Kasteel and Riebeek West, nestled on the slopes of the looming Kasteelberg.

Sweeping wheat fields — golden in summer, mint-green in winter — are punctuated by azure dams on working farms, and sheep and cattle dot the landscape. Huge swathes of natural vegetation are everywhere, and the resident birdlife is complemented in spring by migrants, with steppe buzzards and black-shouldered kites commonly seen atop roadside fence posts.

In this little corner of the world, fruit orchards abound, vineyards carpet the slopes, and olive groves nestle around unexpected corners. It’s a quietly charming place of abundance and color that welcomes visitors to be cosseted in guest houses and B-and-Bs, to feast on fresh and deliciously prepared local produce and, above all, to sample a wide range of palate-pleasing wines.

The Swartland wine region is divided into four sub-regions.

The Paardeberg (“horse mountain”) divides the Paarl and Swartland regions. This hilly, off-the-beaten-path area offers delightful surprises around every bend. The climate during winter is very cold. Summer is typically very hot during the day, with cooler temperatures at night. Some of the highest vineyards above sea level in the Swartland region are found there. Vines are planted on the slopes of the Paardeberg in relatively deep soil consisting of decomposed sandstone, granite and some clay.

Nestled in the protective shadow of the Kasteelberg (“castle mountain”), the villages of Riebeek West and Riebeek Kasteel are the perfect retreat for any city dweller. You can take your time discovering the wineries, restaurants, shops and art galleries. The vineyards of the Riebeek Valley stretch along the lower contours of the Kasteelberg. The soil is mainly Malmesbury shale, with loamy soil on the higher grounds and sandy loam lower down the slopes, interspersed with rich Hutton soils. The climate is perfect for viticulture, with the low-rainfall summer months tempered by cool afternoon breezes, and the cold winters allowing the vines to rest and build up reserves.

The wineries situated close to Malmesbury, the main business center of the Swartland, range from a large company to small, privately owned cellars. Spread out over a large area, the wineries produce diverse wines thanks to the differing soils and microclimates of the area. Although summers are typically very hot and dry, some farms catch the cool sea breezes from the Atlantic Ocean and hence have a cooler climate. Soils range from sandy (ideal for Rhone cultivars) to deep red and fertile (perfect for dry-land vineyards), while others derive from granite.

The wines of the Berg River region are made from grapes cultivated from a vast, climatically variable area, stretching from the banks of the Berg River to the foot of the Groot Winterhoek Mountains in Porterville. Local foodies agree that this is an area not to be missed. Small owner/chef-run eateries, cozy coffee shops and larger-scale restaurants offer a huge range and variety of meals, most prepared with fresh produce sourced in the area and many made to old family recipes.

Regularly scheduled farmers markets and street markets bring out the locals in droves, and there you can buy anything from homegrown veggies in season to free-range eggs and poultry, homemade cakes, sweets, savory dishes, freshly baked bread and olives in every shape and form — from oils, pickles, spreads and tapanades to soaps, creams and shampoos.

From tiny B-and-Bs to luxury hotels, there’s an accommodation option along the Santam Swartland Wine & Olive Route to suit every taste and pocket. No matter what type of lodging you choose, the famous Swartland hospitality will make you feel right at home — and the quality of the wine will make you wish you’d planned a longer trip.

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log
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