Fifteen years ago a distinguished Stellenbosch winemaker told me the West Coast was in many respects better terroir for viticulture than the Boland. The soils have natural lime, which didn’t have to be imported (as was the case on his farm), the icy Benguela current brought fog banks that cooled the grapes perfectly and, although one thinks of the West Coast as an arid, flat sort of Skeleton Coast, there is surprising elevation, with many vineyards sitting at 300m above sea level.
The past decade has proved him right. Grapes used to be sent to the local farmers’ cooperatives for bulk-production wine, but now small private estates are popping up. The latest to move from garagiste to label are Oudepost and Franki’s Vineyards (bottling Mourvèdre since 2007). The Spice Route (spearheaded by Charles Back of Fairview) led the charge in 1998 — its pricey, high-quality wines changed perceptions of the district.
Declaring Darling a wine region in its own right has encouraged local producers to set up a wine route and open facilities on their estates.
Tastings are still free and prices close to wholesale. Combine this with the spectacular wild-flower season, coming into bloom as I write, and you have a magical winelands trip.
Ormonde Vineyards has the advantage of being right in the town of Darling. The estate offers several wine ranges, something of a recent trend among South African producers. Its Alexanderfontein wines are easy drinkers made from vines grown in ribbons of terra rouge clay soil. The sauvignon blanc (2009) stands out and at only R38 a bottle it trumps Groote Post’s flagship sauvignon for R62.
The Ormonde range is presented as its finer wine with good ageing potential, up to 15 years for the Theodore Ecksteen red blend (2007, R180) of 65% shiraz and 35% grenache — a New-World wine with an old-red South African architecture to it. The cabernets franc and sauvignon blend, Vernon Basson (2007, R170), is a ruby-fruited juicy red, but with respectable dimension.
But it is the Ondine range, billed as its experimental wines, that caught my tongue. It is named after the ballet that Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn — a pair of ballet slippers, a silver statuette and a photo of the prima ballerina are on display in the tasting room (where you can also buy pineapple-flavoured olives).
The 2008 shiraz is spicier and truer to the cultivar than the Alexanderfontein bottling. The 2007 cabernet sauvignon has an unusual nose, a bit like wet cement, and an earthy taste of tubers and beets; the 2008 cabernet franc has proved very popular and is the most easy-drinking of this flight. The 2007 merlot is available only from the farm. I’ve used it to stunning effect both in and to accompany a French beef stew and at R59 it isn’t too expensive for the pot.
All the Ormonde wines exhibit a certain homogeneity, a slightly sweet, but pleasing, fruity finish. A winemaker I spoke to speculated that this was because of a fructophilic yeast that distorts the proportion of glucose and fructose conversion.
From Ormonde one heads out past fields of arum lilies to the Darling Cellars. Renamed in 1999, it was formerly the Mamre Cooperative (founded in 1948). It has that charming old co-op feel: flat, functional buildings, walls covered by certificates and diplomas in the pleasant little tasting area with practical, small round tables.
A big capital expansion and modernisation project in recent years is paying dividends. It has numerous ranges and a huge variety of cultivars, from the cheap and cheerful Flamingo Bay range (R23 to R25) and the low alcohol (9%) Zantsi sweet wines to its premium Onyx range grown on the best parcels of land with deep granite soils.
This unpretentious cellar concentrates on honest, easy-drinking, good-value wines. I found them rather shy on the nose, but the Onyx Cabernet Sauvignon (2007, R79) has that true Swartland style to it, the shiraz (2007, R79) is seriously oaked (22 months) and the DC “six tonner” merlot (2009, R43) is exceptional value.
From here it is a five-minute drive past marvellous birdlife, a pelican colony, flamingos and flocks of herons to Cloof, where you will find a hip, slightly eccentric crowd. Many estates could learn a bit from this estate as far as marketing goes, as its informative, snazzy website attests.
I am not a fan of pinotage, but the Cloof Pinotage 2005 (R75) is a gorgeous wine, and not to be confused with its rather musty Cloof Dusty Road Pinotage (2005, R35).
Also noteworthy is the Kalumpie & Co (2005, R45), made by the assistant winemaker, Frederik “Bolle” Kalumpie. Previously limited in his duties to farm labourer under the old South Africa, this is his first wine. All proceeds go to the farm school.
Taking the R307 out of Darling through the wild-flower reserves, you will notice freckled herds of Nguni cows and, if you’re lucky, you’ll also see blue cranes courting in the fields. You then make a turn to Groote Post.
Its salmon-pink Old Man’s sparkle is the only méthode cap classique (Brut, R75) in the ward and most unusual for its 59% merlot base (as opposed to the classic pinot noir). I predict this new wine is going to go places. The estate does have pinot noir growing on its south-facing slopes, and it has the only bottling of this savoury wine in the region (2008, R112).
The Old Man’s red blend, also sold in magnums for R90, is a quaffable, cabernet-based red “cool drink” with minimal consequences the next day.
Recommended among the whites are the light, almost effete weisser riesling 2008 (R67) in a dry style; the award-winning chenin now back in stock (2010, R45) sheds a whole new light on this jug varietal; the reserve sauvignon (2009, R95) made only when the best grape quality is present; and the unwooded chardonnay (2009, R62), which is hugely welcome after so many bloated, over-wooded chardonnays of recent years.
All this tasting requires one to eat and Hilda’s Kitchen is the star restaurant in the district. Named after Hildegonda Duckitt (1840 to 1905), Groote Post manor house, now a national monument, was the birthplace and home of this grand dame of Cape recipes.
You can dine in the homestead or al fresco. The staff offer the best Cape farm hospitality. Hung from the umbrellas are see-through plastic bags filled with water, apparently to keep the flies way.
The food is unfussy but not rustic and the portions generous. If you ever come across Hildegonda’s original recipes, you have to divide by four — they had large families and enormous appetites back then. The springbok carpaccio (R56) starter has sole-size slices. In Duckitt’s day duiker was commonly used because springbok were rare in the Western Cape. Today the 2000ha farm offers drives to see kudu, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, bontebok, springbok, eland and gemsbok.
All of this is less than an hour from Cape Town.
Cloof Wine Estate, Mamreweg, Darling. Tel: 022 492 2839Darling Cellars, Mamreweg, Darling. Tel: 022 492 2276Hilda’s Kitchen, Groote Post, off the R307, between Darling and Malmesbury. Booking is essential. Tel: 022 492 2825Ormonde, Mount Pleasant Street, Darling. Tel: 022 492 3540