“It never rains in Oudtshoorn; it’s a totally different place there,” was the parting shot of the owner of a café in George, where we had lingered for a mid-morning coffee due to a persistent shower during our Garden Route exploration.
True enough, as we drove farther inland the next day, the landscape turned more arid. The temperature difference was subtle but noticeable. Make no mistake, Klein (Little) Karoo, sitting right in the heart of the country, smack between Western and Eastern Cape, is a region that is more complex than it appears. It receives plenty strong sunshine, yet also welcomes cool breezes and chilly nights, making it a premier region for grape cultivation — and naturally, winemaking – as well as agricultural pursuits.
Our family of five was on a mission to sniff out gems along this stretch of Route 62, South Africa’s famed wine route that stretches from Western to Eastern Cape and meanders through the beautiful Klein Karoo. The Route 62 is not as popular with Cape Town visitors, who mistakenly believe that the Winelands comprise of only the famous locales of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl, and perhaps a few others such as Constantia and Durbanville. (Wine is a bit of a misnomer, for the Winelands also boast some of the best brandies, ports and fortified wines in the world.)
It is, of course, not as easy as it might seem. South Africa is a big country and has many distractions for tourists; the first mistake that travellers can make is to underestimate how long they ought to spend in one of the prettiest parts of the Mother Continent.
Also, along Route 62 there are plenty of small towns. It’s hard to remember tourist information of the different places, much less work out a plan that would satisfy everyone in the group. Between the five of us, there were three wine lovers, two with a wider palate; dad gets turned off by sweet wines while mom enjoys the occasional moscato; the youngest, at 5 years old, is an expert at airing complaints and showing off her restlessness.
As it turned out, Route 62 around the Klein Karoo is pretty good at welcoming diversity. It is easy to drive, really friendly for first-time visitors to South Africa and has so much to offer to families, even those who do not have a penchant for drinks made from fermented grapes. Everywhere we went, we found landscapes to admire, delectable food prepared using the freshest local produce of the land and sea, both full-bodied and crisp wines, and locals genuinely glad to tell their stories and listen to yours.
A port above the rest
We began our Route 62 exploration in earnest at Calitzdorp, the port capital of South Africa and about 40 minutes’ drive from Oudtshoorn. The award-winning Boplaas, run by the Nel family since the 1800s, was a natural choice. The range of fortified wines, brandies, and dry white, red and sparkling wines was impressive and the tasting — along the long old-fashioned wooden table — simple and fuss-free. Inside the tasting room were proud reminders of their legacy and supremacy, especially in port.
It would have ended like any other wine tasting experience anywhere in the world, except that there were two surprises in store. Before we left, we received a box of table grapes; perhaps we were the first customers of the day or a nice gesture, it was nonetheless appreciated. Having extra snacks for the road is always a good thing!
Outside, we found the first indication of why South Africa could possibly be one of the most enjoyable wine experiences for families. Right next to the vines was a small play area, with a slide and swings looking out to the scenic Gamka Valley and the majestic peaks of the Swartberg Mountains.
Another 40 minutes westward of Calitzdorp, we entered Ladismith, a very precious piece of the Klein Karoo with towering mounts, rich biodiversity, important monuments and wealth of fruits. This peaceful town dominated by the impressive Towerkop peak in the distance, also has not one but two cheese factories — Ladismith Cheese and Parmalat. We didn’t manage to visit Ladismith as we did not make any advance booking but our quick break at the Parmalat store in the centre of town rewarded us with some very outstanding berry and apricot smoothies.
Tasting with a difference
Leaving Ladismith, we made a detour off Route 62 to the Dwarsrivier Valley, on a whim, in search of Mymering Estate and Hillock Wines. It proved to be a highlight of the day — trip even — as we were received personally by the estate owner and winemaker — and his six dogs, of which two were poodles (not the toy ones). Andy Hillock struck me as a been-there-done-that kind of guy, one who works hard to realise his dreams; his life story is summed up on his wine labels — surgeon, pilot and now farmer.
Having such an intimate experience, where a passionate hands-on vintner not only unhurriedly performs the tasting but actually also drinks along with you, as well as disappears midway for the purpose of serving you an in-the-making sparkling wine that has undergone fermentation for just a day or two, that’s just the most full-bodied wine tasting experience I’ve ever had — and likely the benchmark for future boutique wine estate tastings.
We ended up staying two hours more than we should, even to the extent of having an impromptu inspection of the guesthouse’s open-air gym, two-bedroom cottage and stylish suites with Jacuzzi pools. This meant we did not really have time to stop by other interesting towns such as Barrydale, and instead had to continue on in order to reach Paarl by nightfall. With superb scenery, delicious wines, yummy sandwiches on the table, and canine company, there was little need to convince anyone to stay.