Listing to Port
Travelling along South Africa’s longest wine route – the beautiful Route 62 – is an enchanting experience in itself, but it is the treasure trove of Ports in the small town of Calitzdorp that ultimately makes this a rewarding trip.
There is much to be said for small towns. It is easy to be seduced when, freed from the confines of high concrete buildings, you walk along streets where unfamiliar faces greet you like an old friend. Small-town living is alluring, especially if it’s in a pretty little place at the foot of the mighty Swartberg Mountains, with broekie-laced verandas framed by lush bougainvilleas. A town in a permanent state of rest. Yes, it is easy to be tempted by the charm of it all.
Calitzdorp is one such place. Unfortunately, because it is just over 40km outside Oudtshoorn, a bigger town where city slickers can find comfort in the form of familiar luxuries, many people who come to Calitzdorp are just passers-by. This is a pity, as Calitzdorp is such an authentic place – full of genuine people and engaging Ports.
Next time you travel along the R62, don’t drive by: stop for a weekend, which is what I did. I packed my bags on a Friday afternoon and headed to Calitzdorp for a weekend of Port and… well, oblivion. And it was great.
Like most small towns, Calitzdorp’s history tells a tale of good times and bad times. There were the heydays of the ostrich era, followed by the Depression and subsequent collapse of the ostrichfeather industry. Overnight, rich farmers were crippled and, while some suffered, others turned their attention to other forms of agriculture predominantly nectarines. And although Calitzdorp is today known as the Port capital of South Africa, private cellars were only established with the split of the original Buffelsvlei farm into Boplaas and De Krans during the early 1980s.
Owned respectively by Carel Nel and his cousins, Boets and Stroebel Nel, Boplaas and De Krans did much to elevate the town’s status with the establishment of their private cellars. The vineyards and cellars aren’t situated on a dirt road outside the town, but rather form part of its rural centre. This not only adds to the quaint nature of the town, but also makes visits to these cellars a fussfree and easily accessible affair.
ATTRACTING A NEW GENERATION
In the July issue of Decanter magazine, Port legend Dirk Niepoort is quoted as saying: “The older generation of Port drinkers is dying, and the younger generation doesn’t really know what Port is about. It is our duty to explain it to them. We need to give them the opportunity to taste Port – once they do, they realise what a wonderful drink it is.”
It is exactly this problem that grape growers are facing in Calitzdorp. Examination of the lists of wines at Boplaas and De Krans prompts the same questions: Why are there so many table wines (everything from Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon)? Why are the Ports so cheap? And, finally, why the bastardisation of this highly traditional drink with names such as Espresso (at De Krans) and The Chocolate Port (at Boplaas)?
Boets Nel, owner of De Krans where he is also cellarmaster, provides an honest, simple, answer: it is about money. The downward trend in Port sales is a global problem, the reason most definitely being the one Niepoort suggests. “Young people are scared of – intimidated by – Port,” says Boets. Locally, however, winemakers are faced with an additional reality: our population generally doesn’t know how to appreciate a fine Port. Market education therefore prompts the development of ‘artificial’ brands with coffee-chocolate connotations, the argument being that this will eventually lead to the consumer graduating to a stage where Vintage Reserve or an old Tawny Port can be fully appreciated. But first the consumer has to develop a thirst for this drink. Of course, season-specific drinking comes into play as well. With 60% of Port sales here being between June and August, Port drinkers show an obvious seasonal preference. In reply to this reality, local growers have added a pink Port, intended to be served on crushed ice, to their already long list of produce.
THE TRADITIONAL DRINKER
Those who are more traditional when it comes to the enjoyment of this fortified drink can take solace in the knowledge that these two cellars still produce some of the best examples of Port available, with the awards to prove it: 5-Star ratings in Wine magazine and Platter’s run in their DNA, and, at these price points, it’s like finding a Tretchikoff at a flea market. At De Krans, for example, everything on the price list sells for under R150 ex-cellar. One of the finest examples of Port I’ve tasted – the De Krans Cape Vintage Port 2008 – sells here for only R65. At Boplaas’ cellar you can buy the incredibly fine Cape Tawny for R85 – and the to-die-for 1997 Vintage for R150. It makes you want to bang their heads against a barrel.
“You have to sell it for more,” I urged during tastings of these wines. But they just shook their heads, shrugged and laughed… that would be suicide. The upside is that Port-lovers can fill their cellars to their heart’s content, secure in the knowledge that what they are drinking is pretty darn close to Douro quality. Climatic factors – extremely cold winters, hot summers and low rainfall – play a role in Ports that are comparable to those made in Portugal, aided by the.choice of grapes and the barrelageing technique.
A blend of traditional Port varieties – Tinta Barocca, Touriga Nacional and Souzão are used in the wines, with both the brothers following a barrel-ageing regime that makes use only of old vats – some as much as 80 years old. At Boplaas it makes for a pretty impressive, and comforting, sight.
And then, of course, there are the personalities behind the wines. Boets and.his viticulturist brother Stroebel, along with cousin Carel and his winemaker daughter Margaux, epitomise the soul of.these wines, and although abstract terms shouldn’t be used to describe tangible objects, one can’t help noting how the wines reflect the authenticity of.this group of winemakers. On the question of why the Calitzdorp region is especially well suited to the growing of Port varieties, Cape Wine Master Boets replied with a shrug: “This.is where our roots are.”
The good news is that, for these winemakers, the future is far from bleak. Says Boets: “I look forward to a time when people will look towards Calitzdorp for the making of fine Port – as opposed to Calitzdorp looking towards others. Right now, we are in a process where every vine that gets uprooted is replaced with Touriga and Tinta. Hopefully we can focus exclusively on Port one day. Until then, we will be producing a lot of different wines. And we are doing it well.”
Where to stay, eat, play and visit in this beautiful old town…
PLACES TO STAY
Calitzdorp Country House
Calitzdorp’s only five-star accommodation offering is situated on the fringes of town on a dirt road leading off the main road. Allan and Lyn Fabig run a hands-on operation, and guests here can enjoy views over vineyards and the dramatic Swartberg peaks in the distance. There are only four luxury rooms, which means guests really get personal attention from the proprietors. Numerous couches in nooks of eclectically decorated rooms add to the sense of comfort. Breakfasts are especially hearty, and those not in a hurry to explore the town’s offerings will be rightfully tempted to while away the day next to the establishment’s gorgeous pool. Allan is also fantastically clued up on attractions in town and surroundings. From R750 pppn sharing Tel 044 213 3760
Authentic Karoo-style living outside town, with all the basics (and extras like a splash pool) at ridiculously reasonable fares. The on-premises bar, the Naked Lady, is also where locals congregate to watch sport. From R240 pppn Tel 044 213 3067
Brand new in town is Strooi-Kooi owned by Zelma Kriek. A single ‘organic’ cottage bordering a vineyard, this is a good option for those seeking a combination of privacy and a sense of luxury. R250 pppn (optional breakfast R50)
Tel 082 576 5855
Lorenzo’s on Route 62
A personality-driven establishment with just three tables, this restaurant is not only cute, but the place in town for a delicious Karoo lamb curry. Lorenzo’s doesn’t have a liquor licence, so bring your own if you want alcohol. Tel 044 213 3939
When in the mood for succulent steak then head to Karoo Life, a top recommended spot in town. The wineland steak with Brie and caramelised onions gets the thumbsup from winemaker Margaux Nel. Tel 044 213 3217
Coffee @ Die Handelshuis
The delicious freshly baked tarts and cakes are not to be missed. Tel 044 213 3172
PLACES TO PLAY
Surrounded by the Swartberg Mountains, the Calitzdorp region isn’t short on outdoor activities. Top of the list is a trip to the nearby Seweweekspoort, a road that carves its way through the mountains. Pack a picnic basket and park at one of the spots with a view of a cascading waterfall.
LOOK AND LISTEN
Calitzdorp boasts a number of national monuments. Treat yourself to an organ recital at the 2 000-seater DRC church, which is a national monument itself, from 18:00 to 18:50 daily. Also go past St Mark’s Church in Queen Street, possibly the.second-smallest Anglican church in the world.
MEERKAT MAGIC TOURS
If you have patience, head out of town for a two- to three-hour meerkat tour. Guests arrive at dawn and are issued with a lightweight aluminium chair to sit in while watching the meerkats as they come out of the burrow. Best on sunny mornings. R550 per person Tel 084 772 9678
CALITZDORP WINE PICKS
BOPLAAS CAPE TAWNY 1997
R150 EX-CELLAR Easily my top pick of the trip. Royal nutty aromas, with hints of raisins and dried figs. Impeccable follow-through, beautiful intensity and layers and layers of pleasure.
BOPLAAS THE CHOCOLATE PORT 2008
R38 EX-CELLAR Prejudices aside, this wine isn’t half bad. Barrelmatured (as opposed to stave-aged) Port that results in a surprisingly impressive drink. Chocolate flavours evident butnotoverpowering, bright palate reveals some cherry andChristmas-cake character.
BOPLAAS CAPE VINTAGE RESERVE 2006
R140 EX-CELLAR “This wine will age well for another 100 years,” says Carel Nel and, given the structure and intensity of this wine, a statement I won’t argue with.
BOPLAAS RING OF ROCKS 2007
R75 EX-CELLAR If you are looking for something different, try thisred blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo. Good structure and meat flavours make this a quaffable and engaging wine.
DE KRANS CAPE VINTAGE PORT 2008
R65 EX-CELLAR “The poor man’s Vintage Reserve,” is how Carel Nel describes this wine, and he’s spot-on. Less intense than theVintage Reserve but every bit as rewarding.
DE KRANS RUBY PORT
R42 EX-CELLAR A three-year-old vintage blend, this wine is vibrantand light with a lovely tannic grip and nutty finish.