Exploring the KwaZulu-Natal wine route

Winona Griggs

Vine of the times: discovering the KwaZulu-Natal wine route

Hey there! Today I want to tell you about my adventure exploring the beautiful and lesser-known KwaZulu-Natal wine route. It’s a hidden gem that not many people know about, but I’m here to spill the beans and share all the juicy details with you.

So, picture this: rolling hills covered in lush vineyards, the warm African sun shining down on you, and a glass of crisp and refreshing wine in your hand. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? Well, that’s exactly what you’ll find on the KwaZulu-Natal wine route.

Now, you might be wondering, “Wait a minute, I thought South Africa was all about safaris and wildlife. Since when do they produce wine?” I had the same question, but let me tell you, the KwaZulu-Natal region is full of surprises.

First things first, let’s talk about the wine. KwaZulu-Natal might not be as famous as other wine regions in South Africa, but that doesn’t mean their wines are any less delicious. In fact, they have their own unique charm and flavor.

The cool climate and fertile soil of KwaZulu-Natal create the perfect conditions for growing grapes, resulting in wines that are bursting with flavor and character. From crisp and zesty whites to rich and velvety reds, there’s something for every palate.

But it’s not just the wine that makes the KwaZulu-Natal wine route special. The stunning landscapes and warm hospitality of the local vineyards are truly something to behold. As you drive through the rolling hills and picturesque valleys, you’ll be awestruck by the sheer beauty of it all.

And let’s not forget about the people. The winemakers of KwaZulu-Natal are passionate about their craft and love sharing their knowledge and expertise with visitors. From guided vineyard tours to intimate wine tastings, you’ll have the opportunity to learn from the best and truly immerse yourself in the world of wine.

So, if you’re looking for a unique and off-the-beaten-path wine experience, look no further than the KwaZulu-Natal wine route. It’s a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered, and I guarantee it will leave you with memories to last a lifetime. Cheers!

Exploring the KwaZulu-Natal wine route

When you think of the Midlands Meander, you probably don’t imagine vineyards and winemaking. After all, this picturesque region, nestled between Mooi River, Hilton, and Karkloof, seems like an unlikely place for wine.

With its proximity to Durban’s warm and tropical climate and the beautiful coastal resorts, it’s no wonder that people doubted the possibility of growing grapes and making wine here.

But against all odds, a small group of determined individuals proved everyone wrong. One of these trailblazers is Abingdon Wine Estate.

Exploring the KwaZulu-Natal wine route

A Surprising Winery in the Misty Midlands

A winery in the misty Midlands? I know it sounds unlikely, but bear with me.

Abingdon is a small, family-owned farm that did something truly remarkable. Back in 2007, they produced the first-ever certified estate wine in KwaZulu-Natal. I had a chance to talk to Jane Smorthwaite, one of the owners, and she told me something fascinating: “Winemaking teaches you the art of patience.”

I found Jane behind the tasting room counter, always ready to greet the eager visitors who come to sample their regional wines on weekends.

What’s even more surprising is that Laurie Cooper, Jane and Ian’s daughter, grew up among the somber grapevines of Lion’s River. Now, she is the assistant winemaker at Abingdon. In 2019, she won the prestigious Moët & Chandon Best Young Sommelier of South Africa award. And to top it off, Abingdon’s tasting room was honored with the American Express Dining Awards South Africa’s Best Kept Secret in the following year.

When I first discovered this winery, I was immediately drawn to its charm and welcoming atmosphere. Abingdon has a unique way of embracing us, the wine enthusiasts who don’t necessarily have an expert background. I learned that Ian, the winemaker, is entirely self-taught, while Laurie has a more formal education in wine. Their different perspectives create a fascinating dynamic.

Ian follows his instincts and intuition when crafting the wine, while Laurie argues for relying on scientific knowledge. It’s this beautiful synergy between them that brings their wines to life.

As a result, the wines produced by Abingdon are an exquisite blend of both approaches, combining the passion and creativity of Ian with the precision and expertise of Laurie.

Jane, who works at the winery, shared with me their vision. She told me that they don’t just want to be another anonymous bottle on a shelf. Instead, they want each visitor to come and spend some time with them, hearing their story, and becoming what they fondly call an Abingdonian – a part of their extended family.

Jane is like the bubbly that fills the wine cellar – always full of life. Her vibrant personality surely played a role in the success of their bold idea. “KZN has the potential to produce exceptional wine,” she proclaimed. The Midlands’ lush green landscapes and ample rainfall create an environment similar to certain parts of Europe. “Our wines stand out because they are so unique,” she explained. “They have an old-world charm that is delicate and refined. In blind taste tests, you can taste the subtle and elegant nature of our wines.” As Jane spoke, her dogs nestled closer to the fire, creating a scene that perfectly captured the essence of the Midlands. Here, there is no pretentious behavior like sniffing and spitting (at least not during my visits, as I savored every sip). Instead, there is a deep appreciation for wine and a thirst for knowledge.

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Exploring the KwaZulu-Natal wine route

Sip happens – A Challenging Journey

I’ve come to realize that the weather can be quite a challenge for us wine growers. It seems like we’re always dealing with either rain or hail. And let’s not forget about those mischievous vervet monkeys that love to cause trouble in our vineyards. This year, we’ve had to battle rain for seven long months. But you know what? Our vineyard is still healthy and disease-free. You might be wondering how we managed to achieve that. Well, the secret lies in our unwavering dedication.

Every day, rain or shine, you’ll find us out in the vineyard, meticulously thinning the vines. We refuse to take a single day off. Our commitment to the craft is unyielding. It hasn’t been an easy journey, I won’t lie. But we’ve proven that it can be done. We’ve shown that with determination and hard work, we can make our vineyard thrive.

Winemaking isn’t just a profession for us; it’s a passion that runs in our blood. We’ve poured our hearts and souls into perfecting our craft. Take Laurie, for example, she’s currently pursuing her Master of Wine qualification. If she succeeds, she’ll become one of the few South Africans to hold that prestigious title. Not only that, but she also runs the WSET-accredited KwaZulu-Natal School of Wine, where she trains aspiring wine enthusiasts.

‘I did all my qualifications overseas, and guess what? There are wine schools all over London. But here in South Africa, there was only one in Cape Town. So, you know what I did? I opened my own in 2015,’ Laurie said, with a smile. And let me tell you, it’s been a hit! I’ve received so much support, even from the famous chef Jackie Cameron. She’s a Midlands girl, just like me, and she loved what I was doing so much that she left her job as head chef at Hartford House to start her own culinary school in Hilton. Can you believe it? And you know what’s really cool? Some of our graduates are now working at top places like The Oyster Box, The Living Room at Summerhill, and Qambathi Mountain Lodge. But don’t worry, it’s not just for fancy sommeliers. We also offer beginner courses on Saturdays. So, if you’re interested, come on over and join us!’

“Let’s learn how to be adventurous when it comes to wine selection! We’ll even get the chance to visit vineyards and cellars before enjoying a delightful and indulgent lunch,” Jane happily proclaimed. Her excitement was infectious, but as a responsible individual, I knew I had to resist the temptation and arrange for a designated driver. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel proud as an Abingdonian, knowing that I had a few bottles of wine to enjoy later on.”

Exploring the KwaZulu-Natal wine route

Let the Wines Tell the Story

When I visited the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, just 5km away from Abingdon, I was overwhelmed by the experience. It’s easily the best museum in all of South Africa. As I walked through the complex, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of reflection. The highlight of the exhibit is a stunning metallic sculpture that forms the face of Nelson Mandela. It’s a powerful sight to behold.

The museum takes you on a journey through history. It starts with the Bhambatha Rebellion, then moves on to the momentous day of Nelson Mandela’s arrest at this very location on 5 August 1962. From there, it delves into the struggle for freedom during apartheid. The exhibition is brought to life with incredible video installations and a diverse collection of artifacts that truly capture the spirit of the time.

After my visit, I hit the road again, following the scenic R103 for another 5km until I reached Piggly Wiggly. It was time for a well-deserved lunch at the Highgate Wine Estate. While the venue wasn’t as cozy as Abingdon, the restaurant’s grandeur and high ceilings really left an impression. As I indulged in a sumptuous feast, I couldn’t help but appreciate the fine dining experience.

When I visited Highgate, I encountered a diverse range of customers, from close friends enjoying a weekend getaway to families treating their grandparents to an elegant meal. To start off my culinary journey, I indulged in a grilled goat’s cheese and beetroot starter, which set the stage for the delightful tasting selection that followed.

Among the various wines I sampled, one stood out as my absolute favorite – the beautiful blush Blanc De Noir. Its refreshing rosé flavor captured my taste buds in a delightful dance. However, I must admit that the Syrah, with its light, almost Pinot Noir-like qualities, and the Pinotage also impressed me with their unique characteristics. While I thoroughly enjoyed the wine tasting, I couldn’t help but long for the presence of a winemaker who could answer all my burning questions about the process and origins of these exquisite wines.

It’s worth noting that visiting Highgate is not solely about wine. Just like the Cape Winelands, there are other attractions to explore. For instance, Piggly Wiggly is located right next door and offers a chance to wander through Huddy’s Books, providing the perfect opportunity to stretch your legs after indulging in Highgate’s delectable panna cotta dessert. Additionally, The Pantry on 103 is a fantastic spot to stock up on local cheese from The Gourmet Greek or Indezi River Creamery, making it the ideal place to complete your Highgate experience.

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When I stepped into my next destination, it felt like I had traveled back in time to the Midlands Meander of yesteryear. The Wine Cellar had a unique atmosphere – filled with charm and a hint of nostalgia. As I walked in, I noticed the shelves stacked high with excellent wines from various regions in South Africa. These were not the standard wines you would find at the usual supermarkets. No, these were special wines, carefully selected and unavailable elsewhere.

I had a chance to chat with the owner, Margie Spowart, who shared the story behind The Wine Cellar. “We started back in 1996, at a time when wine speciality shops were a rarity in Natal,” she explained. “It was quite a challenge to get a license at that time!” Margie’s determination paid off, and The Wine Cellar became one of the first shops of its kind in the area.

What intrigued me further was learning about Sarah Adam, Margie’s daughter. Sarah had spent nine years working in the Cape, gaining invaluable experience in the wine industry. She had even worked with renowned winemaker Riaan Marais of Alvi’s Drift, before deciding to come back home and join the family business.

The Wine Cellar is not just a place to find exceptional wines. It also has a big heart. They support pensioners by selling pickles and jams, and the funds raised go towards helping the region’s SPCA. It was heartwarming to see such a blend of warmth, chaos, and generosity in one place.

I left The Wine Cellar with a sense of awe and admiration for the Spowart family. Their dedication to curating an exceptional wine collection, while also giving back to their community, is truly remarkable.

The close friendship reminded me of Abingdon, and Jane’s words reverberated in my mind. ‘Sometimes I wake up and wonder, “What am I doing?” But it has brought us blessings. Despite the sweat and tears, the vineyard has become our family’s sanctuary.’

Sarah chimed in, ‘We even have a small vineyard on our land. Greytown was a pioneer in planting vineyards in KZN, way back between 2002 and 2004, and now those vines thrive here in the chilly climate.’

Exploring the KwaZulu-Natal wine route

A Time to Relax with Wine

“I love wine. It’s a part of my daily routine,” I confessed as I strolled through Fordoun Hotel and Spa with the owner, Jon Bates. The serene farm scenery and fresh air were just what I needed after a day of indulgence. Jon shared a good-natured joke about his wife’s refined taste in wine, and we both chuckled.

During our walk, Jon showed me the chicken coop where they lay an impressive 90 eggs every day, providing the perfect breakfast accompaniment. We also ventured to the chef’s garden, where Chef Jonathan Kalika searches for the freshest herbs, fruits, and vegetables to incorporate into his delectable dishes. Jon emphasized their commitment to sourcing food locally, with a goal of farm-to-fork dining.

As we continued, Jon mentioned the annual bubbles festival held at the Farm Village, which is an exciting celebration of sparkling wines. Last year’s festival was particularly special as it marked 50 years of Cap Classique production in South Africa, a remarkable achievement.

When I arrived at the Fordoun Farm Village, I faced a difficult choice: should I put together a cheeseboard to go with the wines I had collected, or should I treat myself to a meal at the Skye Bistro? After some consideration, I decided to save my precious bottles and indulge at the bistro once again. As I studied the menu, I knew instantly that I had made the right choice. The food section spanned two whole pages, while the wine list filled the rest of the menu with its twenty offerings. There were reasonably priced blends from Robertson, intriguing discoveries from Swartland, and Cederberg Savs. However, what caught my eye was a Pinotage called “Hell Yeah.” The name alone perfectly encapsulated the spirit of my weekend getaway.

Exploring the KwaZulu-Natal wine route

Welcome to the Trip Planner!

Discover the Perfect Sipping Spots

Let me show you some incredible places to enjoy a delightful sip. These hidden gems are sure to please your palate and give you a memorable experience.

First up, we have Granny Mouse Country House. This place is truly one-of-a-kind! They have an underground room, specially designed to provide the perfect temperature for your sipping pleasure. But that’s not all! Here, you can indulge in unique Meander experiences, like macaroon and wine pairings or liqueur and chocolate tastings. Trust me, it’s an escape from the ordinary that you won’t want to miss.

For just R130 per person, you can immerse yourself in this extraordinary experience. To book, simply call 033 234 4071.

Next, we have Abingdon Wine Estate. This place is the real deal, my friend. Get ready for a delightful adventure! Picture this: you’re sitting under the cozy eaves, savoring mouthwatering tapas, and sipping on exquisite wine. The best part? The family who owns the winery will be right there with you, sharing their passion and stories. How cool is that?

You can visit Abingdon Wine Estate on Fridays, Saturdays, and two Sundays every month, from 11 am to 5 pm (unless they have a wedding, of course). And here’s an exciting bonus: they offer a Beginner’s Wine Appreciation Course at the KZN School of Wine, located right on-site. If you’re interested, they have set dates for the course. Just give them a call at 083 463 8503 to find out more.

So, are you ready for a fantastic sipping adventure? These incredible spots await you! Don’t miss out on the opportunity to make lasting memories.

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If you’re looking for a delightful experience, Highgate Wine Estate is the place to go. They offer a range of options, from fancy fare to casual bar-stool tastings and pretty picnics across their beautiful grounds. You can visit them any time between 11am and 4pm, from Friday to Sunday. For wine tastings, it’s first come first serve, and the cost is R100 per person. If you’re interested in a picnic, make sure to book 48 hours in advance, and it will cost you R350 per person.

When it comes to wine-tasting venues, The Wine Cellar and Mouse Trap Deli is a hidden gem just outside Rosetta. It offers a relaxed and low-key atmosphere, perfect for enjoying a variety of wines. You can even sit by the fireplace while savoring your favorite drink. Don’t forget to check out their selection of local cheeses for sale. They are open from Monday to Friday, between 10am and 4pm, and on weekends, they close at 3pm.

If you’re in the mood for a more glamorous experience, Fordoun Bubbles is the event for you. Mark your calendar for the 19th of November 2022. It’s an opportunity to dress up and have a fantastic time. The tickets are available for R200 per person, so make sure to grab yours.

If you have any inquiries or want to make a reservation, feel free to give them a call:

  • Highgate Wine Estate: 066 449 2620
  • The Wine Cellar and Mouse Trap Deli: 082 923 8781
  • Fordoun Bubbles: 033 266 6217

Hey there! Let me tell you about Cathedral Peak Wine Estate! It’s a beautiful place located in the Winterton Valley, just beyond the Meander. When you visit, you can enjoy some delicious wine while taking in the stunning views of the vineyards and the majestic Drakensberg mountains in the background. The estate is open from 9.30am to 4pm every day except for Tuesdays, so you have plenty of time to explore and relax.

For just R10 per person, you can indulge in a wine tasting experience like no other. It’s a small price to pay for the chance to sample some of the finest wines the estate has to offer.

If you want to get in touch with Cathedral Peak Wine Estate, simply give them a call at 063 075 1123 and they’ll be happy to assist you with any inquiries or reservations.

Now, let’s talk about Africamps at Gowan Valley!

This place is a real gem. Africamps at Gowan Valley offers five cozy tents that are fully-equipped with everything you need for a comfortable and memorable stay. Each tent has its own private deck that blends seamlessly with the surrounding landscape, ensuring maximum privacy. And the cherry on top? You can unwind and relax in the outdoor hot tub, taking in the beauty of nature.

Staying at Africamps at Gowan Valley is a steal, starting at just R705 per person per night. It’s a fantastic deal considering the level of comfort and luxury you’ll experience during your stay.

Ready to book your stay? Give them a call at 021 300 5694 and they’ll help you make all the necessary arrangements.

Exploring the KwaZulu-Natal wine route

Looking for a getaway in KwaZulu-Natal? Check out these incredible options:

Three Tree Hill: This place is like a dream cellar, offering a wide range of wines from different regions, including unique finds from KwaZulu-Natal like Abingdon and AslinaWines. They even have organic and biodynamic wines! Starting from R2,080 per person per night on a full-board basis. To book, call 087 059 9016.

Qambathi Mountain Lodge: Escape to the Kamberg Valley, just an hour away from the Midlands Meander. This romantic retreat not only offers delicious five-course dinners, but also stocks Abingdon wines. Rates start from R1,500 per person per night. To make a reservation, call 072 188 0797.

Fordoun Hotel and Spa: If you prefer a self-catering cottage, look no further than the Farm Village at Fordoun. These modern cottages are perfect for couples, families, or friends. They come with fireplaces, porches, and stunning hillside views. Plus, they are pet-friendly! The Farm Village is a short drive or a pleasant walk from the main hotel, luxurious spa, and Skye Bistro.

Hey there! I’ve got some fantastic options for you if you’re looking for affordable accommodations near Abingdon. Let me share the details with you.

If you’re searching for a cozy and budget-friendly stay, the Wild Hare Cottages are perfect for you. These self-catering cottages are just a stone’s throw away from Abingdon. They’re cute, comfortable, and won’t break the bank. You can enjoy your stay here for only R950 per night for two people. Isn’t that great?

Another option that might interest you is The Village. You can book a lovely cottage here for only R1,765 per night. If you prefer a hotel experience, they also have rooms available for R1,795 per person per night. It’s entirely up to you!

If you have any questions or want to make a reservation, feel free to give us a call at 033 266 6217 for The Village or at 079 491 3823 for Wild Hare Cottages.

By the way, this article was written by Melanie van Zyl and was originally published in the September 2022 print issue of Getaway. Give it a read if you get a chance!

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