David Bristow: In search of winter fortification

By , 1 July 2015



This is the time when snow lies scattered across the high ground of South Africa – like clothes strewn across the floor of a teenager’s bedroom. While not exactly the Alps, for a nation that does not much do central heating the next best thing to a brandy-bearing dog is a jug of fortified wine.

It’s the classic old “port in a storm” scenario, but even if you cannot easily get to the source in Portugal’s Douro region you can make a local holiday of it. The homegrown equivalent of the Douro River is the Gamka, a succulent-bejewelled rain-shadow basin that is sliced through by that most touted of touring routes, the R62.

Route 62 begins in delightful old Montagu, and then undulates through Barrydale, Ladismith and Calitzdorp before reaching the historic feather capital of Oudstshoorn, heart of the Little Karoo. From there it whizzes past De Rust (a two-donkey dorp) before finding its eastern terminus at Uniondale, from where the Langkloof extends the adventure to the coast.

Midway on the journey is Calitzdorp, which on first sighting will not beckon as the most comely attraction of the region for a little overnight R&R, but this viniferous wench conceals her temptations well. In any storm it is the ports of Calitzdorp to which you want to anchor your vessel.

Flagship of the Little Karoo port capital is Boplaas, established in the mid-1880s by the Nels, descendants of French Huguenots the rest of whom were more fortunate to set down roots in the voluptuous folds of the Franschhoek and Paarl valleys of the Cape. Coming from winemaking stock, the Nels planted Muscat wines for the production of raisins, sweet wine and brandy.

Image courtesy of George Herald.

Image courtesy of George Herald.

Winters in the Little Karoo are among the most ferocious of the land, when thick snow blankets the Great Swartberg and other ranges that hem in the linear desert valley. It must have been on one particularly blustery night that the incumbent winemaker Nel added a splash of their famous potstill brandy (exported to London since 1800) to his Muscadel. And thus was born the country’s Port wine-making industry.

In good time the traditional port-wine varietals were planted alongside the Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat d’Alexandria and Red Muscat – namely Touriga Nacional, Souzão and Tinta Barroca

In his wine encyclopedia (an aged but favoured reference in our house) Tom Stevenson writes: “Authentic Port is made only in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal, but Port-type fortified wines are made the world over and South Africa has proved itself to be particularly adept at the style …” Boplaas is cited, but these days we have to refer to Cape Port in order to dodge the Appellation Police.

Upstart in the valley is Axe Hill, planted in 1993 by Tony and Lyn Mossop on a stony, shale-littered hillside. They named their produce after the ubiquitous Stone Age hand axes that were found while preparing the land. Tony went on to celestial grape stomping not long thereafter but his business partner Mike Neebe has continued the good work.

Port-wine making begins once the grapes are picked and destalked, like any other. Traditionally they are dropped into thigh-deep open tanks called lagares where they are lightly crushed (the corte, just to break the skins) and left to macerate. Thereafter the serious barefoot, shoulder-to-shoulder stomping begins for maximum extraction. Fermentation starts (the conversion of sugar by yeast into alcohol) after just a few hours in the lagares.

When about half the residual sugar has been converted to alcohol the stomping stops and the skins are allowed to float to the top to create a cap. The juice underneath this cap is then run off into vats where clean brandy spirit, at about 70 per cent alcohol, is added at a ratio of around 1:4. This fortification kills the yeast and fermentation stops, leaving a syrupy libation with between 80 and 100 grams of sugar per litre. Dry wines typically have less than 4 g/l.

Vintage port-wines are aged in oak barrels for at least one year, with the lighter-bodied Ruby style having less oak influence. Tawny, meanwhile, must exhibit a colour to justify the name.

Around the time the first powder coating is being applied to the higher, saw-tooth ridges that flank the Little Karoo, Calitzdorp bravely unpacks its most festive clothing from the old wakuste and welcomes allcomers to a “winter in Calitzdorp” Port Wine Festival (Cape Port of course).

There are bike rides, with eight mountain passes to choose from, dirt and tar, a gourmet street market and “secret dinners”, live music, sterrekyk and of course wine tasting among the boeresports. Calitzdorp has a satisfying excess of town and country accommodation. Fest time is a bit harsh for camping but at other times the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve is one of the finest tented eco-resorts in the country.

If you missed the winter festival this year, don’t fret. Winter will visit again next year, and there will be a festival. For more information, click here.

  • David Bristow has written multiple books and magazine features on travel, nature and African culture. He also one of the Racontours.co.za guides.


1 comment(s)

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    Mike | 2 July 2015

    Hi David
    Thanks for a great Calitzdorp story!
    And for an Axe Hill mention!
    We are praying for the snow in your pic – so far so good!
    PS when you are next here, would be great to introduce you to valley colleagues – you might have to block off a day or two more in the process!

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