It had been an early start but then, during the Hands-on Harvest weekend, you are expected to put a little effort in.
This was the third annual event in the tucked-away Robertson valley. The Wacky Wine Weekend, in June, attracts tens of thousands of people and an impressive array of shuttle busses moving between the wine farms which are set up with marquees and long tables and benches and open fires and live music. In contrast, the Hands-on Harvest is a much more intimate event, with smaller groups literally helping out with the harvest… or at least with picking some grapes and stomping them into a sticky mess.
Needless to say, there is also a plethora of activities to choose from. In fact there was an official 17 page document outlining the various events, from a scavenger hunt to tractor rides, bird watching, wine-and-food pairing, MCC making, cooking classes and harvest markets.
We plunged in. On Friday night we headed to Ashton Kelder where the boys played on the bouncy castle and jungle gym while we tucked into an enormous picnic complete with a bottle of Shiraz 2009, lying on the grass under the spreading yellowwood tree, listening to the strains of guitarist Forrest singing classics such Men at Work’s Down Under as the sun sank behind the mountains. A promising start.
The next morning was harvest at Rietvallei. Bundling into wooden trailers behind a tractor, we trundled all of about 300m to the vines where, armed with crates and secateurs, we set about cropping the muscadel grapes. The grapes looked shrivelled and tired on the vine, but were so juicy that our fingers quickly became sticky and the juice ran down our arms and dripped off our elbows. I wasn’t sure how long the boys (5 and 2) would last, but the sun was still relatively low and Joseph soon got the hang of it while Alfie stomped up and down saying hello to ants.
In fact we could have gone on a lot longer – we were even offered sustenance in the form of a glass of the previous year’s muscadel – but within a few minutes our allotted crates were full and we all headed back to the main house. There the grapes were destalked (a mechanical process – but fascinating for the kids) into two large vats.
The sun was creeping higher now but the vats were in the shade of a large oak tree as we peeled off our socks and boots and, deliciously throwing hygiene to the wind, leapt into the barrels to give the grapes a good old stomping to the strains of Baby Tjoklits – an Afrikaans favourite – blaring from the stereo. Something about that particular song makes me want to squash something, so perhaps it was a good choice.
We’d built up an appetite by now… but not nearly enough for the massive picnic box of salads and cheeses and cold meats and preserved figs and fudge and French bread and a bottle of wine. And that was just for the two of us. The boys were each given a party box (rather a relief, as I thought I’d been told the chef was preparing a special ‘heart of ox’) and we also each took home a bottle of our own label muscadel. Not bad for a morning’s work.
In the swimming heat of the afternoon Joseph and I set off for the Robertson Riding School for a mule cart trip. Being the sort of valley where things don’t always go quite according to plan, we instead found ourselves on horseback, Joseph beaming from ear to ear as we took a gentle stroll around the neighbouring vineyard, led by the utterly charming Leandi Weitz who rode barefoot and bareback and chatted away like an old friend.
Needless to say we all slept like rocks that evening – good, since another early start awaited.
Burcon Wines was a revelation. The better known wine farms tend – inevitably – to be the big branded and often commercial farms, with clearly indicated parking for visitors etc etc, Burcon isn’t even signposted. But head off the main road to Robertson at the sign for Goree Riverside and you enter a valley that requires a John Williams score – it is that breathtaking. The road eventually turns into a dirt track and a couple of miles on is Burcon wines. There were but a handful of guests at the farm and that’s the way they prefer it. Everyone we had met so far had been friendly and helpful and smiley, but here at last was the missing ingredient – a real host. Amanda Conradie, the owner, is a born raconteur, bursting with love and pride for the valley that has been her family’s home for generations. “We are not rich,” she said, “but we are rich in land. The only way to get a piece of this land is to inherit it, or to marry it. And we do need to marry occasionally, so any new teachers or nurses in the valley are very popular.” I could see everyone in our group hastily considering a change of career.
Amanda led us up to the top of a small hill from which we had a grandstand view of the valley where a table had been laid with grapes and glasses and the two wines in which they specialise: a Muscadel and a Shiraz blend named after great characters in the valley. It was made crystal clear that although the wine was for sale, we were under no obligation to buy as there wasn’t a lot of stock and they rather liked it themselves!
High on the view (and a little on the wine) we wound merrily down the hill and on down the track to the river where Frans, Amanda’s husband, had laid out a feast for us on a long wooden table on a river raft. As we chugged down the rush-lined Breede River we tucked into a lipsmacking if bizarre combination of homemade tinned peaches, eggs and tomatoes, homemade butter and vetkoek (fried bread), meatballs, yoghurt, quiche, chocolate cake and muscadel. Having been up for hours I wasn’t quite sure what meal this was supposed to be, but I didn’t care. By the time I’d been for a swim in the welcoming waters of the river I was in love.
Many thanks to our hosts, the Robertson Wine Valley, Ashton Kelder, Birds Paradise, Rietvallei Wine Estate, the Robertson Riding School and Burcon Wine Estate.