Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tasting the Good Life at Waterkloof Wine Estate

On the scale of romantic daydreams, few wine estates let your expectations soar as high as Waterkloof does. Before you even arrive you have visions that maybe, just for one day, you can feel like a millionaire, meandering the in the vineyard, taking in the view, nibbling on artisanal cheese and sampling world-class wine. “This is the good life,” you might say to trusty Jeeves while gazing out the window, “by golly, this is the good life indeed.”

The windows at Waterkloof are no ordinary windows – no, no – they are 10-meter tall walls of green glass set into a concrete frame that form a work of modern architecture set proudly on the slopes of the Schapenberg. Vineyards surround the building, rising 300 dramatic meters above sea level, against the backdrop of the Hottentots-Holland and Helderberg Mountains beyond. From inside, the open plan space feels decadent – and with a view like this you can’t help but stand a little taller. A section of the dining area peaks out farther from the building – seeming to float in midair – greedily taking an extra helping of the view. The tasting area, defined by leather loungers, is centrally placed. The gravitational cellar, set behind another pane of glass, gives you the feeling you’re observing a rare species in very a glamorous aquarium focused on the wonders of another kind of liquid altogether.

I had always wanted to visit Waterkloof so when the opportunity to enjoy a tasting and Ploughman’s lunch with my dearest presented itself, I jumped for it. Better yet – we were also going to explore the vineyards on a two-hour meander by horseback – part of a special seasonal package. The timing couldn’t have been better – in the last few weeks before the silly season I was feeling like a getaway more than ever.

At last, the day came. We arrived at Orion Stables & Riding Academy where we would begin our ride, a loop from the stables to Waterkloof and back again. We met our guide, Monique, who introduced us to our horses – or “mounts,” as they say. The wind was blowing and whipped my hair wildly – I felt like I was caught in the draft of a giant outdoor hair dryer – and this was not helping my mood.

I was feeling a little anxious.

You see, I had only done this once before. And she was standing right in front of me – looking down at me, towering over me. She was so much bigger than I thought. She stared at me with those dark, soft eyes, and waited for me to make the first move. Her name is Monami, a former world-class show jumper now enjoying her retirement in the Cape wine lands – something many humans dream of but never attain. Our guide assured me she’s a gentle thing – and she was, sweet as pie. We met and I took my place in the saddle. While we waited for the others I talked with her, “Nice girl,” I said, “Beautiful, girl. My, just look at the view, it’s the Cape Floral Kingdom before us.” We began our journey and carried on talking in this way, or at least I carried on talking in this way, as we went.

The vines were shining in the sun, glowing shades of green and yellow. My mind wandered. I felt like I was in a scene from the pioneer days – wafts of the past flickered across the landscape. These fields, set up high with a perfect few of False Bay, were once used more than 300-years ago as a lookout by Willem Adriaan van der Stel, once an unscrupulous Governor of the Cape who sent his men to be the first to spot the trading ships entering the bay. The ships would be in need of fresh supplies and whoever got there first would make the sale. For competing Cape farmers, it was a race but van der Stel’s view gave him an unfair advantage. By the time the rest of the farmers arrived at the beach, no doubt huffing, puffing and sweating from hustling their ox cars laden with goods, he would already be closing shop, counting the money he’d already made and looking forward to a breezy ride home.

I woke from my daydream and I was back in the moment, the vineyards all around. It was beautiful spending time among the vines and it was quiet – so very quiet. I felt only the rhythm of our gentle pace, the sun on my skin and the feeling of nature in my spirit. Off in the distance the mountains seemed like an impenetrable wall, rising steeply, and the hills in the distance seem to gradually plunge to kneel at the base of the valley.

I could see Waterkloof then, not too far away. The structure of the building was a contrast to the land – hard edges and materials, and it shone in the morning light. We were greeted by Christiaan, the farm manager, who helped us show our horses to their resting place for some fresh water and hay snacks.

We were shown to the tasting area and joined by Sonja – a bubbly and vibrant lady who guided us through the tasting menu with friendly enthusiasm and technical detail. The wines were in the European-style – not overly fruity. We made our way through the Sauvignon Blancs – trying to decide which one was our favourite – a toss-up between the ever so slightly oaked Circumstance, still tight with mineral tones, and the Waterkloof, crisp and flinty, normally only available in the restaurant. The cheese platter arrived and we sampled the wines over again – pairing this one with that one – still trying to pick a favourite while indulgence melted in our mouths. After the whites we tried the Circumstance Cape Coral Mourvedre, a dry rosé, playfully pink – a good choice for a Saturday’s lunch. New globe glasses were presented as we moved into the reds. My favorites were the Waterkloof Cabernet Sauvignon, a big wine – smooth, dark and juicy – and the Waterkloof Shiraz, a good balance of peppery spice and smooth berry notes –a special occasion wine, I think.

Christiaan was at the door, ready to take us back to our horses for the return leg of our journey. We climbed the hill and saddled up. Before turning to go I patted my mount, Monami for one of the last times, sighed at the beauty of the experience and picked up our conversation where I left off. “Yes,” I said, gazing at the landscape, “This is the good life. By golly, this is the good life indeed.”

The Details:

· Located outside Somerset West on the M9 Sir Lowry’s Pass Village Road

· The horse riding experience costs R420 per person, including wine and a meat and cheese platter; to book contact Orion Stables & Riding Academy at 021 8581938

· To reserve your table at Waterkloof Restaurant contact 021 858 1491 or email:

· For more information visit or call 021 858 1292

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Timeless Welcome at the Knorhoek Country Guesthouse

It’s a perfect summer’s Sunday – the air is fresh and the morning sunlight tickles the landscape making everything feel warm and golden. Jagged peaks punctuate the sky, rising dramatically above us. Tidy farms dot the rolling hills in the distance, the crops laid out to form shapes of varying colour on the land. Neat vines zip past my window, row after row. The leaves form a blur of happy warmth, waving ‘hello’ as we bounce past farther into the wine lands with a growing sense of wonder at this peaceful place.

Getting closer to our destination the road narrows and a white-washed fence appears on either side, ushering us on. Flowers decorate the view in bursts of red, orange, purple and white. A canopy of tall oaks offers shady comfort for our arrival and I feel completely at home. This is nature’s reception to the van Niekerk’s fifth generation family farm in Stellenbosch, now a boutique wine estate, where we’re looking forward to a weekend retreat.

I step out of the car to survey the scene, reflecting on the name of the place, “Knorhoek.” Roughly translated, it means the place where the wild cats growl. Things sure were different for the first members of the van Niekerk family who travelled here – unloading the ox cart after an exhausting journey and being greeted by the sounds of ferocious mountain lions would be a bit unnerving, to say the least. I’m shaken out of my daydream by a sound, too – not a lion but the family dog, a white bull terrier named Merlot who greets me panting, his tail wagging in happy excitement. Lucky for me he’s just a friendly little clown and we quickly become friends.

We go inside and meet Samantha who is expecting us and greets us warmly. We put our names down in the oversized guest book, next to those of previous guests from all over the world. The reception area is placed in an open plan space with the feeling of a family home and connects to the breakfast room and kitchen on either side. It also includes an informal dining room, a bookshelf of travel literature in various languages, plus a lounge, complete with overstuffed couches, a fireplace and a television. Samantha encourages us to enjoy the space, even after hours, and gives us our own key. She shows us the honour bar, too – fully stocked with estate wine, and chilled beer and water. I love the simplicity and openness here, like I’m staying with family friends.

We walk with Samantha to our room just next door – and see that it has its own private entrance and stoep. Inside the antique cupboard, desk and wood-panelled ceiling create a homey feeling. Freshly picked flowers decorate the room – at the foot of the bed on our neatly folded towels, on the bedside tables and in the immaculate bathroom – a nice touch. The bed is inviting, with its plush pillows and crisp white linen, but we resist the temptation to nap for a vineyard walk instead.

We meander along the grounds, past the manor house and gardens. A peacock calls in the distance, ducks fly overhead, and the estate’s small stream babbles quietly. After just a few minutes we’re following the line of the vines down a gently sloping path. Now I hear a familiar sound – it’s Merlot – as happy as before. He canters up ahead, pretending not to pay too much attention to us even though his left ear is perked in our direction the whole time. The path rounds a corner and there they are – the majestic Simonsberg Mountains dominating the view, a giant wall of purple rising up, the kind you see in magazines and that make you want to go places. We stand still in the quiet and watch for a while.

Feeling inspired, we continue back through the vineyard and to the tasting room where we sit outside on the patio enjoying the view from under our sun-shade umbrella. We chat with our hosts and another guest, a French Canadian visiting from Montreal who entertains us with stories of travel to the wine lands of France and Italy. We enjoy a cheese platter while taking our time, sampling the range of boutique wines – white, sparkling and special reds – which have been recognized with multiple awards from Veritas, the Michelangelo International Wine Awards, and many more not to mention glowing reviews from the John Platter Guide. It’s no surprise that I have difficulty choosing my favourite one – a toss-up between the Pinotage (juicy with hints of ripe banana), the Cabernet Sauvignon (smooth, berry red, a hint of spice and oak) and the flagship, the Pantere (spicy, complex – a big wine that would go well with a special dinner). Luckily for me I don’t have to choose – I purchase one of each as lovely souvenirs.

After the tasting we wander towards the estate restaurant, just across the way. Aptly named “Towerbosch,” it is set under the cover of the trees, bordering a large garden. Merlot is still with us, going off this way and that, investigating sounds in the bush, inspecting rock piles or digging holes in the ground. I hear an owl hoot in the distance – and then, there she is, swooping high to low then up again, landing on the height of a young tree. She is a Cape Eagle Owl and we feel her presence as she watches us. I creep closer for a better look, slowly, slowly – until she turns and faces me square. She won’t allow me any closer. I stand – ever so still. Then, from the corner of my eye I see another owl. And then another. Perhaps the rest of her family has arrived. The moment feels important and special and the sound of their calls envelopes us.

We return to our little stoep and open a bottle of the Knorhoek Cabernet Sauvignon – my favourite at the moment – and it’s a real treat to sit and enjoy it in the place where it was crafted. We sit back and relax, sipping slowly, listening to dusk’s lullaby – crickets with their night song, the trees still rustling overhead, the muffled noise of peacocks and in the distance, the hooting of the owls. After a while we retire to the comfort of the lounge where we make ourselves at home to enjoy the last bits of our cheese platter – a few tastes of the day’s pleasure left. Time passes into evening as we talk about everything and nothing in particular. After a while the comfort of the bed is calling again. This time we retire, sinking into its fluffy layers. It’s been a good day, I think – I feel content, inspired and free. Perhaps this is the feeling the first members of the van Niekerk family had when they came here for the first time, too – perhaps this is the reason they decided to found Knorhoek and the reason why each generation has made the same decision to stay here and call this “home.” Perhaps things weren’t so different in those days after all – except for maybe the lions.


  • 8 rooms, en-suite (bath or shower) including a family and honeymoon suite, and two luxury self-catering cottages with braai facilities
  • The rates range from R420 per person per night for a room to R2 000 per night at one of the luxury self-catering cottages for four people sharing. All guest house rates include breakfast. Cosy lounge with fireplace and a dining room to use at leisure
  • Lunches at Towerbosch Wed-Fri during summer and at weekends year-round (booking essential); Dinner Mon-Fri by prior arrangement
  • Activities on the estate: Wine tasting, vineyard walks; tennis, landscaped rock pool (children welcome); fly-fishing; bird watching; Near the estate: Golf (ten of the top the Western Cape’s top courses within 30-minutes of travel), horse riding, hiking trails
  • Located 10 minutes from Stellenbosch, 40 minutes from Cape Town International Airport, and 50 minutes from the V & A Waterfront
  • For reservations, phone: (+27)21 865 2114/5; email:; or visit:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Closer to Home: Knorhoek’s Towerbosch Earth Kitchen

These days the wine lands represent ideas of the good life - sophistication, culture, class - and people travel to far flung destinations around the globe just for a taste. Yet here in South Africa we have the best of these things plus the pioneering foundation of our history to draw inspiration from. Under its romantic sheen the heart of our wine country is formed by the simplistic honesty of farming, good old fashioned values and the persevering strength of family.

A few generational farms still exist – special places like the Knorhoek Wine Estate in Stellenbosch – and today I’ve been invited to lunch. I’ve heard it feels like home – that it’s a place with the power to revive old memories, to make them feel new again, especially the mundane ones that multiply in importance as the years go by, like afternoons with family over a good home cooked meal, or when I was a girl playing in the garden for hours on end. I live far away from my family now and those times hold a special place in my heart, so I found the prospect of revisiting them intriguing.

From the outside the building looks like a fairy hut – inviting and warm, low to the ground – and it stretches along the length of the pool. Inside it feels light and airy with a vaulted ceiling and exposed wooden beams, from which a contemporary artwork is suspended for dramatic effect. Like a new age chandelier it’s a bird’s nest of tangled twigs and branches, foraged from the grounds of the estate before being white-washed and woven in place. Punctuating this organic bramble are glowing bouquets of glass bulbs and patches of antique cutlery – floating butter knives and hovering spoons, along with tea cups and saucers in odd bins of china, porcelain and ceramics – caught in mid-air. The dining area is flanked by a lounge filled with books, travelogues and at least a decade’s worth of neatly packed National Geographic magazines, like big blocks of wonder waiting to be unlocked. Yellow curtains dance on the breeze, serenaded by the contemporary Afrikaans music that wanders from the kitchen to the dining area.

Our host, Jean Pierre, invites us to settle in and shares the Asado menu with us, a traditional Sunday roast-up with all the trimmings. We order a bottle of the Knorhoek Cabernet Sauvignon – rated four-stars by the John Platter Guide and a great partner for the lamb to come. We toast and savour our first sips - juicy, berry rich, classically oaked. Dish by dish, lunch is introduced. We start with empanadas – a pocket stuffed with lamb encased in a light shell. Shortly afterwards we’re treated to fresh bread – the crust is crisp and the crumb is soft, still warm from the oven – accompanied by homemade apricot jam – I think the best I’ve ever had. The next course is a generous bowl of smorsnoek and curried onions – a lovely combination of sweet, sour and spicy.

Before the main course arrives we take some time to meander outside on the lawn and lounge in the shade of the gazebo. We chat with a large family nearby, enjoying the day at picnic tables under the oaks. Their children romp freely just out of earshot but still within sight – climbing over the jungle gym, holding court on the stage (available for formal functions) and rearranging the deck chairs between splashes in the pool. As I watch them I can’t help but feel the twinkle in my eyes.

Back at the table the curtain begins to rise on the main event. Like performers in a gastronomic ballet the wait staff deliver choreographed indulgence to the table – broccoli and cauliflower gratin, marmalade sweet potatoes, crispy roast potato wedges, a salad just picked from the garden and finally, our new centrepiece, a platter of perfectly pink sirloin and shoulder of lamb so tender it seems to throw itself onto my fork with the slightest bit of nudging – just like my dad’s. Dessert is a toffee apple pudding – sweetly dense and gooey, almost like my grandma’s famous upside-down-cake. With each bite I feel a small helping of comfort, and maybe – just maybe – a little closer to home.

  • TEL: 021 865 2958