Tulbagh: a lesser-known South African wine region worthy of exploration

Sometimes I can’t believe my good fortune. In preparation for our trip to South Africa to explore its wine regions, we of course did some homework on the region. I began collecting articles about South African wine regions and its winemakers. I kept coming across articles about a group of winemakers doing things a bit differently, following a hands-off approach to winemaking and sourcing older vineyards in the Swartland.

The more I read about the protocol, the individual winemakers and the region the more I wanted to visit. We thought a tour of this more remote region would be a nice contrast to Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, both well-travelled South African wine regions, which we also planned to visit.

The Swartland is a good distance from Cape Town where we were staying, over an hour’s drive, so I wasn’t sure it would be possible or practical to visit the region. We had already been in contact with Luhambo Tours and arranged a day of wine tasting in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, so we were hoping Luhambo could take us to the Swartland as well.

A quick email to Cedric at Luhambo Tours answered that question: of course it’s possible! Cedric informed us it would be a longer day than usual because of the driving time to and from the Swartland, but he was more than happy to take us. He had not toured some of the wineries in the area before, but was curious to do so. Being the wine lover that he is, I think he was really glad to venture out to this less-traveled wine region. We provided Cedric with a list of wineries, whom he contacted to arrange our visit.

Not every winery was open on the day we planned our visit, but no matter. Cedric suggested also including Tulbagh, a nearby region also with outstanding wineries, so that’s what we did.

Going back to that I can’t believe my good fortune. . . an interest the Swartland is what drew us to this part of the South African wine region, which then led us to Tulbagh. If not for Cedric’s suggestion, we would not have discovered this beautiful valley and its very special wine farms. The wine gods definitely smiled down on us this day!

We started the day with divine sparkling wine in Tulbagh, including a tour of the cellar, and ended with a tour and tasting at what is surely one of the Swartland’s most unique wineries — and our tour there was led by its brilliant owner and winemaker.

It was a long day and there is much to share. For that reason, we are posting our visit to Tulbagh now, then we will follow with our visit to the Swartland in a couple of days.

We left the hotel by 7:30 in the morning which meant we were able to watch the sun rise as it broke through the clouds. Beautiful! The drive to Tulbagh took us through open farmland, orchards, pastures, vineyards and wheat fields all framed by, you guessed it, more spectacular mountains. Even in the middle of winter this region is stunningly beautiful.

Tulbagh – the Wine District

We knew nothing about the Tulbagh wine district before our visit. It is located in the Coastal Region of the Western Cape (in spite of the fact that it has little direct influence from coastal weather). The Tulbagh district is a valley that is surrounded on three sides by a ring of mountains, the Obiekwaberg, Groot Winterhoek and Witsenberg mountains. Soil types within the valley are variable, with sandier soils lying on the valley floor and stony soils approaching the mountain slopes.

South African Wine Map
Map courtesy of Wines of South Africa

Unique to the valley is a “cold trap” caused by the surrounding mountains which traps cold night air. Though summer temperatures are warm, some parts of the district are cooler and wetter (areas in the rain shadow of the mountains) with significant diurnal variation. This diurnal temperature variation is something winemakers love as it helps to develop natural acidity in the grapes. Winters are very cold, with snow sometimes reaching to the foot of the surrounding mountains.

The town of Tulbagh was named after Ryk (Rijk) Tulbagh who was Governor of the Cape Dutch Colony between 1751 and 1771. Before being settled by Dutch immigrant farmers in 1699 the valley was home to San and Khoikhoi people.

We drove through the picturesque town of Tulbagh, whose Church Street is known, according to a Tulbagh tourist brochure, for having “the largest concentration of Provencial monuments in one street in South Africa.” Many of the buildings have been restored since the town was severely damaged in 1969 by an earthquake, the largest in South African history, which measured 6.3 in the Richter scale. It certainly is a picturesque town.

We tasted wine at three wine farms just outside the town of Tulbagh. Cedric wisely started the tastings with sparkling wine.

The House of Krone at Twee Jonge Gezellen Wine Estates

Twee Jonge Gezellen, which we were told by Lindi who guided us through our tasting and cellar tour, translates to two young bachelors. Twelve generations ago, sometime around 1710 the two bachelor brothers gained possession of the farm and married sisters. Since that time the farm has transferred from generation to generation of the same family. Until 2012, when the farm was sold to the South African wine distribution and marketing firm Vinimark, Twe Jonge Gezellen was the second oldest family-owned farm in South Africa.

The Krone family  (Nicolas Sr.) was responsible for introducing cold fermentation to winemaking in the 1950s, at the time a radical winemaking technique.  Another first was night harvesting of grapes. Both techniques, along with relatively early harvests, were aimed at preserving natural acidity in the grapes. In 1987 he produced his first sparkling wine and that same year built the first underground sparkling wine cellar in South Africa.

Always with an eye toward quality wine production, Krone did not release that first vintage until 1991. All sparkling wines are produced using Méthode Cap Classique (MCC), with secondary fermentation in the bottle just as with Champagne.

Lindi expects attention to quality not to change, but with new ownership she does expect production volume to grow significantly. Current annual production is about 450,000 bottles, but the goal is 1,000,000. Grapes are currently being brought in from Robertson wine region, but new vineyards are being purchased and planted in order to gain full control of grape  production.

It is sad to see a family lose ownership of its farm after so many generations, but on the positive side, I hope the change in ownership means these delightful sparkling wines will soon be available in the U.S.

We tasted three MCC wines all with a rich, round mouth feel, pinpoint bubbles and crisp acidity. 2011 Krone Borealis Brut, produced from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, offered generous toasty, apple and citrus flavors. 2011 Krone Rosé Cuvée Brut (60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay) had a delicate rose color, was a bit yeasty and tasted like a bowl of mixed berries. Nicolas Charles Krone Marcque 1 presented yeasty and honeyed aromas and flavors with clean finish and lots of very fine bubbles. This MCC is a blend of vintages and has spent an amazing 8 years on the lees.

All three wines are produced from free-run juice only.  Secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle and aging in the underground cellar. We noticed many bottles resting on their sides, aging on the lees. A portion of the wines had been placed into riddling racks, in the process of remuage. All the riddling is done by hand.  We even noticed a poster diagraming the 21-day process.

Lindi told us all bottles are also hand labeled. The farm is proud to have 4th generation workers employed in the winemaking process. Providing local employment is important goal for the farm.  This was our first time in a sparkling wine cellar. It was a beautiful sight to behold.


Speaking of a beautiful sight to behold, Saronsberg Winery’s modern facility certainly fits the description. The enormous tasting room sits in the middle of the building and reaches up two stories. It is filled with paintings and sculpture, has large windows to the barrel room and outside looking across the reflecting pond to Saronsberg Mountain beyond. You can guess how the winery was named, right?

Saronsberg and Twee Jonge Gezellen wine farm are located just a stone’s throw away from each other. In addition to sharing spectacular views of Saronsberg Mountain the two are linked by history. In 2002 two portions of the original Twee Jonge Gezellen farm, Welgegund and Waveren, were purchased and became Saronsberg vineyards. Tragically, shortly after purchase portions of the vineyards were destroyed in a wild fire making replanting necessary.

In spite of the set-back, Saronsberg had their first harvest in 2004 and haven’t looked back since. The two vineyard sites are very different. Welgegund sits at the foot of Saronsberg Mountain, and portions of the vineyard are too steep to be farmed. The mountain-side location brings cooler temperatures, a bit more precipitation and varied clay loam soil with gravel and stones. This vineyard provides the primary source for the Provenance range of wines, which are described as more floral and elegant, and is also blended into the Saronsberg range.

Waveren is located more on the valley floor and is warmer and drier. The grapes grown here develop darker color with concentrated flavors and tannins. These grapes provide the base for the Saronsberg range of wines.

Shiraz comprises the largest planting, along with Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Nouvelle, Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Muscat de Frontignan. A variety of clones are planted on variable rootstock depending on the soil composition of the vineyard. The result of all of these vineyard choices is a significant diversity of flavors to use in blending the most flavorful wines possible.

Saronsberg began collecting wine awards with their first vintage and Saronsberg winemaker Dewaldt Heyns was admitted to the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild in 2007.

In all we tasted seven wines from the very broad list of 15 wines. From the Saronsberg range: 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, 2012 Viognier, 2012 Shiraz, 2011 Full Circle and 2008 Seismic. The Sauvignon Blanc is tropical with just a bit of hay and great acidity. The Viognier is barrel-fermented and aged producing added layers of flavor. The Shiraz is smoky, complex and concentrated with significant tannins. I would love to come back to this wine in a few years. The Full Circle is a Rhone blend with great depth of flavor and a very long finish. The Seismic is a delightful Cabernet Sauvignon blend with minty dark fruit flavors and great tannin structure.

The 2012 Shiraz and 2011 Rooi (a Bordeaux blend) from the Provenance range were both flavorful and easy to like. The Rooi presents all of the flavors familiar in a Bordeaux blend.

With the tasting complete, Cedric politely dragged us from the beautiful tasting room and view of Saronsberg mountain and on to our next destination.


Rijk’s Private Cellar is located smack in the center of the valley, just north of the town of Tulbagh. As you might have guessed, the wine farm is named for Rijk Tulbagh. The farm was established in 1996, with the first plantings in 1997. The first vintage was produced in 2000.

Current plantings have been reduced to Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier according to their website. Other varieties that did not perform up to standard have been removed.

The soil in this part of the valley is comprised of “low potential vertical shale soils”; that is 300 mm of topsoil on a thin layer of clay followed by vertical shale, thanks to a “tectonic collision 540 million years ago.” All of this means the soil has good drainage, but that thin layer of clay helps retain moisture.

The wine list at Rijk’s is streamlined, Chenin Blanc, Pinotage and Shiraz each produced in three ranges. We were guided through the tasting by Elaine, who explained to us that all Rijk’s wines are barrel aged. She also mentioned Rijk’s Chenin Blanc production is moving from just still wine to MCC.

The Touch of Oak range is fruit forward with just a bit of oak influence for complexity. With the Private Cellar range wood aging extends to two years with bottle aging for several years after that before release. Rijk’s Reserve is blended from the 10 best barrels of the Private Cellar range.

In all, we tasted seven wines from Rijk’s: 2011 Chenin Blanc Touch of Oak, 2009 Chenin Blanc Private Cellar, 2011 Pinotage Touch of Oak, 2010 Pinotage Private Cellar, 2011 Shiraz Touch of Oak, 2008 Shiraz Private Cellar and 2007 Estate The Master.

Chenin Blanc is planted extensively in South Africa and both of these wines showed lovely tropical fruit flavors. The Touch of Oak matures mostly in stainless steel, with only 30% aged in neutral French and Hungarian oak.  The Private Cellar is aged 70% in French and Hungarian oak providing more body and complexity.

Both Pinotages were delicious. The Touch of Oak exhibited a pleasing combination of red fruit, spice and dusty gravel. The 2010 Private Cellar was more fruit forward, with additional spice flavors, more texture. Drink the Touch of Oak now, hold the Private Cellar a bit before drinking. Elaine  mentioned more Pinotage is being planted. Oh goodie!

The Shiraz was a bit smoky and spicy with great red and dark fruit flavors. The Private Cellars showed more, but not too much, wood-influenced flavors and both had wonderfully grippy tannins. Both are delicious, age worthy and would be delicious with a grilled rib eye steak.

To finish the tasting, Elaine treated us to a taste of  the 2007 Estate The Master a nice example of the complex flavors that can be produced in a blended red wine. Syrah, Mourvedre, Pinotage, Carignan, Trincadeira and Viognier are all vinified separately in open top fermenters, then aged for 20 months in French oak before blending. Great tannin structure, but still smooth and silky.

For me the two Pinotages were the highlight of the tasting, both were lovely. We had an absolutely delightful time tasting these wines and talking with Elaine who really lights up a room. She knows every detail of each of these wines.

A significant proportion of Rijk’s wine production is exported, though the U.S. market is one that Rijk’s is just entering.

I have to say Cedric’s choice of wineries was spot on. We had a nice introduction to the range of wines produced in Tulbagh. It was great to begin our exploration with a historic property and fabulous sparkling wines at Krone/Twee Jonge Gezellen then move to two ‘younger’ producers of very nice red and white wines.

On the road again
On the road again

These three wineries would have been more than enough to please me on any day of wine tasting, but there was more wine goodness to come. Next we headed to the Swartland and the charming little town of Riebeek-Kasteel. You can read about that in our next post.

In the meantime, please enjoy our slideshow of Tulbagh.