There are so many wine farms on the Stellenbosch Wine Route – over 200 – that choice paralysis can easily set in. So how to know where to go, leave alone find the perfect lunch spot amongst the many options on offer? Sometimes, sticking some pins into maps and maybe the odd nod at wine reviews can help things along; but that doesn’t guarantee you the two things that make a Winelands outing a pleasure. And that’s the atmospherics (aka the ambience) and the people.
A recent birthday outing took a group of us to the Helderberg sub-district. Yours truly did some planning but the core of the day was a pre-ordained lunch at Longridge, just off the R44, about ?10km south of Stellenbosch. A farm of limited history and repute compared to some of its more illustrious neighbours – it only bottled its first wine in 1992 – there are, however, two people involved with the enterprise that should make you sit up and take notice. One is Jasper Raats and the other is Bruce von Pressentin. If you know anything about wine, you’ll know the Raats family name. But you might not have heard of young Bruce. But we think you will.
First, the pre-prandial aperitifs. As part of the birthday outing, we chose to visit two small local vineyards, whose wines have won many accolades but who somehow don’t feature on the well-beaten tourism tracks. This is partly because they essentially offer wine tasting and wine tasting only, with one offering self-catering cottages too.
But first, the view forever of views forever: Uva Mira. Uva Mira means wonderful grapes, as indeed they are, because in a very short time – just 10 years – they have propelled young winemaker Matthew van Heerden and Denise Weedon’s high-altitude property into the top echelons of South African wine. Now van Heerden has moved on to Webersburg and it will be interesting to see how new incumbent Christiaan Coetzee, equally young, fills his boots. Boots, nogal, that have garnered awards as impressive as “Best South African Wine Producers of the Year” and “The Best Chardonnay in the World” at the 2006 International Wine and Spirit Competition.
What this means, sadly, is that the Chardonnay and the Syrah are sold out and so we only got to taste their Sauvignon, their Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon and their Red Blend. The assembled thought all right, very good and not as good. We can assume, I think, that the sold out Syrah and Chardonnay, would have fallen into the very good category. But the winner is the views: über-panoramic. You can see out across False Bay right over to a horizon view that includes the entire Cape Peninsula. The sunsets, billed as legendary, must certainly be so. So this place you must not miss. Atmospherics it has in abundance. And cocks. Go see.
Our next stop was a world away and yet, in some ways, very similar. Jeremy Walker of Grangehurst wines was kind enough to lay on a tasting for us (best to call and confirm on Saturdays) and because it was, at this point, just the six of us, the attention was truly personal. An unpretentious tasting room with an enthusiastic approach to small-scale winemaking, Grangehurst’s focus is red wine, although a super-dry Rosé has just been launched as well (a bit too dry for our tastes). But the forte remains Pinotage and red blends: we tasted the Pinotage, the Cabernet- Merlot blend and the Nikela Cape blend. All very fine and edging up to R200 a bottle, so not cheap by any means.
However, a key factor is that these wines are ready to drink, being mostly 2005 vintages, so you are paying for the storage a little here. All grist to their mantra: “Handcrafted, traditional, unhurried.” Still more so for the R200 plus Reserve range which was not, sadly, for tasting. As someone remarked, surely no one buys wine untasted. But presumably they do, as Grangehurst makes for Woolworths too, though not, we suspect, at those financial heights. An added bonus of the visit was exposure to the recently published Cape Winemakers Guild Cellarmasters in the Kitchen tome, which is an extraordinary collection of CWG winemaker member biographies and recipes, with beautiful photography in tow. Kindly discounted to us as Jeremy is the current CWG chair, he sold three of them, along with several bottles of red wine. A very pleasant and educational visit, all agreed. And you can stay in one of two charming cottages on the farm too.
Of course, it’s always salutary to ask the neighbours what they think of… the neighbours. Longridge is but a few hundred metres away and looms large over the Grangehurst property, its garishly bright blue roof apparently the symbol of a not-to-cordial relationship with the neighbours. So let’s, at last, see what those rather loud, seemingly brash neighbours have to offer.
Longridge is but ten years old as a brand, as we said, but the restaurant is less than two years old, so we are talking very much Johnny-come-latelys here. Except, of course, that no Raats is a novice when it comes to making wine, particularly Cabernet Franc, which sadly but tellingly was sold out. Longridge’s Chardonnay, like Uva Mira’s, already has a reputation, and its Merlots seemed to please the group as well. The Chenin, much lauded, pleased less and the MCC has a way to go, we think. The big surprise was the Sauvignon Blanc, which we had with our meal as well. Good value at R50 for the highly drinkable 2009. Interestingly, like their neighbours, they release wines of some maturity. Chardonnays are 2008 or 2009 – and the reds are mostly 2007 and 2008. A value proposition all round. But on to the food…
The menu at Longridge is deceptively simple. There are no flowery descriptions: just an intriguing list of ingredients for each plainly named dish. But make no mistake, the presentation and the taste are far from plain. In fact, they’re a revelation. Even the kiddies menu items are beautifully presented – steak and fish are on offer. Indeed, every dish arrives with a flourish but is not – and this is important – so tiny you feel you should have eaten beforehand. Amongst the starters, the gnocchi, duck breast and chicken livers shone. You wouldn’t have thought chicken liver salad, aka ‘pancetta – mushrooms – brandy cream – green salad – balsamic’ would come to much; but it did. As did ‘walnuts – parsley – gorgonzola sauce’ with the oh-so-light gnocchi.
On to the mains, which were much anticipated after the scrumptious starters – and did not disappoint. Beef two ways, lamb three ways, venison pie, pork belly: all delightfully decorative with tastes and textures to match. The only slight disappointment was the rather measly Red Roman linefish – and caper butter was perhaps a little ordinary compared to the creations on the lamb trio plates.
Desserts did not disappoint either – a sublime Decadent Chocolate Plate to satisfy any chocoholic; a delightfully light warm apricot frangipane tart and a ‘banana set pudding’ that sounded very dull but was, in fact, yet another symphony of textures and tastes and utterly delicious. This time, though, the rather pedestrian cheese platter disappointed: underripe camembert, gorgonzola and Klein River gruyère standards may be good cheese but they lack the imagination the other dishes deliver in abundance. A dash to Dash (whose cheese platter is legendary) might help them, we think…
Coffees and mint tea made fresh from the garden completed an experience that surpassed expectations by many magnitudes and had very many of us saying we would be back for more (a cosy fire-warmed interior awaits for winter, complete with some rather fabulous red velvet love seats).
If you want something different, not too far off the beaten track, here it is: charming kitchen garden, expansive views (not as high as Uva Mira’s but equally sweeping), attentive but not obsequious service and a chef who emerged to a round of applause (blond boy Bruce, mentioned above). And warm autumn sun to boot. And, of course, fine wine, good food and old friends. So gather some together and get down to Longridge before the waiting list gets too long…
Location: R44 south from Stellenbosch, turn left 2km after the Annandale crossroads and the wild strawberry farmstall on the Eikendal Road
GPS: S34° 0′ 55.2″ E018° 49′ 60.0″
Opening Times: Restaurant Mon – Sat: Lunch & Dinner. Sun: Lunch only. Closed on Wednesdays (1 April – 30 August). Wine Shop: Mon – Sat: 10am to 5pm.
Telephone: Cellar: +27 (21) 855 2005. Restaurant: +27 (21) 855 4082.
Best thing about it? Blond bombshell Bruce
Adults or children? Both
Red or white? Both, with Chardonnay and Merlot their big sellers
Food or drink? Both, eat in and be prepared to be charmed and disarmed
Best time to go? Any time. Open lunch and dinner most days (see above).