Sandwiched between the Simonsberg and Drakenstein mountains, just outside of Stellenbosch, lies the Banghoek Valley.
It’s a region of wildly divergent aspects and slopes, of vineyards planted on mountain folds. It has a fascinating history too: one of the freed slave landowners, hippos languishing in the Berg River and of silver mine subterfuge.
Another chapter has just been added to this on-going saga. Enter the Banghoek Collective, a group of the area’s winemakers who have banded together in a bid to showcase their wines and valley.
You can’t talk about the Banghoek without mentioning its beauty. As I drive up Helshoogte Pass, mountain ridges and koppies swell and disappear like an ocean bearing current. Twists and turns reveal new views to be dazzled by, as the wine estates rise up amongst the rock and fynbos curves.
The collective is being launched today at Oldenburg Vineyards. Pulled together by wine woman extraordinaire, Ann Ferreira, she says: “I had the idea from Cape Wine last year, when we did something similar—it’s nothing official but I just thought we’ve got to do something to help people understand that it’s a geographic area and that every producer here has something different to offer. It’s also relatively unknown—the big guys, Tokara, Thelema, and Delaire are well known and are making fabulous wines, but there’s more to experience.”
In the collective are Bartinney, Capensis, Delaire Graff, Erika Obermeyer Wines, Hogan Wines, Miles Mossop Wines, Oldenburg Vineyards, Thelema, Tokara, Vuurberg and Zorgvliet. Their respective winemakers are gathered on the stoep of Oldenburg’s manor house, glasses of the valley’s produce in-hand as we settle into the tasting.
I select a glass of the Oldenburg Chardonnay 2018 to start with. It’s cool and crystalline with grapefruit and lemon aromas and a hint of salted caramel. Winemaker of Oldenburg, Nic van Aarde stands up and says: “This valley creeps into you. When I drove here for my interview, I was wondering if I was doing the right thing—leaving a big, established brand, to work at a smaller, boutique estate. I saw this view of the Rondekop [round mountain] and I was mesmerised. I knew instinctively then it was the right move.”
This feeling that he was on to something special was cemented on walks around the farm with owner, Adrian Vanderspuy. “There are patches of Table Mountain sandstone that have purple granite inside when you break open the clumps. It’s very rare.”
“Banghoek is the coolest Wine of Origin ward in the Stellenbosch area,” says Tokara’s famed viticulturist Aidan Morton to the gathered crowd.
The mountains all around us are the clue to its climate. The region’s vineyards are planted at elevations of between 350m and 640m. “Pretty high for wine farming,” says Aiden with a smile. “The slopes are a challenge when it comes to harvesting.
“The soils and aspects are different from anywhere else in the country. The rainfall is extremely high, around 900mls on average. We see the clouds spilling over the Drakenstein and we just know…
“Most of the wineries here practice dryland farming. Even in the drought we all still had excess water. We also get late-season snow, sometimes right down in the vineyards.”
Located 20 kilometres from the sea, and 50 from Table Mountain, the soils of the Banghoek are alluvial with granitic origins, weathered sandstone, and decomposed granite.
There are many styles of wine being made in the Banghoek, from sauvignon to cabernet. Some of the winemakers also buy in grapes from other regions. That being said, there is a golden thread that runs through the chardonnays of the area; mineral with that precise cool climate acidity.
The expressive Capensis Chardonnay 2016 is made up of five different parcels from some of the most celebrated chardonnay vineyards in the country. The largest component (41%) is from the Banghoek’s highest crop-bearing vineyard, planted at 527m above sea level, on the pristine Fijnbosch farm (they’ve planted another one at 640m, which is currently two-years-old). There’s a salinity to this wine that I pick up in a number of the chardonnays in the line-up—must be those mountain breezes.
The cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux blends are also a hallmark for the ward—with wines that are elegant and fine; not as inky as the Simonsberg counterparts.
Winemaker of his own-label project and all-round Banghoek legend, Miles Mossop is on a mission to showcase these divergent styles. He’s currently working on a cab comparison project between the Simonsberg and Banghoek (separate bottlings of the regions) to illustrate the marked differences, due for release in 2021.
“The Banghoek cabs have this cool-climate mintiness,” shares Ronell Wiid, winemaker of Bartinney. “If managed correctly, it becomes a fine characteristic of this region. Elevation makes a big difference in the style of the wine.” She should know Bartinney’s vineyards are all planted on different aspects, and each one requires its own pruning method. The Bartinney Skyfall Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 demonstrates this fine-herbed mint character, alongside juicy blackcurrant, and slick, slippery tannins.
The people who make the wines are an integral part of terroir too, even if some of them currently source their grapes elsewhere. Such as the Hogan Divergent 2018, made by Hogan Wines, a small family-run winery founded by winemaker Jocelyn Hogan-Wilson and her father Dunstan in 2013. The Divergent, a blend of cab (Polkadraai), cinsault (Helderberg) and carignan (Wellington), is inspired by the wines of Lebanon’s Château Musar.
Floral and red-fruited, the Divergent manages to be both fresh and complex, with grippy tannins and a well-defined structure.
No stranger to farming, the Banghoek has been under vine since the 1700s. Cape Herstorian, Tracey Randle compiled a brief history on the region for coffee table book, Beautiful Banhoek and in it, she cites that the earliest maps of the region, dating between 1690 and 1710, show the prominence of the farm, Zorgvliet. She shares that in 1705 Francois Valentijn, a minister working for the VOC visited the farm and wrote: here is one of the most ornamental and noble estates that can be imagined...The house lies in a pretty and ornamentally laid out wood of lovely oaks....then one comes into the most beautiful vineyards, and from there into 2 or 3 separate gardens, each among the finest to be seen anywhere thereabout, in which are the choicest fruits, fountains, a fishpond in the centre of a flower-garden.
But it wasn’t all pretty flowers in this rocky outback. In fact, then it was more of a savage garden. Banghoek literally translates to ‘scared corner’ and was so named as the animals that inhabited the region were said to frighten the early colonial explorers.
The first exploration party into the Drakenstein region was led by Abraham Gabbema in 1657, where they encountered those hippos in the Berg River, it was also noted that zebra, rhinoceros, lions, leopards and most likely elephants populated the valley.
The first free burghers to settle here were of European descent (France, Holland, and Germany). Many of who were descendants of mixed marriages with slave women. Then after slavery ended, the Apostolic Union in 1843 set up the Pniel Mission Station at the foot of the Simonsberg, where provision was made for 99 residential sites and a portion of land was set aside to enable the inhabitants to grow vegetables and keep livestock.
Oh and about that silver mine subterfuge? In 1740 a soldier in the Company’s service, Frans Diederik Muller tricked the authorities into opening a silver mine in the Simonsberg mountain ranges. There was never any silver, yet Muller managed to run this hoax for six years, before being discovered as a fraud, and the barren mine was shut down.
With its intriguing past and its current post-modern winemaking renaissance the Banghoek promises an experience as diverse as its aspects, populated by winemakers (though no hippos or lions I’m afraid) willing to push the envelope in the pursuit of excellence and elegance; and when you’re cooler than Stellenbosch those two things just seem to happen naturally.