I’ve had a couple of really fine times at Val Du Charron Wine and Olive Estate, some four years apart I was reminded by owners Stuart and Catherine Entwistle. Too far apart in their estimation.
What’s good about the gap is the reminders – and the differences. I’ve visited in summer and winter, which in the Western Cape are vastly different experiences. Things happened at pace in-between the years and seasons on this estate, though the constant is the stunning view across the gently sloping Bovlei Valley, the Hawequa Mountains directly ahead, with Bainskloof Pass winding up from the small town of Wellington, 72km from Cape Town in South Africa’s Western Cape.
My fine times had a lot to do with owners Catherine and Stuart. We discovered a connection going back almost 40 years (said connection, on the other side of the world, promptly got a 4am wakeup call from Stuart). But, more especially, we hit it off. You may not see either of the busy couple. Fear not. Staff, from beaming front of house Miles, to Zinzi, Evans and impossibly effervescent Chrisma, provide much of the good vibes at this bustling destination. Service is excellent. Check out TripAdvisor and you’ll see that others agree.
It wasn’t bustling when I first visited, but it sure is now. Not unpleasantly so, or overcrowded in any way. Just, as we say here, lekker. Wellington is a relative unknown, compared with the not far-off towns of Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. But, more and more, visitors are drawn to this area- perhaps because it isn’t on the well-trodden path.
Well, that’s not quite correct. Wellington is increasingly well known for its wine walks, with Val Du Charron the endpoint. Local guides, well versed in the history and culture of the area, take groups through indigenous fynbos, vineyards, fruit orchards and olive groves over three or four days. If you love the outdoors, wine-tasting and walking and scenic walking/hiking trails; this is an ideal walking holiday for you- and you won’t be roughing it. You stay at really nice spots while your purchases are ferried in a support vehicle, meet the wine-makers (and their wines), the local characters of the valley and hear their interesting stories.
Speaking of characters and interesting stories…. possibly the best part of a visit is how one experiences Val Du Charron wines. Winemaking is a serious, competitive business and tasting often a formal affair. Not here. I was soon the blushing butt of a theatrical joke- though the cleavage wasn’t half bad and belonged to the Black Countess herself.
The Countess regales visitors with stories from the Valley of the Wagonmakers (Val Du Charron), from whence early explorers set off into the hinterland- the source of many of the Val Du Charron wines’ names. I loved it-such a fun way to learn about the wines and the area.
That sense of fun trickles down from the owners- mixing business with pleasure is important, but back to their wines. Red or white, Val Du Charron wines are characteristically smooth. The Pinot Gris is a fine, anytime sipper and I’m keeping a Chardonnay for a special occasion. In the Reserve range there is no doubt that the Shiraz is the classiest, but the Malbec is my pick (Stuart’s too). It isn’t usually, but that smoothness I mentioned gives it a balance that elevates it from most I’ve tried. Their estate wines (everything done on and by the estate) have been in-demand exports and they are only now filling South African shelves.
The food is commensurate. Carnivores will delight in the chic Grillroom, with a couple of fireplaces to keep you warm in winter while still enjoying the view through acres of glass- or terrace seating in fine weather. Choosing from grain or grass fed organic cuts of varying sorts and ages is as complicated and pleasurable as choosing your fine wines. Happily head waitron Chisomo was there to guide me.
While the other restaurant, Piza e Vino, is a franchise, the Entwistles have bent some franchise “rules” to make it suit their style.
Piza e Vino makes some of the finest pizzas I’ve had. My Pavement Special pizza at Piza e Vino was mighty good, as was the blue cheese focaccia. On the sprawling terrace, or inside near the fireplace, or at the beautiful stained glass window, the atmosphere was delightful. Guests free ranged on the lawns or dared the icy spray of the splash pad, where cyclists and other energetic folk cool off, or admired the angels lining the walkways. Some horsed around with the metal steed on the lawn, or with the life-size elephant built from scrap- its geocache a hit with cyber treasure hunters.
There’s plenty to do off the property. Dramatic, twisty Bainskloof Pass, constructed circa 1849 and now a national monument, is a must in my book. It’ll take you over the mountains into the Robertson valley- well worth exploring, especially if you are after (even more) wine, or just for the views along the way.
The James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington recently opened their doors for tasting (booking only). Under master distiller Andy Watts, a good friend of the Entwistles, Three Ships whisky has gone from awful to world beating award winner, along with Bains Mountain Whisky. The tour and tasting is a wonderful experience in the unexpectedly attractive, Gothic- inspired buildings. The taste experience include 4-5 whiskies and small food pairing bites with it. You are welcomed with a delicious welcome drink and you get the opportunity to blend your own whisky that you can take home.
Mountain biking is one of the most popular ways of working up a sweat and getting the adrenalin pumping, plus hiking and horse riding. There’s a local museum and it’s worth popping into the local tourism office as they are really on the ball.
Once you’re done with exploring, Val Du Charron has nice pool and a lovely little spa above their cellar, where diminutive but strong Rose will have you drooling from a massage table.
If you’re ensconced in the five star Coach House, separate from the main building, you have your own private patio with plunge pool, or fireplace in winter, where you can get cosy with the Black Countess- in a Rhone blend, bottle form.
The three suites are spacious, very tasteful and, in the case of the Presidential suite, pure opulence. I could have whiled away my time with the fine Terbodore coffee, open doors framing my pool, the vineyards and Hawequa Mountains.
The balconied four and five-star rooms in the main building are not too shabby either (no spa baths though) and the pace at which the estate is discreetly expanding means that yet-to-be-completed upstairs rooms are already booked.
Val Du Charron has plenty of well thought out, elegant touches, such as auto-on lights in the loos and in the passage I shared with a Cape Town couple who had no idea Wellington had such an offering. They were wowed by the setting, the ambience and everything else on offer. Others know- and it was fully booked on a winter weekend and couples, groups and families came for the day to sample the wine, the food and to explore the area.
It is not the stars in the ratings but the people that I rate at Val Du Charron. It’s a pretty slick, commercial operation but, conversely, cocks a bit of a snoot at convention. I like that and I see how the Entwistle’s sense of irreverence dictates that. It’s a fine place for a grand occasion, but also a fine place to kick back and relax.
If you’ve the time, you may hear how the cigarette vending machine found its way into Piza e Vino (and turned a profit without selling any smokes), or how Stuart, in the face of Chrisma’s charisma, found himself with no option but to hire her months before the Grillroom was completed.
Then there are the angels. Hitch your wagon. Go with them.