If it hadn’t have been for the small Bon Cap sign pointing to this gravel track I would have turned back. The land from Worcester towards Robertson is desert with just a single track railway accompanying the road to relieve monotony. My instructions were to turn off at the sign, shortly after a cement factory. I was aiming for Bon Cap Organic Vineyards and Winery but there was no indication any crop would grow in this barren ground. I expected to see a fertile valley after I crested a low hill. But the valley was even dryer than the one I left, dotted with cacti and open patches of yellow sand while the rough gravel track still headed upwards. My car rental agreement strictly forbade driving off tarmac. I had counted the gravel path as an entrance rather than a road, but as kilometres clocked up without any indication of vineyards I was getting worried. At last I started descending and saw in the distance a line of bright green vegetation that turned out to be vineyards clustered along the Breede River.
Bon Cap’s modern winery has a rather disconcerting entrance. As you step into the shade of the winery tasting room you find yourself suspended over the barrel cellar on a glass floor. Roelf du Preeze makes the wine and his wife Michelle markets it. They are the seventh generation working the farm which used to deliver grapes to a co-operative. But they were not getting recognition for the quality of their grapes nor encouragement in their move to organic status, so in 2002 they separated to make and sell their own wines.
But what does organic mean? It depends on where you are. Michelle told me there is no legislation in South Africa to prevent anyone putting the word ‘organic’ on a wine bottle, while there are differing regulations for the EU and USA. Bon Cap wines carry an imprint showing they are certified organic by officially recognised Société Générale de Surveillance SA (SGS) company to meet both strict EU and USA regulations.
Bon Cap has been organic for five years but it wasn’t an overnight switch. Michelle said their philosophy is “whatever we take out we have to put back. We are farming not just for ourselves but for the generations that follow us. Roelf and I have always grown the best grapes we can - because the best grapes make the best wine - and growing organically produces the best grapes. We enjoy virtually perfect conditions for healthy vines with low rainfall and humidity. Vineyard infections are almost unknown, thus we don’t use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or insecticides. And not spraying means we don’t use tractors and have no soil compaction. Everything is linked.” Being organic affects everything they do. Anything that affects the vines and soil must be organic. They want to use penguin manure but that has to be organically certified before use, otherwise Bon Cap could lose their certification. “Inspectors can come any time without warning” said Michelle, “we welcome that because we have nothing to hide.”
2002 saw their first vintage which entirely sold out, a remarkable achievement for a new winery. They now export to nine countries and have introduced a second, easy drinking, label “Ruins” using fruit from younger vines with less wood aging. Bon Cap red wines are aged in 80% new French oak barrels and their distinctive label has had a classy makeover. There is an appropriate new ladybird logo containing their initials and the Braille embossing remains. The back labels of both wines show the organic certificate but Michelle says she would have no compunction about removing organic references if it seemed the wines were being treated differently because of it. “Being organic is what we are and what we do,” she said, “not an add-on marketing tool. We don’t want to be in a niche category but to be judged against the world’s best.” There doesn’t seem much risk of that; Bon Cap wines have been selected by British Airways, their Pinotage was a Pinotage Top 10 finalist, and there is no shortage of silver and gold medals, the latest being two gold medals at Concours de Mondial Brussels 2004. Some cranks.
Stepping back into bright sunlight, it’s just a couple of metres to the edge of the vineyards, and facing the winery tasting room is a line of workers cottages. “An American visitor asked us why we didn’t move them as she thought they spoiled the view of the vineyards,” Michelle snorted “But they are as much a part of Bon Cap as the vines. Without our farm workers we wouldn’t be here.” At the end of vine rows a strange metal and blue plastic pole rises from the ground. “This is one of our moisture sensors” explains Michelle. “They feed data back to the winery so we know when to irrigate, and we get a complete historical record throughout the vineyards.”
And water is the key. They have an annual rainfall of just 125mm. What happens to vines without water is illustrated by a block on the edge of the farm that was no longer needed. After irrigation stopped they died, leaving rows of black dried wood without even one leaf showing. Narrow concrete channels funnel life-giving water from the Breede, a tea-coloured river snaking low between wide high banks. Michelle pointed out a wooden house perched high on the top of the river bank. “It’s on stilts because the river comes right up under it when it floods.” To prevent moisture loss and keep the soil cool Roelf planted lucern – a type of alfafa – as groundcover between the rows. “We were recommended to let sheep graze the lucern to keep it short,” laughs Michelle, “but that’s nonsense, as their woolly coats snag on vine spurs, rubbing off lanoline which inhibits vine growth.” The lucern consumes some water but this encourages vine roots to descend even deeper into the ground.
Touring around the 42 hectares of vineyards I was thrilled to see a colony of meerkats. These small burrowing animals stand upright on the rear feet, perfectly still except for their head which twist around scanning for danger. They became cult animals in the UK after appearing in a David Attenborough wildlife programme, generating several high rating programmes dedicated to them and they featured in some television commercials, and now I was seeing them in real life. Seeing my interest, Michelle told me about the other animals that pass through the vineyards. When she mentioned deer, I remarked that their vineyards were not fenced and several wineries in other countries had told me how vineyards had been wrecked by deer eating the shoots until fenced. “But what groundcover do they have?” she asked. “Animals much prefer to eat the tender lucern than our vines.”
Bon Cap is only 50 kilometres from the sea, and at night it is cooler than Stellenbosch as cold sea air is pushed into the valley through a gap in the surrounding mountains. “It’s not always as hot as this,” Michelle remarked. “We’ve had frost that killed vine buds, and we’ve had ankle deep snow.” This was hard to imagine as summer sun beat down over peaceful vineyards with only the background sound of nature. The nearest tarmac road is seven kilometres away back along the twisting gravel path I arrived on. There is another, longer, way out of the valley that involves crossing the Breede and needs a four-wheel drive vehicle. The valley’s name is Eilandia and I did feel I was on an island cut-off from the rest of the world, although the name dates from islands caused by the Breede flooding before it was tamed by dams.
Back in the winery, Michelle opened some wines.
Other varietal wines made by Bon Cap are Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier (their only white), while Merlot, Pinot Noir, Touriga Nacional and Tannat varieties are also grown.
Organic Pinotage 2003
This had been bottled three weeks previously and was not yet released. Bright purple colour, light bodied with fruity raspberry flavours and a tannic finish.
Organic Pinotage 2003
Also bottled three weeks previously and not yet released. Garnet colour with a purple rim, fuller bodied than the Ruins with plump rounded fruits-of-the-forest flavours woven with structured tannins and a lingering dry finish. “We pick only on phenolic ripeness,” said Michelle. We use Balling as an indicator, but we pick on taste”.
Organic Pinotage 2002
Soft flowery nose with coffee undertones. Delicious ripe inviting fruit flavours, soft blackberries and cherries and a soft spicy finish.
Petit Verdot 2003
Tasted as a barrel sample, will be released as a single varietal. Intense glass staining colour with powerful fruit and spicy bacon flavours, and a deliciously silky mouth feel.
I was sad to leave Bon Cap in its quiet valley by the Breede. Michelle had remarked they intended putting markers along the twisting gravel track telling visitors they were on the correct road and how many kilometres they had still to travel. Perhaps on the reverse she should put ‘Do you really want to leave Eilandia?’
They have a guesthouse for those who answer in the negative.