Val Du Charron Wine and Leisure Estate- Burgeoning, Bucolic, Historic
Val du Charron translates as valley of the wagon makers- so named towards the end of the 17th century when the area was settled by the French Huguenots, who brought with them the art of wine- and wagonmaking. De Groenenbergh farm (now Val du Charron) was proclaimed in 1699.
I’ve had a couple of really fine times there. I’ve visited in summer and winter, which in the Western Cape, South Africa, 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 historic Bainskloof Pass winding up from the small town of Wellington, 45 miles from Cape Town.
My fine times had a lot to do with owners Catherine and Stuart Entwistle. We discovered a connection going back to around 1980 (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 and Hannah, provide much of the good vibes at this bustling destination. Service is excellent. Check out TripAdvisor or any review and you’ll see that others agree.
An Extended Country Stroll
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 (nice). Wellington is a relative unknown, compared with the not far-off towns and wine hubs 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- “fine bush”, 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, you meet the wine-makers (and their wines), the local characters of the valley and hear their interesting stories.
Stuff Off, Stuffiness!
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.
For tour groups the Countess regales visitors with stories from the Valley of the Wagonmakers, 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, I’m keeping a Chardonnay for a special occasion and the latest Chenin Blancs are sure to be a hit. 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 have been in-demand exports- USA, Canada, China in particular- and they have only recently been filling South African shelves.
I came across this list of top South African wineries to watch, including Val du Charron, with most being within driving distance.
Carnivore connoisseurs, Carbo loaders delight
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.
The other restaurant, Piza e Vino, makes some of the finest pizzas I’ve had (and I love pizza). 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.
Explore (your baggage limit)
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 from some of the 45-odd estates- or a tour of the Klipdrift brandy distillery (highly recommended), or just for the views along the way. I’ve visited several times and loved it- even applied for a job with the local tourism bods.
The James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington conducts tastings on Fridays and Saturdays (bookings only). Under master distiller Andy Watts, a good friend of the Entwistles, Three Ships whisky went 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. You are welcomed with a delicious whisky cocktail and the whisky tastings comprise Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish (my favourite to date) and Three Ships 5-Year-Old Premium Select.
The food samples include apple chips, smoked apple chips, smoked beef, blue and goats cheese with fennel and celery, smoked snoek, 70% dark chocolate mousse and pumpkin pie.
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 a lovely little spa above their cellar, where Beauty will have you drooling from a massage table.
Stay a While
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. I have also stayed in one of the balconied four and five-star rooms in the main building- and they are not too shabby either (no spa baths though).
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 do 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 which, conversely, cocks a bit of a snoot at convention.
I like it a lot 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 unwind.
Then there are the angels. Hitch your wagon. Go with them.
Visit their website.
Listen to my chat with Cathy Entwistle.
Check out the slideshow.