The golden triangle area of Stellenbosch is one of the most established wine growing areas in the Cape and is known for producing world-class red wines of elegance, dark rich fruit, silky tannins and complexity. There are few estates which express the unique character of this corner of the Helderberg more eloquently than Rust en Vrede, Guardian Peak and Ernie Els wines.
Jean Engelbrecht is the owner of Rust en Vrede and the Guardian Peak wineries and was for a time also involved in Ernie Els wines. He grew up on the Rust en Vrede Estate, a historical farm that his parents, a former Springbok rugby wing and Miss South Africa respectively, had purchased back in 1971. Jannie and Ellen Engelbrecht rebuilt what was then a neglected estate with a very clear vision to establish Rust en Vrede as a premium red wine producer that could compete on the world stage.
In 1998, Jannie handed over the reins to his son Jean who appointed his own winemaking team under the leadership of Louis Strydom. Rust en Vrede went on to receive many accolades including creating the first South African wine to reach Wine Spectators top 100 wines of the world. Jean is considered a great South African ambassador and certainly the success of Rust en Vrede helped to improve the image of South African wine internationally at a time when years of isolation from apartheid had left our wine industry lagging behind global trends.
The long driveway to Rust en Vrede is lined with ancient oak trees which create beautiful shade in summer and an orange carpet in winter. The tasting room is housed in the cellar built by Jannie Engelbrecht. This underground cellar can hold up to 250 000 bottles without using any air-conditioning and was a first of its kind for a private owner when built. In winter, wine tastings are conducted fireside and in summer, in the interleading shaded patio. The operation is slick and professional as one would expect from such a prestigious estate that has a R1 200 price tag for a bottle of their Signature 1694 Classification blend of Syrah and Cabernet.
Lunch time is extremely popular at Rust en Vrede and you should book early for their lunch specials. The choice is simple steak served with a glass of the Estate blend or salmon served with a glass of Steen (Chenin Blanc). Alternatively, you can book a fine dining multi-course experience at the neighbouring Rust en Vrede restaurant. This award winning restaurant is housed in the original wine cellar which is now a national monument.
In 1999 Jean Engelbrecht and his long time friend and world champion golfer, Ernie Els started Ernie Els Wines. They combined Engelbrecht’s in-depth knowledge of winemaking with Els’ very marketable name to create their maiden vintage, a Bordeaux blend.
Jean left Rust en Vrede for a period to concentrate on other projects like his Guardian Peak label and Ernie Els wines. Engelbrecht – Els had begun producing Ernie Els wines at Rust en Vrede but it was now time to find their own farm and build their own cellar. In 2005, The Ernie Els Winery was established on 75 hectares of land purchased from the Weber family of Webersburg. They were joined by Rust en Vrede winemaker Louis Strydom, who is still cellar master at Ernie Els wines today as well as being the newly appointed managing director. New vineyards were planted and Ernie Els wines continued their ascent to becoming another one of South Africa’s most recognized red wine producers.
Where Rust en Vrede is classic, historical and exudes understated elegance, Ernie Els is modern, lively and offers a broader style of wines to please both the foreign and local markets. As you enter Ernie Els wines you are greeted with a welcome drink either the easy drinking Chenin or Sauvignon Blanc. If you haven’t booked for lunch and are visiting in season, expect to wait for a table, this winery is ever popular not only for the wine but also for the simply knock out views.
There are two wine tasting options; the players tasting which includes four wines from the Big Easy and varietal range or the Majors tasting which includes four wines from the Ultra premium range. You can order a light meal to go along with your tasting; cheese platters, burgers and salads and just sit back and enjoy the views of the valley. For the golfing enthusiast, the trophy room houses Ernie Els memorabilia and you can even take a shot at the chipping competition; a hole in one will score you a bottle of wine; definitely worth playing for!
Next door to Ernie Els wines is the Guardian Peak winery and grill, this is one of my favorite haunts. I love the menu offered at the restaurant, not to mention more incredible views. I’m also a big fan of the wines on offer. Guardian Peak might not be as recognizable as the brands mentioned earlier but their premium reds can certainly compete. This is probably not so surprising as winemaker Philip van Staden worked at both Rust en Vrede and Ernie Els wines before being appointed at Guardian Peak.
A few more treats lie in wait for those who opt for the premium wine tasting, which includes a sample of the Cirus Syrah a brand owned by Jean Engelbrecht and the Duncan family of Californian winery Silver Oak; this is a truly magnificent wine. Also available to taste are the Donkiesbaai Chenin and Hooiwyn, both made from the same block of Chenin Blanc from some of the oldest Chenin Blanc vineyards located on the West Coast. The word Hooiwyn can be translated to mean straw wine and comes from the winemaking method of drying the grapes on a rack which is then covered with straw to prevent sunburn. Once the grapes have reached the correct sugar concentration they are separated from the hay and pressed. Donkiebaai is named after a favourite Engelbrecht family holiday destination up the West Coast and includes a Pinot Noir which was sold out at the time of my last visit.
For the ultimate red wine odyssey, you needn’t go much further than a visit to these three neighbouring red wine giants, all of which share some common history, a few familiar faces and above all a love for bold reds most especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
To find out more on the latest and greatest wine farms check out Kim’s blog: www.boutiquewinerytours.com
Photography courtesy Kim Rabe