Robertson Valley and South Africa's Route 62
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
After an awesome few days in Franschhoek, we continued our “grand tour” of South Africa’s wine regions. Next stop: the Robertson Valley and Route 62!
The Robertson Valley and Route 62
Most visitors to South Africa spend some time in the Stellenbosch area, as it’s just that well known and conveniently located near Cape Town. But, making the jump from there out to the Robertson Valley requires a little more time and effort. Unfortunately, this means plenty of tourists miss out on an incredible place.
Similar to Route 66 in the US, South Africa’s Route 62 connects multiple farm towns with port access, stretching from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. And, also like its American counterpart, Route 62’s logistical relevance diminished with the creation of an actual highway - the N2 - in South Africa. Now, semi trucks and travelers heading from Cape Town up to the Garden Route typically opt for speed over beauty, using the N2 Highway instead of Route 62.
But, despite these changes, Route 62 remains a focal point of South African wine culture. The total route stretches some 850km, with a variety of distinct wine regions along the way. We’d focus our time in the Robertson Valley.
Following the serpentine course of the Breede River, the Robertson Valley has much more of a high desert feel than the far lusher wine regions back towards Cape Town. Wine farms dot the low ground around the river, and fynbos- and succulent-lined hills rise up on both sides of the valley.
We’d end up spending about two weeks in the Robertson Valley. That’s more time than most visitors are lucky enough to have - but not nearly enough to truly get to know the area. With nearly 50 wine farms, dozens of incredible restaurants, and miles of stunning hiking trails, we easily could’ve spent a couple months there.
Braai Life at Robertson Backpackers
We’d split our Route 62 time between two spots - a week in the town of Robertson and a week staying out on the Excelsior Wine Estate. During our time in town, we stayed at the Robertson Backpackers, an outstanding home/hostel a short walk from the center of town.
Cool backstory: the couple that owns the Backpackers - Kevin and Lynda - worked in the UK for a few years, saved some money, then came back to South Africa to open a place similar to the hostels they’d seen throughout Europe.
In addition to being absolutely wonderful hosts, Kevin and Lynda have turned their spot into an amazing place to say. Inside the main house, there’s a great kitchen, a few guest bedrooms, and the portion where they live. In the front yard, there’s a pool surrounded by a seeming jungle of beautifully landscaped foliage. And, out in the backyard, they have two private rooms in a detached cottage (we stayed in one), a big lawn, and a braai (rhymes with “fry”) pit, which leads to the next point…
We mentioned a braai misfire during our time in Cape Town, but we finally got to experience this South African version of the BBQ during our time at the Robertson Backpackers. Rather than use charcoal, a proper braai starts with actual firewood. You get a nice fire roaring in a pit or concrete slab then let it burn down to the coals. Once you’re left with some hot embers, you throw a grate on top to use as your cooking surface.
Advantages to the braai: You get to incorporate drinking around a bonfire into cooking in the backyard.
Disadvantages to the braai: You get to incorporate drinking around a bonfire into cooking in the backyard.
Yes, you read that correctly. On the one hand, a braai is a great social event, with people hanging around for hours as the fire gradually settles into embers, at which point the “braai master” throws all sorts of delicious treats on the grill.
But, on the other hand, this extended preparation period leads to hours and hours of drinking before you actually eat anything, leading one South African friend of ours to explain a braai this way: Someone will invite you over for a braai. You’ll show up at 2pm, eat at 11pm, and the food will be burnt - but you’ll be too drunk to care. Bottom line, make sure to have a bite to eat before you show up.
As braai novices, we figured we’d take a shot at this new (and wet) cooking technique. Kevin and Lynda generously gave us some firewood, showed us where the grate was, and let us get on our way. Several hours and a bunch of wine later, we had quite the spread - pork rashers, lamb, mushrooms, potatoes, and onions. Too much food? Yep. Great leftovers after a long night? Also yep!
Naturally, we’re sold on the braai thing.
A Full-Day Wine Tour and Some More Presidential History
In Robertson, we still hadn’t rented a car - took a shuttle from Franschhoek to the Backpackers. This meant we needed an alternative mode of transportation for spending a day checking out some local wine farms (honestly though, we would’ve taken the same approach even if we did have a car at that point in time).
Fortunately, Lynda knew a guy who did full-day, private wine tours - picks you up in the morning and spends the day driving you from farm to farm. Plus, as a life-long Robertson resident, he seemed to know just about everyone we met during a day out drinking - always nice exploring with locals.
We started at Springfield Estate, a wine farm just outside of Robertson proper. Wow - way to hit the ground running! To be clear, neither of us are true wine connoisseurs. We absolutely love drinking wine, but to say we have overly refined palates would be a stretch of the imagination - basically fall into the binary assessment of “like” or “don’t like.”
With that said, we were both absolutely blown away by the Springfield wines we tasted, slowly working our way through a series of incredibly delicious and refreshing whites. The surroundings didn’t hurt, either - sprawling patio under the cool shade of massive oak trees with a light breeze coming off the nearby reservoir. And, to get a proper foundation for the day, we capped the tasting with a bottle of one of the particularly good sauvignon blancs. Did we need to split a full bottle of wine to start the day? Nope, but it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable place to drink one!
NOTE: Springfield also sells bottles of a wine called Thunderbird. Local estates donate all of the material and labor to produce these wines, and 100% of the proceeds go to a South African orphanage and home for children from broken families. Buy some great wine and help out a noble cause - perfect!
Throughout the rest of the day, we traveled from wine farm to wine farm, drinking, eating, and taking in some unbelievable views of the Robertson Valley. And, we couldn’t have picked a cooler place to wrap up the day - Graham Beck.
Graham Beck makes MCC - or methode cap classique - sparkling wines. A handful of South African estates produce these wines using the same techniques as champagne. But, due to wine appellation laws, South Africans cannot actually call their MCC wines champagne.
Regardless of naming conventions, the Graham Beck wines are delicious - and historically quite relevant. For his presidential inauguration, Nelson Mandela served Graham Beck MCC. In a symbolic nod to this fact, Barack Obama also served Graham Beck at his first inauguration.
So yeah, wrapping up our Robertson Valley wine tour with a little bit of history made us feel slightly better about spending all day drinking!
Load Shedding - Daily Life in South Africa
Talking about “load shedding” here is a little bit of a tangent, but, due to its impact on daily life in South Africa, it’s worth explaining.
Since around 2007, South Africa has dealt with an energy crisis - basically not able to produce enough electricity to support demand in peak periods. To manage this shortfall, Eskom - the government-owned national utility - implements rolling blackouts, a process known as load shedding.
To locals and visitors alike, load shedding translates to 2- to 4-hour periods when you don’t have power. At the lowest level - Stage 1- Eskom takes about 6% of the country’s grid offline. At the highest level - Stage 8 - roughly 50% of the country doesn’t have power! Fortunately, an app exists that tells you the periods in your area when load shedding will occur. In theory, this allows you to plan your work and entertainment schedules around when electricity will - and won’t - be flowing.
But, for uninitiated outsiders, the first couple times the lights and wifi go off due to load shedding proves quite an unpleasant surprise. And, the reverse exists, as well. On one particular evening in Robertson, we’d had a little bit of wine (understatement). As we were brushing our teeth and getting ready to go to sleep, the lights went dark. We’d missed the local load shedding notice. Stumbling around in the dark, we knocked some things over but eventually managed to find the bed and get to sleep.
Unfortunately, though, we hadn’t flipped off the light switches. Fast forward a couple hours, and we were jolted awake when load shedding ended, and all of our lights turned back on. Getting ripped out of a wine-induced sleep by bright lights is less than ideal. Moving forward, we’d be far more diligent about monitoring the load shedding schedule - and keeping the lights switched off at night!