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The Secret Strengths of the Breede River Valley: Why This Lesser-Known South African Wine Region Should Be on Your Radar

We invited a group of wine enthusiasts to visit and explore Alvi's Drift and surrounds. Join their journey through this glorious South African wine region.

As we leave behind sunny Paarl just north of Cape Town, there’s nothing to quite prepare our small party of South African wine curiosos for the spectre that awaits just beyond the Du Toitskloof Pass.

Travelling over the mountainside (you can also take a shortcut through the Du Toitskloof tunnel) it’s not long before it begins to appear before us: dotted by bare, knotty wintertime vineyards and almost completely surrounded by snow-capped mountains, stretched out as far as the eye can see lies the breathtaking Breede River Valley in all its lush, green splendour.

Breede River Valley
The breathtaking Breede River Valley.

Home to 40 Percent of South African Wines

Much more than just another tick on the wine enthusiast’s South African wine itinerary, the verdant Breede River Valley is a heart-stoppingly beautiful Boland (Afrikaans for "top country" or "land above") wine region situated in the country’s Western Cape province. It is also the birthplace of approximately 40 percent of all South African wines.

As our Breede River Valley wine expedition progresses (first on the N1 highway, then the regional R101 and finally along the R43 provincial route), freshly fallen morning showers begin to dissipate. As the sun climbs higher into the clear blue sky, the ghostly slivers of early morning mist gently caressing the valley floor slowly disperse.

After turning off in the direction of Rawsonville, a few kilometres along the R43, we find ourselves travelling in silence, transfixed by rustic landscapes of gabled farmhouses, grazing livestock, yet more vineyards, herds of free-roaming springbok, zebra and the occasional ostrich.

A Lush, Fertile Valley of Plenty

No history of South African wine would be complete without a mention of the Western Cape’s Breede River Valley region. It was here, during the 17th century, that the first European settlers decided to settle after searching for new farmland beyond the Cape region’s borders. However, it was only in the mid-19th century, with the German settlers’ arrival, that the first vines were planted here.

The origins of the Breede River Valley’s famously fertile soils can be traced back much further. The Devonian Extinction, a geologic period that occurred 465 to 359 million years ago, sealed the fate of about 20 percent of all marine families on Earth. As our planet became warmer, shallow seas dried up, resulting in a marine mass extinction which created the rich, fertile soils now nourishing the valley’s many orchards, pastures and vineyards.

South African Wine: Full-Bodied, Bold and Fruity

South African wine has a reputation for being full-bodied and fruity, with a relatively high alcohol content. This is thanks to our country’s generally warm climate which allows grapes, red varietals in particular, to ripen to their fullest.

The Breede River Valley is known for producing excellent examples of these “typically South African”, fruit-driven wines. Pinotage from this region in particular has gained a stellar reputation among both its local and global counterparts.

Of course, no mention of South African wine, red in particular, can be made without a nod to our country’s very own signature varietal, pinotage.

Brought into being in 1925 by Izak Perold, Stellenbosch University’s first professor of viticulture, pinotage typically makes for an outstanding single varietal, deep with earthy, smokey and bramble flavours, often accompanied by notes of tropical fruit and banana.

Among its plethora of viticultural wonders, the Breede River Valley wine region is also home to some of the finest pinotage wines to be found in South Africa.

Alvi's Drift pinotage
Alvi’s Drift’s award-winning Pinotage.

The Breede River Valley: South African Wine Heaven Just Two Hours From Cape Town

We journey onward in our exploration of one of South Africa’s largest, yet lesser-known wine-producing regions.

Situated a mere two hours’ drive from the Mother City, the resplendent Breede River Valley wine region offers lovers of South African wine a stunningly picturesque alternative to the more widely known (and therefore more touristy) Cape winelands.

Home to a section of the wildly popular Route 62 (often marketed as the world’s longest wine route), the Breede River Valley offers its guests an almost-endless selection of charming places to visit, sights to see – and magnificent wines to discover.

A Third Generation Winery on the Banks of the Breede River

We continue our wine adventure against a backdrop of verdurous vales, gushing streams and sparkling waterfalls cascading from jutting rock formations.

Today’s destination? An exclusive, by-invitation visit to Alvi’s Drift Private Cellar, a third-generation, family owned winery that’s fast gaining an international reputation for producing superb, award-winning South African wines.

Situated in the Scherpenheuwel ward of the Worcester wine district, Alvi’s Drift winery was established when, back in 1928, family patriarch Albertus Viljoen “Oupa Alvi” Van Der Merwe bought a piece of farmland on the banks of the Breede River.

Breede River Valley map
A quick guide to the region and what it has to offer.

10 Scenic Routes From Which to Enter the Valley

Extending from the borders of Franschhoek all the way to the historic town of Swellendam, the length of the Breede River Valley covers close to 130 kilometres in an east-west direction. The majestic Langeberg mountain range separates the region from the arid, semi-desert Klein Karoo.

​With about 10 scenic routes through which to enter into this viticultural wonderland, visitors are spoilt for choice with a number of quaint towns to explore, including McGregor, Rawsonville, Ashton and Villiersdorp.

Each of these villages is sure to delight with a mad-cap mix of eccentric locals, excellent eateries, interesting sights, and singular histories, all set among backdrops of breathtaking natural scenery.

The best part? Each of these charming little hamlets is situated no more than a few hours’ drive from Cape Town.

A Wine-Growing Valley With Incredible Soil Diversity

Surrounded by the Cape Coastal Region to its west, the Cape South Coast to its south and the arid Klein Karoo to its east, the Breede River Valley wine region comprises several smaller wine-growing and -producing areas that include the Breedekloof, Robertson and Worcester wine districts.

Coursing through the dramatic landscape, surrounded by the Langeberg, Boland, Skurweberge, Riviersonderend and Hex River mountains, is the Breede River – the nourishing vein which, over eons, has crafted this breathtaking valley into being.

Originating in the Skurweberg mountains near the town of Ceres, the life-giving Breede River finally joins the Indian Ocean at the coastal village of Witsand.

Apart from being blessed with abundant water from the Breede River, the valley is also famous for being incredibly rich in soil diversity. Alluvial, rocky, stony, shale, sandy loam, sandstone, limestone and gravel soils are all to be found in this wine region.

In addition to the valley’s varied topography and many microclimates, this abundance of soil diversity further adds to the Breede River Valley’s already remarkable viticultural terroir.

Breede River Valley soil diversity
The area boasts an abundance of soil variety.

The Worcester Wine District

The Breede River Valley wine region is also home to the Worcester wine district, one of South Africa’s largest wine-producing districts, and the birthplace of almost 25 percent of all South African wine.

The area is famous in particular for producing world-class brandy and fortified dessert wines such as Hanepoot and Muscadel. It will also not disappoint foodies with a fondness for soft, fruity and delicious olives.

Should you want to make a delectable addition to your wine-tasting adventures in this valley, be sure to explore the delights of the Worcester Olive Route and its two world-class olive producers.

Home to 12 wine estates in total, together with the Breedekloof district, the 80-kilometre-long Worcester wine district forms the Western Cape’s largest grape-producing region. With around 19 511 hectares planted under vines, this district comprises close to 20 percent of South Africa’s vineyards.

Worcester Wines: Complex in Character and Concentrated in Taste

Interestingly, the style of wines originating from the Worcester region vary considerably for both white and red wine varieties. This variation comes as a result of both topographical and climatic variations.

In the Worcester wine region, the majority of grape varieties are cultivated on the Breede River Valley floor. Higher-quality wines usually originate from vineyards situated further up on the hillsides and surrounding mountain slopes.

These higher-lying vineyards are blessed with well-draining soils, producing lower yields, but highly concentrated fruit, resulting in wines that are more complex in character and concentrated in taste.

Scherpenheuwel: a Cooler Pocket of a Warm Wine Region

With its typical Mediterranean climate, this famously hot-in-the-summertime wine region certainly contributes its fair share of typically South African, full-bodied wine to the global wine market.

But not many wine enthusiasts, both local and beyond, are aware that the southern reaches of the Breede River Valley – the Worcester wine district in particular – contain cooler pockets. These cooler areas are the result of unique microclimates, caused by the area’s varied topography, and, most importantly, the nocturnal breeze from the nearby, cold Atlantic Ocean.

This diurnal swing (difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures) has seen the recently allocated wine ward of Scherpenheuwel categorised as Winkler Summation II, a category often associated with the production of top-quality, cool-climate wines such as chardonnay, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and merlot.
Breede River Valley countryside
The region boasts a typical Mediterranean climate.

An Alvi’s Drift Welcome

Nearing our destination, we continue to take in the pastoral landscape with its docile grazing sheep, curious herds of cattle and endless winter vineyards. Dotting the land, as far as the eye can see are koppies covered in rugged indigenous fynbos and succulent vegetation.

As we drive over the the small bridge across the coursing Breede River, birdsong again fills the air. The hush falling over our party of daytrippers seems to affirm our silent agreement: there are some things in life that cannot be articulated, only experienced.

Driving along the gravel road towards the entrance of Alvi’s Drift wine estate, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep one’s mind focused on wine-related matters. The crisp Boland air and the ruggedly beautiful patches of Renosterveld and fynbos, interspersed with stark winter vineyards and lush green citrus orchards simply overtake the senses.

Distant, snow-capped mountains envelop the sun-drenched landscape. High above, we notice a majestic Verreaux eagle gliding through the azure sky. It’s only when Buksie and Bella, Alvi’s Drift’s resident canine welcoming party rush out to guide us towards the farmstead’s large wooden doors, that our attention returns to matters at hand – Alvi’s Drift winery and its internationally renowned wines.

Alvi's Drift wine estate

Dare To Be True

Once inside the main courtyard, we are received with a hearty Boland welcome by winemaker Alvi Van Der Merwe and his celebrated Cape Wine Master spouse, Junel.

As the passionate pair start to share the story of Alvi’s Drift, we soon realise that this 7 000-tonne, family-run winery nestled on the banks of the Breede River is much more than just another South African wine farm.

The more we learn about Alvi’s Drift’s heritage (and its Springbok founder and patriarch, Albertus Viljoen “Oupa Alvi” Van Der Merwe), it becomes increasingly clear that Alvi’s Drift’s portfolio of award-winning wines is also the culmination of one man’s years’ long dream.

“I worked abroad as a medical doctor for many years, but it was always my dream to return,” says Alvi.

“One day, when I was living in Canada, I went for a run and stepped on a small bush. I remember thinking ‘that smells like the veld’. I resigned that same day and moved back home soon after.”
Alvi's Drift wine
Winemaker Alvi Van Der Merwe.

A Match Made in South African Wine Heaven

Today, Alvi and Junel form a formidable partnership.

Together with their winemaking team, they have built a reputation for creating remarkable wines of singular and distinctive character, with the end goal always the same: nothing less than excellence in every outcome.

“The Alvi’s Drift family is not just us. It’s our entire winemaking team, all our employees, and it’s everyone who enjoys our wines,” says Junel. “Our passion for what we do really goes into every bottle of wine we produce.”

Smiling in agreement, the winemaker opens a bottle of Alvi’s Drift Verreaux Pinotage, one of the estate’s most celebrated and awarded red wines from its Flagship range. We each have a taste, and compliments begin to flow – with comparisons following soon after.

“Here at Alvi’s Drift, we’re not trying to compete with anyone,” states Alvi, suddenly serious. “We simply try to do what’s right for us, and we try to do it to the very best of our ability.”

Judging by the quality of the Verreaux Pinotage, and the superb Alvi’s Drift wines we go on to taste, this modest approach also seems to be a winning one.

Discover Alvi’s Drift wines and order your favourite via the online shop.

alvi's drift
The formidable pair, Alvi and Junel.