In the heart of the South African winelands, this historic Cape Dutch farm estate looks to capture the quintessential Western Cape experience. Babylonstoren seems to have it all; period architecture; an extraordinary market garden (that serves its award-winning farm-to-fork ‘Babel’ restaurant and a cool vintage-style informal eatery, the ‘Green House); super-stylish hotel accommodation in private cottages; a spa; and now its own winery.
So we dropped by for a short stay to see what all the buzz was about.
Within forty-five minutes’ drive from Cape Town airport, the magic of the Cape Winelands embraces you; dramatic mountains, sheltering verdant valleys full of lavender fields, almonds groves and vineyards. The Drakenstein Valley is pretty much right there in the middle of it all, between the food and wine towns of Franschoek and Paarl, and relatively close to toe the smart wine capital of Stellenbosch.
Here lies one the region’s most historic farms, dating back to the 17th century, the evocatively named Babylonstoren. Although this 200 hectare estate may have a notable heritage, I found it’s very much got a 21st century feel, with on-trend dining, slick and smart guest suites and a new architect designed winery that offers a cellar tour that tells you everything you always wanted to know about wine but were afraid to ask.
The nearby hill, or kopje, was said to be reminiscent of the Tower of Babel for early farmer Pieter van der Bijl, inspiring the name of the farm, its restaurant and now, its first red wine.
Visiting in late autumn the farm, despite is stunning period Cape Dutch Architecture (think glorious picture-perfect white gabled manor house and farmstead buildings) reminded me of a West Country or Cotswold estate, like Babington House. Sure, here the Simonsberg, Franschoek and Du Toitskloof mountains make for a dramatic setting like nothing in the UK, but it’s the charming combination of the wholesome heritage, super-stylish guest cottages, beautifully designed garden, the orchards, and the posh period architecture with dove cote that all come together to lend a magical old worlde ambiance.
At first glance this is indeed a working farm with hens and geese and other feathery friends roaming the gardens and paths, but it’s also most certainly a refined place with plenty of designer touches and attention-to-detail that makes it clear you are somewhere very special.
Almost inevitable, with such a sophisticated place, there were times when I found a few members of the staff to be a tad pretentious, but overall as a guest you feel welcome and pampered.
I was here to experience the new cellar tour. Building on the success of the daily garden walks, the cellar tour introduces guests to wine making in the Western Cape and the new vintages from Babylonstoren. Personally I found the tone of the tour more angled towards novices, but I imagine the depth of the presentation differs with the expertise of the host. Our guide was Dylan, a very likable young man you admitted he was learning about wine too.
As soon as one arrives at your guest cottage suite, there waiting for you in the light-filled, contemporary kitchen of your private cottage are two bottles of Babylonstoren wine, the deliciously easy-drinking Babel Red 2014 and a crisp white Chenin Blanc 2015. What better way to get to know wine than kicking back on the sofa, with a glass in hand – it’s the perfect complement to what one learns on the tour!
But Babylonstoren is taking its wine-making very seriously. In addition to the farm’s Wine Shed tasting room, the estate is investing in a smart new cellar tour tasting room too, a highlight of the tour that takes you from views of the more than 60 hectares of vineyards to the farm’s olive oil production area, the new Gerard de Villiers designed winery, (where they work with 13 grape varieties), and then onto the wine storage area.
There is a poignant moment during the tour, when one pauses at a glass table – it’s in fact a sculptural monument, the layers and layers of glass are engraved with hundreds of names – each one a former worker (many of whom were slaves) that worked on the farm over the centuries; all finally given a name and recognition.
The tasting is generous, as one has the opportunity to slowly work your way through much of the new Babylonstoren range. In addition to the complimentary bottles in one’s room, the collection includes a gloriously intense Shiraz, an elegant Viognier, the light and versatile Mourvèdre Rosé, a modern Chardonnay, as well as the farm’s flagship Bordeaux style red, ‘Nebukadnesar’ (aptly named after the colourful king of Babylonia).
The Babylonstoren farm was established, like many in the region, over three hundred years ago to supply fresh produce to ships navigating the Cape between Europe and Asia. Vineyards had been a part of the estate for centuries but the recent wine renaissance at Babylonstoren is only a few years old – 2015 is its fifth harvest. Already cellar master Charl Coetzee, winemaker Klaas Stoffberg and cellar assistant Moses Daniels are winning plenty of plaudits already.
Although the farm, its winery, designer produce & gift shop, garden and restaurants are open to day visitors, the best way to immerse yourself in this unique Cape winelands experience is to stay. The guest suites, although thoroughly modern, are designed to look like modest Cape Dutch farm buildings. Yet once inside, it’s much less farm and much more Elle Decoration.
The word cosy doesn’t really come to mind when staying in the 5 star suites. The décor is most definitely a summer theme – lots and lots of white. It’s like walking into a magazine shoot – lots of style, but I wouldn’t have minded a few more rugs or a sofa throw just to add some warmth and welcome. The cottages are very spacious; the one bedroom cottage is at least 115 square metres.
In the colder months there is underfoor heating which is very effective, and also an open fire – logs (and pine cones as natural fire lighters) are provided. The team can light the fire if you wish.
In my experience, Wi-Fi is not great in the guest suites. South Africa generally struggles with infrastructure issues, and internet is no exception. However the team were very helpful and provided a booster router.
The split stable door of the guest cottage opens into a large living space, with high ceilings, and cool, white furnishings – a pristine contrast to the natural estate outside.
Divided from the living area by a bookcase laden with tomes on South Africa food, wine etc. is a modern glass box – a conservatory kitchen with broad table and long benches.
The space is equipped with stove, fridge (with fresh milk, very nice touch when making a latte coffee) and lots of gourmet touches, like the small wooden crate box filled with garden fruits and herbs, the estate wines, and the farm’s own gourmet olive oil. Other 5 star touches included the Nespresso machine and gourmet teas.
Outside is a seating area, with simple green metal furniture with views are of the garden and the mountains beyond.
The bedroom is equally spacious, also furnished with a pared-down aesthetic of white and creams. The white four-poster bed with white lines, sits in the centre of the room, surrounded by white walls and white furniture – you’re getting the picture…it’s all very white, clean and minimalist. An antique tallboy chest of drawers stands on one wall, its drawers lined with Babylonstoren branded paper are pulled out inviting you to unpack a settle in.
Twin, farm-style barn doors (yes, they’re white too) open to reveal a long bathroom, tiled with large vintage off-white tiles.
There’s a generous-sized claw foot bath tub at the centre (which just demands to be used), a W.C. and shower at one end and the wash basis at the other against a wall completely made up of panes of mirror glass. Toiletries are L’Occitane.
Before dinner there was a knock at the door – the team had come with a little canapé treat to go with the complimentary wine; a rooibos infused choux pastry nibble with smoked trout.
Turndown service included tempting homemade chocolate brownies left on the bed.
The very generous welcome amenity included the wine and also a copy of Babel, the cook book from the restaurant. Although in Afrikaans it is still a pleasure to browse through for its exceptional photography and delicious layout.
After a stylish soak in the tub, whilst sipping a glass of warming Babel Red, it was time for dinner.
The signature Babel restaurant is as you might expect, in another farm building. Plenty of floor to ceiling windows and the high ceilings make the converted structure feel very spacious. Weather permitting, tables are set outside too.
The décor continues Babylonstoren theme of simplicity. Unfussy table settings and simple paper printed daily menus make for an uncomplicated feel.
However the style for me was ever so slightly ‘worthy’. If honesty about the food and its provenance means simple presentation, then that surely should extend to the style of the team. Yet I found the waiting staff in the restaurant slightly pretension, taking the farm-to-fork notion very seriously. For example there was no choice on the menu – set dishes reflecting the seasonal bounty of the gardens. Great, I get that. But I was allergic to the starter dish. I’m not a fussy eater, but when there is no choice on a menu restaurants have to be prepared that maybe the set menu might not meet everyone’s needs. I asked if maybe a salad could be prepared – if not I would skip the plate. Yet the waitress made me feel that the kitchen was doing me huge favour to substitute a salad for a soup. I mean, really, when you have eight acres of fruit and veg garden with 300 varieties of plants how hard is it to throw a salad together?!
Yet in the end the kitchen wowed me with a simple yet fab garden salad with fresh trout that was sensational. Then I tucked into a hearty steak on the bone (I’m guessing not from the estate) and ended the evening’s indulgence with a tipsy pudding made with South African brandy.
During the meal I met Simone the F&B manager is who is genuinely charming nd is very enthusiastic about the restaurant and its values – she really brought the concept to life. Something I think that was missing from some of the waiting staff.
The design aesthetic in the restaurant focused on a theme of laboratory glass wear – salt and pepper for example was served in Petri dishes, house wines by the glass came in small Erlenmeyer flasks, water in a beaker and the single stem flower dressing the table was in a graduated cylinder. It looked cool, undeniably – but why? I asked a few members of the serving team if they could explain the rationale behind the choice, but they looked blankly at me – interesting; well who knows? Is it is commentary on the artificial chemicals in mainstream food? Or just another chic and clever design idea that no one really understands.
I slept like a baby as they say – very comfy bed. Breakfast is in the classic Greenhouse, a structure evocative of European period country houses. Here amongst the ginger, cardamom, pineapples, dragon fruit and vanilla are simple wooden table and classic Luxembourg chairs. Non-residents can also enjoy snacks and afternoon tea here.
The breakfast buffet is given the Babylonstoren treatment – here it is a ‘harvest table’ abundant with seasonal produce from the estate – all beautiful presented with vintage plates and bowls.
Then from the kitchen one could order eggs, sausages, the most divine smoked bacon – all brought to the table in small wooden farm crate trays – very stylish.
Overall, Babylonstoren is a magical place – I wish I had stayed longer. I didn’t get to try the spa for example or really get to make the most of the amazing guest cottage. The team at times do take the place all a bit too seriously, but you only have to get talking to the locals that work in the gardens and on the farm to get a real dose of broad smiles and lots of laughs, where no contrived ‘foodie’ script has been leant by heart – instead an authentic welcome.
This gourmet farm is open to non-residents. A set 3 course dinner in the restaurant is about 15 GB Pounds, around 300 SA Rand before drinks. An overnight stay in one of the 5 star, luxury guest cottages coudl set you back about 400 GB Pounds depending on the season.
Klapmuts Road, 7670 Simondium, Drakenstein Valley, Cape Winelands, Western Cape, South Africa
Tel: +27 (0) 21 863 1804