There are worse ways to spend a Tuesday morning I think to myself, turning off the Annandale Road and onto the R44.
I’m behind the wheel of a brand-new Range Rover Sport, this model with all the bells and whistles, and there’s a definite hint of spring in the air. Tom Petty is playing from the crystal-clear Meridian sound system as I wind back the panoramic sunroof and let the morning air wash in. I’m rarely one for travelling light but the Range Rover Sport offers plenty of space for stashing my road-trip essentials: iPad just under the central console, phone charging from the integrated USB outlets, camera in the spacious glove compartment. On the model I’m driving – the high-spec HSE SDV8 – the central console under my left elbow even includes a refrigeration unit that keeps a six-pack of soft drinks neatly chilled on long road trips.
On the dashboard, a trio of screens feeds me all I need to know about the vehicle: a pair of crystal-clear 10-inch screens keeps track of the terrain settings – more on that later – and climate control, while in front of the wheel an innovative Virtual Instrument Panel (VIP) uses a 12-inch high-resolution display to communicate yet more statistics, from sleek virtual dials highlighting speed and engine revs to data on range and fuel consumption.
Unsurprisingly, the vehicle also boasts industry-leading safety systems, from dual-stage airbags to seat belt pretensioners. Range Rover also offers the innovative In-Control Protect system, which Marius Hamman, the marketing specialist at Jaguar Land Rover Stellenbosch, explained to me before I set off. “A SIM card is fitted into the vehicle so at the push of a button you can call for help, whether it’s for medical or mechanical reasons. And if the vehicle is in an accident – if the system detects that an airbag has been deployed, for instance – the emergency services are automatically contacted.”
Another fantastic safety feature on the VIP is the inclusion of lane keep assist, which detects if the vehicle is drifting out of its lane. I put it to the test a few times on the R44 and am impressed with the visual alert and haptic feedback – a light vibration – through the wheel to remind me to straighten up and fly right.
Even the mirrors are intelligent here, a useful highlight shining into life when a truck pulls into my blind spot. From the park assist to adaptive cruise control, it’s a vehicle that seems to do more than its fair share of the thinking, leaving me to sit back and enjoy the drive through the Winelands.
As I pull away from outside De Zalze, the acceleration is lively and the engine clicks neatly through the first stages of the eight-speed automatic transmission. If necessary, this model could get me up to 100km/h in a whisker over seven seconds.
But I’m in no rush at all. The turnoff to Paradyskloof beckons on the right and I take it, heading towards the mountains. I barely notice the potholes and, when an unpainted speed hump catches me unawares, the intelligent air suspension barely complains.
I turn through the gates at Waterford Estate and slow down to admire the breathtaking view on arrival: the long driveway leads up to the remarkable stone cellar, all framed by a leafy citrus orchard. I’m a few minutes early for my appointment with Kevin Arnold, but the affable cellar master is already waiting for me in the courtyard. The scents of citrus and warm earth follow us in on the breeze.
“We’ve built the Waterford brand around a sense of place,” says Kevin over coffee. “For people to come and share in this experience, it has to be authentic and natural.”
That authenticity is evident in Kevin and his team’s considered approach to welcoming guests. No impersonal bar counters or inexperienced staff here; rather a sit-down tasting – in varietal-specific glasses – led by knowledgeable hosts. For true connoisseurs, a tasting of the estate’s Library Collection wines is a must.
But the best way for guests to truly understand the terroir of Waterford is to see, smell and touch it for themselves. The three-hour guided walk on the Porcupine Trail (R450pp) is fantastic, with a meandering path through fynbos and vineyard as guests discover the wilderness corridors that run like veins through the estate. Of the 120ha property, nearly half is given over to fynbos and wilderness.
“When I laid out the vineyards, I used to walk the land a lot and I realised just how much wildlife there was on the farm,” says Kevin. “I decided to pull down all the fences and keep these wilderness corridors so the wildlife can move about freely. It enables natural predators to thrive and we know they’re needed for the health of the vineyards.”
That ethos is neatly explained during the popular Wine Drive, a unique experience which takes guests on a three-hour tour of the estate in a custom-built Land Rover. It’s certainly a fine way to discover the property but today I’m in luck: I have the Range Rover Sport to play with and the cellar master to show me around.
We hop in and head off to discover the estate. Turning off the Upper Blaauwklippen Road, we immediately pass a large tract of indigenous vegetation, a field left fallow as one of those wilderness corridors.
We trundle over the Pecan Stream – which lends its name to Waterford’s much-loved entry-level range of wines – and through a grove of Chinese poplars. “They’re terribly invasive but we’ve worked hard over the years to cut them back and keep them in check,” explains Kevin. In fact, the tallest, straightest trunks were used in constructing the tasting room in the late 1990s, their hard timber immune to invasive beetles. “We plant more than 100 indigenous trees every year and are continually clearing alien vegetation. From day one we’ve had a sustainable approach to agriculture.”
The Range Rover Sport boasts its own eco-credentials. Up to 50% of the aluminium used in the vehicle’s construction is sourced from recycled materials, while recycled plastics have also been incorporated.
Waterford’s vineyards clamber up the slopes of the Helderberg, where winter rains have created rough farm tracks of exposed rock and steep drainage ruts. They’re no trouble for the Range Rover Sport’s terrain response though.
Drawing on Land Rover’s decades of off-road expertise, the Sport features a four-mode terrain response system that allows drivers to optimise the engine, chassis, gearbox and differential systems to best match the terrain they are approaching. This includes matching modes for muddy rutted tracks, tyre-sucking sand and deep gravel, as well as icy surfaces and challenging rocky ground. Electronic air suspension also comes into play, raising the vehicle’s clearance by as much as 65mm at low speeds.
I’m so busy chatting wine and vineyards though, that I decide to leave the choice to the experts, in this case the vehicle itself, with its Auto-Terrain selection.
We pull up alongside a block of vines that ranks as one of the oldest Chardonnay vineyards in the country. Up at 320m above sea level, it offers stellar views across the estate and wider Stellenbosch Winelands. Up above, a pair of jackal buzzards circle on the late-morning thermals, their eyes peeled for unwary prey below.
As we head back down, the steep and slippery gravel track along the edge of the vineyard is no match for the Sport’s hill descent control and we take a hard right through a shallow valley. Once it was choked with invasive poplars but the ongoing conservation efforts have proved successful and indigenous vegetation is now growing in abundance. This includes dozens of ancient wild olive trees estimated to be more than 200 years old.
The thick woodland is ideal habitat for the caracals and porcupines that are often spotted on the farm, says Kevin as we climb out of the valley and trundle past another of the farm dams. Fed by the Blaauwklippen River, it’s full to the brim at the end of a wet winter.
Below the dam wall we stop to admire a tiny patch of Chardonnay, a venerable old block planted in 1988. A mere quarter of a hectare, it’s from here that the grapes for Kevin’s Cape Winemakers Guild ‘Kept Aside’ Chardonnay have long been sourced.
Down we cruise and through the spillway of another overflowing farm dam. The Sport makes light work of the shallow channel but it’s also adept at deeper wading. Range Rover tests its vehicles using a state-of-the-art ‘monsoon’ simulator, drenching vehicles with 85 000l of water to check for leaks. The water contains a UV-sensitive dye so engineers scanning the interior of the vehicle can be sure not a drop gets through.
Then it’s up and onto the highest portion of the farm. We follow a rocky track of loose sandstone, the intelligent Auto-Terrain taking care of the situation seamlessly. I notice the accelerator response softening slightly, allowing me more control as I crunch my way to the top of the Pebble Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard.
We climb out at a viewing deck that offers some of the most spectacular views of the Cape Winelands. And by ‘Winelands’, I mean nearly all of them. In the far distance, I spy Constantia Nek and the ocean-cooled vineyards where the wine industry has its roots. The hills of Durbanville and Bottelary are easy to make out, while further off the Paardeberg looms out of the hazy afternoon sky.
Tempted to pay them each a visit, from the summit of Waterford Estate I wonder where the road will take me. Back into Paradyskloof, and then? Well, with a full tank of diesel and the Range Rover Sport beneath me, let’s just say I might be some time.