A garden of enjoyment in South Africa’s Winelands
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2018)
Bees hum and it smells of thyme. A group of geese waddles across the path and moves towards the pond, unimpressed by the breathtaking panorama of the Simonsberg. We are in South Africa, in the famous Western Cape wine region just outside Cape Town. Here are the most famous wineries in the country and the refuges of numerous wealthy South Africans and international wine lovers. One of the most beautiful historic farms in the typical “Cape Dutch style” is Babylonstoren near Paarl, about 40 kilometres from Cape Town.
The farm dates back to the year 1692 and is today owned by Karen Roos, former editor of Elle deco. Here they cultivate award-winning wines and, in addition to a farm hotel, have created a unique garden across eight acres with more than 300 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants, which is now the heart of the farm. Everything is edible and of organic quality here, and it’s not just the wine that has already been awarded numerous prizes. No wonder that the farm’s restaurant, “Babel”, is one of the most sought-after addresses in the region.
Karen Roos’ love and flair for interior design can be seen everywhere at Babylonstoren. The hotel’s rooms are spread over 22 Cape Dutch thatched roof-top cottages, which are lovingly decorated. The restaurant in the former cowshed is now more elegant than rustic. With lots of glass, whitewashed walls, and simple wooden tables and chairs, the kitchen celebrates all the seasonal diversity of the famous garden and the excellent wines. Here, everything lands on the plate fresh from the garden. We stroll around the farm with some turkeys and happy chickens and let Karen Roos tell us how she created this paradise.
Karen, please tell us how you discovered Babylonstoren.
When we saw the old whitewashed Cape Dutch buildings located in the cradle of the beautiful Simonsberg Mountains, we were smitten.
What did the farm look like when you came here?
It was beautifully run down with vineyards, orchards, but only a little garden. Luckily, it was authentic 18th century and had never been renovated. We could simply dream up what there is today.
Babylonstoren is one of the oldest Cape Dutch farms with a beautiful farm hotel, but also a winery. Please tell us about your wine.
Our wines are produced in a state-of-the-art winery and are made to showcase the soils and climate where its grapes are grown. We have 88 hectares under vine, and produce 13 different grape varieties. Our highest vines – pinot noir and chardonnay – lie against Simonsberg at some 600 metres above sea level. Echoing the farm’s 17th-century Cape Dutch architectural vernacular, Babylonstoren’s modern winery is fitted with custom-made processing equipment that can cater for gravity-fed production on a single level. This includes three types of red wine fermenters – stainless steel, raised concrete and 7,500-litre French oak vats, led by winemakers Charl Coetzee and Klaas Stoffberg.
What is your flagship wine and what makes it so special?
One flagship is our Bordeaux blend, Nebukadnesar. It’s a classic with an intriguing fragrance of violets and thyme. Dry and full-bodied, it is a well-balanced wine with a spicy warmth and intense undertones of blackcurrant and tobacco.
What makes Babylonstoren wine different from other wines in Western Cape?
Our wines are best exemplified by the Babylonstoren logo, which consists of the pipe, representing the farmer, the flower, representing the garden, and the bird, representing nature. It is the very essence of Babylonstoren – keeping things simple and as true to the earth as possible. “This we strive to achieve in our wine,” says winemaker Charl Coetzee. “True to the area by being situated on the slopes of Simonsberg, and simplicity by making elegant and balanced wines as natural as possible.”
What Babylonstoren wine for which occasion? What would you recommend?
Our Chenin blanc for those hot summer days, the Shiraz for nights filled with flavour and our Sprankel for celebrating that special occasion.
Everyone is aware of the drought in Cape Town and knows that water must be consistently saved. Does that also affect you in Babylonstoren?
Our aim is to keep things simple and as true to the earth as possible. Water plays an essential role on our farm and in the garden, hotel and restaurants. It hydrates, purifies, calms and invigorates. Yet we all have to do our bit to reduce water consumption. Here on the farm, various ways are used to cut down on water usage – we have managed to bring it down by 50 per cent within a year. No municipal water is used on the farm. We also have a recirculation system that enables us to reuse water up to three times. In our hotel, guests are asked to reuse their towels and linen, should they wish to do so. Day visitors are encouraged to use water responsibly by means of signage at our entrances. Our gardeners also share information on water-wise gardening at our workshops and on the blog. These water-wise principles are followed within all areas of the garden and farm.
The Babylonstoren gardens are very famous and highly awarded. Please tell us about them.
The heritage garden was designed by Patrice Taravella, from Prieuré d’Orsan, near Bourges in France. Every single one of the plants in the formal 3.5-hectare, 8-acre garden was planted by our gardeners, except for one large, old wild pepper tree at the top of the garden, providing shade to visitors. On both sides of the formal garden, there are majestic old oaks and beautiful indigenous wild olives that are still growing as we found them, between the hotel cottages and along the natural stream flowing at the edge of the garden. This stream flows from Simonsberg, creating a space for indigenous trees. In their shade a collection of some 7,000 clivia lilies explode in a spectacular display every spring. Our head gardener Liesl van der Walt and her team tend the plants that have flourished beyond expectation.
Do you see a trend for wineries to focus not only on wine but also on fruit and vegetable gardens? Let’s say in order to go for a more holistic concept?
Above all, we’d like visitors to ground themselves again. To enjoy the mountains all around as much as we do, pick their own healthy fruit and vegetables, play pétanque, swim in the farm dam, enjoy an hour in the spa, eat a simple fresh dish at one of the restaurants, walk up the conical Babylonstoren hill, await the sunset with a glass of wine in hand, and then slip in between sheets of crisp linen and drift away - that’s it, more or less.
I assume we will find an echo of this idea in your famous Babel restaurant? Is it a “farm to fork” restaurant?
Absolutely! We start growing lunches and dinners months before guests arrive. And we try to do it as organically and pesticide-free as we can.
You are a former ELLE decoration editor, so interior design is your profession and your beautiful property – as we see it today - represents a true sense of style. What inspired you when you worked on designs and interior ideas for Babylonstoren?
I hark back to the authentic Cape Dutch style: stark and simplified buildings with oversized proportions, lovely soft lime-washed walls and high thatched roofs. It’s a working farm, so I tried to keep the interiors pure and understated. I like mixing old with new. And always inspired by Japanese and Scandinavian quiet drama.
What was the biggest challenge?
The garden as you now see it is built on a sandy swamp. It was hardly an obvious site for a garden, so we had to find ways to build extensive drainage underneath, plus haul in tons of topsoil.
What is your favourite spot here on the farm?
I have many, and they change with the seasons. I always walk on the main axis, taking me through different rooms of citrus, chamomile, pears and peaches. The fragrance of orange blossoms or herbs can be overwhelming. I often end up at the cafe in the greenhouse, to sit under the oak trees and admire inspiring guests.
You have a lot of animals on the farm – which is your favourite one?
The animals were not really planned - they somehow just happened. Their habits and sounds are soothing. The hens are my favourites.
Karen Roos has published several books on design and interior design and worked as an editor at ELLE Decoration South Africa. She acquired Babylonstoren in 2005 with her husband Koos Bekker. With creativity, expertise and the pleasure of beauty, she transformed the previously fallow land and vineyards into a thriving patch of earth with an award-winning garden, hotel and winery.
Picture credit © Courtesy Babylonstoren