Cape wine farm the SA feather in Richard Branson's cap

2014-04-20 15:00

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Lunch at British tycoon Sir Richard Branson’s new Boland wine estate is a low-key affair, costing a palatable R140 for catch-of-the-day cob washed down with a glass of dry white.

This week Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, which comprises more than 400 international companies, said he was “thrilled” to welcome South African wine farm Mont ­Rochelle to his plum worldwide property collection.

Mont Rochelle sprawls among autumn-tinged vineyards and mountains outside Franschhoek, 75km from Cape Town.

It is not clear how much the maverick billionaire?–?known as “RB” to company insiders?–?forked out for the farm, but it was on the market for R24?million recently.

Branson’s other hospitality assets include celebrity hot spot Necker Island in the Caribbean, the posh Roof Gardens restaurant in central London and Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in the Sabi Sands Reserve bordering the Kruger National Park.

Said Virgin spokesperson Claudia Moore: “The Virgin Limited Edition properties are very special and each African property has been chosen for its individuality and location.

“Mont Rochelle is an ideal complement to a safari excursion to South Africa and we look forward to combining a stay at Mont Rochelle with our private game reserve, Ulusaba.”

Asked if the wine estate’s harvest would soon become a fixture on Virgin Atlantic flights, she replied: “Our plans are to work through a partner with an international reputation for crafting fine wines, and to invest in the vineyard and winery.”

While publicists at the Virgin empire would not give much detail this week, City Press decided to explore Mont Rochelle as a tourist and to stay for lunch.

The farm is accessed via country roads lined with white-washed ­cottages and bougainvillea.

In Franschhoek, street names like Cabriere Road and Bordeaux Drive pay homage to the town’s French settler roots, which date back to 1688.

At the farm’s entrance, a man whose name tag introduced him as Simba presided over a boom gate.

A flood of schoolchildren cheerfully shouted at him while streaming by on their way to cottages up the gravel road: “Hell-oo Simba chippie, crinkle cut lekker!”

The gatekeeper smiled and returned their greeting.

Staff at the farm, who did not want to be named, said Branson had last dropped by in February.

At the time the deal was already sealed, they added.

A waiter who has worked at Mont Rochelle for the past seven years said the businessman had promised employees that they would not be retrenched.

Despite the glamour that surrounds any deal done by the maverick billionaire, life at Mont Rochelle appears quite rustic and very unrushed. But there are ­renovations in the pipeline.

The estate’s 22-bed hotel?–?where the posh Cap Classique Suite used to cost R9?900 a night?–?is now closed for upgrades and will only reopen in August.

However, the Country Kitchen restaurant was open for meals and wine tastings on Wednesday.

On a patio outside the eatery, a blackboard propped up next to a trickling water feature displayed meal options in a slanted scrawl.

Options included coconut-crusted chicken served with green vegetables plus ­peanut butter sauce, and braised beef shin with couscous, confit garlic and tomato.

City Press settled for the waiter’s recommendation: Catch of the day, which was cob from the nearby coastal town of Gordon’s Bay, served on a warm Niçoise salad of baby tomatoes, olives and small potatoes paired with a 2013 “classic straw-coloured” sauvignon blanc known for its “powerful ­aromatics of guava and passion fruit”.

It cost R120 for the main course and R20 for the glass of wine, which was served on a bright floral table under an ­umbrella next to beds of lavender and marigolds.

Branson bought the farm from the ­family of the deceased ­Rwandan ­billionaire Miko Rwayitare.

Rwayitare established the ­African telecoms company Telecel International.

He’s been dubbed “the ­father of mobile telecoms in ­Africa”.

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