Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A few Observations from our South African Grape Adventure

Even though wine has been running through my veins for a couple of decades now, I must admit that it has mainly been pretty exclusively Italian and in later years also French wines. The “New World” wines have been rather unfamiliar to me mainly because they are pretty hard to come by where we live. So what I know of the New World is more of what I've learned by reading and discussing it with guests over the years, rather than enjoying a good glass of Zinfandel from California, a Carmenère from Chile or a South African Pinotage.

In January we took off on a mission to understand the South African wines, discover their specificity and philosophy of production, and also to admire the wine tourism that the Cape is famous to have developed so nicely.

As my first approach to a non-European wine country, the systematic European “this grape belongs to this region hence this is the wine we make”-approach is not useful at all. Only at times a consideration for terroir seemed to be relevant to the choice of grape varieties chosen for certain locations, and often the most trendy choice seemed to be “the market demands/ or I feel like making a Cabernet, so that’s what I’m going to do”. 

All vineyards seem to be irrigated to various extents and nobody seems to be willing to take the risk of dry farming, nor seems to consider it a desirable option/risk. This came a bit as a surprise since the climate & rainfall is rather similar to a few Southern areas in France and Italy, so it could probably be a possibility. Vintners seem to prefer to have control rather than let mother nature determine the outcome of their vintages.

South Africa uses a 50+ different varieties of grapes to make wine and continues to import varieties from Europe. 3 varieties are particular crosses grown in the Cape such as the quite well known Pinotage. I set out to taste in particular this variety and was quite impressed with some of the finer examples.

The South African vintners suffer from the Leafroll virus in the vineyards, which effects the ripening of the grapes giving uneven ripening a lower sugar levels. But also the frequent bush fires are a big threat to the vineyards.

At one of the wineries we learned about Fairtrade – a farming practice which shares a part ownership with the workers (around 25-30%) and with the means of Fairtrade money the workers are given better education and general conditions. We found it to be very positive in seeing how workers otherwise are trapped in a poor post-apartheid economy - the worst off live in miserable townships that are quite horrific to the Westerner's eyes.

As for wine tourism, in South Africa it seemed to me like wineries are social venues for get-togethers and relax both for locals and tourists. A lot of them are set up with multiple services to welcome visitors, from the most "basic" tasting rooms, to tapas bars, picnic areas, restaurants of all levels, playgrounds, museums, wine safaris (and some also have proper animal safaris), cheese making, chocolate, glass blowing, beer brewing, etc, etc. A little mind-blowing for someone who's used to a winery being a winery and not much more! South Africa boasts one of the oldest wine routes (1971) and some of the wineries even have much more historical buildings on their sites (1600's), most originating in some other kind of farming (fruit trees, etc) and eventually ending up with mainly grapes.

Stellenbosch is definitely the most glamorous and well-developed region with hundreds of wineries to choose from. Most are open to the public 5 to 7 days a week (like shops, they close by 5 pm so make sure to get out and about early). A few are by appointment only, and of course cellar tours are better planned ahead. Some request a tasting fee, but most tasting fees are not applied if a bottle of wine (or more) is purchased. 

And speaking of purchasing, the value of South African wine is superb - at least to us on the Euro (but similarly great for the Dollar, and even better for the Pound). A good bottle of wine is typically less than 5 euro and a great wine is around 15. And this is not to speak of the food, which seems just as cheap. So living it well in South African wine country is not only extremely pleasant and welcoming but also leaves your pocket very happy.

Here's a list of wineries that we visited this time around (yeah, I hope we'll go back for a second round in a few years!). We didn't necessarily wine taste at all of them (our livers needed an occasional break) - and since they are so inviting sometimes just a walkabout, lunch or dinner was quite a delightful way to visit.

The Constantia wine region is closest to Cape Town and the oldest wine regions of South Africa (even the red sightseeing bus of Cape Town makes it out here)
- Groot Constantia (one of the oldest vineyards in SA. Enjoyed a nice cheese plate with wine)
- Buitenverwachting (we had dinner here - very good food)
- Steenberg (again another winery we had dinner at and it was very good. The accommodation looked fabulous even though this is not the one we stayed at)

The town is quite nice with restaurants and cafes, clearly hosting students at the university and quite a lot of tourists, too. We very much enjoyed the Slow Food market just outside of town on Sundays.
- Meerlust (only really enjoyed the Rubicon wine)
- Stark Conde (had lunch at their Postcard Cafe which was ok)
- Webersburg (we also stayed on this farm for 3 nights and it was our overall favorite hotel. Winemaker ... was a great delight to listen to and makes wines in more of a European)
- Waterford Estate (did the Wine Safari through the vineyards which was a good touristy activity. It ends off with a wine tasting paired with 3 chocolates.)
- Dornier (for lunch which was very good but service extremely slow)
- DeWaal (luckily we passed by at closing time and got to hang out with Pieter DeWaal who served us up with the best Pinotage that we tasted))
- Rainbow's End with lovely host Jana
- Boschkloof (the owner Jacques took time to talk us through the tasting - great character with really good insight on Stellenbosch wines. Best Shiraz we had during our trip)
- Keermont (winemaker Alex took us on a tour on this winery, once a water bottling facility)
- Le Riche (with great technical insight from Christo the owner and winemaker. Great Cabernet Sauvignon tasted)
- Blaauwklippen (had a lovely lunch here)
- Kleine Zalze (had dinner at the restaurant Terroir which was one of our best dinners)

- Boschendahl (humongous estate with lots of visitors to restaurants on site, shops, picnics, wines not very impressive)
Arrived in the village on a Saturday and had dinner at The Tasting Room - an 8 course surprise gourmet dinner with a matching glass of wine to each course. Next day was Sunday and even though Franshhoek has a Wine Tram - a sort of hop on & hop off wine bus for tourists (great way to avoid driving and getting the most out of the wine drinking) - we were up for a bit of a break. Not forgetting that temperatures were around 30+ celcius making you a wee bit lazy...

We just drove through this village as we couldn't find a walkable center. Seems less touristy and less affluent...
- Val du Charron (had lunch at their steak restaurant and drank beer (ops!)
- Granddedale (we also stayed here and enjoyed the vineyard trek)
- Bosman (where we met marketing manager Neil who was incredibly welcoming and taught us about the varieties of South Africa & Fairtrade. Enjoyed a Rosé made with 47 different varietals, & good Nero d'Avola!)

Another town that we just drove through, even if a bit bigger than Wellington.
- Spice Route (more than a winery this seems like an attribute to other foods such as chocolate, beer, etc. Very visitor-friendly)
- Nederburg (had lunch there, wasn't particularly good - maybe we had just been too wow'ed before ;)

Quaint little village, seemed a bit dull...
- Twee Jonge Gezellen (this bizarre winery makes just sparkling wines with the brand "Krone" in a very warm climate - boh!)
- Oakhurst Olives (visited this olive farm where olives are grown 1500 plants per hectare (wow!) and the quality of oil very good)

- Springfield Estate (free tastings on the patio - whites very impressive - lovely host)

- Paul Cluver (by pure chance stopped and had our best winery lunch here)

We did not make it up to Swartland, a hip new area North of Cape Town where more alternative wines come from, but we did taste a good amount ;)

If you're interested in reading more about the South African wine regions, I recommend to take a look here.

Here follows a few (and probably too many) of the many many pictures we took. The South African wine country is truly stunningly beautiful!

Mountains behind Constantia
At Groot Constantia - yes, that sign says don't touch the grapes - of course, Pierre touches them ;)
Our first approach to cheese. They are better at making wines than cheeses in SA, no offense!
Pierre examines the vineyards for problems...
At Steenberg, Constantia
Some bubbles while waiting for friends for dinner
Clive & Kathryn from Sheffield
My Cape wine map became our only point of reference with no GPS & no internet
This means?!
Tasting at Meerlust
These boxes are used for collecting grapes during harvest
Stark Conde and their almost oriental looking tasting location on the lake
Webersburg - our home for 3 of the nights - fabulous!
Waterford Estate suspended vats
Ready for the estate Vineyard Safari
Enjoying some Chardonnay
Wine & chocolate pairing - quite cute
Dornier estate
Very nice & very affordable
Stellenbosch views
Tasting with Pieter DeWaal and the history of Pinotage
A good help to the South African wine estates
Red soils to the West of Stellenbosch - together with our private wine guide Louis Koch
One of plentiful wine discussions
Very true!
We arrive at Boschkloof
Jacques is a great wine maker with an even better personality
Technical wine talk at Le Riche with Christo
Great full Cabernet Sauvignon is his specialty (drinking a glass as writing this!)
Slow food market Stellenbosch (funny sign: your husband just phoned and said you can buy anything you like!)
Franschhoek (1 hour West of Stellenbosch)
The Wine Tram
At the Tasting Room for dinner
Just showing a few of 16 different dishes we were served!
There's no menu - but everything is going to reflect the South African local foods
At the end the menu is printed and given, but lots of ingredients unknown to us
View over Wellington vineyards
Ready for some light & simple...steak!
Arrived at Grand Dedale (vineyard / accommodation)
Going for a vineyard walk in 35 degrees Celcius
Coffee stone in vineyard
List of grape varieties used in SA by Bosman
Marketing manager Neil at Bosman
Spice Route (winery signs all look a bit like this one)

Chocolate tasting for a modest fee
Road crossings...
View over Wellington from the West to East
Traditional method ageing cellar
High density olive plantation
Fantastic packaging - I'm jealous!
Olive oil tasting
Tasting of Chardonnays
Cheers to a Grape Wine Adventure!

This was a great adventure that we would very happily to all over - and who know, maybe we'll be planning a trip for other wine lovers here in future... Cheers to that!