Monthly Archives: January 2010

Wine Tasting Part I

This weekend I was determined to go wine tasting – being
surrounded by incredible wine farms the past two weeks and only visiting two of
them due to a lack of transportation has had me feeling like a eunuch at the
Playboy mansion, so I made it my mission to find a tasting buddy with a good
nose and a good set of wheels. I found both in Dana, my buddy who works in the
Blaauwklippen vineyard, and we took off on Saturday with nothing but wine in
our plans.

The view from Delaire.

Our first stop was Delheim, and the drive-up alone was
absolutely amazing. The road was lined with flowering trees and winded up a
mountainside, with pines in one direction and vineyards in another. The wine
centre had a log cabin vibe, and we were served at a table for two rather than
at the counter, giving us time to linger over and discuss each wine. Three
dessert wines on the list immediately jumped out at me: a Noble Late Harvest
riesling, a semi-sweet gewürztraminer, and a riesling/chenin blanc semi-sweet
blend. I was intrigued to find the sort of wines we make up in cool New York
State, and impressed to find them delicious and complex. Though I like a little
more acidity in my dessert wines, the gewürztraminer was particularly tasty;
the description mentioned Turkish Delight on the nose, which I found delightful
and accurate.

Stellenblog_tokararoom Tokara's steep vineyards.

Our next stop was Tokara. I realized at that point I should
just stop thinking to myself “THIS is the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen,”
since it seems every place I go is more gorgeous than the last. Tokara’s
vineyards run steeply down the side of a mountain which can be seen from the
giant window of its classy, modern tasting room. The standout here was a wooded
chenin blanc, absolutely luscious with toasty buttered almonds and tropical
fruit flavors and the sexiest mouthfeel I’ve experienced here so far – while
most of the whites I’ve tried here so far have been crisp and refreshing, this
was the first that I would actually want to spend an evening with. I bought a
bottle for about R50, a steal at around US$5.

Zorgvliet, located in the Banhoek Valley near Stellenbosch,
came highly recommended to us, and the wines exceeded our high expectations. A
fascinating menu offered several single cultivars we hadn’t seen before
including petit verdot, pinot noir (unfortunately sold out!), tannat, and that
grape that is closest to my heart: cabernet franc. I went straight for the
franc and with one sniff I felt like I was home in New York: the nose was
poblano, peppercorns, and pencil shavings, the palate was sumptuous and fleshy,
and the finish was spunky tannins and awesome length. I could’ve spent the
whole afternoon getting franc’d but forced myself to move on to the malbec,
tannat and petit verdot. The last was most impressive, an intense,
concentrated, no-messing-around red that begged for steak. Zorgvliet’s
winemaker has a gentle hand with oak and an obvious affinity for single
cultivar reds. I bought a bottle of franc and made up my mind to visit again.

Roses at Thelema.

One winery, Thelema, was about to close when we showed up,
but I immediately thought of my friend Andrea when we drove past the vineyards
and saw roses planted at the end of each row. Andrea, a botanist at the
University of Virginia in Charlottesville, had asked me if I had seen this
practice. As I understand it, if there are certain diseases present in the
vineyard, it will show up on the roses first and give the viticulturist a
heads-up that something is wrong. This is the first time I’ve seen it in South
Africa but Dana informed me that it’s fairly common. There you go, Andrea!

Stellenblog_delaireroom We finished our day of wine tasting at Delaire, a nationally
renowned wine farm whose sauvignon blanc was recently awarded Best Sauvignon
Blanc in South Africa. We were too late for tasting but were encouraged to have
a glass of wine while enjoying the high mountain view from the wine centre
patio. We couldn’t pass up a chance to try to famous sauv blanc. Indeed, it was
snappy and zesty with nice grapefruit and gooseberry on the finish, but the
nose had just a hint of that withered-spinach-leaves scent that I’m not crazy
about in sauv blanc. Though it was certainly a pleasurable wine and perfect for
the circumstance, the best sauv blanc I’ve tried in South Africa thus far is
still Slaley’s more complex and clean version.

After all this wine it was time to eat, so we grabbed a
pizza at a café in Stellenbosch that actually had two chickens running around
under the tables. I knew I had only scratched the surface of the Stellenbosch
wine scene, but if today was any indication, I’m in for more world-class wine
than I’ve ever had in my life. 



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Blaauwklippen Vineyard Photos




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The Grapes and Math: Pre-Harvest Vineyard Fun

Today was our first day in the vineyard – it’s time to take
our first samples for analysis. Typically the first grapes harvested are
viognier (our only white grape), merlot, and shiraz, so we tested the blocks of
those grapes that tend to ripen earliest. (Note: For those of you reading who
aren’t necessarily wine peeps – hi, Mom! – please excuse the technical jargon.
And for those of you who are major wine peeps, please excuse the brevity of the
technical jargon.


Blaauwklippen is even bigger than I thought – there are
vineyards across the road next to our neighbors at Klein Zalze Estate as well
as up the hills behind Blaauwklippen and across the road behind us. Each
section of the vineyard has a name, a story, and a distinctive personality,
which I’ll get to in more detail in future posts (I have a couple buddies who
work in the vineyard who will definitely have at least two cents to add!).


One interesting tidbit: for newer plantings, mostly up the
hill towards the mountains, we’ve implemented a high-density system by which
vines are planted closer together, about 1m x 1.5m, to force them to compete
and struggle a bit more. I’ve made a point to do a vertical tasting in the next
few days to see if I can pick up the differences; Albert says they’ve been getting
really nice results in the newer vintages. For vines as well as for people,
adversity is a great character builder.


After all this time in the dank, dreary cellar (though I’m
not complaining – it’s a break from the heat!) it was glorious to be out in the
vineyard snipping clusters of grapes for sampling, and munching a few along the
way. The merlot was extraordinarily sweet, but for all the grapes it was
amazing to taste the difference from one block to another. Altogether we took
eight buckets of grapes, each one from a different block.


Back at the winery, we hand crushed the juice (always one of
my favorite parts) for analysis of Brix,or, as we call it here, Balling, which
hovered around 21-22 for shiraz and merlot and 19-20 for viognier. Acidity was
right where our assistant winemaker Albert wanted it, around 3.4 for pH and TA
mostly between 8 and 9. I’m curious as to how much this will change in the next
couple of weeks. In New York, we’re known for wines with good acidity but often
are concerned about getting Brix levels high enough, but here it’s the opposite
problem: hot weather means sugar levels are high but the acidity may be too


 Though South
African winemakers are legally allowed to add acid (they can’t add sugar), and
many do, our winemaker Rolf Zeitvogel has a very hands-off philosophy and
doesn’t like to acidify unless he absolutely has to. This year, Albert says,
was cool enough that there shouldn’t be any need to monkey with the natural
acid levels. 


Picking should be right on schedule with a start date of
about the 15th of February. Until then, we’re enjoying the calm
before the storm. Tonight our little cellar team – Albert, Leon and Rodney the
“kellergeisters”, Christoph the other intern, and I – went out for a beer and
some pizza at a Stellenbosch pub. In true South African multicultural style the
menu included schnitzel, tzatziki, ribs, bangers and mash, soppressata pizza,
burgers, and greek salad! I’m told we’ll also have a braai the night before
harvest. Christoph commented tonight that it’s lucky we all get along as well
as we do so far, and for the most part I’d say that’s true. Occasionally
Christoph’s and my differences in background mean that we don’t always see eye
to eye: he was born into the wine business, working in his family’s winery, and
already has a “way” of doing things, whereas I have a fairly clean slate and
just want to absorb as much as I can. But with a little patience on his part
and a lot of hard work on mine I think we’ll be just fine come picking time.  

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Some Photos for Now

The barrel room of Blaauwklippen.

This is the walkway past the Blaauwklippen Restaurant.

My roommates at our first braai.

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Braai Times

My first week at Blaauwklippen and I’m completely in awe.
There are mountains literally surrounding the winery, the air smells like a
mixture of beach and tropical flowers, and the view of rolling hills covered
with vineyards is absolutely breathtaking. I’m staying at the Jonkershuis, a
very old house on the property with four bedrooms, a kitchen, and one shower.
My roommates are four boys (!). There’s Christoph, a German wine student and my
fellow cellar intern, and three hospitality students working in the
Blaauwklippen restaurant: Glenn from India, Yves from Switzerland, and Erik
from Germany.


I received a warm welcome from Yves – the only person awake
when I arrived at the house at midnight – which included my first African beer,
the Namibian Tafel Lager. Smooth and surprisingly malty, it hit the spot after
my long flight. Since then I've also discovered South Africa's Castle Milk Stout, an absolute wealth of amazing wine, and the ultimate South African tradition: braai. Like barbecue but better, it involves slow roasting one or many kinds of meat, often on a spit, with special seasonings over friends, drinks, a summer sunset, and great conversation. I've had no fewer than four since I've been here!

I'm discovering that South Africans are nothing if not welcoming: this weekend I was invited to two wine parties, one at Slaley and another at Dombeya. Highlights included doing shots of Springbok, which is Marula cream liqueur and peppermint schnapps, layered to look like the rugby colors, with a bunch of people I'd just met with Afrikaner music on the box while they bent over backwards giving me tips on how best to enjoy the country; riding up a mountain piled into the back of a pickup truck to watch a sunset over an incredible vineyard scene; and trying incredible wines like Dombeya's 2008 Chardonnay and Slaley's 2003 Shiraz while talking about them with the winemakers. I also got to meet folks from Black Pearl, Klein Zalze, and Warwick – how amazing to be able to sit around and talk wine with so many passionate people. Heaven.

The cellar itself is a cakewalk at this point, since we won't start picking till the second week of February. I'm cleaning tanks, doing some random filtering and bottling, and scrubbing things mostly, all while chatting with our gregarious kellergeister ("cellar ghost"), Leon. He's a wealth of information on everything from South African politics and society to music and food, and a pleasure to work with. The real craziness, of course, will start in a couple weeks, when we'll pick about 400 acres by hand over a period of three months. Until then, I'm settling in, making friends, and eating lots of braai.


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Suitcases, Wine and Goodbyes


This is a story, I hope, about wine, travel, adventure, friendship, passion, and, if all my dreams are realized, at least one elephant. I leave Sunday afternoon for Stellenbosch, South Africa, where I’ll be a cellar/vineyard intern at Blaauwklippen Vineyards for the 2010 vintage. Having never been to South Africa, with only a year in the wine industry and one harvest under my belt, I have no doubt I’m in for a solid ass-kicking, and being a compulsive writer I thought it might be nice to document the experience so those of you reading this can have a few laughs at my expense to warm your cold winter months.

Some background. Back in July, restless with my personal life and longing for a wine-related adventure, I absentmindedly googled a few Southern Hemisphere wineries to look for temporary positions. I somehow ended up with a job offer at Blaauwklippen despite the fact that I had no idea how to pronounce the name of the winery until the winemaker said it during my phone interview.

Now, after months of waiting, drinking boatloads of South African wine for "research", making friends annoyed and family members nervous with excerpts read aloud from Lonely Planet, more wine drinking, fingernail-biting while waiting for visa approval, and checking the Stellenbosch weather forecast when it's too cold in Buffalo to step outside, I'm now within 24 hours of departure. It's time to face the stuff I'm not so good at: organized packing, last-minute logistics, and goodbyes.

For starters, packing. Current contents of my suitcase: my very own set of vineyard clippers, a cocktail dress, and a bottle of Schulze Vidal Ice Wine to show my South African coworkers what Niagara wine is all about. That should fix me up for a couple of months, right?

Stellenblog_altosdeluzon By last-minute logistics, I mean planning my last few meals and drinks in the US. Though I’ve been sure to clock in some time with wings, beef on weck, and other Buffalo delights in the past few weeks, I want to drink something I know I won’t find on the big toe of Africa: great pinot noir from my home wine region of Niagara, made by a couple guys I’m lucky to call my coworkers and friends. So I made sure to show up at the winery for some single-vineyard 2008 pinot and hugs.

Which brings me to goodbyes.

In short, I don’t handle ’em well, so instead of drawn-out, tearful drama sessions I’m in favor of quick, fierce hugs followed by self medication at home in the form of Bob (Dylan or Seger)-heavy mixes and wine. And indeed, now that I’m home, Dylan is on the box and I’m knee deep in a bottle given to me by a dear friend: Altos de Luzon 2005, a blend of 50% monastrell, 25% cab sauv, and 25% tempranillo. I’m not in the mood for excessive tasting notes at the moment – let’s just say it’s dusty, sexy, lusty and exactly what I need as a wine to mull over while I finish packing and preparing for this new adventure.

 My next post will be from Africa – until then, pray for my ability to survive limited airline beer/wine/culinary choices. Cheers!


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