Monthly Archives: February 2010

Just Don’t Call it Blush: South African Rosé is Serious Fun

The first grapes came in at 9 a.m., huge purple clusters
that were both juicy-sweet and a bit tangy to the taste. Instead of half-ton
bins these arrived in small crates which we tossed one by one straight into the
press; these grapes were VIPs, receiving a gentle whole-cluster press rather
than the usual crushing. As we lugged crate after crate up a makeshift
staircase and dumped it into the press under the blistering sun, knowing we had
a 14-hour day ahead of us, Rolf shouted, “smile, guys! This is one of our most
important wines!”

We weren’t making cabernet, or a nice late harvest dessert
wine, or champagne. No, this was White Zinfandel Day.

 

Offer American wine geeks a glass of white zinfandel and
they’ll most likely laugh, snort incredulously, or run the opposite direction.
The sweet, super cheap zinfandel incarnation that gave “blush” wine a bad name
in the U.S. is like the most ditzy cheerleader at your high school: popular
enough, but probably not destined for greatness. But South Africa, with its experimental,
up-and-coming atmosphere, huge number dynamic young winemakers from all over
the world, and recent explosion of high-quality rosé wines, is the perfect
environment to reinvent this maligned style. That’s exactly what Rolf has done.

 

On my first day at Blaauwklippen Rolf and Albert took us to
lunch at the Blaauwklippen restaurant and suggested we try a glass of white
zinfandel. I had to hide my disappointment, but when I tasted the wine I
realized immediately that this was no boxed wine: our white zinfandel is
absolutely lovely. With a refreshing summery nose of strawberries and star
fruit, a snappy crisp finish, and a gorgeous hibiscus color, it’s a serious
wine that sells for about US$15 – rather high for a South African white. When I
mentioned this wine to my roommate Erik, who worked in the cellar last year, he
chuckled. “Just wait for White Zinfandel day during harvest – it’s the longest
day of the season,” he said. “That wine will kick your ass.”

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Our white zinfandel, which we call White Zinfandel Blanc de
Noir on the label to differentiate from the American version, is time-consuming
because it has to be pressed immediately; we can’t just dump it in the crusher,
pump it to a tank, and let it sit for a few days. Because it’s a rosé we want
minimal skin contact (so it won’t draw too much color or tannin from the skins)
so we put whole clusters rather than crushed grapes into the press. But first,
we needed a whole crate crushed for juice so we could analyze the sugar and
acidity. I was given the absolutely wonderful job of crushing the grapes with
my feet. Albert knows me well enough to know that I love getting my hands (or
feet) dirty: on a hot day standing in a bin of cool grape juice feeling the
berries explode between my toes was fantastic.

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When we analyzed the juice, our sugar was at 23 Balling and
our TA was 12.2 – quite high acidity for this hot region. Rolf was concerned
about the pucker factor and wanted to deacidify, but when he gave samples to
Christoph and me to taste we just shrugged and smiled. Being from cold-weather
regions where nice acidity is the norm, we weren’t concerned and told Rolf he
should wait as long as possible before removing acid. In our opinion, with this
style too much acid is better than too little, but he’s the winemaker so we’ll
see what he decides.

 

Blaauwklippen is the only wine farm in South Africa that
makes a white zinfandel. “It’s something special that we do, it’s a curiosity,
it’s something new for people to try,” says Rolf. I remarked to him that South
African rosé in general is some of the best that I’ve ever had, and that it
seems to be a style undergoing a renaissance here. Not only is it a style that
winemakers take very seriously, it’s a chance for creativity: I’ve tasted wonderful
rosé from mourvedre, cab franc, cab sauv, pinotage, and petit verdot here, the
highlight being Peter Falke’s 100% cab sauv whole-cluster-pressed example,
which has a gorgeous honey apricot nose and delectably delicate palate. The perfect
picnic wine, good South African rosé 
is complex, lively, edgy, and uniquely refreshing on a hot day.
“Stylistically rosé has wonderful potential,” Rolf says. “Especially with the
younger generation who are more willing to experiment and try something new,
people are finding it can be a very nice wine.”

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White Zinfandel Day did indeed kick my ass – after hauling
40 lb crates into a press, shoveling the pressed clusters of skins into a
truck, and repeating twice, we got home after a 14-hour day with aching backs
and legs. As I stumbled home picking grape skins out of my hair and collapsed
in bed, I thought of the number of times I’ve made fun of white zin in my life,
and decided that karma had caught up with me.

 

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Screw Sideways – I Will Totally Drink This F***ing Merlot

Juicy, complex, full of flavor, and in balance at 24 Balling/Brix and 3.4 pH, our 2010 merlot from the mountainside Tortoiseback Vineyard is so delicious, we couldn't stop shoving whole clusters of grapes in our mouths while crushing it. 

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 Merlot in the crusher

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Leon sneaks a handful

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Rodney in pure bliss 
 

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Our vineyard team heads back out after lunch 

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Fermenting viognier is still sweet and delicious at 20 Balling 

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Harvest Day One Photos

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Kellergeisters Andrew and Leon model in front of our crushing system

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I got hose, in different area codes…

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My cellar BFF Donald greets the first bin of grapes

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My favorite crusher warning label: if Gumby was a pole dancer…

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Get Your Game Face On

Blaauwklippen’s 2010 harvest kicked off at 7 this morning
with viognier picked from our lovely but unromantically-named Tekno Park vineyard
across the street next to the Klein Zalze winery. The first bins of grapes
arrived at about 9, so we had some time to go over equipment use and logistics
with our winemaker Rolf. My job for the day was running the crusher, which
collects the grapes as we dump them from the bins and knocks them loose of
their stems. They’re then pumped into the press, where they’re squeezed and
pumped into a tank for fermentation. Here at Blaauwklippen we only use the
yeast that is found naturally on the skins of grapes, so at that point the
fermentation has begun.

 

These grapes were picked at about 21.5 degrees Balling/Brix
and at a pH of 3.2, which means they could’ve stayed on the vine a bit longer.
Rolf wanted a nice acidity and low alcohol level for this viognier, which he
plans to blend with purchased Sauvignon Blanc to make our White Landau blend.
He showed me how to analyze a grape by look and taste: is the pulp juicy or
more textured? Are the seeds brown or still a bit green, and do they crumble
easily when you bite them? Is the skin grainy and tannic? What are the flavors?
How sweet is the grape? All these tests need to be done on grapes taken from
both sides of a cluster, since one side will have more sun exposure. I eat
stuff like this up (no pun intended) – after weeks in the lab taking numerical
readings of sample juice, sensory grape analysis is just plain fun.

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Once we got things going I couldn’t believe how quickly the
day went by. By 5:00 we were finished crushing, having juice-ified 15 tons of
grapes. I know it’s only the first day but I have to say harvest feels more
like a party than hard work at Blaauwklippen: there was pan-fried calamari for
lunch and two “tea time” breaks, a “Play That Funky Music White Boy” dance-off,
lots of snacking on grapes, and endless wisecracks at the expense of my
perpetually grumpy fellow cellar intern.

 

After cleaning up (it occurred to me today while hosing down
equipment that “cleaning up” is often the part of the job that makes you
dirtiest) we took Albert and his wife Esme to dinner to thank them for the
wonderful weekend in Langebaan. They suggested Wynhuis (Wine House), a
beautiful, romantic spot in the heart of Stellenbosch. It’s the kind of place
where I’d hang out every night if I could afford it. The menu is an extensive
and creative mixture of classic Italian and traditional South African with a
locally focused wine list to match. I was in heaven. We started with Tokara’s
2007 white blend, 85% sauvignon blanc and 15% Semillon, which was oaky, figgy
and great with my pan-fried calamari appetizer. Albert brought Glenelly’s
entry-level Zebra red Cape blend for dinner. It had a classy, rather French
lead/pepper nose for a blend that describes itself as “fun-loving” and a very
smooth finish, a great compliment to my entrée: gemsbock filet. Apparently a
gemsbock is one of the most elegant of the gazelle family; Esme encouraged me
to look for one at one of the Western Cape’s game preserves so I could
experience its beauty. At least I experienced its deliciousness! It was even
more tender and flavorful than good venison, a nice match for a pinotage-heavy
Cape blend.

 

At dessert time I had to try a local port. I opted for
Morganshof LBV and discovered a port that drank like an aged Spanish blend:
dusty, a haunting mix of spices, not too sweet and perfect with my malva
pudding (a South African bread pudding made with marula cream liqueur). It was
the perfect meal to kick off the harvest – and since I have the weekend off
from pumpovers, I’ll be able to sleep it off in style! 

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Weekend in Langebaan

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Our assistant winemaker Albert's holiday house

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Albert in his element

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Eating snails – slimy, yet satisfying!

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Our little stretch of beach

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The Elephant in the Room: Race Relations, a First Impression

It’s time to address the 900-pound elephant in the room. No,
it’s not the fact that I haven’t actually seen an elephant yet here (though I
did see a mother and baby baboon run across a highway – definitely a wildlife
highlight thus far). I’m referring to the race issue. Up to this point I’ve
tried to keep my posts, and my attitudes, as politics-free as is possible for a
political junkie like me; I’ve learned that the best way to understand a new
environment is to leave one’s expectations at home. That said, South Africa is no stranger
to bad press, but I have to admit that my first impression of society here was
quite positive: only fifteen years after apartheid, I saw a nation much more
tolerant and forward-thinking than the U.S. fifteen years after the Jim Crow
era.

 

Though I want politics to play a minimal role on this blog,
several race-related questions from friends back home and a comment that South
Africa is in the “racial Dark Ages” inspired me to offer some of my
observations thus far. Rather than trying to tackle this huge topic in one
post, I’d like to start with my first impressions and do a later post after
I’ve been here long enough to have a deeper understanding of the issues. Bear
in mind: these experiences are limited to the people I’ve met in Stellenbosch,
which is a major enclave of Afrikaner culture and not necessarily
representative of South Africa as a whole.

 

The first thing to understand about South African society is
that people are used to being labeled. During apartheid, every citizen was assigned
a racial category from one of four groups: white (predominantly Afrikaners, the
descendents of Dutch settlers), African, coloured, or asian (of which 98% are
of Indian ancestry). The term “coloured” has been a particularly difficult pill
for me to swallow, for the obvious reason that it has historically been a
derogatory term for African-Americans, but also because the “coloured” people
of South Africa are described vaguely as 
“mixed race” – the label was designed as a catch-all category to further
divide non-whites in order to control them. These distinctions between races
seemed ridiculous to me – as an American I’m used to people having mixed
ancestry. I was irritated by the arbitrary racializing – why is it so important
whether someone is a quarter black, half Asian, five-sixths white, or one-third
mermaid? (Well, okay, that last one would be cool to know.) But it’s VERY
important in South Africa. Coloureds speak Afrikaans just like whites and had
the better deal during apartheid, with slightly better (though still
deplorable) living conditions, so the coloured people I’ve met so far have been
very careful to distinguish themselves to me from black folks. And everyone
gets introduced with a label: “What’s his last name – is he white?” “The two
coloured guys you work with…” “That’s a black neighbhorhood…” Coming from a
nation of politically correct, sterile race dialogue, a nation that thought it
was “past” racism until the Obama campaign reminded us that there are still
quite a few psychos out there, it’s appalling to hear stereotypes, slurs and
generalizations stated so matter-of-factly.

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I figured out pretty quickly that though apartheid is over,
de facto segregation is present. One of the first questions I was asked by many
of my co-workers was whether I’d consider dating a man who was coloured or
black. When I responded that interracial dating isn’t really a big deal where I
come from and that I thought all the South African men were attractive (more on
that later!) I was met with impressed surprise. I was most intrigued to hear a
DJ on the radio bring up this topic on the Valentine’s Day theme: she
encouraged listeners to “think outside the box” and consider dating someone of
another race. She then remarked that the children of mixed race couples are
particularly beautiful, and referred to them as “Golden Delicious” kids. No
joke. I was sitting in the Blaauwklippen van with our driver Kiepie at the
time, and when I heard that I turned to him and said, “Mixed race dating is a
big deal here, isn’t it?” He just nodded. “BIG deal.”

 

Clubs and bars in Stellenbosch are white, black, or
coloured, and there’s little mixing. When I went to a party where all the white
guests sat and drank while black and coloured “help” served the food and
cleared plates, unacknowledged and silent, I felt like I’d been transported
back to the pre-Civil War American South. Meanwhile, many of the Afrikaners
I’ve met complain about “reverse apartheid” – bending over backwards to raise
quality of life for non-whites, at the expense of Afrikaner cultural
preservation. The fact that Stellenbosch University is the only major
university in South Africa still teaching courses in Afrikaans is a major point
of debate: now that apartheid is over many Afrikaners want to make sure their
heritage doesn’t get thrown out along with the old political ideas. I’ve heard
Afrikaners complain that president Jacob Zuma is a thug who was only elected
because he’s black and that crime rates are worse than ever in the new social
structure; many live in vault-like gated communities, a world apart from the
poor townships in which most South Africans live. 

 

On the other hand, I’ve met just as many people (of all
races) who were upbeat, positive about South Africa’s future, and as
unprejudiced and open as anyone I’ve ever met. A more recent controversy is the
issue of immigrants, both legal and illegal, coming from neighboring countries
of Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe to work for low wages and supposedly steal
South African jobs – an issue with which Americans can all too easily identify. Zimbabwean artists come to Blaauwklippen for six weeks at a time to demonstrate traditional sculpture; above, a finished statue depicts the many faces of Africa.

 

It
seems that South Africa, like the U.S. and most of the world, has a long way to
go in terms of social equality, but there are signs of hope. My friend Andrew,
who’s in charge of maintenance at Blaauwklippen, is a particularly encouraging
example of the new South Africa. The coloured son of an African mother and a
Scottish father, he lives in a formerly white-only neighborhood with his
beautiful family: his wife has an executive management position at a local
hospital, his son is dating a smart and politically passionate white girl, and
his daughter is engaged to a black man from Mozambique. A dinner with his
family offered me a glimpse of what South Africa’s future might be, one in
which race doesn’t stand in the way of a good job, a nice place to live, or a
chance at true love.

Comments are welcome — please share your feelings and insight on this very complex issue. And on the lighter side, stay tuned for pictures from my weekend at my boss's holiday house at Langebaan!

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