Monthly Archives: March 2010

Um, I Actually Came Here For the Beer…

It's been said that it takes a lot of beer to make good wine. If there's one thing I've learned from my whopping two harvests it's that where there are winemakers in autumn mode, there's at least a growler if not a keg somewhere nearby. Crushing, pressing, racking, filtering, and analyzing wine all day just makes you crave a nice cold one, and this weekend, just when I was beginning to wonder if I'd survive this record-breaking craft beer dry spell, my beer-loving German roommate Christoph scored me and my roommates reservations at the Paulaner brewery on Cape Town's waterfront for the premier release of their Salvator Dopplebock.

We arrived at the brewery's beautiful waterfront restaurant and each ordered the Salvator; it came in 300 mL, half-liter and one-liter servings and Glenn had the presence of mind to go for the liter. As you can see, he completely showed us all up, even Christoph.

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The Salvator was delicious. My usual complaint about dopplebocks is that they are often too sweet, sacrificing balance in the midst of an overly-assertive malt presence on the midpalate and a little too much alcohol. This version, however, nailed it. Combining beautiful, round, full, chocolatey/caramelly German malts with a crisp hop finish, it hid its 7.5% ABV so well that we were treating it like a session beer (hence the liter servings). Its appearance impressed me as well – dark enough for a porter with a creamy tanned head that made for an unusually sexy German bock. A fantastic end to my period of real-beer celibacy.

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Glenn made us all feel less manly with his beer-drinking superiority but Christoph's menu choice was even more intimidating. He went for the pork knuckle, which to my understanding is a pig ankle deep fried and drowned in a slew of potatoes and gravy. Below, he plans his attack strategy.

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My pork schnitzel wasn't as impressive visually but was both authentic (my German culinary expertise is informed by my German grandma's cooking and by Ulrich's Tavern in Buffalo, but as far as I'm concerned that's background enough) and tasty with my third mug of Salvator. Erik, our other German national, was kind enough to demonstrate traditional German table etiquette:

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After a long week this beer-licious night was just what we all needed and a great way to kick off the fall beer season. To readers in the southern hemisphere: happy fall!! To those of you in the north: don't worry, Maibock season is coming up soon.

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A Backstage Pass

This weekend I had the most wonderful experience! Having recently tasted a delicious chardonnay from Dombeya, a range of wines made at Haskell
Vineyards in the Helderberg area about 10 minutes from Blaauwklippen, I was
eager to taste more, and since their tastings are by appointment I emailed
winemaker Rianie Strydom to set a time. She responded that she would be in the
cellar on Saturday at 10 am for pumpovers, so I could come then. I finagled I
ride from Albert and showed up shortly before 10 at Haskell’s gorgeous
mountainside wine centre.

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 The view from the patio at Haskell Vineyards/Dombeya Wines

Though she's a multi-award-winning winemaker and pretty much a rock star of the South African wine industry, Rianie gave me what I can only describe as the star
treatment. We sat down together and tasted each wine as she explained to me why
she had planted that particular grape, what went into making the wine, and what
she learned from it. The wines are quite old-world in style with understated oak and natural-feeling acidity; the character of the fruit really comes through, but there’s also spices,
chalk/pencil shavings, earthy/woodsy characters, mint, and all sorts of other
cool flavors that make the wines worth savoring over a whole evening. Rianie
explained that the “new world” characteristics of high alcohol, rich chocolatey
flavors, and over-the-top, melt-your-panties tannins just aren’t her style, and
it’s clear she’s in her element making wines with subtle, dignified elegance.

 

Rianie’s husband Louis Strydom, winemaker at Ernie Els and
former winemaker for Rust en Vrede, showed up as we were finishing our tasting
and joined us for some tank samples – looks as though the 2010 cabernet and
shiraz harvest is especially promising. Tasting the wine in various stages of
fermentation and from different vineyards was a real treat; Rianie explained
the difference between the northern Simonsberg vineyards, which are more French
in style, with the more new-worldy Helderberg vineyards and it was fascinating
to compare the juice from the two regions side by side.

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 Rianie Strydom drives past her vineyards

I got to taste that delicious chardonnay again and learn
more about the wine that put Dombeya on my radar. The first thing I notice
about it is what it’s not: the golden-yellow butter-tastic oak bomb that is all
too common in warm weather wine regions. This chard has a gorgeous light
honeysuckle color with a hint of green, exceptionally clear and delicate to the
eye. It’s also not a tartaric acid cocktail like so many of the whites I’ve had
here; the acidity tastes so natural and so beautifully incorporated that I
immediately asked Rianie about it. She explained that after aging the 2008
vintage on lees for ten months, she picked some of her 2009 chardonnay
relatively early (about 17 Balling) and blended 10% into the 2008 just before
bottling, giving it a natural, balanced acid structure. To read more about this
fascinating wine, check out the technical information on Dombeya’s excellent
and informative website: http://www.dombeyawines.com/dombeya/

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 The tasting room; at far right, Haskell Pillars 2007 Shiraz is the first South African wine to be named overall Champion at the Tri-Nations Challenge in Sydney, Australia. 

Dombeya wines aren’t the 15%-plus booze bombs that many
associate with warm weather wine. In addition to vigilant vineyard
practices and a picking schedule that ensures no overripe fruit, one of
Rianie’s strategies for controlling alcohol is open-top fermentations. “The
alcohol blows off nicely,” she explained, and I could actually smell it while
punching down the cap. She also works frequently with whole-berry fermentation
which results in minimal skin contact, smoother tannins, good concentration and
a juicier, more fruit-forward flavor. When I tasted juice from tanks in which
the berries were crushed after tasting juice from the whole-berry ferments, the
difference was obvious: the crushed juice had a more extracted, tannic
character and was almost over-the-top after the subtle whole-berry juice. Of
all the tank samples I tasted, the shiraz and cab sauv were the most exciting,
already showing great complexity on the nose and beautiful tannic structure.

 

At this point we had worked up an appetite. After a
delicious lunch of nachos and Tokara '08 Elgin Sauvignon Blanc at the Buena
Vista Social Club Café in Somerset West, the three of us headed to Ernie Els for
Louis’s afternoon round of pumpovers and punchdowns. Always a fan of
punchdowns, I offered to help out a bit while I picked the two winemakers’
brains. It’s quite a transition from Dombeya’s understated style to the robust,
massive blends of Ernie Els, but Louis treated me to some outstanding tank and
barrel samples – a backstage pass to the making of the phenomenal Ernie Els
wines I tasted a few weeks back.

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 Louis Strydom outside the Ernie Els cellar

We said goodbye to Louis and headed back to Dombeya, where
it was time for afternoon pumpovers. I gave Rianie a hand and got to smell a
gorgeous tank of cab sauv in the process – it had amazing flavors! Judging from
what I’ve tasted at Dombeya, Ernie Els, and Blaauwklippen, it looks like 2010
could be a very exciting year for cab sauv.

 

I left
Dombeya grinning like a kid on Christmas morning. Rianie sent me home with some
fantastic wine including my three favorites: the gorgeous 2008 Chardonnay, the
peppery 2007 Boulder Road Shiraz, and the 2005 Samara, which is a blend
of cab sauv, merlot and malbec and shows amazing cassis, anise, and lead pencil
– very French in style and a prime candidate for blind tasting with someone
who’s a snob about "old world" wine. I will absolutely be coming back to Haskell/Dombeya
for a few cases before I leave South Africa – this is some of the most exciting wine I've tasted here, and the incredible chance to hang out with Rianie and Louis made it hands-down my best day in South Africa yet.

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2010 Harvest Ends with an Experiment, a Sugar High, and Beer

After exactly four weeks, 400 tons of grapes, and at least
ten bee stings, Blaauwklippen’s 2010 harvest officially ended on Friday. Except
for the Noble Late Harvest grapes, which we’ll harvest Monday, we picked the
last of our petit verdot before noon and spent the rest of the day scrubbing
the cellar floors, crusher, and press. If you can’t picture what cleaning the
inside of a grape press is like, imagine a scene akin to 2001 Space Odyssey in
which some lucky soul (yours truly) stands inside a giant rotating cylinder
attempting to power-wash it, in the dark, in air that contains more carbon
dioxide than oxygen, while constantly running sideways like a deranged hamster
inside a toilet paper roll.

 

The last few days of harvest were amazing learning experiences.
First, Rolf gave Christoph and me a project: a Rhone-style winemaking
experiment with whole clusters and dry ice. The process: we filled a half-ton oak
cask with alternate layers of crushed shiraz and dry ice, then for the final
layer we used whole-cluster petit verdot. The dry ice will cool down the
berries, and by the time the fermentation, which will start at the bottom layer
of crushed grapes, reaches the whole-cluster layer the idea is that it will
actually begin inside the whole berry. As Rolf explained, this will preserve
the complex flavors and character of the fruit. We’re working with only the
natural yeast that occurs on the fruit, something neither of us have done
before, and the blend is about 80% shiraz and 20% petit verdot. Rolf showed off
his artistic talent with a crystal-clear diagram, which I had to capture:

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A great source of entertainment for the rest of the day was
walking by the board and offering creative out-of-context interpretations of
the diagram. My favorite: “Oh, I get it! The cupcake is trying to get into the
Food Pyramid, and the angry tomato is the bouncer, and he has a band-aid
because they got into a fight.”

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At 25 Balling, 3.51 pH and 6.2 TA, our wine is nicely
balanced and so far is showing good flavors. Sounds like a good excuse to make
a trip back to Stellenbosch next year to try it when it’s ready!

 

I also got to spend some time out in the vineyard getting
samples of viognier, malbec and zinfandel for our Noble Late Harvest dessert
wines. At this point these grapes are quite sweet and in various stages of
raisin-izing. (Yup, that’s a word now. Deal with it.) I got to taste them with
Rolf and ended up eating so many as we picked that I’m pretty sure my dentist
will be able to remodel his kitchen with the money from all my cavities. When
we got to the cellar I spent four hours crushing the grapes for analysis; you
have to pull each one off the stems, which takes a long time but is actually
really relaxing. The sugar levels came in at between 30 and 35 Balling, with pH
in the 3.7 range – a nice acidity level for this style. We should be able to
pick all three cultivars on Monday.


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I can’t believe this harvest went by so fast. The next phase is pressing all the
wines, racking, topping off barrels, and generally getting the wines set up for
the aging process, which will take 12 to 18 months. It feels good to be done –
I left work at 5:30 for the first time in a month and celebrated by seeing a
phenomenal concert in Stellenbosch with friends. Life is back to normal again,
just in time for St. Patrick’s Day…that could be dangerous

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Wine Tasting Part II: Some Would Say “Vagrant” but I Prefer “Troubadour”


In
my ongoing attempt to drink my way through Stellenbosch, I’m visiting wine
farms every chance I get, and a few of my recent tasting experiences have been
bizarre enough to be post-worthy. From a springbok carpaccio lunch on top of a
mountain to a garden that belongs on a Beatles album cover, it seems there’s no
shortage of creativity – and weirdness – in the tasting rooms of Stellenbosch.

 

My
friend Michelle had heard that Peter Falke had a cool tasting room, so we
checked it out. The wine centre itself was beautiful enough but certainly
nothing out of the ordinary; we were a little underwhelmed until our server
asked, “Would you like to sit outside?” We stepped out into the garden and were
greeted with what I can only describe as Tim Burton meets The Magical Mystery
Tour.  The gorgeous lawn, bordered
by a rose garden, was full of huge umbrellas covering giant fluffy cushions in
neon polka dot, stripes, and flowers. Huge twirly fixtures stuck in the grass
like king-sized cocktail forks were topped with a big red cork with the PF
logo; it took us a few minutes to realize they were giant corkscrews. We
selected an umbrella and the server emerged from the wine centre (a good 100
yard walk – we sheepishly realized we’d chosen the farthest possible spot) with
our first wine and two glasses. The glasses were another wonder: each one had a
groove from rim to stem to aerate the wine as we swirled.

 

It
was the most relaxing tasting experience I’ve ever had. We hung out on the
comfy cushions sipping our wine (about a half-glass pour for each one!) and
enjoying the sunshine. People-watching was great too – the tourists’ reactions
to the lawn and the elaborate cushion selection process was highly
entertaining. Combine this with tasty wine, including a dynamite sauvignon
blanc and a sublime cab sauv rosé which I purchased, and I’d say Peter Falke is
one of my favorite tasting room experiences to date.

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  Michelle feelin’ groovy with a hip wine glass

The
next two strange experience were a direct result of the fact that because I
don’t have a car, I do a lot of walking to wine farms. This is pretty much
unheard of in Stellenbosch and it’s gotten me into trouble. Since Klein Zalze
is right across the street from Blaauwklippen I thought walking was a
no-brainer. Not so much. I got to the security gate (every wine farm has one,
with a boom and a guard) and identified myself. “I’m sorry,” said the guard, a
young woman who had more gold teeth than anyone I’ve ever seen. “You’re not
allowed to walk up to the tasting room. You have to be in a car.” I replied
that I was an intern at Blaauwklippen, visiting from the U.S., and I was
walking because I don’t have a car. “I’m sorry, you must be in a car,” she
repeated.

 

Feeling
a little like I was being punk’d, I tried a logical approach. “What do you
suggest I do?” I asked. “I’m here to spend money, have some lunch, buy some
wine. I’m sure your boss would rather have my business.” This went over like a
lead balloon. “I will get in trouble,” the guard said, shaking her head
emphatically. “You just don’t understand. This is not the U.S. This is South
Africa.” I was completely exasperated, but something told me to hang in there.
The guard asked me where I was from, and my response piqued her interest. She
asked me if I had ever seen Mariah Carey in person. We chatted for about 20 minutes
while she let in one car full of thirsty tasters after another. Finally, she
sized me up one more time. “You’re very pretty,” she declared, gesturing to my
curly hair, which apparently had been improved by the heat. “I’ll make a plan.”
When the next car pulled up, two Germans in an Audi, she approached the window
and smiled sweetly. “Gentlemen! Would you two like to escort this young lady to
the tasting room?”

         “With
pleasure! Hop in!” they agreed, and for approximately a quarter mile I rode in
an Audi for the first time in my life. As we drove away, the guard called out,
“Please remember me! And next time you come bring me an American dollar!”

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 A butternut squash soup shooter: the ultimate
classy cocktail

After
this bizarre experience I needed a drink. The wines were delicious, especially
the gorgeous chenin blanc and chardonnay. I had an amazing lunch in the
restaurant: duck confit with a glass of merlot. The weirdness didn’t stop,
however: I was served a butternut squash soup amuse-bouche in a shot glass and
couldn’t figure out how to consume it; my server brought the gigantic
chalkboard menu right to my table because they were out of menus; and a group
of young Afrikaner men bounced over to me wanting a picture together because
one of them had been to Las Vegas once.

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 My yummy duck confit and carafe of wine at Klein
Zalze

 A third unique wine tasting experience had
me feeling like I should be carrying a stick with a bandanna full of belongings
tied to the top when I go wine tasting from now on. I left Guardian Peak on
Saturday afternoon after less-than-awesome service with a mind to visit
its more highbrow sister winery Ernie Els, just down the street according to my
Stellenbosch Wine Route map.

 

The
past few weekends temperatures have climbed into the Fahrenheit triple digits,
and this day was no exception. As I plodded along the brick road, taking in the
magnificent mountains around me, I began to realize three things. There wasn’t
a tree or speck of shade in sight along the road. I had failed to bring
sunscreen or a water bottle. I had seen signs for Ernie Els but I had been
walking for 20 minutes and still couldn’t see the tasting room.

 

It’s
common for wine farms to have driveways that wind up the mountain for three
kilometers or more. Turns out Ernie Els is one of them.

 

After
45 minutes of walking in direct sunlight in sandals with a bottle of wine, a
camera and a purse in tow, I saw a fountain and fish pond at the top of the
hill. I feared for my sanity, thinking it was a mirage, but I had arrived at
the wine centre. The concerned servers greeted me with a sympathetic “Ag,
shame!” when I told them hw far I’d walked and loaded me up with water before
my tasting. Once I recovered I realized I was nearly at the top of a mountain,
and the tasting room opened to an incredible view of the whole of Stellenbosch.
A guitarist played upgraded versions of John Mayer songs on the patio
overlooking the mountainside. It was absolutely beautiful.

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 A great meal on the mountain at Ernie Els

I loved the wines, the highlight of which was the Els-Engelbrecht red
blend, a collaboration between Ernie Els and Rust en Vrede winemaker Jan
Engelbrecht. Craving some fuel I opted for the interesting-sounding “safari
platter.” It was one of the most interesting dishes I’ve had here: springbok
carpaccio with fig glaze, bobotie, and biltong spring rolls. With a glass of
their 2004 Bordeaux-style blend, the meal was well worth the hike. 


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Signs of Harvest-Induced Insanity

I've woken up in the wee hours of the morning not once, but twice now, horrified that I'd forgotten to check the sugar level on the zinfandel. I have a possibly permanent tan on my feet in the shape of the Keens I wear every day. My back, feet, and shoulders are in constant pain, there's never enough beer in the fridge, and I actually went to bed at 9:30 the other night for the first time since I was maybe eight years old. 

Yeah, I think it's safe to say harvest is in full swing.

As of today we've officially entered the craziest part of the harvest; the bulk of our crop will be picked in the next two weeks and the cellar is already getting full of tanks that need to be pumped over and analyzed for temperature and Balling twice a day (the latter is the exclusive job of yours truly, hence the odd nightmares). After a few weeks in a row of 40+ temperatures, suddenly it seems like everything's ready to be picked at the same time. We're actually hiring a harvesting machine twice this week to help us get everything in on time.

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 Rolf supervises the harvester

Today we started at 5:00 with the rented harvester in one vineyard and our vineyard team in another. The goal: hand-pick ten tons of malbec while the machine noshes on 40 tons of cabernet sauvignon, and then crush it all before dark. Let's just say we were all a little crazy by the end of the day.

But at Blaauwklippen even marathon days like this one have room for fun. Rolf brought in a traditional German onion cake, homemade by his wife, for us to try with the customary glass of white must at lunchtime. Though our viognier is nearly finished at 2.9 Balling, it tasted great with the toasted onions, ham, and quiche-like filling, confirming my long-standing belief that when the Germans combine meat, onions and alcohol the results are magical.

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 Onion cake with viognier must

When you're working with a machine harvester rather than hand-pickers, a major drawback is the inability of the machine to sort what goes into the bins. When the bins arrived the grapes looked just fine, but we were greeted with some unique "terroir": a managerie of African wildlife in the form of dozens of species of creepy-crawlies. Being the kind of girl who runs away from bugs only in order to get her camera, I took full advantage of the situation and reverted to my inner seven-year-old bug geek. 

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 A little too much terroir…

The star of the day was a baboon spider the size of a tennis ball. Similar to a tarantula and in fact in the same family, its body looked more like two coconuts than the soft and furry North American spider. My cellar buddies were tickled pink to watch me remove the spider from the bin while the intrepid Christoph, my fellow cellar intern, cowered in fear behind the crusher; only afterwards did they feel the need to inform me that baboon spiders are more venomous and pack a more painful punch than their North American brethren. 

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 The "Alice in Wonderland" Caterpillar is really cool in real life

In addition to the spider there were grasshoppers of all colors and sizes, a tiny and terrified mole which we rescued, the fattest caterpillar I've ever seen, and my childhood favorite: a praying mantis, known in South Africa as a "Hottentot God". Fortunately, despite bees landing on me constantly, a mantis attaching itself to my shoe for hours, and the spider incident, I survived the day with nothing but a few mosquito bites. On a final note, Rolf insisted that I add this disclaimer: these bugs were NOT crushed with the grapes!

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 Though a poor photo, I had to include this five-inch grasshopper with incredible markings

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