Monthly Archives: March 2011

Last Day: I Crash a Pinotage Tasting and Reunite With an Old Friend

My last day in South Africa was a busy one, and a truly amazing way to close this P3180002 fast-but-furious trip. I spent the morning with Chris Edge of Cape Legends, a company that represents farms such as Neetlingshof, Cederberg, and Tukulu. Chris was kind enough to take me out for a few tours, which culminated in a serendipitous lunch experience.


We began at the beautiful Plaisir du Merle estate in Franschhoek, which features a gorgeous manor house and gardens and a tasty sauvignon blanc and shiraz. From there we made a stop at Le Bonheur in Stellenbosch, also a beautiful estate that offered very nice sauvignon blanc and chardonnay and a delightful pinot noir rose, which had a full, luscious nose of strawberry and watermelon but a dry and snappy finish. Le Bonheur is quite successful in Canada, particularly Quebec, and with the French influence on the estate and wine stylings I can see why.


At this point Chris mentioned that he had to drop a few pinotage samples from Cape P3180013 Legends farms at a private tasting that was being held in the afternoon for a couple of Quebecois journalists. He asked if I might be interested in hanging out for the tasting. I never say no to pinotage, and before I knew it we were heading up the lovely Beyerskloof diveway for a pinotage extravaganza.


It seems the Quebecois journalists were interested in the pinotage story, and they were in for a treat – I entered the P3180015 Beyerskloof dining patio to meet an assembly of some of the greatest ambassadors for the cultivar in South Africa. Our host was Beyers Truter himself, patriarch of Beyerskloof and pinotage pioneer, along with his young son Andre. Kanonkop winemaker Abrie Beeslar was in attendance with what appeared to be a very exciting lineup of samples. I also got to meet Dierdre of Diemersfontein in Wellington, famed for the “Coffee Chocolate Pinotage” as well as more high-end examples. This admirable crew was kind P3180017 enough to let me crash their event, and before I knew it I was sitting next to the journos in a private room waiting for the winemakers and representatives to present us with their pinotage.


The unrivaled highlight for me was Abrie Beeslar's presentation of Kanonkop 2008 pinotage as well as two treats: the 1999 pinotage and the 1995 Paul Sauer. The ’99 showed beautiful earthy mushroom and herb notes with plum and black cherry fruit that was still amazingly lively, backed up by the muscular, veiny tannins that I admire in all Kanonkop reds. But it was the Paul Sauer 1995 that was truly haunting: aging beautifully and just right, with bloody earthiness and a seamless structure. It’s amazing to think that this wine was made just as apartheid was ending, and with it the economic P3180020 sanctions that prevented South Africa from sharing its wines with the outside world. I was overwhelmed by the experience and thanked Abrie for this rare taste.


Deirdre got a bit of flack for the Coffee Chocolate Pinotage from the Quebecois, but I think they missed the point: this wine wasn’t made for them. It is big, fruity, chocolatey, and friendly, and it will get non-wine drinkers into wine and Australia drinkers into South Africa. I’m okay with that. Having worked retail, I understand that not all wines are made for geeky, sophisticated palates; if they’re well made and turn new drinkers on to wine, they are serving an important purpose in the industry, and I don’t have to like them to respect what they’re doing. The Coffee Chocolate Pinotage is not my style, but it’s a quality product with a niche in the market.


Of Chris’s wines I most liked the Stellenzicht and Tukulu examples, both of which showed good structure. Tukulu, a black economic empowerment farm, is a producer I’ve been looking to try for some time, and I was pleased with a layer of clay/chalk minerality in their pinotage.


After the tasting we enjoyed a fantastic lunch from the Beyerskloof kitchen; I chose P3180024 an open-faced salami and olive tapanade sandwich which paired famously with the remaining Kanonkop Paul Sauer. At one point Beyers Truter bought out tank samples of his 2011 pinotage, which already shows amazing concentration and powerful fruit. As I looked around the table at the passionate, talented ambassadors for this much-maligned and misunderstood cultivar, I couldn’t help but feel pinotage pride. Does it need to be South Africa’s signature grape? No – I believe that South Africa’s signature is diversity. But pinotage deserves respect, and I think the quality coming from producers like Kanonkop and Beyerskloof speaks for itself.


After lunch Chris dropped me off at Blaauwklippen for a quick hello to my old friends and the cellar team (who immediately wanted to put me to work shoveling out a tank). It was amazing to see everyone and to get updates on the big changes at the farm, from a new restaurant addition to a completely renovated tasting room to a new baby daughter for cellarmaster Leon and the wedding of my 65-year-old shoveling buddy Daantjie to his longtime girlfriend. Times are good for the Blaauwklippen crowd, it seems, and I was thrilled at the chance to see everyone.


After sad goodbyes to my De Toren family and “South African mom” Elmien, Albie drove me to Cape Town. There, my goodbyes turned into a long-awaited hello: I met up with my freshman year roommate from Reed College, Jenny, who I haven’t P3180032 seen in six years! Jenny, an amazing force of energy, passion and creativity, spent last year raising money to bring bikes to kids in rural South Africa in a program called Bicycles for Humanity and is now getting her master’s at UCT. We got to spend several hours catching up and hanging out with friends – an incredible ending to an incredible trip.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the warmth, love, hospitality, friendship, and generosity I encounter in South Africa continue to overwhelm and inspire me. I want to thank each and every person who shared with me their talents, their love of wine, their sense of humor, their cooking, and, in the case of the Bothas, their home this past few weeks. I feel endlessly grateful to have this beautiful country as a second home, and I have no doubt I’ll be back very soon! Cheers – and stay tuned for more SA wine coverage from the U.S.!



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Paarl: Fun to Say, More Fun to Drink

Last year I visited Paarl only to see the fascinating Afrikaans Language Monument. P3170053 The region, which is north and slightly west of Stellenbosch, houses some of South Africa's most internationally recognized farms and produces a huge amount of wine, so when big-name producers Fairview and Glen Carlou invited me out for a visit, I jumped at the chance. When I jumped out of the car after the drive from Stellenbosch, I was amazed at the obvious temperature difference: Paarl is at least 3 degrees Celsius warmer than Stellenbosch most of the time, and on this particular day it felt more like 10. P3170055


At Glen Carlou I had the pleasure of meeting winemaker Arco Laarman, an incredibly nice guy who took the time to treat me to a vineyard drive, barrel samples, a tasting, and a delicious kudu burger at the winery restaurant. Glen Carlou's largest production is chardonnay, and we walked through the vineyard from which Quartz Stone Single Vineyard Chardonnay is made. The soil, a granite/sandstone/quartz mix, produces a refined chardonnay with considerable minerality; warm-climate chard is often associated with big, fat, high-alcohol, overoaked monsters, but this wine is stunningly restrained.


When it comes to chard I tend to associate oak, malolactic fermentation and other forms of manipulation with the winemaker, not the climate, so I don't P3170060 turn up my nose at a wine just because it doesn't come from an area where you can buy snow tires. It's a good thing, too, because Arco and his assistant winemaker, Bertus, had a surprise for me: a glass of the Quartz Stone chard to enjoy in the Quartz Stone vineyard. Its beautiful deep color and buttery richness are balanced by clear chalky minerality and a gorgeous flavor profile of fig, apple, and sesame.


How does Glen Carlou achieve such complex chardonnay in a hot climate? I next tasted through just a few of their 400 — that's right, 400 — barrels of chardonnay in the cellar and found part of the answer in the multiple-pass harvest method. They pick some of the chard early, when sugar levels are low (say, 21 Brix/Balling) and acid levels are high. They pick again when the grapes are mid-ripe, and again later in the harvest at peak phenolic ripeness and higher sugar (around 24 Brix/Balling), and ferment each batch separately. The result is barrels that are strikingly different. One was vibrant, tropical, and steely, reminiscent of New York unoaked chard; another was lush and full with higher alcohol content and a rounder mouthfeel. The ability to blend all these characteristics the right way to make the best possible chardonnay is Glen Carlou's solution for a unique product that does well all over the world (including our store!).

Egg-shaped fermenters, like the ones at DeMorgenzon, are another tool for P3170062 increasing lees contact to produce a lush, rich chard without overoaking. 


We tasted reds in barrel as well, including pinot noir, which I was surprised to find in this microclimate. It's a big pinot, to be sure, but not without Burgundian mushroom/earth flavors and quite pleasing to taste. My favorite red, however, was the Syrah, which showed a bloody iron quality and amazing structure. It paired splendidly with my kudu burger with avocado and blue cheese from the restaurant!


From Glen Carlou I headed to Fairview, home of the world-famous Goats do Roam wines. But I wasn't there to taste the Goats, though there were two adorable billy-goats to greet me as I arrived at the farm, as well as a girl P3170064 Billie (Fairview's PR chica). Billie's wine geekery and sense of humor were a delight.


I learned quickly that the Goats are Fairview's largest production but by no means definitive of the estate. As we watched a nine-ton (9 tons!!!! De Toren's limit is 8 tons in a WHOLE DAY!) bin of grapes being dumped into a crusher, Billie explained that they make the Goats, and they do well all over the world, and that allows them to make an incredible variety of more high-end smaller- P3170066 production wines: semillon, single-vineyard shiraz (the Beacon, from a shalestone-based vineyard in Paarl and my favorite of the reds; and Jakkalsfontein, from Swartland), etc. We tasted through an amazing lineup that included not a single goat but some awesome wines; my favorite was the Oom Pagel Semillon, which had the fresh, crunchy greenness of a summer salad of tomatillos, poblano, and tomato right off the vine. It was absolutely mouthwatering and begged for fresh goat cheese (thank goodness it was being sold in the tasting room). The 2006 Malabar, of their Spice Route line, was another stunner with dusty tannins and big, earthy muscle.


The two visits reminded me that large production and warm climate do not preclude outstanding wine. Fairview's random one-offs and specialty bottlings were a real treat, and their no-joke shirazes are obviously as serious as shiraz gets — all thanks to the best-selling Goats. And Glen Carlou's quality-driven program is producing outstanding depth of flavor and complexity without high alcohol or overoaking. Though I'll be sure to bring better sunscreen next time, Paarl is definitely worth another visit!

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Braai Shots and More: Food ‘Bauchery

At this time you may be wondering how my liver has managed to survive this voyage. P3130134 The answer is braai. South Africans have come up with an ingenious way to absorb all the magnificent wine they ingest: by piling up vineyard cuttings in a wood-fire grill, letting the coals burn down while they drink copious amounts, and then throwing whatever tasty animals they can find onto the grill with a simple-yet-impossible-to-reproduce "braai seasoning" and let it work its magic. 


Thanks to my host mother Elmien's phenomenal home cooking, the braai skills every South African man appears to be born with, and several delicious meals out, I have managed to give the size 4 bridesmaid dress I'm supposed to wear to my friend Heidi's wedding next weekend a serious run for its money. Trust me, these shots don't do this kind of food justice. 


Whole chickens on the braai at my host family's house for a Saturday evening

P3140001 dinner, with garlic bread wrapped in foil









A little moonshine to shoot with that P3140009_2
















Lamb wrapped in phyllo dough at Long P3150022 Table restaurant at Haskell Vineyards in Helderberg









And what I drank with it…Amazing P3150020
syrah by Rianie Strydom
















Sean, Elmien's son-in-law, making P3150028 potjies: a slow-cooked meat and vegetable mixture, in this case made with chicken








Springbok medallions with P3150025 blueberry glaze at Long Table










Albie demonstrates the art of the braai  P3170005

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Getting Swoony in Constantia

I can’t come to South Africa and not spend time in Constantia, which is home P3140119 to some of my favorite wine farms. Luckily Kara was willing to take a break from her hectic weekend to bring me to two of the best, Klein Constantia and Buitenverwachting.


Klein Contantia is known first and foremost for Vin de Constance, a sweet Muscat P3140099 wine with a rich history (it was a favorite of Napoleon, for starters). Winemaker Adam Mason requested that we show up Saturday morning with croissants. We happily obliged, and interrupted his morning pumpovers for a lovely breakfast of espresso, croissants and Klein Constantia’s own delightful grappa. A winemaker’s breakfast!


Adam took us for an amazing vineyard drive; Klein Constantia’s vineyards are absolutely stunning. Constantia’s cool maritime climate and shale/granite soil produce a more naturally high-acid, austere style than most the Stellenbosch wines; I could feel a climate difference just wandering about in the cool, breezy air. Most exciting were the Muscat grapes which are used to make the famed Vin de P3140126 P3140125 Constance; they are now just beginning to raisin but typically remain on the vine until nearly 40 Balling. They tasted quite lovely!


Of Klein Constantia’s excellent wines, I most enjoyed the sexy, Tuscan-like 2008 cabernet franc, which came home in my suitcase along with the Perdeblokke sauvignon blanc, which was not open for tasting but came highly recommended from Kara. As far as I’m concerned you can’t go wrong with Constantia sauv blanc from a great producer.


Wine in hand and thoroughly charmed by Adam, we headed to Buitenverwachting, home of some of my favorite wines in the world. Despite the ominous warning on the cellar door we snuck in to look for winemaker Brad Paton and cellarmaster Hermann Kirschbaum.


We found Brad and I started gushing like a ten-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert about how much I loved his wines, including the totally-Chinon-oh-my-god-it’s-real-cab-franc cab franc. Brad dropped everything from his extremely busy day to get us some tank samples of different sauvignon blanc vineyards. Hussey’s Vlei, my favorite of their two sauv blancs, is the more jalapeno-tomatillo peppery style with serious depth, while the Constantia sauv blanc shows more tropical fruit character.


In true winemaker fashion, Hermann was ready for a beer after our tasting, and at the risk of continuing the creeper-stalker-teenybopper-groupie image I chased him through the tasting P3140128 room P3140130 pointing my camera at his rear

end to grab this photo. I think it was worth it.


For the record, the beers he was drinking were by Brewers & Union -– we grabbed them later with lunch at Neighborgoods Market in Cape Town! The regular and dark lager that I tried were both delicious and traditionally-styled, with a long slow fermentation and several weeks of lagering. 


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Wine Tasting at Zorgvliet, DeMorgenzon and Raats

My host family’s son-in-law, Sean, works for Zorgvliet, so he treated me to a red-carpet tasting this weekend on a gorgeous morning in the Banghoek valley. Zorgvliet impressed me last year for its interesting single-cultivar options, which include tannat, petit verdot, and my holy grail, cabernet franc.


Sean first brought me to the cellar for a quick tour; the winery expanded in the past P3130084 few years and is clearly well-equipped for a small winery. But it’s the view outside that is the winery’s biggest aesthetic asset; look at that gorgeous valley! The vineyard below the mountain is the sauvignon blanc vineyard for the 535 bottling, which I'll talk more about in a bit. With a bistro, guest houses and a quant tasting room, guests can make the most of this glorious atmosphere.


I went through their varied and interesting wine list with pleasure but was P3130093 ultimately most wowed by the “535” sauvignon blanc, an unfiltered, natural yeast, barrel-fermented sauv blanc with a remarkably chardonnay-like richness giving way to a tangy, refreshing sauvignon blanc-like finish. I also enjoyed their ridiculously value-priced Argentum, a serious Bordeaux blend under $15, and refreshing, balanced viognier, which I bought as a gift for my mother (surprise, Mom!).


In the afternoon Kara kidnapped me once again for wine farm action. I was treated to the stunning DeMorgenzon, a farm whose luscious chenin I’ve reviewed in the past. They are known for playing classical music into the vineyards 24/7, a practice P3130100 which the owner claims stimulates vigor. Every employee I spoke to shrugged that there was no proof for this claim, but that the music was just plain nice to listen to.


DeMorgenzon is in an interesting phase as new winemaker Carl Van Der Merwe, an Ironman triathlete, super-nice dude, and winemaking rock star, is finishing up his inaugural harvest here, having arrived in 2010 after eight years at Quoin Rock. The wines impressive for being rich in luxury but fair in price; their fresh, clean sauvignon blanc and chard were especially pleasant, but I loved their reds as well. New egg-shaped cement fermenters increase lees contact and are Karl’s "new toy"; I saw more and more of these this year as the turn toward less wood and more lees contact develops. There's insane attention to detail in aesthetics at DeMorgenzon: even the floor drain in the cellar P3130104 bares the farm logo!


We finished the tasting day with a real highlight for me: a trip to Raats, where the focus is chenin blanc and cabernet franc. I was thrilled to meet winemaker Bruwer Raats, a strong personality behind incredibly strong wines.


A plate of decomposed granite and sandstone on the tasting bar reminds guests of the estate’s soil composition (that blend is common for this area, but P3130126 certain wines show it more than others). Minerality is a common thread in all the wines; we tasted 2008 and 2009 chenin blancs side-by-side for a clear look at the fresh, light younger style versus the maturing aged style. The 2008 was a real highlight for me and an awesome example of the aging power of this South African rock star cultivar. Bursting with fruit, almond and crème brulee, it was an amazing treat.


I was thrilled to move on to the 2008 cab franc, a plush, ripe example of the style P3130125 with a nice play of graphite and dusty tannins with dark fruit and pepper. The cab franc grapes are harvested in individual vineyard blocks with multiple passes and then blended to get a perfect balance of ripeness and acidity. Is Bruwer Raats the South African cab franc guy? Maybe – his wines don’t show any of the vegetal or Bretty characteristics that can often overpower the varietal, so that may turn South African wine drinkers on to its lush, structured beauty.


Bruwer Raats has made a collaboration wine with Mzo Mveme, the first black winemaker in South Africa (and, by extension, the African continent) in the Mveme Raats de Compostella, a stunningly earthy, bloody cab franc-led blend with serious aging potential. It was too rich for my blood at over R500 so I went home with a bottle each of 2008 chenin and cab franc to kick some minerality into my farewell braai. But my best souvenir was a picture with Bruwer himself!


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Earth-Friendly Growing: Sustainability at De Toren

Viticulturist Ernest Manuel sent me this lovely picture of a bird's nest in the vineyards with the IMG_1882 caption, "now this is what I want to call nature-friendly wine growing!" It's a perfect illustration of De Toren's impressive commitment to sustainable farm practices. 


I've mentioned Ernest's use of 2% organic compost in the soil as well as cover crop residues, a way of gradually nurturing the soil's microbial life after decades of commercial farming may have upset its natural balance. As Ernest explains it, "the end result is good aerated soil with easy extractable nutrients for the vines to consume." Cover crops capture CO2 in the soil while minimal use of machinery (which is gentler on the fruit as well) prevents overuse of energy; the use of waste material from the plants as compost also helps lower the farm's carbon footprint. Finally, De Toren has hundreds of spekbome plants growing on the farm. These plants are known to consume a very large quantity of CO2. 


De Toren works very closely with Stellenbosch University's soil and vineyard scientists to stay up to date on everything from irrigation to soil types; assistant winemaker Charles is actually getting his master's in canopy management and irrigation in cabernet sauvignon so his research goes on at the farm. I'm really amazed at the strong relationships De Toren maintains with the university to ensure that winemaking doesn't become "like a recipe," as Charles puts it. 


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Wine Farm Kidnapping, Day One: Simply Simonsberg

I’ve just experienced three days of crushing it at wine farms thanks to South African P3120125 wine passionista extraordinaire and all-around awesome chick Kara Miller of Cape Classics. A Hoboken transplant who worked harvest at Kanonkop in 2009 and decided she wanted to live here, Kara is my hero and a perfect tour guide with a backstage pass to South Africa’s top wine farms.


She kidnapped me from the sorting table on Thursday to bring me to Kanonkop and Rustenberg in the Simonsberg region. They’re two of the most highly acclaimed producers in Stellenbosch and they both have an excellent U.S. presence (we carry two Rustenberg wines at the store!). I had the pleasure of visiting Rustenberg last year but had never been to Kanonkop.


The Kanonkop name is irrevocably linked to pinotage, and they’re just fine with P3120094 that. Producing arguably the highest-quality pinotage in the country (Beyerskloof and Warwick are the only competition that come to my mind), Kanonkop proudly champions the polarizing cultivar with words — note the cheeky quip above the door, at right — and with undeniably serious wines. Pinotage features in their delightfully full-bodied dry rosé; their amazing-value Cape blend, Kanonkop Kadette; and a single-cultivar bottling, the 2008 vintage of which was a personal favorite of mine even before it became a U.S. critics’ darling.


A fascinating tour of Kanonkop’s cellar and barrel room exhibited the farm’s proud P3120086 history; my favorite feature was the “Wall of Fame,” with a bottle from each vintage since the farm’s modern wine production began and a brief note about the vintage. They were harvesting cabernet that day so I was lucky enough to see some action. Kanonkop is known for huge cement open-top fermenters and an amazing twelve punchdowns a day, every two hours around the clock. This regimen produces amazing extraction in their reds with firm but not harsh tannins and a gorgeous deep color.


We were treated to samples of 2010 cabernet and pinotage from their French oak barrels; they showed intense, focused fruit and great structure. I went home with a bottle of 2010 pinotage rose, which shows sesame/umami notes and a delicious menthol characteristic and lasted about twenty minutes with my host family as we enjoyed it with chicken cooked on the braai over the weekend.


Our next stop was Rustenberg, a farm very close to my heart for both its physical beauty and its stunning wines. We were treated to an outdoor tasting with some extremely hard-to-find gems including the opulent, lush Five Soldiers chardonnay, the earthy, gunpowder-graphitey Peter Barlow cabernet, and their delightful “straw wine” dessert. The wines are so polished and elegant, effortlessly world class but at
a fraction of the prices you’d see in France or California. P3120121


We finished the tasting portion of the day at Thelema, where Kara is practically a P3120130_2 member of the family. I got to meet winemaker Rudi Schultz as we tasted through a fantastic lineup from their Simonsberg and Elgin ranges. Highlights were a viognier-roussanne from the Elgin-based Sutherland range, the 2006 Thelema chardonnay which had a full, savory sesame-soy characteristic; “The Mint” cabernet, so named for its menthol character thanks to proximity to eukalyuptus trees; and the velvety, floral Rudi Schultz syrah. Thelema’s gorgeous, rustic, high-altitude location is obviously ideal for wines with tremendous depth of flavor and minerality, and I was thoroughly impressed with both the honest, restrained nature of the wines and the down-to-earth, open personalities of Rudi and owner Giles Webb. Rudi even let us take the chard and syrah out to dinner with us! This farm is now firmly on my radar and I may be returning this evening for a picnic on the mountain. 


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