Last year I visited Paarl only to see the fascinating Afrikaans Language Monument. 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.
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 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!).
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 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- 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!