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My Level 3 course with The Wine Centre was held at Glen Carlou wine estate in Paarl 2015. It...

Testimonial from Taryn Nortje, Sommelier at Restaurant Mosaic

My Level 3 course with The Wine Centre was held at Glen Carlou wine estate in Paarl 2015. It has been the foundation on which I have been building my knowledge of the world of wines. Passing my Level 3 propelled me into my career as a wine professional.

The WSET certificate course gave me the skill set and confidence to become a sommelier at Mosaic Restaurant one of South Africa's most reputable fine dining establishments.

I am extremely passionate about my studies and I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others. I believe that studying the wine regions of the world is like virtual traveling.

Mosaic Restaurant enrolled me as a WSET Level 4 Diploma student earlier this year. This investment in my knowledge and developing my skills as a sommelier is crucial not only to my interaction with guests and cellar management but is to the benefit of the South African wine industry as a whole.

There is an incredible support network for WSET students in South Africa, MW student and WSET APP Cathy Marston is my inspiration as I hope to teach future generations of WSET students and to one day become a Master of Wine.

© Cape Times Friday 22nd July 2016 Okay, come on – ‘fess up. When was the last time you drank...

Making a case for versatile Chenin

© Cape Times Friday 22nd July 2016

Okay, come on – ‘fess up. When was the last time you drank a Chenin Blanc?? Chances are that you’re either going to say “last night” (you hipster trendsetter you) or, more likely, “fifteen years ago at ‘varsity when I couldn’t afford anything else”.  Despite so many people’s best efforts, it seems our best asset is still lagging behind the bucketloads of yawn-making Sauvignon Blanc when it comes to choosing our daily tipple. Should we just give up and resign ourselves to a lifetime of teeth-searing acidic Sauvvies? Hell no. Should I join the ranks of those putting the case for Chenin and explaining why we should drink more of it? Hell yeah, why not?

“You see, the problem with Chenin Blanc is its diversity” as all we wine experts will agree, nodding sagely into our beards - which is the biggest load of rubbish to start with, and yes, I am as guilty of saying this as the next person. Sure, Chenin is a versatile grape, capable of making lots of different styles of wines to suits lots of different tastes - but since when has the ability to offer customers exactly what they want been a problem?? Henry Ford made his millions offering his new car in only one shade of paint (“The customer can have any colour he likes, as long as its black”) – imagine what he could have done if he’d had a rainbow palette to choose from?

Because that is what Chenin is – a rainbow palette of flavour for the palates of this Rainbow Nation and beyond. At the recent Chenin Showcase, a regular event which brings the diversity of the grape to the attention of lucky journalists and retailers, I tasted a fabulous range of different wines and I promise you – there really is something to suit everyone here. If you can’t bear to abandon your Sauvignon Blancs – there are Chenins which taste almost identical in terms of lip-smacking freshness and vibrancy (try Stellenrust Chenin Blanc 2016 R50). If you like a wooded Chardonnay – there are Chenins which taste very similar with oodles of yellow stone fruit balanced by creamy, spicy oak (give the delicious De Morgenzon 2015 a whirl for R225 or the more affordable Delheim 2014 for R110).

If you like sparkling wines, then there are Chenins which do that too (Ken Forrester’s engagingly-named Sparklehorse for R200) and if you prefer off-dry or semi-sweet, there are plenty of Chenin options, balancing sweetness with lively fresh acidity to make a more complete wine. If you like it sweet and sticky, luscious or unctuous, there are noble late harvest Chenins of real richness, depth and complexity, coating your mouth with haunting flavours, tantalising your tastebuds with a cat’s tail whisk of acidity and freshness. And finally, Chenin is the King of Blending and my find of the day at the Chenin Showcase was the Riebeek Cellars Short Street CGV 2014. At a ridiculously-cheap R50 a bottle, this should be everyone’s fridge stalwart this summer.

So I don’t think there’s anything lacking in terms of the actual Chenin wines themselves. In fact, I think the problem lies not with the grape, but with us instead. We don’t drink more Chenin because we’re lazy and it’s easier to stick to our same-old, same-old wines with all their faults rather than find something new which may possibly suit us better.  We allow ourselves to be confused by diversity and have our confidence dinted by differences in style, price, packaging and labelling terms, when in fact we should start every glass with the belief that it’s going to be amazing and simply take it from there. When it comes to Chenin Blanc, that’s almost certainly going to be a worthwhile journey to make.

© Cape Times Friday 17th June 2016 For many of us parents, the last few weeks have been particularly wine-filled...

Wine opens doors for students

© Cape Times Friday 17th June 2016

For many of us parents, the last few weeks have been particularly wine-filled as we cajole, encourage, berate and coerce our children to revise for exams. It’s been a first time for us and I have to say, we’ve felt the strain, somewhat eased by a good few swear words and a nice glass of wine at the end of the day. How much more fun it is to teach and learn about wine, when drinking a glass is counted as revision itself!

Which leads me nicely to some students who want to do just that and who are trying to raise money to allow them to do so. Elsenburg Agricultural College, along with great rivals Stellenbosch University, is the training ground for almost all winemakers working in the South African wine industry today. Chief winemaker and head lecturer, Lorraine Geldenhuys and I have worked together over the last couple of years and I know her to be a passionate and inspiring lecturer. Her biggest aim for her students is that they are work-ready when they leave the college. This means lots of practical experience and Elsenburg has made wine and brandy for the past few years under Lorraine’s guidance, with plans afoot for gin to be added to the repertoire as well.

The biggest problem the Elsenburg students have – in fact, the biggest problem most students of wine have in South Africa – is learning how wine is made in other countries, particularly in Europe which has a tradition of winemaking stretching back thousands of years as opposed to our measly 350. European wine laws are generally much stricter than South African, with regulations surrounding grape variety, planting density, pruning, yields, winemaking practices, minimum alcohol and a whole host of other rules all designed to improve quality. The challenge for South African winemakers is to understand the thinking behind these rules and to learn which ones could be usefully applied to South Africa and which are best ignored. And in order to do that best, first-hand knowledge is required.

Lorraine and her nine final year students have planned a trip in November which will take them, and her assistant winemaker Solomon Monyamane, on a technical tour of some of the major winemaking regions of Portugal and France. They are being supported on this trip by various means, including a donation from the Cape Winemakers Guild, but the majority of money should come from two charity auctions, one to be held at Beyerskloof wine farm on July 26 and the other in Johannesburg at a later date. The UK-based International Wine Challenge has donated lots of exciting international wines which have been carefully matched to equivalent, leading South African examples to create really interesting lots. In addition, there will be a series of once-in-a-lifetime lots such as skydiving, wine farm stayovers and other winery insider experiences. The auction is open to all and for more information, contact Lorraine on Lorraineg@elsenburg.com 

And on the subject of students learning about wine, congratulations to the 2016 class of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy who graduated a couple of weeks ago. This is an amazing programme taking young people though an eye-opening practical journey into the wine industry aimed at giving them skills and confidence and ultimately, jobs. On top of their industry-endorsed qualification, two-thirds of the group now also possess an internationally-recognised wine qualification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, funded by the Cape Wine Auction. Let’s hope the Elsenburg auction achieves equally successful results for their students as well.

© Cape Times Friday 20th May 2016 The older I get, the more I find myself becoming like my mother....

Cool wine from Elgin

© Cape Times Friday 20th May 2016

The older I get, the more I find myself becoming like my mother. I say the same things, my hair looks like hers and I am showing a worrying tendency to shop for comfortable clothes and shoes – flatties and elasticated waists are now order of the day. So I don’t think that the word ‘cool’ really applies to me anymore - indeed, I’m not sure if it ever did. My only redeeming feature is that I really like cool wines – not necessarily those made by hip and trendy young things with beards in which you could lose a badger (although many such are quite fabulous), but wines made in the cooler regions of this country, promoting elegance and delicacy above power and punch.

Grapes take longer to ripen in cooler climates, allowing the flavours to develop slowly and fully. These wines often have lower alcohol levels as well as higher natural acidity – something to be valued in a country where adding acidity is the norm in most regions. In recent years, Elgin has made being cool part of their USP and The Elgin Cool Country Festival showcased this a couple of weeks ago, with farms opening their doors to visitors and laying on a combination of tastings, events, food stalls and live music for their enjoyment. Elgin is fairly compact and easy to drive around and with most farms being family-friendly, it was a good day out for all.

I wanted to try and taste grapes which do best in cooler climates – things such as Sauvignon, Riesling and Chardonnay for the whites and Pinot Noir for the reds. Although Elgin is mostly associated with Sauvignon, many people feel that it is Chardonnay which is going to be the top performer from this region. One of those is Joris van Almenkerk and he had 5 vintages of his Almenkerk Chardonnay open for a vertical tasting during the weekend. Over the years, he has reduced the oak influence and moved to wild yeast fermentation creating a rich, but elegant wine which has great ageing potential – something often the case in cool-climate wines. The 2014 is current vintage – drink now or keep for a further 8-10 years.

Apart from making his own wines, Joris is one of the band of superstar winemakers who create the wines for Elgin Vintners.  This brand contracts out winemaking to people such as Kevin Grant, Niels Verburg and Joris, utilising their individual talents to great advantage. Joris made one of the wines I most enjoyed this weekend, the Elgin Vintners Century white blend, which takes Sauvignon to another level of complexity and interest by combining it with 40% Semillon. The 2013 (which is the current release) is in exceptional nick – crisp and lively without being aggressive or overtly green. We need to drink older white wines……

One variety which certainly ages well is Riesling, and arguably the country’s finest examples come from the steep slopes of Elgin hills. A new one to me was the Stone and Steel Riesling 2015 from Oak Valley Wines which really epitomises everything great about this variety. Riesling has such high natural acidity, it needs either a long time for it to soften (as happens in Australian Rieslings) or a gentle tweak of sweetness to take the edge off it. This is what’s happened here, making the wine a little rounder and fatter whilst still retaining all the crispness and freshness you could want. At the farm’s Pool Room restaurant, Chef Gordon Manuel makes a mean pulled pork sandwich from Oak Valley’s own acorn-fed pigs and this was the perfect match for the rich meat.

On this occasion, I didn’t manage to taste the wines from one of my favourite Elgin winemakers, the always fabulous Catherine Marshall. But I did manage to taste her Clay Shales Pinot Noir a few weeks previously when it was matched by Aubergine’s sommelier Pawel Wagner to a sublime broccoli and mushroom creation. A cool combo from a cool lady – perhaps this is a lesson to me to drink more Pinot, stop the slide into old age and try and keep up with the cool kids from Elgin.

The Boney M is blaring out in malls, the holly and the ivy are festooned in every shop window...

Family Christmas with Nederburg

The Boney M is blaring out in malls, the holly and the ivy are festooned in every shop window and all I can think about is Christmas. For most people, Christmas is a time for families and I’m certainly no exception, even though most of my family is approximately 11,000km away in the chilly UK. If they were here, they would no doubt be gathered around a braai, all talking their heads off at the same time, all eating far too much of my mom’s delicious food and all with a glass of their favourite wine in hand – a different one for each person. Wine makes a fabulous gift for anyone, the key is to make sure you match the right bottle to the right person so here’s what would work for my family – perhaps it will work for yours as well!!

Holding the family together, as always, is my mother. Normally her Christmas Day begins early – she’s up with the larks to get the turkey in the oven, do the veggies, prep the puddings and all before 9am so she can go to church. By the time that’s done, she’s definitely earned her glass of fizz before she heads back into the kitchen for last minute cooking and Nederburg Premiere Cuvee Brut would fit the bill to perfection with its frothy bubbles, and clean lemony freshness – a celebratory glass for the most important person to celebrate with on Christmas Day.

My uncle has worn the same Christmas jumper with a reindeer knitted on the front for as long as I can remember. He’s also told the same terrible Christmas joke for so long, that the entire family now choruses the punchline with him and every year, he looks amazed that we knew the answer (How did Darth Vader know what Luke Skywalker got for Christmas? He felt his presents). But what would Christmas be without these traditions? A sadder occasion that’s for sure, so I would reward my uncle with a glass of everyone’s traditional favourite red – the Nederburg Baronne. Soft, juicy, ripe and fruity – it’s a genuine crowd-pleaser, even if you can’t say the same about the jokes!

Of course, not everyone always wants to stick around family at Christmas and that certainly includes my cousin! His aim in life is to travel as fast and far as he possibly can so we don’t always manage to pin him down to a family affair but when we do, I’d serve him the Nederburg Heritage Heroes Young Airhawk Sauvignon Blanc. This is a racy, spritzy, lively little number with plenty of get-up and go and it has a tiny tweak of oak which makes it a little unusual and far more interesting than your everyday Sauvvie – just like my cousin in fact!

My sister also yearns for something more exotic than a family braai at Christmas but in her case, she’s all about the bright lights, big cities and her dream is to spend the festive season in New York or London. If we can persuade her to go the family route, her reward would be a glass of the elegant, sophisticated Nederburg Ingenuity White. I love this wine with its layers and layers of flavour, complex and subtle, mysterious and alluring - it’s like a Chanel dress in a glass, and if anything could tempt my sister to forgo the bright lights, this would be the wine.

What would Christmas be without a few generations of your family joining you round the table? It’s always a special day when my Grandma comes round – even if she is prone to falling asleep after dinner then waking up to vehemently deny that she even closed her eyes! I’d give her a glass of the delicious Nederburg Winemaster’s Reserve Noble Late Harvest to sip on whilst she puts the family to rights because it’s so like her - a combination of sweet, perfumed, soft ripe fruit balanced by a feisty acidity which keeps it fresh and young. Happy Christmas Grandma and may you be around for many more Christmases to come!

** Please note this article has been commissioned by Nederburg Wines **

© Cape Times Friday 19th September 2014 It seems to be competition season again and my inbox is reeling...

Awards do matter

© Cape Times Friday 19th September 2014

It seems to be competition season again and my inbox is reeling under the weight of yet another announcement of yet another gold medal/top trophy/five star rating from yet another competition of some kind or other around the world. Excuse me if I seem a bit cynical but with so many awards stickers on bottles these days, I often wonder if people actually care? Well, all the evidence suggests that consumers actually DO care about awards and a bottle bearing a shiny sticker is more likely to be picked up and bought than a plain one apparently. But not all competitions are equally rigorous and the biggest question is, which ones should you pay attention to and which are like going to a children’s party where everyone picks up a party pack as they leave?

A lot of people prefer to enter overseas competitions which they believe gives them wider coverage and therefore better bang for their competition-entry-fee-buck, but two home-grown ones which have taken place recently give scope to varieties which are proudly South African – Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. The problem – or maybe it’s their biggest plus-point – with both varieties is that they are incredibly versatile, making simple, everyday drinking versions, richer and riper wines, sparkling ones and in Chenin’s case, sweet wine and in Pinotage’s case, rosé.

Sadly, this variety of styles doesn’t appear to have been acknowledged in the Top Tens of each variety (perhaps a rule change and some different categories might be in order?). Instead, the judges of each competition have gone for quality über alles. One particularly interesting result was the fact that Simonsig, Bellingham, Spier and Rijk’s featured in the Top Ten of both competitions – something well worth celebrating at those particular wineries. Both competitions are sponsored by banks – Standard Bank for Chenin and Absa for Pinotage and I must say that I find it particularly praiseworthy that all the prize money awarded to the Chenin winners must be spent on upliftment and enrichment projects for the workers at the wineries concerned.

Almost as interesting as these larger competitions are two others which took place recently, both of them celebrating that oft-overlooked style – the blend. Wine judge Christian Eedes convenes a series of interesting tastings throughout the year and generally unearths some exciting wines. Announced last week at a super-smart event were the RisCura White Hot Wine Award winners for white Bordeaux blends. This category, which covers wines made from Sauvignon Blanc blended with Sémillon, always offers tiptop quality and this year was no exception with Nitida Coronata Integration, Highlands Road Sine Cera and Morgenster making up the top three. All three wines offered lively yet complex flavours with beautifully-integrated oak and are well-worth seeking out for superior summer sipping this year.

The other blend competition announced last week was the Perold Absa Cape Blend top five which featured newcomers Blake’s Wines as well as Cape blend stalwarts, Clos Malverne and Kaapzicht. What was interesting about the five winners were the varieties used to blend with the compulsory Pinotage component of between 30 and 70%. Kaapzicht chose to go with Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) whilst Painted Wolf and Rhebokskloof went with Rhône grapes in their blend (Shiraz, Mourvedre, Grenache) and Blake’s and Clos Malverne combined both regions to great effect. All these winners will be on the shelves shortly, if not already, so keep a look-out for these stickers and make up your own mind as to whether they’re justified or not.

© Cape Times Friday 29th August 2014 Several years ago, I was a judge on a competition for South...

Why praise women?

© Cape Times Friday 29th August 2014

Several years ago, I was a judge on a competition for South African women winemakers which, even at the time, I found a little confusing because I can’t really see that a wine made by a woman is going to be any better or worse than one made by a man. The theory behind the competition was that the wine industry lacked female role models and the award was given, not just for the wine, but also for contributions to the wine world. I’m not going to get into arguments about whether positive discrimination is a good or a bad thing, but just as a segway, I will say that I still find it a little surprising that the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild has only two winemaking women members out of 45. Having said that, what I don’t find surprising, in any way at all, is that this list of arguably the best 45 winemakers in SA includes both Rianie Strydom and Andrea Mullineux.

I first met Rianie many years ago when she was winemaker at Morgenhof, turning out excellent Merlot and Chenin as well as a great value Cab Franc blend. From there, she moved to Haskell Vineyards when they first began making wine on the slopes of the Helderberg and, although not as hands-on there as previously, she has still been involved in each of the ten vintages made so far. There are two ranges made on the farm – the excellent and over-delivering Dombeya range which is made in a forthright and fruity style, and the more elegant ‘keeping’ range of Haskell itself.

At a recent tasting, Rianie and viticulturist Wikus Pretorius took lucky tasters through the last three vintages of their Anvil Chardonnay, as well as new releases of their Bordeaux-style blend the IV, the Pillars Shiraz and a terrific Cab/Shiraz blend, the II. They are trying to keep the alcohols in check on the chardonnay and reduce the amount of malolactic fermentation which takes place, both with a view to making a fresher wine but one which will still age well. The stars of the day however were the two red blends, the II 2010 (R160) and the IV 2009 (R290) which show elegant tannins and concentrated powerful fruit. If you can keep these for another decade, I think you’ll be a very happy drinker when the time comes.

Andrea Mullineux practices her art in the slightly warmer climes of the Swartland where she and viticulturist husband Chris concentrate on a range of syrahs (shirazes) from soil-specific sites. When I first tasted them, I didn’t like the individual Schist and Granite wines, thinking them over-the-top, far too perfumed for enjoyment and much preferring the Family Wines Syrah, a blend of the different soils, which I thought was harmonious and just utterly delicious. So it was with a wry smile that I tasted them again recently and realised that either time or vintage had altered my opinion completely and the full-bodied yet elegant Schist Syrah 2012 (R685) is the star of the show for me now. If you can get your hands on some (although it’s rarer than hens’ teeth), you’ve got a treat in store.

Both women have had wines selected for this year’s Cape Winemakers Guild Auction which will take place in October. This is the 30th Auction so it’s a chance to reflect on the last 30 years and celebrate the new wave of younger winemakers taking the industry to even greater heights. Both Rianie and Andrea have something a little out of the box to offer – Rianie will be continuing her love affair with Burgundian varieties and offering her first ever Pinot Noir whilst Andrea has possibly the most interesting wine on the auction, a very rare and unusual bottling of Semillon Gris. Coming from 55 year old vines which need 30 years to develop the ‘gris’ characteristics, this is going to be a special treat indeed.

© Cape Times Thursday 17th April 2014 In days gone by, people didn’t move around very much. They stayed...

Grape Vs Grain, Pick a Side

© Cape Times Thursday 17th April 2014

In days gone by, people didn’t move around very much. They stayed in their little corner of Bordeaux or Piedmont, ate the food that they grew or caught and made wine to go with that food. Personally, I think wine is much better with food and I’m not talking about grease-laden plates of junk food used to soak up excess alcohol, I’m talking about proper food matches where the combination of wine and food is far greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve recently discovered that beer-drinkers think exactly the same way about their beverage as well, but the question is, which goes best? Is it wine as countless generations of sommeliers would have us believe, or actually, is it the currently less-regarded but coming-through-fast-on-the-rails craft beer?

Along with beer aficionado Lucy Corne, I’ve set out to see if we can the answer to which beverage is best with food and to give a wider audience the chance to try it for themselves as well. Our ‘Grape vs Grain’ debate debuted last weekend at the Taste of Cape Town Festival and gave consumers three canapés, each one paired to a wine from the Stellenbosch Vineyards range by me and by Lucy to a craft beer . The results were extremely interesting, and obviously very satisfying for those who believe wine is better with food since the wines won overall with people preferring it on two out of the three matches.

But the voting was much closer than anyone had expected and what we realised was that both Lucy and I had a ‘Super-matcher’ amongst the drinks we’d chosen, one that we could actually have served with pretty much any food and which would have worked brilliantly. Lucy’s was the Pumpkin Ale from Boston Breweries which is flavoured with genuine pumpkin as well as cinnamon and a few other spices. It garnered overwhelming support as a match with a spicy veggie samosa and converted many a surprised wine-lover over to the idea that actually, beer and food are rather good together. I saved my Super-matcher of Credo Chenin Blanc for the Goats Cheese tart and it proved a winning combination with the acidity of the wine cutting nicely through the cloying richness of the cheese.

What exactly makes a Super-matcher then? When it comes to wine, I think that the best ones with food are understated wines, with a little bit of oak but not too much, a decent amount of acidity but not too much and often as not, a tiny amount of residual sugar, but again, only a very tiny amount. I also think it is generally better for a wine to have a bit of age on it – a youthful wine tends to be packed with upfront, fresh fruit flavours which can be too unsubtle with a lot of foods. And finally, I think the best wines with food are generally blends which often have more complexity and cover a wider gamut of flavours. The Credo Chenin misses out on the last point, but is so complex within its own right, I don’t think it much matters.

And that is probably the key to successful food and wine or beer-matching – there are no hard and fast rules and don’t take it too seriously. Lucy and I certainly don’t, as you can see for yourselves if you join us for the next round of Grape vs Grain at the Cheese Festival which runs from 26th April at Sandringham in Stellenbosch. Will my Super-matcher Chenin continue to carry the day or does the ‘Beer-is-best’ brigade have something fiendish up their sleeves? Only time – and the audience – will tell.

© Cape Times Friday 20th March 2014 How do you buy your wine? Do you load a couple of...

How do you buy your wine?

© Cape Times Friday 20th March 2014

How do you buy your wine? Do you load a couple of bottles into your basket as you scurry around the supermarket? Do you take time out to go and get specialised advice from a store? Or do you prefer to do your shopping online in the wee small hours of the morning and get it delivered later? A few decades ago, we would all have had our own wine merchant, buying up top Burgundy and Bordeaux for us and laying down a few pipes of port for our children’s 21st birthdays. But time is a precious commodity nowadays, although it does make me a bit sad to think that buying wine is no more exciting than buying baked beans and toilet roll.
Enter Wade Bales, owner of the eponymous Wade Bales Wine Society, who makes it his mission to seek out small parcels of the unusual and the interesting and bring them direct to your doorstep. IN particular, I can highly recommend the range of wines made personally for him by winemakers such as Thys Louw from Diemersdal and Beyers Truter from Beyerskloof. I tried the Sauvignon made by Thys last year and it was a triumph – wonderful Sauvignon fruit, zingy acidity and a lipsmacking finish and all at a very good price. If you’re seriously lazy, you can get him to simply deliver wine to you without choosing it at all by signing up for a bi-monthly case of wines which comes with Wade’s guarantee of enjoyment – how’s that for personal service?!
Convenient though buying online is, sometimes there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. Caroline Rillema has been mind-reading her customers and anticipating their wants for almost 20 years in her store on Strand Street, and has just opened a new branch of Caroline’s Fine Wines in the Southern Suburbs. It’s a nice location, in Tokai right next to Societi Brasserie and just round the corner from Steenberg Village, but the biggest plus for me is the people in the store. With so many wines to choose from, many people find it hard to know what will suit their tastes, budget and occasion.
Enter manager Lara Jordaan and assistant Lusanda Thom, both of whom have passed the internationally-recognised Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) exams at different levels – I have to confess an interest here since I taught them both! But what this means is that they have a broad and wide-ranging knowledge of not only the local labels, but also the international wines for which Caroline is famous. If you want personal suggestions, from people who genuinely listen to you and want to find you your perfect wine, then this is definitely the way to go.
Of course Caroline’s is not the only fabulous wine shop in town – you could also try Wine Concepts, Vino Pronto and Norman Goodfellows, all of whom offer personal service with knowledge, flair and a smile. And equally so, Wade isn’t the only online retailer out there by a long chalk, with the likes of Cybercellar and Getwine happily filling the cellars of many of a thirsty drinker. Lots of wineries run their own private wine clubs which are great ways of saving money on your favourite wines AND getting invited to exclusive events, and don’t forget your big independent retailers like Ultra Liquors who boast a WSET-trained wine advisor in most of their stores. Wine is such a personal thing, that you really should buy it from people - whether you pop into a shop, fall in love with a particular farm or grow a great relationship with a buyer you trust. I promise you it will taste better if you do!

© Cape Times Friday 21st February 2014 I seem to be going through a bit of a Chardonnay craze...

Finding the key to Chardonnay

© Cape Times Friday 21st February 2014
I seem to be going through a bit of a Chardonnay craze at the moment. I began the year with an interesting clonal tasting of Richard Kershaw’s 5 star chardonnay from Elgin which was re-tasted again in a well-organised Elgin Wine Valley ‘tweet-up’ last week at Caroline’s Fine Wines. And now here is another wine farm doing something interesting, unusual and ultimately (the most important factor) delicious with the world’s favourite grape.

Eikendal in the Helderberg has been on an upwards curve for the past few years now, in no small part due to winemaker and vine-lover Nico Grobler. Realising a few years ago that the big-volume, inexpensive branded wine market was not for them, he and the farm’s owners took the wise decision to invest for top-end success instead. For Nico this has meant an extensive re-planting programme, digging up his previously rigid vineyard layout and replacing it with a variety of different planting and training treatments, each one suited each particular vineyard. “I had a heck of a shock when I showed a French vigneron my vineyards some years ago” he remembers. “ I was really proud of them because they all looked so neat and uniform, but he took one look and just asked ‘How can you plant them all the same when they’re all different?’ From that day, my way of looking at growing grapes has completely changed.”
So for starters, he’s uprooted more than half the original vineyards, some of which he’s replanted according to the different soils and aspects. Each block has its own plan from start to finish, breaking up a homogenous estate into a mishmash of different row directions, trellising options and canopy management strategies. But it’s when it gets to the winery that the really interesting stuff begins to happen. Following his Burgundian mentor, Bruno Lorenzon, each block of Chardonnay has its own set of barrels – some 1 year old, others 2 or 3 years and each set gets supplemented by a few new barrels each year.

What Nico does then is something I’ve never heard of before in SA. When a wine goes through fermentation, the dead yeast cells or ‘lees’ normally fall to the bottom of the tank or barrel and, after a time, the wine gets drawn off and the barrel cleaned ready for the next year’s wine. Nico doesn’t do this – he removes the wine for bottling as normal, but then puts the new vintage straight into the barrel, mixing the previous year’s lees with the new vintage wine. The results? A much fresher, livelier, more complex chardonnay and one that is definitely beginning to turn heads both at home and overseas, if the recent rash of gongs and medals is anything to go by.

This is an incredibly risky practice as Nico would be the first to admit, but he also believes that “you have to just follow your wine.” His attention to detail and passion for excellence make for wines that are already incredibly pure and fresh but he isn’t stopping there. His focus now is on canopy-management as he believes that deciding how much foliage to leave on his vines and when best to prune is the secret to increasing that sought-after hallmark of Burgundian Chardonnay – minerality. “I’m not growing grapes, leaves or canopies – I’m growing flavour” he claims. With Eikendal’s first ever Platter 5 Star award this year for their red plus Nico’s passion for Chardonnay flavours, nobody should doubt that a partner plaudit must surely be coming soon.
If you want to see what I’m on about for yourself, then join Eikendal for their annual ‘Weintaufe’ on 2nd March. There you can taste the 2014 Chardonnay which I, in my role as ‘Godmother of the Vintage’ will then ‘christen’ before we all enjoy a lovely, relaxed family day out of good food, live music, fine wines and other entertainment. Tickets are on sale for R30 (kids go free) from www.eikendal.com - see you there!

The first two candidates for the Jordan Wine Estate Women in Wine Initiative, launched in October 2012 in London...

First Jordan Wine Estate Women in Wine Interns arrive in Stellenbosch

The first two candidates for the Jordan Wine Estate Women in Wine Initiative, launched in October 2012 in London by Kathy Jordan, have arrived in South Africa to experience and participate in the 2014 vintage at Jordan Wine Estate.

The response to the invitation to apply for this experience was overwhelming with candidates applying from all over the world and from different fields of the wine industry.
Two candidates were selected, Regine Lee, an American national, living in the UK and working for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and Laura Atkinson, a UK national, working at Berry Bros & Rudd. Both have recently received their Certificates for the WSET Diploma.

Regine and Laura recently arrived in Cape Town, just in time to familiarise themselves with the Jordan Estate cellar before the start of the 2014 Harvest which is due to begin by the second week of February.

“Growing conditions during the build-up to the 2014 vintage have been challenging, with the highest rainfall in 150 years experienced during winter and spring. This harvest we will have our work really cut out for us,” commented Kathy.

During their 6-7 week experience both Laura and Regine will be working together with the Jordan Harvest team, actively experiencing and participating in all aspects of the winemaking process from grape sampling and harvesting to all red and white wine cellar work that occurs during the harvest period. They will also learn how to adjust the winemaking techniques for the different varieties that are harvested at Jordan, from the grape, through fermentation and finally to barrel. “I am really looking forward to this incredible hands-on experience – a once in a lifetime opportunity”, stated Laura.

“We are very excited to have these two very qualified women join our cellar team and experience the 2014 vintage with us,” said Kathy Jordan. “Lungiswa Sithole, our South Africa Women in Wine Candidate, will also be joining us to spend some time in the cellar during the vintage to gain further knowledge of a vintage at Jordan.” Lungiswa, who works in the hospitality industry in Cape Town has already successfully completed her WSET Level 1 course sponsored by Jordan Estate and is preparing for the Level 2 course later this year.

Other than experiencing the vintage at Jordan, the two interns will also be visiting cellars in other regions to better understand the South African wine industry and the diversity of the different winegrowing regions. Regine commented, “In addition to advancing our careers in the wine trade this will be a way for us to give something back to other women in the wine trade in the future, after we return from our experience”.

© Cape Times Friday 15th November 2013 Parents out there – the countdown has begun! Yes, it’s now a...

Family time, sans whine.

© Cape Times Friday 15th November 2013
Parents out there – the countdown has begun! Yes, it’s now a mere three weeks until the school holidays with all that that entails. In my house, it means a long nightmare of organising playdates, fetching and carrying, arguments about playing on the Wii and the Xbox and grizzles of “I’m bored!” appearing at regular intervals. So it was good timing on the part of the canny Robertson Wine Valley folk to invite me to jol around there last weekend and see what sort of non-electronic family-friendly things you can get up to which will please young and old alike.

For several years now we have spent part of our Christmas holidays in Montagu, living in the swimming pool and only venturing forth to restock the wine cabinet. Which is a shame as there are plenty of things you can get up to if you try. It’s a richly diverse valley, as famed for racehorses, apricots and wildlife as it is for wine. First up on our family-friendly itinerary was a visit to Farmer Redbeard. This is a new venture by ninth-generation farmer Albertus van Zyl and his wife Patrizia – and yes, he does indeed have a red beard! Located right in the heart of the stunning Langeberg mountain, they have opened their farm to a whole range of hands-on farming experiences for all us city-slickers who think that milk comes from plastic bags in Pick n Pay. You can pick fruit, ride in a tractor, make honey, play ball with the smiling and friendly dogs, learn to cook traditional preserves or do what I did – taste Albertus’s hopefully-soon-to-be released range of witblits and fruit spirits. I’m becoming increasingly interested in spirits and distilling and from the marked increase of boutique spirits and handcrafted sips coming my way, it’s clear that I’m not alone.

You need to book all the activities at Farmer Redbeard’s in case they’ve disappeared off up the mountains to their latest project – the newly-refurbished ‘braai bus’ – so contact them on www.farmerredbeard.co.za. But if you can’t get organised in time, then head for the place that’s always open, always friendly and always stocked with great wine – Van Loveren wines. If you haven’t been recently, you may be in for a bit of a shock because the slightly-ramshackle tasting tables have been replaced by an uber-larney modern barn and water feature. But fear not, the Van Loveren warmth and charm is still very much in place and over a bottle of their MCC, marketing manager Bonita Malherbe shared all their news. The aim of all the changes was to encourage visitors to linger longer at the farm and it seems to be working as they have experienced a massive 45% increase in spend per head since the tasting centre opened! Apart from the fabulous children’s grape juice and jelly-tot tasting, they have a whole range of different pairing options matching their large range of wines to meat, cheese and chocolates. The mountain bike and hiking trails are now fully-open and Christina’s Bistro is cranking out excellent, thin-crust pizzas to many of the 500 guests a day in season. What I like about Van Loveren is that there is something for everyone and they are open 7 days a week, 362 days a year – admirable business-sense in my opinion.

If you want more family-friendly wine farms, there is Viljoensdrift with its boat rides, jungle gyms at Bon Courage, Bon Cap and Ashton Kelder, large lawns and a lake at Springfield and the lovely grounds and stoep of De Wetshof (a place forever etched on my brain as it was against the wall of which my son once pulled down his pants and had a wee in front of amused visitors). Non-wine farm activities include the animals at the Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary in McGregor, crocodiles at Birds Paradise, horse-riding at Nerina Guest Farm and if beer is your thing, head outside to the Saggy Stone Brewery at Agtervinkrivier where there’s lots of space and jungle gyms for the kids whilst you taste some of the Robinson brothers’ fine ales. Witblits, wine, beer and peace and quiet in which to try them all – Robertson Wine Valley is a family-paradise over the holiday season, go and spend a day or two amidst its many charms.

© Cape Times Friday 18th October 2013 Over the years, winemaking has become increasingly scientific, and what started out...

Pinot Noir reaches new heights.

© Cape Times Friday 18th October 2013
Over the years, winemaking has become increasingly scientific, and what started out as an unexpectedly-frothing bucket of split grapes by the side of the field in Ancient Greece, has turned into an industry dominated by computers, machinery and technology. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this has improved the quality of our wines indescribably (the idea of Chateau Bucket never having appealed to me at all!) but sometimes I wonder if we haven’t forgotten that mingled in with all the scientific rigours and strictures is quite a lot of stuff that we cannot control such as the weather, the terroir and ultimately, the person behind the wine. If we can’t control and predict it, it can’t be science, so does that actually make winemaking an art or is it something different altogether?

Cathy Marshall has been making wine for most of her life, and making it under her own name ever since she and a group of friends had a riotous party and a foot-stomp on Muizenberg beach. She’s made Platter 5 Star wines for a number of different wineries and is generally considered one of the Cape’s leading Pinot-philes, known for her love and devotion to the Pinot Noir grape. But as with every relationship, sometimes it’s time for a freshen-up and when she turned 50 this year, she decided she needed a new injection of energy into her winemaking. “Making Pinot Noir is a very internalised thing – it requires a lot of intuition and questioning” she says. So her wine journey became a spiritual one, involving a return to her family’s ancestral home of Scotland and ending at the very top of the world at Mount Everest Base Camp as she re-constructed her winemaking philosophy to better reflect her life’s experiences and lessons. “You have to be a Pinot Thinker to make good Pinot” she claims. “More than with any other grape, you need to personally have harmony and sincerity in order to create balance and equilibrium in the wine.”

During a wonderful lunch last week, Cathy shared pictures of her visits to Scotland, Burgundy (the home of Pinot Noir, in France) and Tibet and we drank Pinots both from France and from her own previous vintages. Now settled in Elgin (although she still describes herself as ‘a gypsy’ and doesn’t actually own any vineyards), it is clear that not only has she found great fruit which suits her style, but she’s also find the style that suits her. One of the most modest and likeable winemakers around she says that she “believes the wines are getting better because I am now better. I don’t like to say that too loudly, but I feel that now I am a bit older and have more experience, I have the confidence to say ‘less is more’ and to hold back on things a bit and let them take their time.”

There was a great progression from the 2009 Reserve to the magnificent 2011 Reserve, with the latter showing wonderful density of fruit, elegance and spice. Cathy is going to hold onto the 2012 for just a little longer before releasing it – again reflecting her own new confidence in her wines in a market which usually prefers continuity over quality – and when it’s released, as it should be soon, I think it will be a wine worth waiting for. “Pinot reflects everything that’s about me. It’s been in my life so long and has taken me onto such amazing journeys to meet such incredible people.” How can you not want to drink a wine made by this woman, when it’s not just a wine, but a lifetime’s experience in a bottle?

© Cape Times Friday 16th August 2013 “Waste not, want not” was my grandmother’s mantra. She was a child...

In the grip of Grappa

© Cape Times Friday 16th August 2013
“Waste not, want not” was my grandmother’s mantra. She was a child of austerity, living through two world wars and bringing up her family in a time of rationing. Like most Brits of her age, she was no great drinker, but I reckon if any drink was going to appeal to her, it would be grappa. Why do I say that? Well, because of the way that it is made, basically taking something most people throw away and using it to create a whole new product. Grappa (aka marc in France) is made from the skins of grapes that have been turned into wine. After the skins have been pressed out of the wine, there is always a small amount of alcohol left in them and this is then used by grappa-makers to be distilled into their favourite spirit.

According to George Dalla Cia, of Dalla Cia Wines, you need 500 litres of grape skins plus 500 litres of water to produce a mere 30 litres of grappa, a rate of recovery only attempted by those for whom it is a labour of love, not profit. George’s grandfather started making grappa in Italy in the 1920’s and when his father Giorgio moved to SA to make wine at Meerlust, he brought with him a strong family tradition of distilling as well. Pre-1994, it was illegal for most wineries to distil spirits (although whether everyone obeyed the law is another conversation altogether!) but as soon as the law changed, the Dalla Cias imported a shiny new still from Italy and the third generation of grappa-production began.

But not everything is brand-new and hi-tech at the distillery – all the bottling and labelling is done by hand, they still use their original filter, now more than 60 years young and still going strong, and scattered around the converted brandy storage shed at Bosman’s Crossing in Stellenbosch are George’s collection of vintage Vespas adding a flamboyant touch to proceedings. Have a quick look round if you can because it’s pretty interesting, but then hurry next door to Pane e Vino and get down to the real fun task of tasting and enjoying the grappa. George’s wife Elena runs this osteria-cum-tasting room for the Dalla Cia wines and grappas, and it is a rare day when you don’t find at least one member of the family spending an Italian afternoon in the company of customers who’ve become friends.

Grappa is a delicate spirit so “don’t go too close because all you’ll get is the alcohol” George advises, and explains that they take enormous care not to ‘burn’ the skins during production, nor do they add any additional flavours such as sugar or botanicals as do many Italian producers. Tasting it first neat and then with a dash of water changes the spirit completely, softening the alcohol and smoothing out the flavours into more earthy, complex tones. A grappa made from the skins of iconic Vin de Constance shows plenty of delicate rose petals and Turkish Delight whilst the Dalla Cia Premium Grappa spends around 6-9 months in oak which adds a spicy vanilla bean note. The family also makes a range of grappa ice creams and chocolates, but the best way to try it is poured over broken sbrisolona biscuits, made by Elena from polenta, ground almonds and other secret ingredients! The biscuits soak up the spirit and become deliciously soggy with just the right amount of bite – the perfect end to a very long lunch. Go to www.dallacia.com for all the details, opening times and directions.

Side Bar – Calling all wine lovers!
If you get the chance, I highly recommend you get yourself tickets to the fabulous Cape Winemakers Guild Auction Showcase on Thursday 22nd August at the CTICC. Tickets cost R170 and you can try all these exclusive wines before the Auction in October. I tasted them all yesterday and believe me – there are some winners in there!

© Cape Times Friday 14th June 2013 When it comes to South Africa’s signature grape, it’s very easy to...

Super Chenin

© Cape Times Friday 14th June 2013

When it comes to South Africa’s signature grape, it’s very easy to paraphrase Pliny and say ‘Ex Chenin semper aliquid novi’ – there is always something new from this amazing, versatile variety. Maybe it’s because the people who make Chenin are a particularly enthusiastic bunch who get excited about every latest incarnation of their favourite grape. Or perhaps it’s because the Chenin Blanc Association is wo-manned so well by the proactive and dynamic Ina Smith, so anytime anything happens, she makes sure we ALL know about it. Either way, I’ve been to a few events recently which showcased new examples taking the variety to even dizzier heights.

Ken Forrester is in charge of the Chenin Blanc Association and lives, breathes, drinks and thinks about the stuff all the time. A tasting of ‘7 Deadly Chenins’ aimed to illustrate the versatility of the variety and he started with a less-expected version – a cap classique Chenin. This is a very common occurrence in France where Cremants and sparkling Vouvrays are the toast of the Loire Valley, but here in SA, very few MCC’s use Chenin. The new ‘Sparklehorse’ 2011 (R120 from the tasting room) comes from an old block of chenin which slopes down in the centre making the soils very damp and ill-drained. This was affecting how well the grapes were able to ripen, so Ken decided to stop beating his head against a brick wall and simply harvest them early and turn them into fizz. Apart from winning my vote for best name and label of 2013, the Sparklehorse is a salty, tangy, frothy number with plenty of character and oomph. Bit like its maker really.

Most of Ken’s top Chenin vineyards are planted with bushvines – a style of planting which can be expensive because it produces much lower yields than a trellised vine, but the fruit produced is often highly-prized for its intense flavours. Over the last 3 years, 82ha of bushvines have been uprooted in Stellenbosch because the farmers can’t make enough money from them. Leading producers like Ken and Kleine Zalze’s Johan Joubert are doing all they can to stem the tide and make good quality Chenin a viable financial proposition for Stellenbosch farmers, but it’s not always an easy ride. Johan has been on a three year mission to find the best Chenin sites in Stellenbosch, believing that the right combination of soils can offer the qualities he looks for in a Kleine Zalze Family Reserve wine – consistency, longevity, pure expression of the site. He finally found the right combination of old bushvines on the Groot Zalze farm and launched the new Family Reserve Chenin 2012 (R130 from the farm) last week. Right now, the wine is quivering on the edge of being awesome and all its going to take to push it over, is a little time – buy it now and stash it away for a year and see what I mean.

The final two Chenins I’ve tasted are really as much to do with food as they are with wine. The first comes from a cellar which can’t put a foot wrong at the moment – KWV. The Mentors Range is cleaning up at every competition going and they’ve just released a new Chenin Blanc 2012 (R180 from the tasting room), the first Chenin in the range for 4 years and one of the most food-friendly wines I’ve had in a while. Matthew Gordon is the chef at Laborie’s Harvest restaurant (also owned by KWV) and he matched it with a Malay Curried Crayfish Samoosa, melding pineapple, fresh ginger, sweet crayfish and a sappy freshness in the craziest, most wonderful mouthful. As for my final Chenin, it’s back to Ken Forrester, who’s just released a new and amazing semi-sweet ‘moelleux’ Chenin, specially made for London restaurant, High Timber. This wine just cries out for food – I immediately thought of Asian pork belly with its aromatic spices and rich crackling - but I bet it goes with everything. It’s on the pricy side at R500 from the tasting room, but I promise you, it’s worth it! There certainly is always, always something new and exciting from Chenin Blanc.

© Cape Times Friday 17th May 2013 I’ve just come back from a fabulous week in Portugal sponsored by...

How green is your screwcap?

© Cape Times Friday 17th May 2013

I’ve just come back from a fabulous week in Portugal sponsored by the biggest cork manufacturers in the country – Amorim. We ate far too much, drank far too much and, in the midst of our gastronomic orgies, we actually learnt a lot about cork. I have to say that given the choice between cork and screw-cap for my wine, I would probably choose screw-cap most of the time – it’s quick, it’s easy, I know my wine will be in good condition, I can re-seal it if (heaven forbid) I don’t finish the bottle and to be honest – the majority of wine I drink is young, fresh, fruity and not made to age so screw-cap is the ideal closure.

But cork has been used since ancient times to seal wine, oil, vinegar and for a variety of other uses as well. However, about two decades ago, the quality of wine corks decreased dramatically as technological advances increased, making for much greater production without associated greater quality – we found ways to produce more corks, without actually making them any better. At one time, the industry average for a corked wine (ie one that is affected by trichloroanisole or TCA – an infection which reacts with the flavour esters in a wine and turns it sour) was about 1 in 8 bottles and this gave the screw-cap manufacturers a gap in the market which they have been filling and expanding ever since.

Portugal is the home of cork and has the most cork forests. Once mature, the cork trees get stripped of their bark every nine years or so and the resulting spongy, lightweight planks get borne off to immense factories where they are rigorously cleaned and checked before being made into a variety of different types of corks. Following the quality dip in the 90’s, companies such as Amorim have made huge strides in research and development to the extent where they believe they will be able to guarantee that all their corks are 100% infection-free within the next few years. Certainly, the incidence of an Amorim cork tainting your wine is now less than 1%, a big improvement on previous years.

So cork is back on the playing field from a quality point of view, but the really interesting discovery I made in Portugal is that it is actually leading the field in a couple of other areas as well, most notably sustainability and ‘green-ness’. Did you know that a screw-cap has 24 times the carbon emissions of a cork? Yes, that’s right – 24 times. Astonishing isn’t it? Cork trees absorb around 14 million tonnes of CO2 every year, they rejuvenate themselves after each harvesting and along the way provide invaluable habitats for many indigenous species. Every single bit of cork is used in one form or another – either for wine stoppers, flooring, shoes, gaskets, airplane seats – and the residue is used for fuel, making some of Amorim’s factories virtually self-sufficient in terms of power consumption.

It was fascinating stuff indeed, and not only is cork a greener choice, it may also be actually improving your wine as well if you intend keeping it for any length of time. Cork contains natural polyphenols - tannins and flavenoids – which react with wine and help it mature and change character. Research is currently underway to determine exactly what effect these polyphenols have, but cork-fans would say that it’s only going to tell us what they know already – that wine matures better under cork in the long-term.

I’m not advocating wholesale abandonment of screw-caps – they definitely still have a place for lots of styles of wines – but there certainly is more to cork than meets the eye. As increasing numbers of people care about what they eat and drink and about preserving our planet for future generations, I think that a natural, sustainable closure such as cork is going to be seen in a new light. And on a personal note, anything which helps do away with the ultimate closure abomination – the plastic cork – gets my vote. Go cork!

© Cape Times Friday 19th April 2013 When Miles completely rubbished Merlot in the movie ‘Sideways’, he opened the...

Reputation Rescue for Merlot

© Cape Times Friday 19th April 2013
When Miles completely rubbished Merlot in the movie ‘Sideways’, he opened the door to a whole host of bandwagon-jumpers who have so far failed to change their view that the grape is either blowsy and over-ripe or lean, green and under-ripe. Poor Merlot – it seems it just can‘t win either way and whereas most of the drinking public like the former style, the critics dismiss both as equally inferior. Here in SA, that has been very much the case – hang around any public gathering of wine cognoscenti and you are bound to hear “Oh I don’t think there IS such a thing as a good South African Merlot” crop up in conversation at some point or another. Is this true? Can we really not make good Merlot in South Africa? Or do we just need to try a little bit harder.

One person who knows how hard you have to try to make great Merlot is Peter de Wet from De Wetshof Wines. It was never going to be easy taking over the winemaking from his father Danie, one of the people who’ve helped shape the SA wine industry over the years, but Peter has no intentions of sitting back on his laurels and merely recreating his father’s wines year after year. He’s already persuaded him to add a bubbly to the portfolio (the 2008 Pinot Noir is deliciously savoury and more-ish at R190 a bottle) and his newest project is a red wine made from mainly Merlot.

After working vintages in St Emilion, Peter had plenty of experience with the variety, specifically where it should and should not be grown. Accordingly he felt sure he could improve the quality of a particular Merlot vineyard and with the help of American viticulturist Phil Freese, he was finally given carte blanche by Danie (“Everything new generally starts with an argument between me and my dad!”) to make the necessary changes in the way the vineyard was managed. The vineyard is still young – only 8 years old when the first vintage of this wine was made – and Peter feels they have already made improvements since then.

The site has deep, clay soils which are perfect for Merlot and throughout the journey, Peter has striven to capture the site in the wine – the essential quality that is ‘terroir’. The new wine is called Thibault after the legendary architect of the Koopmans de Wet House in Cape Town, on which the De Wetshof winery building is based, and is 94% Merlot with just a little Cabernet Sauvignon added for backbone. The 2009 is for sale from the farm for R250 and will hopefully shut a lot of Merlot nay-sayers up with its dark berry fruit, hints of coffee and chocolate and long smoky finish.

Because it isn’t Chardonnay, the wine won’t be labelled as ‘De Wetshof’, emphasising the fact that this is somewhat of a departure from the norm both for the farm and the Robertson valley where Chardonnay is indisputably the white grape of choice. Another area better known for Chardonnay is the Hemel en Aarde valley and interestingly enough, the only Bordeaux blend currently made there is also mainly Merlot. It comes from Creation Wines and is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot 2011 (R144 from the farm). The secret to its success (apart from the pristine, cool-climate vines) is actually the addition of 15% Petit Verdot, adding a perfumed, aromatic quality to the wine which lifts it out of any line-up, but it is the 50% Merlot adding richness and generosity which leaves the final impression. Two fine examples of why the maligning of Merlot must cease – bring on the blends!

© Cape Times Friday 15th March 2013 Have you ever thought how strange it is that we are all...

Tastes of the Med

© Cape Times Friday 15th March 2013
Have you ever thought how strange it is that we are all totally familiar with Italian food yet most of us know hardly anything at all about Italian wine? Last weekend everyone was a-buzz with carbo-loading for the Argus and ‘bolognaise’ ‘carbonara’ and ‘fettucine’ were showing up on every chalkboard in town. It’s like pizza – come on, confess – who else’s knowledge of Italian is pretty much limited to ‘prosciutto’, ‘formaggi’ and ‘Quattro Stagione’? Thought as much.

Like most other countries in the new world, our winemaking is based on French grape varieties and the main reason is that the French got good at wine somewhat earlier than the Italians and Spanish. Whilst those countries were still fighting civil wars and arguing over who was in charge, France had already formulated and implemented a stringent system of checks and rules, all intended to improve quality. So when people started looking at Italian and Spanish grapes, there was confusion as to what was good, what worked and what actually tasted nice at the end of the day. Upshot? A resounding ‘no thanks’ to these unknown, untried varieties and back we all went to planting Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Well the wheel has now turned full-circle and many South African winemakers and wine retailers are becoming very excited about Italian and Spanish varietals, particularly now that quality has soared in the last twenty years. If you want the real deal, then Woolworths and Checkers are bringing in some really interesting stuff – try Checkers for fabulous Tempranillo at R24.99 or go to Woolworths for Pinot Grigio, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Primitivo all of them around R50 a bottle, along with their new Spanish selections – a Rueda Blanco, a Tempranillo and a Garnacha - all at the same price.

Strange names huh? But don’t let them put you off – all these wines have good back labels giving you chapter and verse in English so you don’t need to buy blind. But if you want to go for something familiar before venturing into the world of overseas wines, there are a few South Africans making wine from these Italian and Spanish varietals already. One of the first people to punt Italian varieties was Anthonij Rupert Wines (previously known as L’Ormarins) who launched their Terra del Capo range a decade ago. They have a Pinot Grigio (R59) and a Sangiovese – the great grape of Chianti (R75) as well as an interesting blend of Sangiovese and Merlot called ‘Arne’ (R115). Try them at their new tasting room antipasto bar (previously Graham Beck’s cellars).

If you want to try Spanish varieties, go to the Port people of Calitzdorp. The traditional port variety Tinta Roriz, is known as Tempranillo in neighbouring Spain and De Krans make a great version. Or try the Woolworth’s Portuguese Connection made by Boplaas which puts Tempranillo with Touriga Nacional and Cabernet for a great mouthful of chewy black fruits. For Garnacha – aka Grenache – try the Nederburg Winemakers Reserve which sells for around R50 and is a great introduction to the variety. Or trade up to the wonderful Ken Forrester ‘The Gypsy’ (R350) which uses some of the oldest Grenache vineyards in the country.

My final recommendation of Italian/Spanish grape varieties is actually Zinfandel! Zinfandel is widely-regarded as America’s pet grape variety, but DNA tests have now shown that it is originally an Italian grape known as Prmitivo (actually, they’ve gone back even further and discovered they both came from Croatia, but let’s stop there for now!) and with its ability to withstand high heats, it should do well in SA. The biggest proponents at the moment are Blaauwklippen who make a rosé version (R100), a normal everyday drink (R100) and – in the best years – a reserve (R310) but keep your eyes open for Grand Provence from Franschhoek who are making one this year as well. As Julius Caesar would say “Veni, vidi, vici” – they came, they saw and now finally, it looks like Italy and Spain might be conquering as well.

© Cape Times Friday 15th February 2013 When is champagne not champagne? When it’s an MCC of course. If...

Cape Sparkle

© Cape Times Friday 15th February 2013
When is champagne not champagne? When it’s an MCC of course. If you have no idea what I’m talking about – not to worry, it’s a subject that often confuses a lot of people. Champagne is a region in France and the term ‘Champagne’ can only be applied to wines made there. Here in South Africa, we make sparkling wines in exactly the same way as they do in Champagne, but legally, we have to refer to them as Methode Cap Classique – ie, made in the classical way in the Cape. So now we’ve got that confusion cleared up, onto the wines themselves which can also confuse and bemuse! Take one of our foremost MCC producers, Graham Beck Wines, for example. Currently they have seven MCC’s on the market, covering a bewildering gamut of different styles and tastes. A recent visit to the farm in Robertson threw up a few new favourites, and since my fizz-drinking is never confined to just one day a year, this is what I shall be drinking post-Valentines this year.

Unlike most still wines, the least expensive sparklers are often the ones which involve the most work. Pieter Ferreira, cellarmaster of Graham Beck, has been making MCCs there for over 20 years and his entry-level non-vintage MCC, which comes in both white and pink versions (R105 for both), is the one most people buy – production is now at a staggering 90,000 cases per year. Unlike a lot of other styles of wine, Pieter’s job here is to ensure that when you buy a bottle of this wine, it tastes exactly the same as the last bottle of it you bought. Consistency is the key – after all, MCC often denotes a special occasion and the last thing you want is yours ruined by your celebration fizz – and Pieter must bring all his years of experience to bear to keep it tasting the same, year in, year out. He does this by a process called ‘back-blending’ which means that every year he keeps some wine in reserve and he adds this in differing proportions to tinker with the next year’s blend and make the final wine taste the same as all the others.

It’s a tough job – which I know people never believe when you say that about anything in the wine industry – and can seem almost prescriptive for a winemaker, in that they don’t have the chance to put their own stamp on the house style. That privilege is reserved for the vintage wines and prestige cuvées which is where Pieter is able to pick and choose the most interesting parcels of wines and turn them into something spectacular. His current drinking favourites (and mine too, I must say) are the 2008 Blanc de Blancs and the 2006 Brut Zero – more confusing terms! A Blanc de Blancs simply means ‘a white wine made from white grapes’ which seems rather obvious, until you remember you can make a white wine from black grapes. The 2008 is 100% Chardonnay and has been in the bottle for more than 3 years. It’s a rich savoury wine with flavours of toasted almond croissant and a lemon meringue pie finish. Costing R205 from the farm, it is well worth splashing out on.

Pieter’s other favourite of the moment is the Brut Zero 2006, where the ‘zero’ bit refers to the fact that there has been no sugar added to the wine, something which commonly happens with most styles of MCC or champagne. This means that it is a delicious, tangy, yeasty, bready mouthful which cries out for a salty oyster and which lasts forever in your mouth. Also costing R205 from the farm, this is something to savour slowly with someone special. Who cares if Valentine’s Day was yesterday – I refuse to pander to the dictates of petty commercialism and shall be drinking this tonight and any other night I feel it’s appropriate. And I think that might be pretty often…..

© Cape Times Friday 30th November 2012 Unwooded chardonnays – good, but are they good enough? This is the...

Power of The Plank

© Cape Times Friday 30th November 2012
Unwooded chardonnays – good, but are they good enough? This is the question I found myself asking after the marvellous De Wetshof Celebration of Chardonnay the other week. Danie de Wet is generally considered the Father of Chardonnay in South Africa, being one of the very first people to plant it, to recognise that the chalky soils of Robertson suit it and that South Africa has great potential for making world-beating wines from the variety. In a bid to benchmark and to also keep pushing the envelope when it comes to Chardonnay, he organises a biennial event of local and overseas wines and generously invites a wonderful mix of winemakers, journalists, retailers and other wine-lovers to a tasting and lunch on the farm.

A scorchingly sunny day saw 150 Chardonnay-fans converging on Robertson to taste some fantastic wines. Local stars included Glen Carlou’s Quartz Stone 2010, Paul Cluver 2011, Hamilton Russell 2011 and De Wetshof’s own The Site 2009, whilst the outstanding overseas wines came from France’s Domaine de Montille Puligny-Montrachet Les Cailleret 2007 and Australia’s Cullen’s Kevin John Chardonnay 2010. Discussions of clones, oak and Nomblot eggs (What? I hear you cry! Large, concrete, fermentation vessels, that’s what!) abounded and then right at the end, someone asked ‘Why are there no unwooded chardonnays in this line-up of South Africa’s best?’

A very good question indeed – why are there no unwooded Chardonnays winning top accolades and awards. France manages to produce very successful unwooded Chardonnays in Chablis so why can’t we here in SA? The answer to that, I think, is that we do produce some delicious unwooded Chardonnays – it’s just that our wooded ones, these days, are even better. For many years, people have been ABC’ers – Anything But Chardonnay – and the main reason for that has been that people don’t like too much oak. Putting wine in an oak barrel, or adding creamy/toasty/buttery/oaky flavours by some other method, has not always been done with a light touch and the backlash against drinking wines which make you feel as if you are chewing a plank has rebounded on poor old Chardonnay, with people choosing unwooded Sauvignon Blancs instead.

Luckily, most people are moving away from plank-like Chardonnays in favour of wines with more elegance and balance – qualities which were present in abundance at the Celebration last week. For those that don’t like even the merest of woody whiffs, here are a few suggestions. The newly-launched Glen Carlou Unwooded is a zesty affair with a creamy undertone from lots of lees-stirring in the Nomblot egg. Or if you like it tangy, then Groote Post 2011 is full of refreshing citrus fruit whilst De Wetshof themselves do the delicious Bon Vallon 2012 which is packed with flowers and crisp, crunchy green apples.

My favourite wines are those which use oak with delicacy and discretion – so you hardly taste the wood, it just rounds out the wine and makes it more satisfying. Lightly wooded wines I’ve enjoyed recently include Zonnebloem’s Chardonnay 2011 which has only 10% of oak and Winter’s Drift Chardonnay 2011 which is a 50/50 wooded/unwooded wine, whilst elegant, full-wooded versions include Seven Springs Chardonnay 2011 which only uses older, larger barrels in their delicate, creamy wine and the Edgebaston Chardonnay 2011 made by David Finlayson and which balances first, second and third-fill wood with zesty acidity. Will an unwooded Chardonnay ever beat a wooded version in a competition? If we continue to make wooded wines like these, and as long as people can get over the badly-wooded wines of a decade ago, I’d say it’s probably a question we shouldn’t waste our time asking anymore. According to David Finlayson, the ABC of yester-year has now been replaced by “Always Buy Chardonnay” and whatever kind you buy, that sounds like very good advice to me.