Back in November, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel to South Africa on a two week food and wine tour. It was a rather unfortunate time to leave town, as my flight left only three days after the fire at our Resort. After some convincing from the various people I work with, I decided that this was an opportunity I could not miss and that life still does go on even in the most tragic of circumstances.
South Africa is one of those places I said I would never go on my own; only as part of a tour with a group.
Fortunately the tour group I usually travel with has made it one of their new destinations, namely Mark DeWolf of By The Glass Vine Tours. I also traveled with this company to Spain, Chile & Argentina and I knew the quality of the tours is always great. Just like the other tours, there were many opportunities to learn from the winemakers themselves rather than a typical commercial wine tour you get with many of the other companies.
The real eye opener for me within hours of landing in Cape Townwas that much of the South African wine can buy in Nova Scotia is really not of good quality. The real wine from South Africa does not have that burned rubber/wet campfire smell that I have typically associated with wines from this region. This characteristic is actually a fault that is found in much of their lower quality wine, and we end up with these wines in our market.
Real South African wine is wonderfully complex. Currently, the trend in the region is to produce many of the varieties we see throughout the rest of the world such as chardonnay. We were fortunate enough to taste some remarkable examples of what chardonnay should taste like. The trend in red’s seems to be toward Bordeaux blends. This trend was surprising to me because, based on the wines we see here in NS, I thought they produced mostly Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. These wines are their two classic varietals that South Africa is known for. But these were almost non-existent and, having spoken with the winemakers, found that they do not enjoy working with these varieties, especially pinotage. The consensus seemed to be that winemakers hated working with pinotage. We did taste a few aged Chenin Blancs that were absolutely amazing that we purchased at the local wine store which is proof that many of their local Chenin Blancs have great aging potential.
We landed in Cape Town and travelled throughout the region, staying much of the time in Franschoek, but also travelling to Paarl (which gets it’s name from a giant granite round rock on a hill that looks like a pearl), Stellenbosch, Hermanus and Robertson. We had our own driver from the area, Ludwig, who was very knowledgeable and had a great sense of humor which made the trip even more fun. The landscape was absolutely amazing with mountains everywhere. The weather was perfect; not too hot and not too cold. It was spring in South Africa, so a perfect time to go. The one day that it was particularly hot, by noon, the cape doctor winds came up and cooled everything down. The “Cape Doctor” are strong, cool persistent winds that blow off of the Southern Ocean and are great for cooling down the vineyards on a warm summer day.
Our first winery stop was at Klein Constantia, the first winery in South Africa, which opened in 1685. The original vineyard land since then have gradually been divided up and sold, resulting in several wineries in the area. It was also the first place where it really hit home that I wasn’t in NS anymore. Driving out of the winery, we saw a baboon in the vineyard. Here in NS we have to worry about deer, they have baboons that destroy the vineyards instead of just eating grapes. My favourite wine from this tasting was a 2008 Klein Constatnia Marlbrook (Cabernet Sauvignon 58%, Malbec 16%, Merlot 13%, Petit Verdot 7%, Cabernet franc 6%) which showed huge blackberry & blueberry aromas and flavours with a hint of clove & cinnamon spice. The palate was very smooth with lots of vanilla from oak aging. If it shows up in NS it is a must buy.
Another interesting tasting stop was at Fairview Vineyards. Our wine tasting session was in a grand semi-private tasting room overlooking the wine cellar and all of the wines were paired with cheeses. There were 8 varieties of cheese for pairing and all of it was made at the winery. Fairview keeps sheep and cows to make fantastic cheese that pairs well with the wines they also make at the winery. I bought as much cheese there as I did wine. Several of their wines are available in NS at Harvest Wines and Bishops Cellar.
We sampled several very good Method Classique sparkling wines at Graham Beck. These wines showed great elegance and balance for grapes grown in such a warm area of South Africa. Unfortunately they rarely show up in NS, but a general list is their Viognier, which is very good quality.
We also had several great examples of cooler climate styled winemaking. While staying in the beautiful coastal town of Hermanus we travelled through the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley stopping at Bouchard Finlayson, Hamilton Russell & Ataraxia. Here we found numerous great quality Chardonnays & excellent Pinot Noirs. One of my favourites from this valley was the 2009 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir. Lots of classic cherry aromas with a bit more of a darker fruit side than your typical Pinot Noir. Flavours also showed a subtle mineral & flint background, but well integrated with the fruit flavours.
South Africa was a breath taking trip full of excellent food & wine and with a very low currency value everything is very inexpensive. Many of the wines available in NS that are priced here for $20 were only $2 or $3 in South Africa. All of our meals were very good as well. With cultural influences being Dutch, French, Indian & local tribal; food was always interesting and very flavourful.
Most valuable lesson I have to share with you – If there is a cheetah on the label stay away.