April 01, 2013

South Africa - wonderful wines, awesome animals!

Last month I spent two whirlwind and fabulous weeks in South Africa - the culmination of an incredible six months travelling and tasting through Scotland, France, Switzerland, Germany and Israel. I didn't think it was possible to top the many adventures already under the belt, but I completely fell in love with South Africa and have been fairly raving about the country ever since.

It is not without its share of troubles. There is still much corruption and crime, and too much poverty and discrepancy between rich and poor, but I found it to be a hopeful and vibrant land, where much seems to have improved in the last 15 years. Clearly, two weeks is not enough time to become acquainted with such a vast country, but we did our best, and hope to return in the future.
Highlights included
  • spending time with our son and daughter-in-law, who temporarily live in Johannesburg
  • enjoying summer
  • seeing a vast number of animals up close and personal in Kruger National Park

  • visiting a wonderful day care and kindergarten in Soweto, where happy and well fed children were learning and enjoying with all their hearts
  • meeting up with friends living in South Africa
  • spending a few days in the beautiful Western Cape

  • marvelling at the views from the top of Table Mountain 

  •  tasting many wines at a tiny percentage of the Western Cape wineries.

Stellenbosch and Constantia - two great wine regions

There are over 400 wineries in South Africa, most of them in the Western Cape, which is further divided into regions, wards and districts. I guarantee that, if you are a wine-lover, half an hour in the WOSA website (not to be confused with the Western Ontario Swimming Association website) will convince you to visit the area. Great and inexpensive wines, stunning scenery, gorgeous wineries, (many with excellent restaurants), and fine hospitality make the Western Cape a very compelling destination.
With only 5 days to look around the Cape, we elected to stay in Stellenbosch for a few days, followed by Constantia, both highly regarded wine areas. We barely skimmed the surface, but managed some tastings at Thelema, Tokara, Zorgvliet, Boschendal, Annandale, The Winery of Good Hope, Eikendal, and Steenberg, as well as some great dining at the restaurants of a few wineries. (Where I provide pricing in the next section, it is a rough conversion to CDN $ in February 2013).

In Stellenbosch, we stayed in a wonderful place called Die Laan Guest House I highly recommend it. In Constantia, we stayed at Constantia Palms - also good.
We ate at two of the best restaurants, I've ever visited.

Lunch at Jordan was outstanding and dinner at Rust en Vrede, with about 9 courses, most of them paired with wines, was a sensory delight in every way.
Thelema Mountain Vineyards is about 5km from Stellenbosch, on the road to Franschhoek. The tranquil tasting room, tastefully adorned with the work of local artists, overlooks the Drakenstein mountains. Large crystal glasses are provided for virtually free tastings - pretty much the norm throughout the area. About 80% of the wines for tasting and sale were under $12 with many delicious to excellent examples, including Ed's Reserve Chardonnay 2011, at the princely price of $10. With vineyards in the Helshoogte Pass and cooler climate Elgin Valley, Thelema produces wines made from a wide range of varieties - Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Muscat, Viognier, Roussanne, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, Cab Sauv and Petit Verdot. The high end Thelema Rabelais 2008 was an elegant, well structured, well made  Bordeaux blend - a steal at $35.

Tokara Winery, close by, also offered a range of great wines, made from grapes sourced locally as well as from nearby cooler climate regions. From a ridiculously tasty medal winning, $6 Sauvignon Blanc to the 2008, Director's Reserve Bordeaux Blend, featuring all five Bordeaux grape varieties, there were some super wines on the tasting menu.

The Director's Reserve merited 4 1/2 stars out of 5 in the Platter Guide (South Africa's invaluable annual wine guide), won Gold in SA Top 100 2012 and a Silver Medal in the 2012 Veritas Awards. At under $25, this was an exceptional, big, bold, complex, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon wine. The winery and restaurant are stunning, beautifully designed, featuring outstanding sculptures and surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery. We dined at the restaurant at Tokara on a Saturday night, but were a little underwhelmed with both food and service. Could have been an off night.

The Winery of Good Hope merits much mention. Edouard Labeye, the French winemaker originally from the Rhone Valley, is part of the team making some stunning wines in the Stellenbosch region, garnering a lot of attention, and doing some real work in social, ethical and environmental areas. The winery is not generally open to the public, but we managed to catch Edouard looking for his cat, and he graciously and enthusiastically treated us to an extensive tasting of most of his collection.

Of the 16 or so wines tasted, I liked a great many of them, and disliked a few. The 2013 Platter Guide awards 4 stars and above to 19 wines from the winery - lofty praise indeed. To highlight just a few of my own favourites..........
Vinum Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($11). Simply marvellous and drinking like something 4 times the price, elegant, good structure, worthy of aging; complex aromas of black fruit, herbaceous elements, coffee and tobacco. Really? $11?
Radford Dale Freedom Pinot Noir 2012 ($27). From vineyards at 500 to 700m in cool climate Elgin, carefully hand made, using natural yeasts, with final fermentation in Burgundian barrels. On the lees for a year and then bottled without fining or filtration. Simply put, I thought this was a great Pinot, worthy of the tastebuds of a "Pinotphile". We didn't all agree on this one, but it is ever thus with Pinot.

Radford Dale Black Rock 2009 ($15) Mainly Shiraz, but with Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier and Carignan in the blend, this was a big, spicy, excellent wine, and I want a few bottles for BBQ season! Despite being 14.5% alcohol, it's refreshing and very tasty.
Radford Dale Gravity 2009 was a blend of Cab Sauv, Shiraz and Merlot. This is a flagship wine at $35. Conversation was lively at this point, but my notes say "fabulous". Platter 2013 gives it 4 1/2 stars and calls it "unforcedly harmonious and generous".

Edouard turned things upside down by inviting us to taste his whites next - a range of chardonnay and chenin blanc. I'm going to put it down to a tired palate, but I wasn't bowled over by anything at this point, and clearly must return for a reverse tasting!
Boschendal sits in a beautiful estate dating back to 1685. Among a number of good wines we tasted was an excellent Grand Cuvee Brut sparkling wine under $12. Made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in the Methode Cap Classique (like champagne), this would have been excellent at 5 times the price.
Steenberg Vineyards

We stayed for a couple of  days in the Constantia region, where our B and B host fairly insisted that we had to cram in some winery visits, notwithstanding a fairly full agenda, which included touring Capetown in a  double decker bus, visiting friends and heading up Table Mountain - one of the new 7 wonders of nature. Not wishing to miss out or disappoint, we spent our last morning at Steenberg, before heading off to the airport for a long trek home. Part of a beautiful estate, the winery, its gardens and its surroundings are simply gorgeous.

The tasting bar chandelier is a work of art. Sadly, the crystal stemware seemed to be suffering from detergent residue and, coupled with one definitely corked wine and another highly suspect one, pretty much nothing appealed, apart form the ultra premium Catharina 2009, which needed a few more years of cellaring but had nice structure - not bad for a $16 wine. The icon Magna Carta 2010, 65% Sauv Blanc and 35% Semillon ($39) was a strange duck. My nosing partner and I, independently, both detected a hugely vegetable- centric nose - strong green pea, asparagus and herbs. Quite unappealing on the nose. Happily, this did not carry forward to the palate, which was very good and led to a long aftertaste. The winery tasting notes offer ``perfumed aromas of orange blossom, tangerine and green figs supported by a fresh mineral and gun flint character``. Platters Guide gave 5 out of 5 stars. Either I should go back into the world of hi-tech or there was something seriously odd going on that day. Nonetheless, Steenberg was, without a doubt, the most beautiful winery I have ever visited.
South Africa is a bit of a hike from Ottawa, but after a stop in Europe to get over jet lag, followed by an 11 hour hop in a southerly direction,  paradise awaits. Just ask these fellas!
As I write, there are a few (very few) wines in the LCBO from Thelema, Winery of Good Hope and Boschendal,  and 185 South African wines, in total, showing on the online system, in quantities from 1 to lots. Last week, I served a 2006 Remhoogte red blend at a private tasting and it was absolutely stunning. Sadly, there are only a few bottles left and none in Ottawa, but from time to time some excellent and great value South African wines appear on the shelves.