Bliss in the Heat of the Valley

It was 40 degrees in the shade, and my engine was running on empty. Time, thus, to fill-up. So turned left off the highway between Stellenbosch town and Somerset-West, heading for the hills. Well, the valley actually, this one being Pink Valley, the eatery and winery that set-up shop some three years ago on the lower slopes of those Helderberg Mountains known for making wine and generally a place being awfully pretty, too.

The day was, as I said, hot. Hot enough to melt the botox off Stellenbosch Mafia hit-man. The cool conditions of the Cape summer’s first half had fooled all and sundry. Since the second half of 2022, things began to warm up, that scorching cloak of summer heat laying itself over the earth and its people, making the pull of places offering refreshment and sustenance firm and true. Pink Valley has such a pull, and here I begin with the wine.

Pink Valley is rosé wine country. That cold, crisp blush wine that began in the Provence region of France already in Roman times. In hot, open country, no wine hits the spot the way a fine rosé does. Bone-dry, a line of acidity sharper than Lindiwe Sisulu’s tongue with flavours of summer berries, oyster-shell and gushing mountain-stream water, rosé’s a tough act to beat as far as wine refreshment be concerned. Pink Valley makes a gorgeous rosé, one that sings, cools and refreshes the parts other rosé’s can’t reach.

Knowing this, I immediately ordered a bottle of Pink Valley as I strolled through the welcoming cool interior of the Pink Valley Restaurant and plonked down at a corner table with Rios Catana, my Latin-blooded dining partner. The wine came and after finishing the first glass in two generous draughts, I realised how hungry I was, so we perused the menu.

Chef Monché Muller

Pink Valley edibles are designed and executed my flavour-monger head-chef Monché Muller. They come in small-plates made for diverse ordering from the items on offer and sharing. Ideal for two, except Rios’s permanent ravenous appetite means one has to grab your portion quickly when the little guy is around.

Monché has the Pink Valley menu changing on a regular basis as seasonal ingredients come to the fore. No destination in the quest for taste, it is a permanent journey. And there’s a lot to like, so we just began requesting as our mood and tastes saw fit.

To kick-off, sweet potato bread – as baked on the island of Madeira – and to spread on this golden warm cloud of deliciousness, a pâté made from smoked snoek. And can we just hear it for smoked snoek pâté, please? Is this not one of the truly delightfully flavoursome and textural pleasing items to have on any South African table?

The oily fish that is snoek, as much a part of Cape culture as tattooed baristas, Brazilian waxes at Camp’s Bay beach and four-lettered graffiti on intercity trains, makes for one of the world’s great seafood spreads. Deep marine umami that would have a Japanese geisha break-out in heavy-metal song is found in a smooth, silky pâté the colour of coral that provides for delicious eating. Especially when slapped onto the slight floral sweetness of the sweet-potato bread. Eaten with the life-affirming zesty Pink Valley Rosé, the afternoon’s hellish heat had turned into a day of heaven.

Rios and I chose generously from the main menu of “to-share” plates: Hake in a crisp, light tempura batter; mussels out of the shell and drifting in a unctuous broth tasting of ocean and marine life; a savoury pancake with glistening morsels of fatty duck; peri-peri chicken pide where accurately spiced chicken is set in a golden, crusty flat-bread; lamb kofta to make a Greek smash his mother’s finest plates with its delicate meatiness, lifted further by a herbaceous fragrance.

And the rosé kept on coming, and flowing and refreshing, a perfect wine to elevate these culinary delights to stratospheric levels. It was all flavour and cool; fresh and invigorating; rewarding and mood-elevating.

That lamb kofta, grilled to perfection with a dark crustiness embracing the tenderest, most joyous minced meat, was a thing of true beauty. Being Portuguese, Rios was trying to colonize the peri-peri pide, but my threatening gestures with a shiny knife and the promise to order another portion, managed to keep him at bay. The dish was exotic, the range of spiciness more complex than a Kardashian’s annual cosmetic surgery schedule, yet the perfectly cooked chicken and fresh flatbread provided a semblance of homely comfort.

Churros and that other milk-tart stuff.

To accompany another bottle of Pink Valley Rosé, dessert was ordered in the form of churros accompanied by a dipping elixir inspired by the traditional South African milk-tart. Here long, slender churros, deeply golden with the perfect ratio between crisp exterior and tenderly baked interior, were served with an eggy custard perked with cinnamon. Dunked in this luxuriously creamy and spice-scented custard, the churro is taken to elevated heights of decadence that will have a Cisterian monk grow a man-bun.

Drinking dry rosé and eating such rich sweetness is a better match than one would think, and just one of the many points of discovery in a valley that has me, for one, tickled pink.

5 Ways to Spot an Anti-Vaxxer at a Wine-Tasting

They are all around us. Filled with superior home-sourced scientific knowledge, an ingrained self-righteousness and opinions aimed at belittling those not at their levels of debate and intellect, the anti-vaccination crowd are in our midst. Even here in the world of informative and collegial wine-tastings, those harbouring a vehement aversion to vaccinating against Covid have crept into our circles. Don’t believe me? Look out for the following signs of an anti-vaxxer at your next wine event:

  • Earthy Aromas: No, we are not talking aged Pinot Noir’s forest-floor scent nor the life-affirming smell of newly composted vineyard wafting through the tasting-room window. The disregard of medical science in objecting to the Covid vaccination has led to anti-vaxxers questioning the once habitual practicing of personal hygiene, as soap and chemical-laden deodorant can, too, pounce onto and into their bodies, creating corporate-cultivated mayhem. Washing with de-chlorinated water drawn from a mountain stream in Newlands forest and scrubbing the build-up of bodily dirt away with fallen pine-needles might have a cleansing effect on the person of an anti-vaxxer. Unfortunately, said cleansing methods do little to eradicate the presence of a ripe, rancid scent that has by now beset the body of this species. Who nonchalantly join wine-tastings apparently unaware of the cloud of offensive fragrance they bring into the tasting-venue with them.
  • Painful Cork-screw: Yup, that’s him or her – the one who cannot bear to look at a wine bottle being opened with a cork-screw. For the sight of that sharp object being driven into the surface of the cork-stopper is just too eerily similar to the thought of a vaccination needle entering the soft flesh of an upper-arm. Thus, when the next bottle has to de-corked via insertion of cork-screw at a wine-tasting, the anti-vaxxer will either at that very moment choose to engage in attention-diverting conversation involving the possibility of Mark Zuckerberg being the love-child of Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton or simply wince, shudder or emit a pained, frustrated sigh.  
  • Collecting spittoon samples: The complex network of conspiracy theories among anti-vaxxers should never be under-estimated. There is a deeply entrenched system at work here whereby the vaccine-averse go to extreme lengths to gather information that could possibly assist them in their cause against the New World Order that “Those People” are wishing to establish through the Covid vaccination. It has, thus, been reported that at some professional wine events certain individuals have surreptitiously collected the liquid contents of spittoons. These regurgitated samples of DNA-rich spit and wine are taken by the anti-vaxxer present at the wine event and sent to an undercover laboratory on the outskirts of Observatory in Cape Town. Presuming that most people attending wine-tastings are vaccinated, these second-hand wine samples are analysed by sandal-wearing practitioners of alternative science in an attempt to discover a physiological affliction, infection or ailment in these drops of regurgitated wine. Should such an ailment be discovered in these samples it would, obviously, point to vaccinated people being bearers of life-threatening diseases or physical conditions that are, obviously, the result of the dreaded Covid Vaccination.
  • Lack of Social Media Interaction: Noting that a once enthusiastic practitioner of social media, a guy or gal that would set the waves of digital conversation ablaze with thoughtful insights, poised comment and energetic responses, has gone quiet? Yet, there they are, at every wine-tasting, sipping and tapping on the phone without their presence appearing on twitter, facebook or Instagram? That’s a true sign of an anti-vaxxer. For the anti-vaxxer scoffs at the thought of engaging with those gullible sheeples who dance to the hypnotising tune of “Those People” present on media channels owned by “Those People” Zuckerberg & Co. who are the very commanders-in-chief of the scam that is Covid. No, instead of partaking in high-profile social media engagement, the anti-vaxxer prefers to eschew mainstream media, much preferring to be hooked by the insights of Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson or getting erotically aroused by sourcing pictures of Novac Djokavic or phrases coined by Tim Noakes. So, check that out at the next tasting: if they are there, but also not there, that’s an anti-vax right there. If you know what I mean.
  • Show Your Body: Anti-vaxxers not only see themselves as mentally superior to the brainwashed hordes of Covid propaganda swallowers, but of a far greater physical make-up too. Natural, pure and robust bodily health, gained from years of Ashtanga Yoga, cold-water ocean plunges, gluten-free diets and lengthy bouts of tantric sexual liaison  – with other anti-vaxxers, obviously – gives the anti-vax individual a physical presence as robust as his or her superior mental make-up. This explains why certain individuals are now attending wine-tastings showing more flesh than they ever used to in the past. Obviously, this is not a pretty sight as a vast amount of wine-aficionados fall in the 50-plus age-group and no matter how unsullied their bodies, it ain’t always that good to look at. But if you wish to spot and anti-vaxxer at your next wine-tasting, look for the usually conservative mild-aged man who leaves three buttons of his shirt unclasped to show a bony, lightly haired chest. As to the stylishly clad woman who has suddenly started attending wine events in tight denim shorts which highlight those clenched calf-muscles and begins challenging all the men to a bout of arm-wrestling after the third flight of wine, well, it has anti-vaxx written all over. Just remember the mask.

A Tale of Two Cape Cabernets

I only met Desiderius Pongrácz, one of the pioneers of Cape viticulture, on two occasions and all I can remember is that he looked at one with a beady and sparkling eye implying that if you were to say something, it had better not be anything stupid. But as a youngster back in the 1970s, I was not going to suggest an opinion regarding matters vinous or viticulture. It was far safer to act uninformed and curious, and just ask questions if people like Pongrácz, Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW) MD Ronnie Melck and his production sidekick Duimpie Bayly were in the vicinity.

The second time I met Pongrácz – I found the referring to him as “Pongi” by others somewhat belittling – we were tasting wines from Lanzerac and Zonnebloem and I happened to ask why these wines were labelled as Cabernet, and not Cabernet Sauvignon. As this was the grape variety whose virtues were extolled by the legendary viticulturist and botanist Abraham Izak Perold, which led to the cultivar being planted keenly throughout Stellenbosch and surrounds since the 1940s.

Melck and Bayly, in whose stable Lanzerac and Zonnebloem were, said the wording had something to do with label space, and that if any wine-drinker did not know this Cabernet was Cabernet Sauvignon, the relevant persons should forsake these wines and go back to Lieberstein. Laughs were laughed heartily, and a bit of banter ensued, such was the jocular nature of the Cape wine scene back then, half a century ago.

It was later that day, after the lunch and walking back to my car parked outside the SFW squash court, that Pongrácz called me over. About your question on the Cabernet, he said. “Remember, that many of these wines originate from vineyards that I believe have just as much Cabernet Franc material in them as Cabernet Sauvignon. Everyone thinks it’s all Sauvignon, but this is not the case. So perhaps labelling it just Cabernet is more logical than you or I think it is.”

I never had the interest to follow-up on the great man’s explanation, as in those days I – nor I presume many other people – would have much care in a Cabernet wine being of the Sauvignon or Franc variety. (Pongrácz died in 1984 after a motor vehicle accident.)

However, since the stratospheric interest in the South African GS wines from the 1966 and 1968 vintage, Pongrácz’s assessment of much of the Cape’s Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards having actually been Cabernet Franc, is a fact to ponder over. Labelled only “Cabernet”, these two wines made by the late George Spies of SFW now have a cult-like status, partly due to the mysteries of their origins. It is known that the vineyard was in the Cape’s Durbanville region, but no records exist on how the wine was made. And with the name GS Cabernet, could the legendary George Spies have been aware of the relevant vines possibly being of the Cabernet Franc variety, or an interplanting of both cultivars?

For surely, he would have added more aura to the wines by calling the GS Cabernet Sauvignon instead of the rather innocuous “Cabernet”?

The only thing left of these great wines is memory and place. Last year the Durbanville Wine Valley launched a wine evoking both site and heritage of GS with a wine called The Master’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon made from the 2016 vintage, 50 years after the original GS. The grapes come from the Morgenster farm in Durbanville where the original GS grapes were grown.

Of all the regions he could source grapes from, George Spies selected Durbanville. It is a fact of nature that the area has superb red wine terroir. Decomposed granite soils, abundant lateral air-flow, proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and a history of viticulture going back to the late 1600s.

Whatever the motive for its making may be, the modern rendition of GS – The Master’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – is another example of the truly stupendous quality of Cape Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine spent two years in oak barrels – 24 months more than the GS 1966! – and then about three years in the bottle, so be assured that opening it now is a wine in what will for the next three years be in its absolute prime.

The thing about Cabernet Sauvignon is that it is just such a commanding wine, with a regal, upright and confident presence. It does not have to try to impress with spice and velvet texture, nor does it react to winemakers wishing – god knows why – to get restraint out of it. Originating from a great piece of earth, the grapes ferment, rest in wood and bottle, and opening the thing, the wine is just there. Assured. Direct expression of flavours without trying to be too nuanced or clever. Black berries and cedar, plus a whiff of Cuban cigar-box assert themselves, while the tannins run tight and true with the kind of elegance that comes with presence and the garnering of respect.

The Master’s Vineyard has a no-nonsense nobility about it, a non-showy brilliance and splendour that a nobleman such as Pongrácz would have been proud of. I raise a glass to him and those who with foresight and understanding paved the way for the great vineyards of South Africa. Because this is how they taste.

  • Lafras Huguenet

South African Wine 2022: Let’s do This

The great American writer Jack London said that one does not wait for inspiration to hit you: it is something you go and hunt down with a club in your hand. This is true. Except, mostly, at the beginning of a new year when inspiration lines each cloud, hope drifts in on a fresh ocean breeze and the mountains echo sounds of optimism.

This is why right now, my personal feelings for the world of South African wine are headily positive. As I lie here with the slight buzz of a hangover affected by a bottle of Creation Chardonnay preceded by two of my own handcrafted epic dry Martinis, I can’t wait to bounce up and get to grips with some professional activity. But first, a crisp early morning beer.

Jack London feeling inspired.

Reason to be cheerful number one must be, has to be, this feeling that here in the African South we seem to have kicked Covid’s yellow, slit-eyed and chopstick-chomping arse. Sure, signs are that the latest Omicron variant did have a South African origin of sorts as this little fucker led our fourth-wave of infections. But guess what, we are clearing it up. Despite a low vaccination rate among the populace – only 26% fully – and a strong infection wave in December, actual physical harm to citizens was low enough for the government to just about scrap all the measures it had deployed during its dramatically titled State of Disaster.

Normality is in sight, with the devastated hospitality sector now able to get back into full-swing, especially as international tourism is set to pick-up again. This, obviously, bodes well for the wine industry which has with the lack of international visitors to the country realised just how dependent the wine and hospitality sectors are on foreign feet. Those of us who over the past 19 months experienced the mid-week empty winery tasting-rooms in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek were perhaps not aware of how big a percentage of everyday tourism originated from overseas visitors.

Coupled to appreciating the importance of international tourists is the reality that if South African wine truly is going to grow at a premium level, it is only going to do so through exports. This position is hardly new. Local demographics are never going to allow for the domestic market to dominate the consumption of premium South African wine – 85% of all wine sold on home-turf commands R45 a liter or less. We who excitedly communicate and write about the Kanonkops, Hamilton Russells and Eben Sadies of the world are talking to a sliver of local wine enthusiasts, a minority segment who will never be able to buy or consume the volumes of local premium wine required to grow the industry. The world has be reached with the message of top-quality South African wine.

Yet, for the past two or something decades, little has been done to change South Africa’s image of an industry focused on bulk wine exports consisting of innocuous varieties. If over 40% of your total wine production constitutes two cultivars – namely Colombar and Chenin Blanc – there is relatively little room to move and change perceptions. Never mind unlocking the industry’s full potential.

But going through my little black book, notes of optimism lie between the lines. International demand for and recognition of the quality of South African Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon are growing, albeit relatively slowly. To grow global reputation and image one is going to do it firstly with quality wines and secondly through wines made from varieties with which the world is familiar and which they know, trust and enjoy. These so-called noble varieties, together with quality and distinct expressions of place, will determine the country’s wine image in international markets.

The positive attitude of foreign wine investors on South Africa’s potential is also a great sign for the future, and the attitude does not seem to be abating. Oddo Vins et Domaines from Taaibosch and Pink Valley fame are announcing a new Stellenbosch brand later this year. Chamonix, the jewel of Franschhoek, has been sold to a Norwegian investor who plans to expand the wine reputation extensively. Famous Cape brands such as Stellenzicht, Alto, Warwick, Quoin Rock, L’Avenir and La Bonheur are going from strength to strength under foreign ownership. And wannabe international wine-investors reeling at the eye-watering prices of vinous real estate in America, Europe and Australia are increasingly looking at the explosive bang that can be gotten for their buck down here in South Africa.

The world truly beckons.

And then there is the S-word: sustainability. This factor is changing everything about people, agriculture, production and life as we know it. For any wine producer, the subject of sustainable wine production should be top of mind because the trade demands it of you.

Here South Africa has a great opportunity of positioning itself as a leading wine nation in terms of sustainability. Over the past decade the farming mindset has swung to sustainability and conservation of the environment in a visible and tangible manner. From major corporates such as DGB to blue-chip estates; high-yielding farms in the Breedekloof and the Northern Cape to patches of old vines farmed by old men for hipster winemakers….the soil, the earth and the environment is loved and respected. As a nation of farmers for 370 years, South Africans realise that sustainability is in our roots. We live it and we talk it. The world is listening.

And with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – the world’s leading name in conservation – a partner to South African wine, the Cape wine industry should be ballsily trumpeting its status as a leader in the sphere of sustainability. Great wines made from classic grape cultivars and the most magnificent wine scenery on earth will end-off the message nicely. If our time is not now, it sure as hell is close. Let’s get that club and get hunting.

2021 Highlights

The start was shaky as we South Africans entered the year from behind the gloomy grey curtain of another alcohol ban. Yet 2021 went ahead, perhaps not as planned, but things ticked over, and the beat grew as the wine industry stepped into gear after that terrible start, showing that we shall overcome and stride onward and forward, resilient our hearts and our bodies be, we shall never surrender…… This was my take on the year that was.

Best New-Comer to South African Wine

Taaibosch Winery looked down from the heady heights of the Helderberg and announced itself the hottest thing in wine to originate from Stellenbosch since Mike Ratcliffe donned leathers and began racing around the place on a throaty Triumph motor-bike. A French venture courtesy of the Oddo family, Taaibosch released its maiden Crescendo 2018 blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to humungous acclaim on both the critical and commercial fronts. The wine itself is complete with Stellenbosch classic gorgeousness, the sky-hugging elevated winery is awe-inspiring and the image Taaibosch emits is of the “I-must-have-it” kind. Hence the wine selling quicker than Covid PCR tests ahead of a New Year’s Ever rap concert and being a desired object from day one. What’s not to like?

Taaibosch.

The Prize Winner

There are a lot of wine competitions around, and whatever one’s views on their merits might be, consistently winning awards does tend to indicate that a winery and its wine maker knows what they are doing. Thys Louw and his team from Diemersdal in Durbanville had an extremely fine year on the competition front, and the farm’s Brasso bill looks set to skyrocket as there are many gongs to shine. Being named Best Winery at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show was one helluva way to get into the competition season. This was followed by another Top 10 Pinotage Trophy for its The Journal Pinotage 2019 – the 10th time Diemersdal has won one of these specific species of wine trophy. Then, of course, came a FNB Top 10 Sauvignon Blanc prize for Diemersdal – the fifth in a row, this time for the Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2021. And the year ended with two five-star nods from the Platter’s Wine Guide, one each for The Journal Sauvignon Blanc 2020 and The Journal Pinotage 2019.

A golden year, that was, also underscoring the fact that Durbanville is one of the Cape’s top wine regions.

Thys Louw of Diemersdal.

Best International Accolade

Outside of these South African shores, there are a gazillion wine awards on the international scene which makes singling-out a showing by a Cape wine a bit tricky. However, making it onto the Top 100 Wines of the Year as judged by Wine Spectator has got to stand out as a major achievement. I mean, we are talking Wine Spectator with its bevy of international editors testing thousands of wines each a year from all corners of the globe. To, thus, be chosen as one of only 100 bottles – just over eight cases of vino, that is – from all the world’s wines warrants a bit of frenetic applause. And this year only one South African wine made it onto that list, namely De Wetshof’s Bon Vallon Chardonnay 2020. Quite an achievement as Chardonnay is surely the most hotly contested international white wine category. And what’s more, De Wetshof made it onto the list with an unwooded wine.

This is not only great for the De Wets of Robertson whose focus on Chardonnay is awarded at this level, but also for the South African category of this cultivar which remains the world’s most popular and highly regarded noble white.

My Top Wine of 2021

The one I still have damp dreams about is the Schist Syrah 2010 from Mullineux, tasted on a cold, wet and windy day out at Chris and Andrea Mullineux’s farm in the Swartland. The wine was harmonious in balance and everything just so wonderfully integrated, with polished tannin reflecting bright piercing shards of sunny dark fruit and exotic tads of spice. But there was a breathless and hidden drama about the wine, a lurking of danger and hint of seduction that blew me away, but not my memory of something truly special.

Meal of the Year

Another stormy Cape day, this time at the premises of Amorim Cork at Lynedoch in Stellenbosch where a party of like-minded offal-lovers gathered to feast on a steaming cauldron of lamb tripe. The food was comforting and soul-enriching. Company was of the sterling kind: Joaquim Sá of Amorim, journalist Fiona McDonald, Johann Krige from Kanonkop, Pieter Cronjé from Rawsonville, winemaker De Wet Viljoen from Neethlingshof and the late great Duimpie Bayly. Joaquim poured Madeira and Port and Colares wines from his homeland. Johann brought enough Kanonkop to drop the price at the Strauss Auction, and it was just one of those awesome wineland days that continued until darkness fell over our warmed hearts.

Duimpie Bayly. RIP

A Christmas Barrel

Joseph slipped out of the stable while the inn-keeper, the inn-keeper’s wife and those three guys who had arrived on the camels with all the sweet-smelling stuff fussed around the kid and Mary. He took a left past the inn’s façade, the red clay of which glowed in the light of that mysterious big bright star, and down the next block he found a place that was still open. After the past few hours of drama, and magic, he was hungry and his throat dry from all the stable-dust.

The man behind the counter was an acquaintance of past visits. And didn’t have to ask what his guest would like: Joseph quickly ordered a plate of falafel, some unleavened bread and a drink of red wine. “You don’t hardly drink,” said the barmen, laying out the plate and the clay mug. “And you look too tired to be celebrating anything.”

Joseph sat back, put his hands behind his neck as his robe fell away from his knees, sore and full of grit from kneeling next to Mary, her clammy hand gripping his during what had happened a few hours ago. It all suddenly felt like a lifetime back.

The barmen filled the clay mug from the barrel, took Joseph his drink and returned to fetch the food. A lonely Roman soldier was sitting at the table closest to the door, and two blacksmiths on night-shift were at another table drinking mugs of warm beer, their faces sooty and shiny.

“Actually”, I am celebrating,” said Joseph as the falafel were put before him. He raised his mug and looked at the soldier, who had a long nose and wet lips, and the exhausted blacksmiths. “I just became a father tonight.”

The soldier rubbed his nose with a sniffle. The blacksmiths looked at each other and then raised their mugs at Joseph, wordlessly. Outside a sharp wind was cutting in from the desert, whistling in the cracks between the roof and the walls.

“I didn’t know Mary was pregnant,” said the owner. He lifted his own mug out in front of him and took a long draught. “I saw her, what, last month out at the olive market and there was no sign of child.”

Joseph put a falafel ball in his mouth, chewed twice and washed it down with a sip of sharp, sour wine. He considered telling the owner that he, also, did not know that Mary had been of child. Nor that she had never been in the situation to become so.

“If I’d known we were having an occasion, I would have brought some better wine along,” said the Roman in a thin voice unable to convey the emotion of kindness he wished it to. “Salut!” he raised his mug and sipped. The others ignored the Roman, as all good citizens of Bethlehem do.

Then owner looked over at the centurion whose armour was dull and dusty, yet he had a youthful face that was clean and soft. “You are not insulting my wine, are you?” said the owner, his voice firm and harsh. “My merchant takes great pride in his offering, only bringing me his best barrels. As I do in giving the wine to those who drink here.”

The Roman smiled with clean teeth. He pointed at Joseph. “All wine is passable, sir,” said the Roman. “But when I meet a fellow man whose wife has just given birth, and that man wishes to toast the new life, I would like to join him with the best wine available.”

The owner raised his arm, moved it through the still air. “What do you think this is, Roman? The Ritz?”

Joseph took another sip of wine. “But it is a good wine, gentlemen,” he said. “Tannins are raw and grippy, just as a winter’s night in Bethlehem calls for.” He sipped again. “There is some perky plummy flavour, and a meaty fullness on the finish.” He was feeling better now, calmer about the whole event back in the stable. The food and wine had settled his frayed nerves and the sustenance had brought a feeling of bodily calm and contentment. Suddenly he missed Mary and the new kid. He’d be heading back soon, as he should. Two were now three.

One of the blacksmiths stood up. A bulky man, struggling to get from out behind the table. “I tell you what, we are beer drinkers, my brother and I,” said the blacksmith, urging his companion to stand up. He looked at the owner. “But tonight, bring us each a cup of that wine the new father is having.” The front of his dark tunic was damp with beer.

The owner poured from the clay jug and brought two cups over to the sooty men, standing at the table. On his way back to the counter he refilled Joseph’s cup, as well as that of the centurion.

They all looked at the blacksmith who had his cup pointed in Joseph’s direction. “A drink to you, sir, for allowing us to share in the new life you have placed on this earth.” The centurion stood up. “To your son and his mother, I also drink on their health.”

Cups were raised and the wine was taken and as Joseph put his cup down on the table, the door opened and the light that fell into the room was indescribably bright and too beautiful. Joseph then knew it was time to get back to the stable, as soon everyone was going to know about this child.

The Real Heroes in SA Wine’s Darkest Hour

It could have been the recent visit to the cathedral just off the market in Palermo. Or perhaps it is just the Christmas spirit that’s giving me this warm fuzzy feeling. Where one wants to pour a glass of Sancerre, put on a Paul Weller ballad and think of all the good people that are out there in the world. Like the chicken peri-peri griller at Dias Tavern. Minki van der Westhuizen’s personal trainer. And the person who first started chilling Jägermeister.

But the heart is, now, beating even stronger for a different kind of person. And who knows, perhaps you – one of the 19 people who read these modest missives – may be worthy of love, recognition and perhaps a cold martini, shaken. For, there are unsung heroes of the South African wine industry whose praise needs singing. These are those folk who have helped keep the industry going over the past 21 months of hell resulting from lockdowns, bans, isolation and other Covid ills by keeping the word and the magic of wine alive. They did it, and continue to do it, through there writing. Photographs. Commentary. Social media engagements. Freaky tik-tok videos and scantily clad Instagram photographs. All involving the subject of wine. Showing a finger to the authorities by stating on various levels that wine is alive and kicking.

While the local wine industry was in a deep pit of despair, some of it which still is, these journalists, bloggers, influencers and social media warriors showed that their deep-rooted and genuine passion for wine would only inspire them to broadcast and enthuse on the subject. Cellars were closed. Restaurants were either shut or banned from serving wine. The prohibitionist-minded “medical experts” and falsely puritanical government were doing their best to remove wine and the industry from the face of the earth.

But would the broadcasters let them? No-fucking-way.

In the depths of the wine ban, which hopefully will never come again, the printed articles on wine were published by Suzaan Potgieter and Samantha van den Berg in Die Burger, and Michael Fridjhon in Business Day. Dan Nicholl was busting his arse making video on a staggering frequency and putting it out there, engaging with winemakers and industry players. Christian Eedes and Cathy Marston were reviewing as if the wine was still flowing free, while Malu Lambert continued to essay away in her prose, as enlightening and inspiring as a Montrachet 1993. Blogger-influencers Elvina Fortuin and Leanne Beattie (“Through my Wine Glass” and “The Wine Girl Cape Town” respectively pumped out sparkling content on frequency that bordered on wine-obsession. Sam Linsell cooked and drank, posting it for all the world to see.

Of course, there are tons of other examples, but you get the message.

The point is that the wine industry itself has – quite rightly – received praise and gratitude for its resilience. Industry bodies Vinpro and Wosa were and are applauded for communicating with producers, churning out press-releases condemning the government’s arrogance and pursuit of economic carnage and standing tall in hard times. All commendable.

But the selfless work of those wine-infatuated media, blogger and influencer types deserves some sort of recognition. For keeping the brilliant world of wine and its people alive and positive, chatty and hopeful in a time when we truly were close to the edge.

From my side, the first drink of Christmas is on you. And only you.

Cape’s Best Pink Wines

All wines are, obviously, not created equal. Especially not rosé, the floral-hued style of wine associated with summer and all its related partners of sun and play and al fresco dining, preferably where an expanse of water is involved – ideally ocean, lake or a wide river.

Until the beginning of the previous decade, most South Africans associated rosé wine with a semi-sweet, alcopop-style characterised by a shade of deep pink resembling candy-floss, eye-shadow or lingerie, depending on your particular mind-set. This association was a remainder of one specific wine, Mateus Rosé from Portugal. Released into the world after World War II, Mateus became one of the biggest selling wines of all time, peaking at sales of 36m bottles a year. For decades, rosé globally was associated with Mateus and the Mateus-style, namely sweetish, fleshy pink and with a slight petillant zing.

But, of course, things had always been different in France. Southern France, particularly the Provence region, had been consuming and making rosé long before the Mateus boom. And in style, this Provencal rosé was about as far removed from the candy-cooler offering of Mateus as a peri-peri Chicken is from Burgundian Coq au vin.

The French wine is lighter in colour, drier in taste and over-all more delicate and refreshing than the semi-sweet pink stuff. Yet barring a few exceptions, until ten years ago most of the South Africa rosé made and consumed here was of the latter style, ensuring this name rosé suffered from a one-dimensional association.

Thus, the recent evolution of rosé wine in South Africa has been as refreshing as an ice-cold glass of the pink wine sipped in a cloud of Atlantic sea-spray. More producers introduced dry, classical rosés into their portfolios. Consumers latched on, and subsequently, volumes grew. As did the number of wineries adding rosé to their portfolios.

For me, the old school semi-sweet rosé is not to be eschewed. A bottle of Mateus still goes down a storm, even if it is just for a bit of nostalgia. But the dry, Provencal styles from the Cape have not only added an excellent category to the local wine offering, but have also helped in introducing many consumers to wine. Especially those consumers of the fashionable kind.

For creating this traditional French style, red grapes are lightly pressed. The juice is allowed to run-off before the skin can impart most of its colour and tannic grip onto the wine. But the slight, ever so slight, whisper of the red skins gives the juice a brush of berry-taste as well as the all-important colour that makes rosé, well rosé. From pale pink, to a lighter shade of salmon to onion skin.

Top rosé picks:

L’Avenir GlenRosé: The name is a play on the Glenrosa soil found on this Simonsberg estate, and the wine is part of winemaker Dirk Coetzee’s journey to create greatness from the Pinotage grape – as he has done with L’Avenir’s robustly elegant red wines. The rosé was inspired by a visit to Provence where the reverence with which this style is approached and the enjoyment with which the wine is consumed, convinced him that L’Avenir required such a wine in its stable.

Arguably South Africa’s leading example of a premium rosé, the wine originates from Pinotage grapes grown on a single vineyard. Only free-run juice is captured, and the time on skin determined in different batches. To add complexity, a portion of the rosé is given a few months in used oak.

Show-stopping packaging includes a classy bottle with floral design on the punt and a Vinolok glass capsule closure, through which the wine seduces with a colour combining onion-skin and desert dusk. To taste, the wine is life-affirming in refreshment, the evocative colour brought to life with notes of dry flowers, sour cherry and an intriguing marine note of just-shucked oyster-shell.

Waterkloof Circumstance Cape Coral Mourvèdre Rosé: The punchy Mourvèdre grape from Southern France is known for its meaty juice which, when given a brief run over its ink-purple skins, is a superb base for a rosé wine. The grapes are whole-bunch pressed – trés gently – without any further skin-contact required to give the juice a light salmon hue. Fermentation occurred through indigenous wild yeasts and took place in wooden fermenters, allowing just the required degree of oxidation to layer the final wine with character.

It all ends brilliantly with a rosé showing texture on the palate, permitting the playful flavours of berry and potpourri to carry through to a crisp, dry finish. Like the L’Avenir, the wine has a slight ocean-spray saltiness that only adds to the overall and intriguing pleasure of a fantastic rosé.

Pink Valley Rosé: This Helderberg winery is the only South African cellar committed to making rosé wine, so the meticulous approach in the cellar is to be expected. The wine is a blend of Sangiovese, Grenache and Shiraz and the final product is characterised by being exceptionally light in colour with just the slightest shade of onion-skin, leading you to actually believe the label depicting it is rosé.

The slightness of colour is achieved by keeping the vinification as cool as possible. Harvested grapes are cooled to 4 ̊C before being destemmed and crushed. Prior to fermentation the juice was kept at 2.5 ̊C for a month before fermentation began.

Light in colour, but heavy on taste and presence. The wine runs with bright flavours ranging from tropical to mineral, exuding an extreme degree of freshness that makes for alarming drinkability. A two-bottle lunch-time wine with all the character and finesse of classical rosé.

Babylonstoren Mourvèdre Rosé: Of course, a farm with such a reputation for gardens, flowers and all things representing a manicured country life-style must surely have a rosé among its wine offerings. Using the Mourvédre grape from the northern side of Simonsberg is a great choice, as with plenty of sun and warm harvest temperatures this Mediterranean grape shows its best side. Especially when vinified as rosé where an attractive copper-salmon colour meets the eye, and floral-berry notes bounce on the palate. Deliciously austere, there is enough delightful vibrance in this wine to offer the true heart of rosé, while an intriguing salty-savour character lingers on the finish. Superb wine.

Delheim Pinotage Rosé: Nothing fancy here in one of the Cape’s stalwart rosé offerings from a venerable Simonsberg estate. But it is pink, it is cold, it is fresh and the wine gives lots of gluggable pleasure. Pinotage shows itself as a fine foundation for rosé, as L’Avenir also shows, perhaps because the grape’s one-half is a Cinsaut DNA, Cinsaut being a formidable part of Southern France’s vineyard offering.

Delheim presses lightly and uses free-run juice which is inoculated with different yeast strains to attain the style of the final wine. Which is bracing in its dryness, the initial austerity leading to notes of strawberry, black olive and ocean kelp. Fun to drink, as all rosé should be, this is sound proof that the pink wines are a celebration of life and have what it takes to make for an everlasting summer.

Almenkerk Wine Estate Lace Rosé: Elgin, home of Almenkerk, is known for Pinot Noir on the red grape variety side, so it is a surprise to find this estate’s rosé made from Cabernet Sauvignon – a rare vine-find in this neck of the woods. Cabernet Sauvignon, grown in this area’s cool climate, makes for a wonderful rosé, especially for those – like me – who like a rosé to have a bit more engine under the bonnet, a bit more vooma. The bled-off juice gives the wine an onion-skin and sunrise colour, with a lovely herbaceous and sea-breeze whiff on the nose. Hugely satisfying in the mouth, the wine oozes sour cherry and plums with an invigorating hint of ocean mist. For a rosé this wine has a kiss-me, lingering grip as one would expect from a Cabernet-offspring, yet it still maintains the energetic thrust of a drinkable and satisfying pink wine.

Glenelly le Rosé de May: A full-on Shiraz rosé, and another pink wine not shy to show some curves and a fleeting glimpse of cleavage. The colour is a bit darker than the modern rosé pundits prescribe it must be, but this truly does not matter as the wine looks as shimmering and deliciously ruby as it tastes. Brilliant berry flavours ranging from cranberry to strawberry snuggle onto the palate, while there is a crisp, crunchy effect from the umami-like taste of pomegranate. Dry, but not austere and meagrely lean, this rosé is lip-smacking and delicious with one bottle not being enough.

Chamonix Pinot Noir Rosé: This Franschhoek Estate, known for its fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, launched a charming rosé this year without any wild and gregarious fan-fare. A 100% Pinot Noir rosé, the wine shows the flirtatiously fruity and disarmingly decadent side of Pinot, something you do not find when the grape is used to its brooding splendour in its incarnation as a red wine. The rosé from Chamonix invigorates with a citrus-zest and green-plum succulence before presenting an array of floral and candy-floss notes. Chilled to the bone, this is a dry and exuberant bottle of wine with which to live the life of the rosé drinker, which is now.

The Taste of Marseille

One of the world’s most revered culinary pilgrimages sees you walking around the port of Marseille in southern France looking for a soup made from ugly fish. And when I mean ugly, I mean the kind of pop-eyed, spiney, pot-lipped ugly that would make a mermaid shed her scales and send Neptune running from the ocean, retiring to a land-locked desert and never to be seen near a wave again.

Yup, being Marseille, this has got to be bouillabaisse we are talking about. Casually referred to as fish-soup. But to say that bouillabaisse is a soup is like calling Jámon Iberico Pada Negra a ham and introducing Champagne as wine with gas. Bouillabaisse is an icon of the seafood universe, and those in the know say the inhabitants of Marseille are the only species of humanity blessed with the correct DNA and knowledge of how to prepare and serve a true blue-blooded bouillabaisse.

I told you they were ugly.

This was experienced a few nights ago in said port of Marseille when our party of intrepid cook-book compilers were holed up in the city as a result of Covid-cancelled flights out of France. With Cape Town food-stylist and ultimate all-round foodie Abigail Donnelly in tow, the four of us headed to the port and to a place called Miramar which, word on the street has it, is bouillabaisse Nirvana.

Miramar is situated one bike-lane from the water’s edge, giving you a great view across the Vieux Port to Marseille’s own Notre Dame cathedral perched on a hill. The restaurant’s interior was obviously fitted by someone with a huge thing for the red part of the French flag. Smartly dressed waiters scuffled about donning cauldrons of soupy stuff as well as platters bearing mounds of fishes that were all of the eye-wateringly ugly variety mentioned aforehand.

Abigail, photographer Toby Murphy and myself ordered the bouillabaisse from an agreeable young waiter named Aladdin, while team-leader Monché Muller – head-chef at Pink Valley in Stellenbosch – settled for mussels of the marinière variety.

The back-story to bouillabaisse is that the dish was born centuries back – in Marseille – when fisherman kept the poorer quality fishes to themselves, selling-off the white flaky silver and more attractive stuff to the commercial buyers. With these inferior fishies they concocted a stewy-soupy thing that today goes by the name of the bouillabaisse.

Today this is not a poor dish – a portion, admittedly substantial – sets you back a grand (in rands) in person, and the theatre around serving it makes it an edible object of reverence. But all worth it, I might add.

The foundation of the bouillabaisse, as shown by Miramar which harps itself as all traditional, is a broth that looks like hazy sea-water dirtied by mega storm activity, smells like a North African spice market and tastes like the essence from all the world’s oceans. And it is all about the broth, this being made from small rock-fishes cooked and pulverised and strained with herbs, spices, Pernod and white wine to produce an intense, smooth soup.

To kick-off the bouillabaisse eating experience, one is given a large bowl of this broth. Next to which lie croutons, fresh garlic cloves and a mound of rouille. This rouille be a mayonnaise-like thing made with olive oil and hotted-up with paprika, pimento and saffron. Before digging in, you rub the crouton with the clove of garlic before ladling a thick layer of rouille onto the toasted, dry bread. Dump this into the soup, wait for it to soften and slurp.

Once slurped, there is no looking back. This is warm, nourishing and totally unctuous. It is like hoovering the ocean-floor with your mouth, all salt, sea and fishy; warm, satisfying and intensely delicious. The crouton adds crunch and body, while the decadent creaminess of the rouille gives a luxurious depth. We may look up to find it, but when tasting this kind of thing, heaven might just lie in the ocean.

For the main act, our waiter Aladdin appears with the platter of fish that have been poached in the very same broth that has seduced us in the run-up for what is to follow. The cooked fish are still whole, snarling, sneering and staring at us with beady dead eyes. Then they are taken to another table where the critters are deftly cut-up and the bones removed.

The second part of the show gives you poached morsels cut from the five different fishes, as well as peeled potatoes that were boiled in saffron-infused water. This mound of goodness is placed in your bowl and then once again drenched with the broth, which has by now reached legend status.

And this is it. Spoons of saucy, soupy fish and potato – a few small crabs, too – dripping that gorgeously crafted nectar of the ocean, known as the bouillabaisse broth. It all combines seamlessly, in harmony, in tune.

Marseille

The diverse variety of fishes gives each morsel a different texture, most noticeably the fielas, which is an especially grotesque slivery, eel-like thing. Other fishes are more delicate, white and creamy but – very important – firm enough to hold the broth and thus not disintegrating to form a flaky, gruel-like fish mush that not even a street cat would partake of.

Saffron, fennel, dried orange-peel and cumin lift the dish, but never so that the sense of ocean and things maritime are lost. The food is as nourishing as it is flavoursome. All those different textures add to the heartiness of it all, making a bouillabaisse in Marseille a bucket-list item for anyone professing to have a liking for seafood. And of food and life as a whole.

Von Arnim: the Legend Continues

Many families of the wine world, predictably, ascribe their generational involvement with vineyards and wine to the grape’s elixir being for them “a way of life”. But experiencing the second flight of Franschhoek’s von Arnim clan now running their Haute Cabrière estate, one can firmly state that for this renowned part of Cape wineland family DNA, wine is not a “way” but truly is life itself.

The von Arnims’ blood, sweat and toil; hopes and dreams; their very essence of being and that place they command on earth – a place which the sun shines brightly on – is driven by nothing other than those 750ml bottles of fermented grape liquid they create. Wine grown and crafted to enrich the lives of others by a family whose soul centers around one of the most blessed, civilized and beautiful things this world has known.

Achim and Hildegard von Arnim.

Takuan, the second generation von Arnim to take control of that Haute Cabrière winery his father carved into the mountain on the first stage of the Franschhoek Pass, exudes the kind of efficiently authoritative – yet casual – confidence of a winemaker who is in tune with his destiny. And why shouldn’t he? He is, after-all, a von Arnim: Son of Achim, one of the last of South Africa’s great living wine pioneers and the kind of man Frank Sinatra would have written “My Way” for if Frank had preferred Pinot Noir and sparkling Cap Classique to Jack Daniel’s.

Yet, since returning to South Africa after a five-year jaunt through the vineyards of Europe in 2004 and then stepping into the shoes as cellarmaster in 2012, Takuan has taken the Haute Cabrière brand, which includes the range of Pierre Jourdan Cap Classiques his father began making in 1984, on a new trajectory. There is a wine range called Haute, carrying Takuan’s individual style, including Chardonnay aged in clay amphora vessels. And of course, he has a non-negotiable commitment to continuing the legacy on which Haute Cabrière was built, including the Pierre Jourdan Cap Classiques plus other stalwart still wines, such as the stratospherically successful Chardonnay Pinot Noir.

Takuan smiles sardonically and shakes his head when he is asked that predictable question, the one he will be facing for most of his life as a winemaking von Arnim. Namely, how tough an act is it to follow in the foot-steps of your father, Achim?

“You have no idea,” he admits. “My father was a pioneer in the Cape wine industry, the second to make Cap Classique – as cellarmaster at Boschendal. Then, with Cabrière in Franschhoek, which he bought in 1982, he created the first winery in the country solely committed to Cap Classique. Without a penny in the bank, he took risks, pioneered, led. Built the business into a major success, something he did with his style, personality, enthusiasm. Yes, indeed, a tough act to follow.”

But there is nothing like confidence in your own ability to step out and find your own place in this world, especially this world of wine. “With what we are now doing at Haute Cabrière, I can honestly say that during my life as son of one of the country’s great winemakers and personalities – from a child growing up in the house and then working alongside my father in the cellar – I am showing that, yes, I paid attention. I took in what I saw about wine and grape-growing, I listened to the technical details and the rules and the laws and the instructions. I was present, I took it in. And now, I can do this.”

Before meeting Takuan, I had spent a few hours with Achim at the house he and his wife Hildegard share below the Haute Cabrière cellar. I was trying to get an inside-edge on families of winemakers and the importance of generational evolution in wine, but Achim was more interested in letting the current wines from the von Arnims do the talking. A brilliant Sémillon under Takuan’s Haute range, also aged in clay amphora. The Haute Cabrière Chardonnay un-wooded, as austere and stony and rapier-precise as a Chablis. Followed by an energetic, life-affirming Pierre Jourdan Brut Cap Classique, just to wash the palate.

“Have you tasted!?” says Achim. “Un-believable! Takuan is brilliant in the cellar, and I must say he works his arse off. He is doing an exceptionally good job, and he himself truly has a pioneering spirt.”

“Like his father?” I ask.

“Perhaps,” says Achim. “But then, I have better looks.”

Looks aside, as patriarch they surely can’t come much more inspirational and influential than Achim. Trained at the famous Geisenheim Institute in Germany, his legacy is built on one part scientific and technical precision, with another part’s artistic and cultural appreciation of and belief in wine being one of mankind’s greatest contributions to earth’s role in the universe. And then to round things off, he has two parts of commanding and individual personality to drive his beliefs home.

On the creating of a successful wine brand and winery in just under 40 years, Achim draws on two aspects. One is discipline and a systematic approach.

“First of all, with wine you have to know what you are dealing with – and wine is not ‘made’,” Achim says, and this he drives-home throughout the day by correcting any reference to “winemaker” or wine “making”.

“Wine is grown or crafted,” he enthuses. “And despite this image of a gung-ho, individualist, I have always loved the fact that with everything you do in the industry, it is about people with various disciplines coming together to pool their knowledge and their vision towards a shared outcome: Discussion… decision… action… control!”

He is equally keen to highlight the other contribution of wine’s human element: “Authenticity, originality,” says Achim. “I think that is another aspect that helped the name Haute Cabrière and the wines to capture the imagination of the consumers. We have always been authentic. My late mother, Theodora, was part of the team from the start, helping with hospitality and our book-keeping. Hildegard, between raising our children, played an integral role behind the scenes with entertaining, telling our story, doing wine-tasting and tours and establishing relationships with customers. We were and are authentic. “And during everything, no matter what, we had fun.”

The second-generation von Arnims active on Haute Cabrière, namely Takuan and his sister Tanja, who this year joined the team as marketing director, not only inherited a strong wine lineage from Achim. Their mother Hildegard also hails from a wine farm, this in Germany’s western wine region where her father was a grape-grower next to the Mosel River. Actually, when it comes to working with wine grapes from an early age, Hildegard trumps them all.

“I remember during spring all our family’s adults – grandmother, dad, mom – would work in the vineyards, binding the shoots,” says Hildegard. “We children would play between the vines or along the adjacent roads. I was about nine or ten when I watched my mother binding the shoots on the vines and told her that I am sure I could do that. She let me give it a go, and that was that – I started working in the vines as a child.”

Not surprisingly, after heading-off to the Cape in 1971 – having just married Achim in Germany – Hildegard said that she would not be getting involved with winemaking as she had already had her fill.

She has, however been the driver of Cabrière’s spirit of hospitality that has been entrenched in the values of the estate from the very beginning.

“Mum is very much the unsung hero of Haute Cabrière,” says Tanja. Like Takuan’s position of leading the wine operations, Tanja is responsible for ensuring the von Arnim legacy continues in the important department of marketing and hospitality. “Our mother still does cellar tours and winetastings, and much of the ethos of Haute Cabrière as a centre of wine, food and friendship was established by her.”

Takuan in the vineyard.

For Tanja, it is about using the estate and its position overlooking Franschhoek to market and ingrain Haute Cabrière as a leading force in wineland hospitality. “We aim to position the brand through the experience people have at Haute Cabrière,” she says. “Takuan is responsible for creating these incredible wines. I have to make sure that all facets of hospitality are integrated with the wine in offering a unique experience people want to return to.”

Takuan is quick to add a word his father is particularly partial to: “Fun – the whole Cabrière experience must have an element of fun, and celebration. That’s why people and wine are made for each other, are they not?”

Yes, especially people made for enriching the world through the essence of wine they have captured in their soul. We are so lucky to have them.