Stellenbosch, the Route of All Vino

Wine might be made in the vineyard, as most modest winemakers like to say. But it is people who create wine legends.

Today’s Stellenbosch Wine Routes, the largest wine tourism collective in South Africa and renowned throughout the world, began 50 years ago with three people and one idea. The idea, this was to create an organisation allowing members of the public to visit Stellenbosch’s wineries to taste and buy wine, as well as to experience the winelands’ hospitality and its atmosphere on a more personal level.

Of the three people behind this idea, it must be said that they were iconic individuals with such a forward-thinking and determined mindset they could have started a wine route in Botswana and it still would have been a success.

It all began back in 1969 when two of the troika, Frans Malan of Simonsig and Spier Wine Estate’s Niel Joubert, were visiting the winelands of France. They found themselves in Burgundy’s Morey St Denis appellation, which had a modest Route des Vin where participating domains opened their doors to visitors, like Messrs Malan and Joubert.

Recalling this visit, Malan told Wynboer magazine in 1992 that experiencing the French efforts towards wine tourism immediately set his famous inquiring mind abuzz. “I had previously seen something similar during a visit to Bordeaux and it suddenly struck me that Stellenbosch was the ideal district in which to create a wine route,” he recalls.

Back in South Africa, Malan and Joubert canvassed the support of their friend and fellow pioneer Spatz Sperling of Delheim, who immediately latched onto the idea. Writing in his memoirs, published in 2005, Sperling said: “At that time very little was happening on the wine farms in the way of public relations, marketing or providing facilities to welcome visitors to the farms, be it tastings or lunches.” Like Malan and Joubert, he saw a potential wine route not only as being an effective sales channel through which Stellenbosch’s private wine cellars could sell their wine, but also as an opportunity through which a better understanding of wine and the wine culture could be fostered among the public. Leading to a greater appreciation for the product of the vine, and thus a regular market.

Sperling was tasked with recruiting members for said idea. This meant sending a questionnaire to the 15 wine farms who were trading as private cellars to gauge interest in the concept of a wine route. After a lengthy waiting period, Sperling received a show of interest from one single wine farm.

He writes: “I was distraught! Malan, however, comforted me: ‘Jy ken nie my mense nie. Hulle sal nooit ‘n brief beantwoord nie.’ (You don’t understand my people – the Afrikaner – they’ll never answer a letter.) So, we got into a car and went canvassing, door to door … Often it felt like selling chewing gum, so gluey and gummed up were my fellow wine producers in this supposedly most culturally progressive wine district of South Africa!”

As Malan predicted, the personal lobbying worked. And in April 1971 official approval by the authorities was given to the form the Stellenbosch Wine Route, consisting of 11 members. Although the renowned bureaucracy surrounding South Africa’s liquor legislation made initial progress slow: it was only in 1975 that the Wine Route was given permission to erect sign-posts, and only in 1981 were the first signs bearing the Wine Route logo approved for placing at the designated farms.

At last! Wine Routes get a sign-post 10 years after the organisation is established.

It was, however, not only state officialdom that the Wine Route pioneers had to face, but the protectionist ethos of wine merchants themselves. Bottle stores and other traders were not keen on the prospect of the wine-loving public flocking to Stellenbosch wine farms to stock-up, thereby bypassing the liquor store. After its initial approval as a tourism body, the 11 members of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes were only allowed to sell a combined volume of 3 000 (12btl) cases of wine at cellar-door. Which was ludicrous, as Spier, Simonsig and Delheim were individually each producing more than that.

Other herd-headed restrictions the initial Wine Route members, as well as their guests, had to contend with was the fact that wine-tastings could not be held and people buying wine had to purchase a minimum of 12 bottles.

Fortunately, Sperling, Malan and Joubert were not only well-connected with the liquor authorities but possessed immense powers of persuasion, ensuring that these restrictions and limitations were eventually relaxed.

In 1992, celebrating the 21st anniversary of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes, Malan said: “I believe that the current laws pertaining to the wine industry are a direct result of the efforts of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes members.”

Stellenbosch

At the year of those 21st anniversary celebrations the Stellenbosch Wine Routes sported 24 wine farm members. This anniversary also coincided with the dawn of the new democratic South Africa which saw not only international markets opening for wines from Stellenbosch, but a proliferation of wine farms in the region due to the greater opportunity the industry now offered.

At the turn of the millennium Stellenbosch had some 120 wine-producing farms. However, the sudden growth in winery numbers and individualistic mind-sets had seen the Stellenbosch Wine Routes stagnate, with only 40 estates participating in the oldest South African wine route, representing the country’s leading wine region.

A new dawn began in 2000 when members of the Stellenbosch Wine Route realised that, to harness the dynamic opportunities of wine tourism to the benefit of the entire Stellenbosch, a more inclusive and commercially astute organisation had to be established. Under chairman Johann Krige of Kanonkop the Stellenbosch Wine Routes became a section 21 company, drew the majority of the region’s farms into the fold and obtained a lucrative sponsor from American Express. This allowed the organisation, which now had 140 members, to lead the way in local wine tourism and become one of the greatest wine tourism brands in the New World wine countries.

The leading role the region has played and continues to play in broadening the parameters and unleashing further opportunities in wine tourism has ensured Stellenbosch’s garnering of legendary status. A status that, like the legacy of the three pioneers, ensures the legend continues. 

New Vintage from a Port Master

The first chill of autumn drew me towards that part of the wine-shelf displaying the magnificence of Port (Douro Valley, Portugal) and Port-style (Cape) wines. Here there was a welcome sight, namely that of the Quinta do Sul label representing the heart and soul with which Alwyn Liebenberg approaches the style of wine that consumes a substantial amount of his expansive spectrum of vinous passions.

Alwyn has made Port in the Douro Valley. He has a collection of these wines that will cause a London fine wine trader to kick a hole in a Waterford decanter. An imbiber and enjoyer more than a tight-arsed taster and critic, Alwyn has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Port and Port-style wines. He can tell you from where the grape spirits originated that was used to fortify the later Taylor’s pre-war vintages. Tasting blind, Alwyn’s knowledge of and experience with terroir has him identifying the different sites from where the Port and Port-style wines originate, albeit between the Douro Superior and Cima Corgo or between Calitzdorp and Simonsberg.

The Quinta do Sul Port-style label is only made in special years and is waited for with revered anticipation by the – unfortunately dwindling – number of those appreciative of this style of wine. The most recent vintage is the 2020. Obviously, I shall hold back a number of bottles to age, but this most recent bout of Port-lust led me to open the bottle out of curiosity, also knowing it shall sate my thirst.

Alwyn’s style of Port-making is, as the previous Quinta do Sul vintages have shown, a combination of the renegade adventurous, in-build intuition and a heart-felt understanding of what makes this style of wine arguably the purest on earth. That is a broad statement, I know. But which other style of winemaking comes as close to capturing the essence and the soul of wine grapes as what Port does? Grapes are picked. As the magical, character-giving process of fermentation begins, the wine is fortified with neutral grape spirits. This blast of alcohol arrests the conversion of sugar to alcohol, allowing the perfumed sweet plushness of grape purity to remain intact, while complementing this with a statuesque structure courtesy of the added spirits.

Quinta do Sul 2020 was made from 100% Tinta Roriz grapes – also known as Tempranillo – which is one of the traditional Douro Port varieties. The vineyard grows in Prins Albert in the Karoo, so the necessary ripening requirements of sun and warmth are there, limitlessly, and this ideal geography is complemented by the region’s pristine Champagne-pure air in the isolated Karoo.

Alwyn Liebenberg

Back to Alwyn’s style of Port-making, which appears one-half Clint Eastwood and the other half Vincent van Gogh. The grapes are crushed in open-fermenters, and a portion of the neutral grape spirits added almost immediately. By introducing a measured portion of spirits from the onset, the grapes begin to ferment in the presence of the alcohol, which at this early stage is not enough to stop the process of fermentation. It just slows the whole thing down, allowing deep extraction of flavours and colour during the prolonged ferment. The segmented spirit additions and fermenting took place for 10 weeks, the wine lying on the skins for the entire time. Once the final portion of spirits went in, causing the ferment to finally halt, the wine spent another week on skins before pressed, racked and bottled. Not a barrel or smidgen of wood anywhere.

Quinta do Sul 2020 is, thus, barely one year old. But infanticide the drinking of it is not – back in Porto the Port houses state that a vintage Port has two stages of optimal pleasure: Years one to five, and then from 15 years onwards.

Port is, for me, best enjoyed in a glass of decent size. This allows for aeration, as well as introducing the drinker to the wine’s heady perfume, particularly beautiful in this young Quinta do Sul. The aroma drifts lazily from the glass, the pool of smells immersing the senses in rich black fruit, stewed by the late summer sun as they lie beneath the trees that are spent from the season’s growth. The nose of this wine comes with a spirited tug of alcohol, a warm heart-beat of noble power, almost Medieval in its dramatic presence which is black, gothic and sexy.

This Port-style wine has a truly sensual, balletic attack on the palate. The sweet loveliness of it all is crystal in its clarity, with not a hint of the cloying or syrupiness that all too many persons assume to be present in wines subjected to fortification. Warming the palate instantaneously, the display of flavours lifts the spirit of the one having the privilege to drink this. There are familiar red wine aspects, like the almost-sour brush of tannin and the agreeable swipe of dry herbs on the mid-palate. They raise the wine, giving freshness and perk. Allowing the senses to stay awake during the rest of what is going on here.

Tastes, gorgeous and delicious. The thick juicy black fruit of the aroma carries through on the palate, synching the soul of the drinker with the heart-beats of the Tinta Roriz grapes. A thimble of white pepper is sensed, joining the wine’s succulent, eloquent sweetness in brilliant harmony. Being fortified and strong, the power is not harnessed. There is an excitement in drinking a fine vintage Port or Port-style wine, such as Quinta do Sul, the liquor refusing to rest sleepily on the palate. Instead, it entices, seduces and alarms the senses, giving shudders of being enthralled and amazed by a beautifully big monster of a wine.

The sight of the winter ahead is a pleasure to behold.

  • Emile Joubert

Cape Fizz at 50

Great are the trumpet noises that so often herald the fact that the South African wine industry began all of 362 years ago when Dutch colonist Jan van Riebeeck announced that the first wine grapes had been harvested and pressed at the Cape. The date was 2 February 1659, a timeline which is today tirelessly used to underscore the fact that as far as winemaking goes, we Saffers ain’t no Johnny-Come-Latelies.

The first juice might have flowed all those years ago, but the local industry was not that quick in terms of selecting a diverse planting of wine grapes to do justice to the incredible Cape terroir, nor the grasping of innovative winemaking techniques. For example, small oak barrels were only introduced into the mid-1970s and wine-lovers here had to wait until the 1980s for their nation’s wine producers to begin titillating the palates with successful modern varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. 

The late Frans Malan, pioneer of Cap Classique.

And it was only in 1971 – 50 years ago this year – that a Cape wine farm began to experiment with the making of bottle-fermented sparkling wine, that is a fizzy wine made to the traditional method made famous by Champagne in France.

The farm was Simonsig in Stellenbosch. And after a visit to the Champagne region of France, Simonsig’s late patriarch Frans Malan decided it was time for South Africa to get its own version of Champagne.

The experiment of making a bottle-fermented sparkling wine turned to be a resounding success. Under the name Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel, Malan began a new chapter for Cape wine. The success of his maiden Kaapse Vonkel inspired other winemakers to take-up the challenge, and before you could say “pop that cork”, there were over 100 local versions of this sparkling wine known worldwide as Cap Classique.

Celebrating 50 years of Cap Classique, Simonsig is still one of the top brands in this wine category. And although the Kaapse Vonkel brand is very much alive, I only think it apt to toast this half-century with Simonsig’s other great bubbly, namely the stately Cuvée Royale. This is the estate’s blue-chip Cap Classique. Only one grape variety is used – Chardonnay. And the 48 months of lees-aging in the bottle elevates it into the category of luxury, excellence, premium and any other superlative of which any great sparkling wine is worthy.

The Cuvée Royale 2017 is currently on the market and coming from one of the best vintages for wine grapes in the past 20 years, this wine can pretty much close the book for anyone seeking that life-affirming, inspirational and joyous sensation a fine glass of ice-cold sparkling wine is known to offer.

For me, Chardonnay is just so much the go-to grape for Cap Classique or Champagne as its clear, zingy and citrus-driven purity enhances the overall sense of arousal evoked by the fizz and sparkle and foam. The base wine for the Simonsig Cuvée Royale goes into the bottle, where it undergoes that magical, mystical second fermentation. Here the 50 million bubbles found in every bottle of fizz is formed, while the 48 months spent in the glass allows the wine to draw an array of flavours and a collection of palate-pleasing textures from the lees (dead yeast cells).

It is a gorgeous wine, bubbles rising through the glass’s pale-straw, golden-sunset hue. Like a fine sparkling wine tends to do, the palate is alerted and wakened with the first sip of freshness and life. Then the flavours of citrus, honey-blossom and fennel take-over, ending with that beautiful waft of fresh brioche, a characteristic of any great sparkle.

I’ll raise this glass to Simonsig and 50 years of Cap Classique, and I shall drink it all.

No talk of Cap Classique is complete, however, without mentioning Graham Beck Wines, the sparkling  wine cellar which celebrated 30 years of business last year and is – like Simonsig – synonymous with Cape bubbly. A fantastic wine from that cellar currently out is the Graham Beck Pinot Noir Rosé 2015.

Expecting a palate-jolting bit of fruity fun, this Cap Classique turned out to be a seriously fine wine of statuesque structure. Some 90% Pinot Noir, the wine has a 10% Chardonnay component which works fantastically well in scalping those assertive tannins the acidic base wine tends to draw from a Pinot component during the whole-bunch pressing. The wine spent 60 months on the lees. No-one quite knows what goes on during that secondary fermentation in the bottle. But when you taste a wine like this it is evident that, with respect to Graham Beck cellarmaster Pieter Ferreira and his wingman Pierre de Klerk, there is a higher power at work during that process.

The Graham Beck Pinot Noir Rosé is extraordinarily perfect, as if the components had been put together by Steve Jobs and Einstein, with a bit of Elon Musk to add an untamed edgy eye seeking adventure of the other-worldly kind. The mousse is explosive and riveting. All the flavour one wants is there: berry and green apple, with mature lines of dry herb, clam brine and savoury. Once the bubbles dissipate in the mouth, the taste remains long and true, seamless and graceful and very, very impressive.

Okay, not all sparkling wines are created equal, but most are – for me – deliciously drinkable. Take this Bullicante bubbly from Dalla Cia, the Stellenbosch operation where father Giorgio and son George Dalla Cia craft a substantial collection of wine, grappa and now sparkling wine.

The Bullicante, delightfully colourful and Italian modern in its packaging, is a no-nonsense affair made for easy-glugging fun yet still hits those spots the human frame reserves for wine enjoyment.

The name Bullicante derives from a technique used by the Murano Art Glass blowers in Venice, where layers of air bubbles are blown into thick glass and pulled with the blowpipe to form elongated depressions. In a similar way the Dalla Cias have added bubbles to this range using a very northern Italian cultivar, Pinot Grigio, not often used as a bubbly and a variety not all that widely planted in the Cape.

So, after fermenting, the wine gets its fizz through a process sending a burst of CO₂ bubbles into the wine. The result is a fun-to-drink bubbly, brim-full of melon and goose-berry notes with a palate firm enough to ensure the pleasure of every sip lasts long enough to ease you into the next one.

Whatever’s in your glass this year, make sure some of it sparkles. Heaven knows we’re worth it.

Incredible Old Vine wine from Chamonix

Lafras Huguenet

The late Chris Hellinger had a wine farm in Africa of which he told me en route to Zurich to count his reserves of gold bullion. We met twice, both times in the Swiss Air 1st class lounge in London, and I remember him as an easy conversationalist able to talk on a wide variety of topics. We shared an interest in business, mining, wild-life, languages and wine, the latter being a passion of far greater importance to Chris as he was heavily invested in vineyards and cellar. He bought the Chamonix spread in Franschhoek in 1991 and during both our leisurely meetings raged about the travails of turning a fruit farm into a wine estate. Tracking a wounded buffalo was, apparently, child’s play compared to the efforts of soil preparation, selecting of clones and fielding the opinions of consultants on viticulture and cellar technology.

Chris Hellinger

The results of what he achieved on Chamonix, however, gave Hellinger a discernible sense of pride. He spoke about his vineyards and the wines in tones of reverence and respect, with gratitude for what the vines embedded on those Franschhoek mountain slopes were expressing in the glass.

Chris loved Pinot Noir, one of Chamonix’s calling cards, and when the fruit orchards went, in came Pinot Noir, Pinotage, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. He’d send me a few bottles every once in a while, which I enjoyed – and still enjoy immensely. The Chardonnay especially, is very good.

It is a great pity Chris is no longer alive to join me in drinking the latest release from Chamonix, as the first thing I would ask him is why, when he bought the farm and removed all the old growth, he allowed a Chenin Blanc vineyard to remain rooted. This was one of the few vineyards that had been set on the original Chamonix, probably a workhorse vineyard to supplement the income accrued from the fruit crops.

Planted in 1965, this Chenin Blanc vineyard – the only of the variety on the farm – was recently chosen for special treatment by Chamonix management. Watching the bunches developing on the old vineyard with its long shoots resembling sky-grabbing witches’ fingers, Chamonix CEO Stefan van Rooyen and winemaker Neil Bruwer last year sought to send this fruit for vinification. And to add a new wine to the Chamonix offering, this bearing the Old Vine Project seal developed by the Cape wine industry to underscore the importance of the region’s old vines. As well as to promote the quality of the wines made from these magnificent old gnarly pieces of living wood.

Neil Bruwer in the Old Vine Chenin Blanc vineyard.

The first batch of Chamonix Old Vine Steen, thus, was made from the 2020 vintage. Bruwer was offered a tentative meagre offering of old vine fruit, from which he managed to coax 600 bottles of white wine.

The vineyard is planted at 320m above sea-level in loamy apedal soil of sandstone origin. The patch is farmed dryland and comprises .58ha carrying 1732 vines. Due to the tender care the vineyard has been receiving of late, 2021 saw it bearing more fruit which will see more bottles Chamonix Old Vine Steen being offered in future.

And if the maiden 2020 is anything to go by, this is set to become a classic Cape white wine that also plays a role in emphasising Franschhoek’s legacy of viticulture and senior vineyards.

The Chamonix Old Vine Steen 2020 was fermented in old French oak, then aged for seven months in two old oak barrels, the one barrel undergoing regular lees-stirring while the other remained undisturbed. To my mind, this decision by Bruwer was a game-changer as the managed lees exposure gives the wine breadth and airiness without diluting the keen expression of life that make old vine wines so commanding.

To the eye, the wine fills the glass with a pale goldenness, gold being one of the many features Hellinger could talk about with uninterruptable authority. A tight, nostril-awakening hit of salt and citrus aroma drifts from the wine’s surface, and my attention has been captured.

The attack on the palate is, as is the wont of old vine wine, filled with the assertive confidence of a life well-lived, a vineyard that has seen it all in 55 summers and that has borne the savagely cold brunt of just as many winters. Edgy and probing, the wine soon finds purchase on the palate, filling the senses with an immense offering of unfettered flavour-filled joy.

Tang and zest are off-set by breezy flutters of white flowers, honey-suckle and ripe Kakamas yellow peaches. A rind of the maritime is there, clingy wet kelp and the just-pried shell of the white mussel. Citrus is sharp, more to the salted Moroccan lemon kind than just-picked freshness. But the whole, here, is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Chamonix Old Vine Steen is, simply, a deliciously wonderful wine talking the language of an exceptional vineyard planted to a unique patch of earth on the mountains above a charming Cape village. It is, like the pioneer of Chamonix, unforgettable.

5 Tips for Next Wine Lockdown

The 3rd Covid wave is around the corner, and I ain’t taking any chances. When said tsunami arrives, chances are South Africans will once again have to endure the sight of a sombre Pres Cyril Ramaphosa telling us that he has been advised to implement yet another lock-down. Which will include a ban on the sale of alcohol, as has been the frequent wont of himself and his party-pooping Command Council.

As a qualified veteran of liquor lock-downs, and someone with interests in the alcohol industry, I am as of now being Boy Scoutish about the whole thing and preparing for the next lockdown. In the following manner:

  • Un-installing Zoom: Every alcohol ban has led to a spectacular increase in the hosting of wine-tastings and related talk-shops via Zoom. Last year this time Zoom was nothing but a misspelt insect-repellent. Now it is a seemingly seamless technological way for which to engage in discussions with other people via the cold face of a lap-top screen. As a medium to communicate a personable and engaging topic like wine, Zoom is about as effective as attempting to cook a cassoulet in a microwave. It is stop-start; “can you see me?”; “I can hear you, but I can’t see you”; “please unmute yourself”….even the hottest, most-informed gang partaking in a Zoom call on the most interesting topic end-up making the show look like one of those fluffed SABC TV new inserts. And those automated backgrounds of forests, mountains and libraries some Zoomers prefer using gives the presentation an eerily cheap 1970s porn-star feel. Zoom me up, Scotty, because I am out of here.
  • Block e-mails from SA wine industry bodies: Strangely quiet outside of lockdown, the South African wine industry authorities go into communications hysteria once a liquor ban is called. In-boxes to media and other concerned parties are inundated with endless quotes accentuating the economic ravages caused by the shutting of retail and on-trade liquor outlets, the spewing of furious calls for the Government to undo its wicked ways and impassioned pleas to the world crying “#saveSAwine”. We’ve seen this movie before during the past year’s three alcohol bans. The messages stay the same. The projected figures of job-losses and farm-closures remain unsubstantiated. It all comes across as knee-jerk, reactionary and alarmist. Nothing new. No talk of what the industry was doing in-between lockdown periods to engage with decision-makers. No real message of progress made within its ranks to tackle the authorities’ concerns. Heard it all before and will thus take a break now.
  • Lock away the good stuff: Self-pity plays just havoc with one’s self-control. During the first three lockdowns I found myself bemoaning my lot in a prohibitionist world by opening bottles from the more serious walls of my wine collection. Looking back, I really should not have de-corked the Calon-Ségur 1982, the Nederburg 1974, that Graham’s Tawny Port 1952 nor the Harlan Cabernet Sauvignon 1998. But there you are, in an emotionally brittle state trying to show the short-sighted Government that you’ll respond to their churlish lock-down measures by drinking the good stuff in the face of life’s adversity. Now, those treasures are empty and whilst enjoyable, should have been opened in celebration and not maudlin victim-hood.
  • Get vermouth: There are few better drinks to take-off the edge and get the engine humming than a solid shot of gin. However, tonic water gives gas and sugar, while I have not yet sunken to the depths of depravity required to drink gin neat. Real gin, that is, not these over-botanical perfume-fruited herb and spice concoctions. The only way to drink gin – well, for me – is in the form of a martini – the most civilised drink on earth. Yet, hastily stocking-up for the first few lockdowns, I forgot that the dry vermouth was empty, thus putting the joys of a dry martini out of reach. Only half a teaspoon of dry vermouth is required for my world-beating dry martini, yet during previous lockdowns not only that small an amount could be found. For this next stretch, the Noilly Prat – the only vermouth – is standing tall, ready for deployment in making the sip from the gods.
  • Take the dog out: Prohibition includes the banning of the transportation of alcohol as an extra bolt of kill-joy fundamentalism by Ramaphosa and his posse. As a wine industry professional, however, one is often required to convey bottles of vinous goods to various parties dependent on your levels of service and the lengths to which you are prepared to go to offer these. In recent times it has become evident that the chances of being stopped and searched for contraband lessens should there be a canine companion in one’s car. During lockdown number three I was carting my neighbour’s Staffordshire from Cape Town to Worcester for breeding purposes – the dog’s, not mine – and we passed three full-on blue-lighted road-blocks. At each stop the officer took one look at the slobbering pink-tongued black Staffie and indicated I continue driving, almost pleading me not to stop. For the next Covid wave, thus, I have secured the services of a part-time dog rental in the form of Lughaid, a very large, hairy and dim Irish Wolfhound who will be accompanying me on my wine-laden lockdown journeys. At 73kg and a calf-sized head covered with strands of ghostly grey hair, Lughaid will discourage the most eager traffic officer from opening and searching the vehicle. And I shall drive happily on, realising that the length of the road is of no matter if there is good wine that needs to be delivered to fine people. Which there always is.

Earl Dexter on Food: Mex on the Beach

Okay let’s face it: tequila is not the finest tasting liquid known to man, woman or beast. If it did not taste like nail varnish and paint-stripper, this stuff would surely not have to be consumed in one blistering salt-laced gulp chased with a bite of lemon, would it?

However, I never hit the road without a bottle or two of tequila. Used for medicinal purposes, tequila is a handy disinfectant for flesh wounds, no matter how questionable their origin may be. A bottle of tequila is also a hugely effective negotiating tool when facing surly border-post officials in Southern African countries. Tequila helps to start camp-fires in the most rainy of seasons and held at the neck, an empty tequila bottle is a nifty weapon for defence as well as attack. The two pimps who tried to con me out of a cell-phone in Mombasa might remember this.

Tequila’s major purpose, however, is its inspiration in assisting you – the on-the-road gringo – to cook some Mexican-inspired food. Mexican chow is some of the finest eating around. It’s simple, tasty, filling. And fun to prepare once you have knocked back a Tequila Sunrise or two.

For this you take: One shot tequila, poured into tall glass. A couple of drops of grenadine. (That’s the red, syrupy stuff so popular in gay-looking cocktails.) Add ice. Fill glass to the top with orange juice and stir.

And there you go! Just be forewarned: If you are cooking, don’t drink more than three of these babies beforehand. Passing-out in the campfire is not as funny as it looks.

Right. Mexican food starts with guacamole. You are going to make some to keep your guests entertained while you get cracking on the real stuff.

Guacamole for 6 requires:

4 fully ripe avocados

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 clove garlic, crushed to a pulp

1 medium tomato, skinned and chopped

1 teaspoon Tabasco

Peel avocados, remove pips and place in a bowl. (The flesh, dude, not the pips.) Mash avocados with the back of a fork. Add all the other stuff and keep mashing until you have a green pasty-looking kind of think. This may appear suspect, I know. But plonk it on the table next to a packet of sturdy chips and tell the folk to use the guacamole for a dip. That should shut them up.

Now, chilli con carne – loosely translated as chilli with meat – is not exactly Mexican. This staple dish of the American south-west was, however, surely inspired by the millions of illegal Mexican immigrants residing in this part of the world. But it is a major important culinary feature of Texas and New Mexico where people have their character, mental stability and creditworthiness judged on their ability to make a good pot of chilli con carne. It is hell of a tasty, easy to make and the perfect outdoorsy meal.

For my version of this classic for 6 people I take:

1½ kg lean beef steak mince. (Please, take the trouble to select decent mince. Upon purchase you should inspect the product closely to ensure the meat is red, not too finely minced and is free of suspect looking un-meaty organs such as eyeballs or nostril flaps.)

1 tin tomatoes, drained and chopped

1 huge onion, chopped

3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1 small tin tomato paste

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup dry white wine

1 tin kidney beans

Notice something missing from the above ingredients? What – no chilli! Well, let’s stand still on this crucial topic for uno momento.

This dish, chilli con carne, can be made fiery enough to blister a tractor tire or mild enough to be spoon-fed to a baby of eight weeks. The amount of vooma you put into the pot will depend on the chilli-tolerance of those for whom you are cooking.

That is point number one.

Point number two is never, ever use pre-prepared chilli sauces in the place of the real thing, namely a couple of fresh chillis or some dried chilli powder. Those bottled sauces or chilli pulps contain vinegar and spices and other things that are going to put your expertly cooked dish out of balance.

For a reasonably spicy version, I will add 4 medium-sized fresh red or green chillis, chopped, to the above ingredients or three heaped teaspoons of pure chilli powder. And no: I don’t remove the pips. But if I’m with my chilli-loving amigos, we go ballistic.

Okay, so how’s that chilli con carne?

Heat your pot or potjie over coals or on gas. Pour in some vegetable oil – not olive – and wait for the oil to heat. Fry your onion and garlic in the oil until translucent, but not brown or crispy. Remove the onion and garlic from the oil and set aside. Add the mince to the pot, breaking it up and stirring the meat until it is well-browned all over. It should be loose and easy to stir, without any pink specks.

So far, so good. Now you return the fried onion and garlic to the pot and add the tomato and tomato paste, oregano, salt, chillis and the white wine. Make sure the stuff inside the pot is not cooking at too frenetic a pace, cover and sit back with a beer, carefully listening to your pot. It must be simmering slowly and gently to unleash and combine all those yummy flavours. Every once in a while you may open the lid to check what is happening, and if things start drying out, add some more white wine.

The longer you cook it, the better it gets. 2 hours is civilized, however, 3 perfect. Now add the beans and the teaspoon of sugar, stir, and let everything cook for another fifteen minutes.

Culinary expert that you are, you would have rustled up some rice by now. Remove the pot of chilli con carne from the fire and serve on rice with a few grinds of black pepper. And I tell you what, if you really want a satisfying dish, grate some cheddar cheese over the chilli.

Now you may add some of your favourite hot sauce, such as Tabasco.

Eat with a cold beer. Beer, I kid you not, has never tasted better.

De Wetshof Chardonnays Glitter on World Stage

The 2021 European wine awards season kicked-off extraordinarily well for De Wetshof Estate in Robertson with three of its Chardonnays raking in four golden awards at two auspicious wine shows. In the Chardonnay du Monde held in France, the world’s most famous international competition for Chardonnay, the De Wetshof Lesca Chardonnay 2020 achieved a gold medal, also taking its place among the top 10 wines at this year’s competition. De Wetshof’s famous Limestone Hill 2020, South Africa’s most awarded unwooded Chardonnay, also garnered a gold medal at the Chardonnay du Monde.

The De Wetshof Lesca, which is marketed in South Africa under the name Finesse, was one of the first Chardonnays in the De Wetshof range, having been launched back in 1989.

This year saw the 28th consecutive running of the Chardonnay du Monde for Best Chardonnay in the World attracting entries from 36 countries with 604 wines entered. Only 196 medals were awarded, of which 51 were gold.

The De Wetshof Lesca Chardonnay 2020 also won a gold medal at the recent Mundus Vini Competition in Germany, joining De Wetshof The Site Chardonnay 2018 in a two-gold medal showing for De Wetshof at this show.

Vines for the De Wetshof Lesca (Finesse) grow on rocky, gravelly soils on De Wetshof Estate. The soils are characterised by the high levels of limestone, one of the features of the Robertson Wine Valley. Vineyards growing in soils rich in limestone produce grapes of balanced pH levels that add complexity to the wine as well as ensuring their ability to age.

The wine is mostly fermented in 2nd and 3rd fill barrels, specially selected to express the fruit nuances in the wine and subdue the stern effect of oak. After fermentation the wine ages in the barrels for 10 months. Stirring of the lees is done every week to add texture and mouth-feel.

“It is very rewarding to experience the critical acclaim the Lesca (Finesse) Chardonnay enjoys three decades after its first release,” says Johann de Wet, CEO of De Wetshof. “With its own vineyard showing the terroir through which to express its unique personality and its own wine-making style in the cellar, Finesse is an integral part of the De Wetshof family. Consistent, reliable and a pleasure to be in the company of.”

The Site Chardonnay 2018, which delivered the other Mundus Vini gold for De Wetshof, is made from a single vineyard planted to rocky gravel soils with a large percentage of clay. The wine spends one year in French oak and has been recognised as one of the leading South African Chardonnays due to its focussed expression of Robertson terroir.

“These awards have ensured 2021 has gotten off to a good start for De Wetshof,” says De Wet. “We are still in the final throes of harvest, and these accolades provide the team with added inspiration for the future.”

Why Wine Matters

Covid gave us one huge cliché, namely that after the virus has released the world from its destructive and disruptive grip, nothing is ever going to be the same again. And on certain aspects of this, I do agree. No right-minded tourist to the Far-East will in future boast about his or her adventurous partaking of Chinese street-food comprising, as it usually does, mysterious and unidentifiable creatures. The polite expression of “bless you”, usually offered when someone of your acquaintance and in the near vicinity happens to sneeze, will be replaced by those within sneeze-range diving for cover and searching for a mask.

Post-Covid will, like during Covid, feature a society making extraordinary demands on internet and data suppliers so as to sate that insatiable demand for binge-offerings on services such as Netflix and Showmax.

The world of wine is also pondering a post-Covid scenario. Especially the South African one which has been violated by a government showing about as much concern at and understanding of the industry as it does in the importance of protecting its country’s Constitution. In fact, one of the things sure to be unaffected by Covid is the South African government’s incomprehension of the potential the industry has of being an inclusive national asset.

But in all this hysteria surrounding the banning of wine sales, government incompetence, surpluses, court-cases and relevant wine industry representative bodies, one question has been shifted onto the backburner. Namely, why is wine important? Why is it important to its consumers, the millions of folk who pull their daily corks, fill the glass, take pleasure therein and begin to anticipate the next one. He and she who daily, weekly or monthly hand-over hard-earned cash in order to enjoy the rewards of the winemakers’ sweat and toil?

Well, wine is damn important for me and for you and for them.

Because if you really want to, you can open a different bottle of wine every day for the rest of your life without filling the same glass twice. No other liquid is made by so many different people belonging to so many different societies in such a variety of regions, nations and countries. Wine offers the inquisitive, restless seeker an unrivalled opportunity to experience an endlessly vast array of individual tastes and aromas. To rephrase Dr Samuel Johnson, “He who is tired of wine, is tired of life.”

Then, think of the fact that each wine tells a different story. Besides the unique geographical profiles of the vineyard sites, wines bear their own personalities, tales and yarns. The bottles underscore an own identity. Whether the wine originates from a Burgundian vineyard where eight centuries ago a Trappist monk saw the image of Christ, or a Merlot is made by a brain surgeon who exchanged skull carving for viticulture at the age of 70, there are stories in wine. Because despite the relevance of the saying “wine is made in the vineyard”, wine is the result, too, of people’s lives, dreams and loves.

And just as humanity needs to be nourished on the stories, aspirations, emotions and living wills of others, just so do we need wine.

Wine is important, because it opens not only the window to the human soul, but to the soul of nature as well. That glass of Chardonnays reflects the chalk soils of Robertson, the result of millions of fossilised ocean creatures which lazed on the sea-bed before the oceans drew back to leave the land dry. Cabernet Sauvignon from Stellenbosch is made viscerally own-minded by the weathered granite which wine and rain hacked away from the Simonsberg and Helderberg mountains over a period of unfathomable time. Later the fynbos came, hundreds of brushes, bushes and flowers sprinkled on the earth to add scent and perfume to the grapes. To appreciate wine is to acknowledge the bond between humans and nature, to taste it, drink it. This is necessary.

The soul is made joyful through wine. This I discovered 40 years ago while harvesting at Simonsvlei Co-op. To arrive home at midnight exhausted, sticky with a sweet-smelling sweat of fermenting grapes. Drinking a glass of cold Perdeberg Steen. One night I found my father, still awake reading, then looking at me as I drank deeply from the glass. Telling him that, at a time like this, nothing makes me feel better than this glass of wine.

“Yes,” he says, “that is what wine is all about.”

Wine is important because it brings people together. In different ways. There is the group of aficionados who tear-up then talk in reverential tones about the Calon-Ségur 1966 they are sharing. Then the everyday kind of wine lovers, friends and family who hardly look at the label on the bottle they are pouring from, just honouring life and others and togetherness through the sharing of a bottle or three.

It creates a greater appreciation for the senses one is born with, and that’s why wine is important. The comforting, reassuring aroma of a Shiraz expressing wet earth, cigar-leaf and Malay spice. That edgy, restless fresh Sauvignon Blanc that perks the palate and raises the spirit with its slashes of gooseberry, melon and Atlantic ocean kelp. He or she who appreciates wine, and I’m sure of this, has a keener sense of smell and taste than the non-imbibers thereof.

This thing called wine is important because it makes of the world a better place. A place worth not forgetting how privileged you are to call home. And this is the way it will always be.

Emile Joubert

At Play in the Wine Theatre of the Gods

You need a view from a high spot, the right high vantage point, and then it becomes clear why Stellenbosch’s wine region has been referred to as the theatre of the wine gods. Okay, not exactly in quite such dramatic terms, but a thought inspired by Jan Boland Coetzee, that venerable sage of matters earth, soil, weather and wine who likes to refer to Stellenbosch as “an amphitheatre”.

Jan Boland’s comparison becomes abundantly clear when looking out across the spread of winelands, mountains and ocean offered by the view from Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards, a view that is truly a sight for eyes – sore or otherwise.  Barbra Streisand must have had this place in mind when singing her hit “On a Clear Day, You can See Forever”.

Sky-high vineyards at Uva Mira.

Some 600m up on the Helderberg, Uva Mira presents not only a spectacular view, but a better understanding of the geographical wonder that is Stellenbosch. The amphitheatre incorporates the strip of mountain beginning with the Helderberg’s southern side from which the mountains run north to Stellenbosch Mountain before becoming the Simonsberg. Heading west are the Bottelary Hills, and then it’s south again as the Polkadraai slopes buffer Stellenbosch from the Cape Flats.

This amphitheatre surrounds the drama’s centre-stage, namely False Bay’s expansive spread of Atlantic Ocean which subjects the whole of Stellenbosch to the magnificently tempestuous effects a southern maritime climate. Oh, and for good measure, the Uva Mira wine farm offers post-card sightings of Table Mountain and Cape Point where the Agulhas and Benguela ocean-currents meet.

The mesmerising effect of standing on the mountain slopes at Uva Mira is not limited to the visiting wine-taster. In 2014 a Johannesburg businessman by name of Toby Venter stood there, an occasion by chance, and he just knew this was the farm he had to acquire. For excellence and aesthetics were not unfamiliar to him. As CEO of Porsche, Bentley and Lamborghini in South Africa one could say Venter is driven by the search for distinction, class and quality.

Christiaan Coetzee, winemaker.

“I never really had a wine farm in mind,” says Venter, “and getting involved in the industry was purely by chance.” It was horses instead of cars that brought him and partner Jessica Baker on a visit to the Cape. “We were looking for a place away from Johannesburg to keep and ride Jessica’s horses,” he says, “and popped down to have a look at some properties. Perchance some friends told us over lunch that there was a farm in Stellenbosch on the market – not any good for horses, but just a great spot.”

It took one visit and Uva Mira had Venter’s heart. “The place just spoke to me,” says Venter. “My father had studied at Stellenbosch where he became a wine-lover, and growing up in Potchefstroom and Gauteng I heard all his tales of the winelands, great wines and the wine people. So, when I came to Uva Mira and saw the vineyards on the mountain, looked down on the sea and the winelands below, well, it really was love at first sight. Oh, and the horses are still in Johannesburg.”

Venter is not the first upcountry businessman to have seen the potential of Uva Mira. Industrialist Des Weedon, the initial owner, established the brand and the winery in the late 1990s, although when he arrived some vines were already supplying grapes to the KWV.

Christiaan Coetzee, winemaker at Uva Mira since 2013, says Uva Mira is an example of the importance of vision and dynamism released in the Cape winelands three decades ago. “From up here, down to the Annandale Road was all one big property growing fruit and grapes for generic corporate brands,” says Coetzee, guiding his bakkie up through 600m of Helderberg vineyards. It is perilously steep, the kind of extreme slopes one expects to see in the winelands of the Douro in Portugal or Germany’s Mosel region. The driver-winemaker continues: “But the vision of people like Tobyhave given youngish winemakers like myself the opportunity to be involved with extreme, focussed and committed projects in this ever-changing landscape of South African wine.”

Coetzee pulls over at some young Shiraz vines. For all the manicured entrance to Uva Mira, the elegance of the tasting room and the luxurious wine packaging, this here is rugged wine country. The soil is hard and gritty, the result of millions of years of granite decomposing from the Helderberg laid down on these mountain slopes. Next to the vineyards, lush and verdant in early summer splendour, aromatic lies of wild fynbos gather on the rocky mountain face, their resident insects shrilly announcing a wilderness presence.

“You are in nature, and nature is wine,” says Coetzee. But thinking of Venter’s ethos of excellence and the mind’s eye almost seeing the handsomely sensual shape of a Porsche Carrera, I know where Coetzee is heading, in the direction of the “P”-word. “But to capture all the effect of soil and climate and ocean, precision farming and precision winemaking are what we do. Aggressively combatting any chance of leaf-roll virus. Irrigating with a fine eye on the border between over-hydrating and vineyard stress. Farming as naturally as possible, including the deploying of natural predators to terminate mealy-bugs and other critters – but not taking any unnecessary chances when conditions threaten to damage vineyard health.”

For a 30ha spread of vineyard, the Uva Mira wine range is pretty expansive. Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Shiraz as well as a red Bordeaux-style blend. But it is not surprising to find Uva Mira’s focus being on the varieties of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, two cultivars that in the past decade have made a natural progression to the top of Stellenbosch’s offering in terms of quality and recognition.

“Stellenbosch and the Helderberg in particular have traditionally been great for Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc – it sorts of runs in the regional DNA, of the terroir as well as the people,” says Coetzee. “I haven’t been around as a winemaker for all that long, but if one looks at what has happened in the Cape’s wine industry over the past 50 to 60 years in terms of quality and reputation, Stellenbosch and Cabernet Sauvignon appear to go together like hand-in-glove. And one sees it in the grapes, and as the fermentation begins in the cellar. Soils of decomposed granite and the climate creates such balance and structure, it all flows as the grapes are pressed. And of late Cabernet Franc has really come to the fore in the region, with the potential to shoot the lights out in future.”

Bringing the two Cabernets together, Uva Mira’s OTV Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, named after Venter’s father, is a seamless yet expressive amalgamation of these two varieties exuding femininity and perfume together with a visceral power.

Uva Mira might lie in the heartland of Cabernet country, but it is Chardonnay that has seen a plethora of medals, trophies and stratospheric ratings coming Uva Mira’s way in the past few years. And one has to admit, there is a truly distinctive character in an Uva Mira Chardonnay, something that original, particular and exciting. An attention-grabbing curiosity in the way that everything pure about this great Chardonnay grape is made edgier, exciting by the presence of something untamed and wild. A brush of fynbos. Some saltines from rocks broken-off the mountain in a time long forgotten. The rattled effects of a strong south-easter wind.

“The previous owners of Uva Mira already saw the potential of Chardonnay, making really fine wines through the first decade of this millennium,” says Coetzee. “For a farm that has only been producing this variety for two decades, one can only be enormously excited about what lies ahead for our Chardonnay. It is definitely a focus of Uva Mira – we already offer three different Chardonnays – and really look forward to seeing how the personalities and qualities of these wines develop as the vines and terroir develop a longer relationship.”

Here there is no longer looking down from Uva Mira on the amphitheatre. It is, simply, onwards and upwards.

Meerlust: Never a Bad Year

The bunches were black and purple and looking good when the grapes stopped ripening. Harvest 2019 had kicked-off agreeably in the Cape winelands. Mornings were warm and dry and golden as the breeze blew gently from the south-east, the days breaching into warm blue masses of African summer air. Here, the harvesting commenced with optimism and ripples of expectation, the major concerns being how the past four-years of drought were going to affect the quality of the juice seeping out of the fleshy grapes, the seeping becoming a torrent as the crusher pressed and the juice began to run.

And then it all changed. The air took on a crisp morning chill, and daytime temperature-readings nudged 25 degrees Celsius but wanted to go no further. The red wine grapes, awaiting their removal from the vines by sharp, glistening secateurs, stopped ripening and just hung there, listless and still. Also, the heavens opened, rain curtaining from clouds low and grey. Worrying the winemakers. Because it was only mid-February, and there were Cabernet and Merlot and Cabernet Franc to ripen and to be picked. The cellars and the barrels were waiting, wanting. As they always do at this time of year.

These red grapes were picked, eventually, although a level of un-robust ripening was all that could be achieved. And now, with the first 2019 red wines appearing on market, there is talk of the austere and un-expressive nature of these offerings. The result of that curve-ball the weather gods flung during the harvest of 2019 where the sun lay low, its power eluding the grapes so wishing to draw the light in and feast on the solar rays until they shimmered with energy.

Meerlust Estate in Stellenbosch, one of the Cape’s unquestionable icons, announced the character of 2019 in visceral fashion by refraining from the making of the Meerlust Rubicon Bordeaux-style blend in that troubled cool year.

Instead, a Meerlust Red 2019 is offered due to the inability of that year’s grapes to achieve the commanding presence and graceful power a wine requires before it is suited in the claret bottle and dons that familiar black Rubicon label.

The official memo from Meerlust is that the cold conditions which set in in mid-February coupled with bursts of rain all the way through to March led to the late ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot not reaching full maturity. This resulted in slightly lower alcohols, and lighter wines with lower extract – “very approachable in youth but not the intensity required for Rubicon”.

The Red 2019 is Cabernet Sauvignon dominant (43%) with 31% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot.

Less new-oaking was deployed than with the Rubicon, with each variety spending eight to nine months in barrel, after which the blend was composed before returning the wine to barrel for another eight months to settle as a unified whole.

As is my wont, I did not get to this official memo before approaching the Meerlust Red 2019. I simply opened the bottle, decanted and left for 30 mins, and leapt into the wonderful world of wine which Meerlust unfailingly offers me.

The wine is shy on the nose, but not without presence. Beneath the gentle aroma of dry oak and pressed grape skins a fine thread of Provence herbs and violet awakens the senses, teasing and attracting and evoking curiousity and expectation. To the mouth, and the wine’s attack is about as formidable and imposing as a string of Austrian folk-dancers taking-on a crowd of Liverpool football thugs. The initial taste is one of calm, measured and unhysterical. Yet commanding and attention-grabbing in its civility and politeness.

A big pull through to the mid-palate, and there is no doubt about it that this is a class act. The calm beauty of the Cabernet Sauvignon component is something to which many New World Cabernet producers aspire, a refinement this variety achieves in St Estèphe particularly. The passive beauty is enhanced by some red fruit sappiness, thanks to the Merlot component, while Madame Cabernet Franc props up the whole thing with a crafted stage of pine-needle and slight pencil-shaving.

The Meerlust Red 2019 is not a wine for comparisons to fruit markets and unpicked berry-orchards. This is a brilliant example of a whole wine, honed and toned by the ethos of excellence sought by those behind Meerlust, and ethos that has been passed onto the vineyard where the DNA of Meerlust’s human-capital and the legacy of centuries has joined nature to provide something quite special and quite beautiful. Of which one will never get quite used to. No matter what the year holds.