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.

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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.

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A Perfect Day in Sicily

The tyres kept slipping on the smooth, wet boulders and the car I was driving would not go further, the engine stalling with a jolt. After emitting a few gentle well-meant expletives, I admitted that we were stuck at the bottom of a steep valley just outside the town of Sambuca in south-west Sicily. The haunting theme from The Godfather chimed through my heated head, having an unexpected calming effect, helped on by the sight of the fine countryside, all green and forested with a scattering of autumnal vines.

A few kilometres off, the folk at the Planeta Ulmo winery – our destination – listened to our SOS phone-call with apparent disbelief. Following Googlemaps, we had taken the wrong turn down a road apparently reserved for Sicilian mountain-sheep, motocross riders training for Paris-Dakar or cyclists trying to work the anabolic steroids out of their quad-muscles. “In all of my years, nobody has ha-ever taken that road on the way to Planeta,” came the reassuring voice of Alessandro Serughetti, winemaker and viticulturist at this famous Sicilian winery.

Well, if there was going to be a first, be sure a party from South Africans would be involved. In this instance, said group comprised Monché Muller, chef at Pink Valley in Stellenbosch, photographer Toby Murphy and myself, all out here on a photography-writing-wine and cookery project. And the only way out of the valley was a steep walk back up the road, photography kit in-tow, while the Sicilians made a plan to get the car out.

As I have experienced in lands of visceral beauty and warm-hearted people such as Sicily, distress and pain – the latter being that lung-bursting lug up the slope – is followed by light and calm, and a lifting of the spirit. Beginning with a visit to the Planeta winery to get to the wines of Serra Ferdinandea, one of the global wine operations of the Oddo family from France.

Walking out the valley of the stuck vehicle: Joubert, Monche Muller and Toby Murphy.

For innovation, you must grab imagination. And this Serra Ferdinandea has done, surely. To emphasise the partnership between the Oddos French roots and their vision in Sicily, wines are made from grape varieties honouring both countries. On the white side, Serra Ferdinandea brings the Sicilian Grillo grape to partner Sauvignon Blanc. Over red way, Syrah finds itself blended with the famous Nero d’Avola. Combinations, I assume, to be world-firsts.

“The French varieties Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc work very well here in Ulmo, outside Sambuca,” says Allesandro, whose gentle manner and polite energy – coupled with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the wine world – makes for an engaging wine guide. “Here the soils are clay, sand and limestone – the Syrah especially pretty on the limestone. Rainfall is between 700mm and 800mm per year, and the sea blows the wind in all of the time.”

On the white side, Allesandro – who spent six months working in New Zealand – knows his Sauvignon Blanc almost as well as he does the Grillo from his native Sicily. “Both grapes very aromatic, high in thiols, we think they work very well together,” he says.

Going by this description, I expected the Serra Ferdinandea white 2019 to be a wine with paradisical, tropical nuances, all floral and hip-swaying in reed skirts. But this was not to be. Whether it is the deep clay soils or rugged topography, both Grillo and Sauvignon Blanc turn firm in this world. The wine is salt-scented, dry and stern with an undeniable old-school classical backbone. Eight months in foudré forces out any wispy, fleetingness of the overly aromatic, leaving behind wax, stone-fruit, lemon-peel and a long finish of quince and loquat.

The San Ferdinandea red, also 2019, blends Syrah and Nero d’Avola 50% both ways and is aged in 500l barrels, French. This was a cool, greyish day, the Sicilian countryside wet and muddy after weeks of constant rain. A good day for red wine, a good day made better by the taste of this wine.

I’ve always found something feral, unharnessed, free-spirited in Nero d’Avola. A wine from hills and forests, scented meadows, old leather and wild blackberries. And it is all here, in this wine, thrusting with a foreign, unhindered continental accent. Teamed with Syrah, though, the wine gets a sleek, regal cloak – not quite plush, but one of ripped silk, lengthening the tannins of the Nero and enveloping the wine with a rim of cherry, damson and violet.

A walk through the area surrounding the winery brought further peace. It is all farming and forest, trees of pine and oak running next to the vineyards, the plants tired after last month’s harvest and the soils wet and muddy as the water from the drenched high hills continues to seek lower ground. Raptors and magpies flew lazily across the sky, which was beginning run blue again, and in the distance the surface of a lake shimmered under the light ripping through the clouds.

Our hosts sensed these souls needed sustenance, which was provided with plates of pasta covered with a sauce made from the sweetest fresh tomatoes permitted to grow on earth. Bread, brown and yeasty, was drenched in olive oil the colour of pale gold, glistening and fragrant and flavours all nutty and citrus.

Then a sight for sore eyes, that of our car which had, by hook or by crook, been pulled out of the valley, seemingly still in one piece. Which allowed us to follow Allesandro to a dairy set in the middle of nowhere, just in time to see the flocks of sheep lining-up to be milked for the making of pecorino and other cheeses. The sheep were white and all had kind eyes, and easily submitted themselves to the milking-process, done by dark, brooding Sicilians with black eyes and gentle hands.

We bought a huge wheel of pecorino that had been aged in Nero d’Avola wine and drove back to town knowing that the day had ended better than it had begun.

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De Wetshof Chardonnay in Wine Spectator Top 100 List for 2021

South Africa’s pioneering Chardonnay-focused wine estate, De Wetshof in Robertson, is the only Cape wine on this year’s coveted list of Top 100 wines, as selected by the American magazine Wine Spectator, the world’s most influential wine publication. The De Wetshof Bon Vallon Chardonnay 2020, one of the estate’s five site-specific Chardonnays, came in at number 92 in the Top 100, which is selected by Wine Spectator editors from the thousands of wines from around the world scrutinised throughout the year.

Bon Vallon is one of De Wetshof’s two unwooded Chardonnays and is no stranger to accolades having won numerous awards at South African wine competitions. But, according to Johann de Wet, CEO of De Wetshof, this year’s Wine Spectator Top 100 spot is a highlight in the Bon Vallon Chardonnay’s performance on the international stage.

“I must admit, this announcement came as a great surprise, not only to be the only South African wine to make this coveted annual Wine Spectator Top 100, but also to do so with an unwooded wine,” says De Wet. “If one thus sees an unoaked wine on a list like this, you expect it to be a wine from Chablis, pretty much Ground Zero for unwooded Chardonnay. But then again, the De Wetshof Bon Vallon has gained a reputation for being an unoaked wine yet exuding classical depth, complexity and breadth that grabs the imagination of the wine consumer and critic for it pure expression of Chardonnay characteristic. We are simply incredibly honoured to see this wine take a place in this Top 100 which reads like a veritable list of Who’s Who in the global wine space.”

De Wet says the limestone-rich soils of Robertson have a major role to play in the region’s ability to deliver outstanding Chardonnays, including the unwooded category. “Limestone soils give Chardonnay perfect pH levels that drive the unique character of great unwooded Chardonnay.

“Like all our Chardonnays, the grapes for the Bon Vallon originate from vineyards growing on sites specifically suited to the style of wine that is going to be bottled,” says De Wet. “These are vineyards on limestone-rich soils, with a high clay component ensuring coolness and a high water-retention capacity.

“The resulting wines are fresh and accessible, with enough complexity in structure and mouthfeel to ensure a presence on the palate,” he says. “Its popular appeal is due to its ability to accompany almost any type of food, as well as to offer wine lovers the great enjoyment of an unwooded Chardonnay.”

De Wet says that one of the most important aspects of the Wine Spectator Top 100 accolade is that it shows recognition for the state of Chardonnay in South Africa. “The quality of Cape Chardonnay is growing at a rate of knots, and the international wine world is taking notice of this,” he says. “In the American market, where Chardonnay rules the roost as far as white wines are concerned, recognition such as that from the Wine Spectator can have a huge impact on the perception of South African Chardonnay, and the international image and reputation of the Cape wine industry as a whole.”

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Going Batty at Heavy Bottles is Pure Simple

The quest for a new world order is now well underway, with humanity willing itself towards initiatives and practices aimed at ensuring future planet sustainability through the halting of climate change. Carbon emissions, pollution, single-use plastics, fossil fuels, the music videos of Justin Bieber….all these horrid things that deplete earth of its ability to sustain natural wonders must go. Change is coming, and it is coming fast.

And quite rightly so, I say. Although I wouldn’t mind a slight warming of the groin-achingly cold Atlantic Ocean off Clifton Beach, as well as a few more sunny days within which to fish the Test River in Hampshire. However, climate change’s pillaging of nature and the subsequent effect on humanity must be stopped. Even if it is just to end the tireless stream of inserts on SkyNews showing inhabitants of Bangladesh trying to clear their flooded hovels.

With change and action, come protest and here in the wine industry the first signs of dissent are being seen and heard. Loud and clear.

This charge is, obviously, led by the media, with various wine journalists taking-up the banner against climate change and carbon emissions by openly berating wine producers who dare to use heavy wine bottles. Naming and shaming of wines packaged in weighty glass appears to be the order of the day, and as so often in these mini-bouts of saintly hysteria, the admonishment is a one-sided affair with only a single side of the complex scenario addressed.

Yes, if someone sends-out their wine in a bottle heavy enough to concuss a male white rhino in mating season, you don’t have to be a WWF scientist to know that a dense bottle is not conducive to a sane and sustainable production chain. Think of the effort demanded from the transportation, as well as all the toxic gasses sent into the atmosphere during the energy-sapping process the big bottle undergoes in the furnace.

However, taking a step back, one has to acknowledge that choosing to publicly crucify producers for using heavy bottles to highlight one’s moral conscience is a cop-out. It is grasping at low-hanging fruit without acknowledging the broader nuance of sustainability in the winemaking process. The chain of production is long and complex, and bottles are but one aspect whose effect on the environment is inextricably linked to various other links in said chain.

For example: Chateaux Dense sells its Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz blend in an ostentatious bottle weighing 1,1kg before being filled. Why? It is tradition, it looks good, it looks serious. Whatever. So, on account of this brutally big bottle, Chateaux Dense is in for some outing and cancelling from the eco-warriors of wine writing and criticism.

But hang on. Upon closer inspection, it would appear that outside of these massive glass bottles, Chateaux Dense employs wine-farming activities that are all green marks on the sustainable road-map. The vineyards are unirrigated, thus not requiring the energy of pumping water nor the sucking-up of nature’s most important resource. Plus, the vines are farmed organically with cover-crops laid lushly between the rows where they mainline inordinate amounts of carbon from the environment. The winery is also 100% solar-powered, and the workers wear overalls made from recycled cotton that is also hand-picked from organic cotton-fields.

So, besides them bottles, Chateaux Dense is pretty much an eco-warrior wine commentator’s wet dream, if such a thing was still possible in those circles.

On the other hand of Chateaux Dense, one has Gillsrip Vineyards, a media darling due to the fact that this winery’s Merlot and Chenin Blanc comes in lightweight bottles thin and fragile enough to crack at the sound of an inebriated cellar-hand’s fart. Lovely and light, hitting the scale at a few hundred grams, Gillsrip Vineyards uses these flimsy light-weight bottles to position itself as a green crusader, one with intense concern at the horror of climate change. However, looking at the farm itself, the situation is different.

A diesel-engine pump has to take water from a river and send it through four kilometres of plastic piping so that the vines of Gillsrip can be irrigated. Chemical fertiliser and pesticide gets sprayed onto the vines from a throaty, coughing tractor, and during and after fermentation, Gillsrip Chenin Blanc is cooled by coal-powered electricity. However, the bottles are tender and light, and therefore in the eyes of the world, the producer is an exemplary crusader for sustainability in the wine industry.

Yes, these fictitious examples are extreme, but not irrelevant. What this shows, is that to support the quest to sustainability and the fight against climate change, those talking and commenting on the wine industry would help the cause by looking at the problem and the challenges in their entirety instead of grabbing onto the first suitable example. Because if there were an easy answer to all this, we would have found it a long time ago.

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Eight Rows Sauvignon Blanc: A South African Classic

One of the wiser moves the South African wine industry made over the past few years was approving a Wine of Origin Cape Town district to complement the country’s range of regionally authentic offerings. This saw the wards of Constantia, Durbanville, Philadelphia and Hout Bay corralled under the inclusive name Wine of Origin Cape Town for use as the respective producers see fit.

The marketing potential of labelling wine under the name of one of the world’s best-known and exciting cities was obviously a juicy incentive for the wineries who fall in the boundaries of WO Cape Town. However, the authorities ensured the new demarcation was rubber-stamped and credible.

The late Duimpie Bayly, then-chairman of the Wine and Spirit Board’s Demarcation Committee, said that from a wine production side, the wards of Constantia, Durbanville, Philadelphia and Hout Bay meant to be together. “We considered the various wards in the new proposed district and found great similarity in terroir as well as clear boundaries in a district that at its furthest point is 36km from the Cape Town City Centre,” he said.

“We remained scientific in determining the physical similarities of the wards using the latest GIS technology available. After our findings and recommendation for this new wine district, the Demarcation Committee received no objections whatsoever and are now excited to add the new district to our Wine of Origin system.”

As with most new official developments wine wise, the decision was met with surprise bordering on shock in some circles. Wine critics and self-appointed aficionados laughed-off the idea that an area such as Durbanville can lay claim to being “part of Cape Town”. Sure, the town of Durbanville is 30km from Cape Town. But Sauternes is 50km from downtown Bordeaux City. And a Bordeaux appellation without Sauternes has been, and always will be, unimaginable, non?

Almost three years down the line, producers donning WO Cape Town are ticking along very nicely. The brand has reverberated in the international markets where both bottle and bulk wine customers are finding Cape Town an increasingly attractive proposition.

Thys Louw from Diemersdal Estate in Durbanville was one of the drivers behind the new demarcation. And the quality of the wines he labels under the appellation goes a long way in ensuring that, with all its attractions and appeal, Cape Town is also associated with terrific wines.

Being holed up in the City Centre with Table Mountain towering into the blue skies has given one the time to reassess some of these quality offerings. The spring weather is Sauvignon Blanc-friendly, and a chilled bottle of Diemersdal Eight Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2021 (WO Cape Town), well, that should do nicely.

This is my favourite white wine in the Diemersdal stable and a wine that – among all his restless innovation – remains dear to Thys’s heart.

The origins of the Eight Rows go back to 2005 when he arrived as wine-maker on the family farm after completing internships at various other Cape estates, including Buitenverwachting. Tienie Louw, Thys’s father, who was then running the Diemersdal show, initially had to rein-in his exuberant son. Young Thys saw his wine-making ambitions restricted to Tienie permitting him to only make wines from eight rows of one Sauvignon Blanc vineyard on Diemersdal to see whether the kid was up to the task.

The rest is history. From the maiden 2006 vintage, the Eight Rows has been a success with critics and customers alike. Today the same eight vine-rows on Diemersdal are still harvested for this wine, delivering between five and seven tons of grapes annually.

Having known the wine since its inception, one word springs to mind: completeness. There is a purity and fine linear precision that I tend to associate more with a class Chablis than a Sauvignon Blanc from Cape Town.

But here it is, Diemersdal Eight Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2021. As an ode to the site, wine-making is deft and un-cluttered. Controlled fermentation. Five months on lees, regular stirring. Bottled unfiltered.

Striking is the pale gold colour. The aroma is invigorating, long with a definite maritime presence in the whiff of oyster-shell and wet ocean rock. It is on the palate where the wine shows its status of being the complete Sauvignon Blanc. On the attack, definite slices of gooseberry and a few granadilla pips are discernible. But these are just to open the wine’s cloak, the glimpse of tropical leading to structure, mouth-feel and taste of riveting glory. Presence on the palate is strong and alert, without being thick or weighty – much like a modern French tight-head prop who does triathlons in the off-season and avoids extra frites at dinner. Flavours are kumquat and persimmon, with the ever-presence of ocean: a limpet-covered reef; crushed sea-urchin.

Anything maritime and of the sea needs citrus, and here, on the finish, a surge of lemon essence comes to the fore followed by a lick of salt and a wet, crashing wave of intense flavour.

Wines of great individuality tend to defy the restrictions of cultivar that limits imagination through the confinement of expectation. Thus best to just say it is a great white wine from Cape Town. What more reason do you need?

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5 Words to Make you Sound Like a Wine-pro

Wine events and tastings are on the go again in a semi-vaccinated world, and attendees of said vinous occasions might be finding themselves a bit rusty. Not only in the department of once again sipping, swirling and spitting wine in the company of other people instead of lying locked-down and comatose on the sofa drinking Cap Classique through a straw. But, also in engaging with other like-minded wine folks, as well as the winemaker or marketer presenting the tasting to you and 30 of the closest people you don’t know.

You killed it.

It might just be necessary, thus, to brush-up on some wine-speak. For there is nothing like a bit of informed-sounding vinous vernacular and trendy wine terminology to get you recognised as a veritable wine buff. For this you will receive sleek gazes from the ladies and sneers of envy from their partners. Throw in some of these words during the tasting, preferably in question or comment to the presenter of said occasion, and you will be seen as the clever, coolest wine buff around.

  • Lees-work: Lees are expired yeast cells in the winemaking process, and lying in a mass at the bottom of a tank of fermented Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc the sludge resembles dinosaur snot or vegan vomit. But fear not. When stirred through the wine, these miniscule particles of dead yeast impart brooding complexity and creamy palate-weight to the wine. So, when tasting white wines, show your stuff by casually requesting information on how long the wine was exposed to the lees, and by which process the lees was managed in getting it through the wine. For this, you can use terms such as “lees-management” or “lees-contact”, but the casually masculine “lees-work” is a stunner.
  • Autolysis: Now that one has enquired as to how the lees was worked through the wine, you can go one-step up, and comment on or query the process of “autolysis”. Autolysis is defined as: A chemical reaction between the wine and the lees by which enzymes break down the dead yeast cells, producing amino acids and releasing proteins and carbohydrates into the wine. Of course, you nore the attendees of this wine-tasting event has a clue what this means. Except for, possibly, the winemaker who has paid attention in the oenology class. However, having you murmur “autolysis” and – even better – the winemaker acknowledging that the word actually exists in winemaking, you are heading towards the status of the informed star of the tasting.
  • Malolactic fermentation: This is some kind of weird secondary fermentation wines go through which converts sharper malic acid (the same acid found in green apples) into softer lactic acid (the same acid found in milk). Apparently, this process reduces acidity and the wines become softer, rounder and more complex. Whatever. It is just another stunningly impressive piece of wine-speak to throw about – casually as if this is the parlance of all wine-folk and an ever-so-obvious part of the conversation. A bit of chumminess with the winemaker can be emphasised by referring to “malo” instead of the whole malolactic thing. Like, “was malo done in barrel or tank”? It does not matter or no-one cares, but the impressions others will have of your inside knowledge is what counts.
  • Residual sugar: Very straightforward, the grams of sugar per liter in the finished wine, and another of those aspects no-one really cares about at a wine-tasting. But by raising the question, the questioner buys some serious wine street-cred. Again, it is important not to imply that your concern and curiosity in residual sugar derived out of book or other reading. Therefore, it is far better to just refer to “R..S”. Like, “the R…S in this Riesling is surely higher than what I am tasting? Must be the high acid.” Hip, on form, killing it. You are an animal of the wine grape. Keep going.
  • pH: Despite it appearing on every tasting note and in every article written by a smart-ass wine-writer, general knowledge of what pH actually is, remains scarce. For the record, this be a chemical measurement of acidity or alkalinity; the higher the pH, the weaker the acid. Low pH wines taste tart and crisp; higher pH wines are more susceptible to bacterial growth. A range of 3.0 to 3.4 is desirable for white wines, while 3.3 to 3.6 is best for reds. But again, for general wine lovers and wine media, pH is of little use because few know the relevant effect it has on the final product. However, during a tasting, surrounded by sniffers, tasters and note-takers, you will once again take command of things by enquiring as to the pH levels of the wine. For extra ego-stroking, one can also ask about the pH of the soils in which the vineyards that have provided the relevant wine, are rooted. Your roots being a wine master of the universe.

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Wine and a Taste of the Divine

By RRV

A few years ago, I received as a gift a book by the esteemed wine-writer Terry Theise titled Reading Between the Vines (2011). As a keen reader as well as one who enjoys visits to wine farms, the book’s title immediately spoke to me.

With its reading, I discovered that Theise’s approach to the tasting of wine relates to what I deem to be a healthy approach to theology, as well as to life in general.

In Reading Between the Vines, Theise mentions a number of values underscoring his views on wine, something on which he embroiders in his more recent work What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime (2018). Firstly, writes Theise, a wine must express the human spirit as well as its place of origin. Secondly, we must be careful not to confuse wine-tasting with a seriousness that has us forgetting to react with spontaneity and the joys of the senses. And finally, one must be aware that wine-tasting confronts us with the limits of language and knowledge within us.

Here, wine contains that mystical element that bows with respect to that which remains unspoken. Theise then also introduces Reading Between the Vines with a quotation by Alexander Pope: “Some people will never learn anything, because they understand everything too soon.”

What Theise further raises is that he learnt the hard way in distinguishing between that which is truly complex and that which is merely complicated. The latter demands the kind of effort that keeps frustrating, while the former allows one to experience something wonderful.

For Theise, a complex wine is not pushy or demanding. This is not the kind of person one meets eager to shake your hand and who possibly even impresses with his or her presence – only to leave you with the impression that everything about him or her centers solely on the self. Exceptional wines, again, show a quiet calm and grace; they shine with an inner light that is not dependent on the spotlight. Which brings Theise to what he deems to be a kind of manifesto: “Many wines let you taste the noise. But only the very best wines let you taste the silence.”

Theise acknowledges that this statement might sound abstract, but that he knows exactly what he means by it. It reminds him of the remark that the true ending of a piece of music, actually is the silence that follows at the work’s end.

Could we not speak along these lines about the complex beauty of the language of belief and believing? Not as something loud and noisy, but as that which allows us to taste the silence?

  • RRV writes a weekly column on spiritual values for Die Burger newspaper. This was one of them.

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Kanonkop and the Cult of Black Label

The cannon is, at this moment, being oiled and the snoek are ripped from the ocean as the wine world awaits the latest release of the Black Label Pinotage from Kanonkop, South Africa’s finest red wine creator. For on Wednesday and Thursday coming, a few lucky invitees shall gather on this estate in the shadow of the Simonsberg to hear the gun-shot droning through the valley and to smell the snoek cooking on hot coals burnt from old vine stumps. And, of course, the latest release of Kanonkop’s Black Label Pinotage, one of a select few Cape wines truly worthy of cult-status, shall be poured and tasted to mark the launch of the new vintage on offer.

This vintage is the Black Label from 2019, and having had a cheeky sneak-peak at the wine ahead of this week’s launch, a modest note of appreciation will follow. But first, this thing about cult wines, something Kanonkop owner Johann Krige uses to describe the Black Label. Saying you don’t head out making a cult wine, it is a status bestowed on the wine from the outside world.

Just what would a cult wine be? The first time I heard of the term, I thought it was a glass of fermented juice poured at a séance held by a few chanting vegetarians under the full moon, the wine to be sipped after a bout of mutual bodily fondling and the slaughtering of a startled one-eyed goat. But wine parlance has a cult wine as being something that has achieved a keen and determined following of persons who are so keenly and determinedly following said wine that they are willing to pay serious cash for it. Keen and determined.

Wine Folly, a provider of some of the more lucid wine writing around, describes a cult wine thus:

“Cult wines are the pigeon-blood ruby of the wine world. They are engorged in a sort of mystery and delight that can only be satiated by tasting them. Of course, actually getting to taste a cult wine presents a bit of a quandary because the supply is so low that even some deep-pocketed buyers go destitute. This, in turn, skyrockets the price which increases the wine’s fame and then the price goes up more… you get the idea.”

Judging from the above, Kanonkop Black Label has been ticking the cult boxes since the first vintage of this wine in 2006. A fourth-generation wine farm in the Simonsberg region of Stellenbosch. Winemaking Provenance and a record of excellence that has been sought-after by wine buyers since the estate’s first wine was made in 1973. Stupendous international ratings from esteemed wine critics, bearing proof that the marque’s recognition for quality has been consistent and the love is shared by wine judges and critics of diverse origin, personality and taste.

Abrie Beeslaar in the Black Label vineyard.

Into this mix, throw in the Black Label’s back-story: a wine made from a vineyard planted in 1953 by the legendary statesman and Kanonkop owner Paul Sauer. Meaning the wine is always to be limited in production and has since the first vintage been created by Abrie Beeslaar, the third winemaker in Kanonkop’s history, and recognised the world over as one of the top vignerons around.

But cult, classic or icon, this means zilch if the wine itself is not deserved of such status, which is unfortunately not always the case. Especially in South Africa, where the irreverence of the winemaker and the off-keel, apparently alternative, approach to winemaking has the crowd cultishly following the personality instead of what is in the bottle.

If cult is going to imply content more than substance, then Kanonkop Black Label does it, for sure. And with the latest 2019 vintage – excruciatingly young, I know – this part of the Kanonkop range contributes to the pile of evidence proving that South Africa, is indeed, making wines capable of competing with and beating the greats of the world. Cult and otherwise.

The latest release comes from one of the most challenging Cape vintages in recent history, where vineyard conditions were just about as chaotic as the latest report from Cyril Ramaphosa’s psychiatrist. Hot days and uneven growth during spring and early summer characterised the 2019 season all-round South Africa. With the vines still suffering the effects of the severe drought the winelands had experienced since 2014, nature was truly stingy with the allowing of yields, which in the Black Label vineyard pulled in at around 2.8 tons per hectare.

However, Beeslaar says the quality of fruit was concentrated and superb. “This just goes to show how well this old vineyard handles the curve-balls nature has been throwing at it for over six decades, as well as underscoring the non-negotiable suitability of Pinotage planted in Kanonkop terroir,” he says.

But, for me, the expectation elicited by all this talk of concentration and small berries don’t add up in the wine I found upon opening Kanonkop Black Label 2019. Intense fruit and the standard oaking regime of 18 months in new wood had me anticipating a wine that is, well, big. Something along the lines of plush and decadent; heady and seductive. Instead, I found verve and briskness, a succulent rip of fruit and fynbos and of vitality.

In fact, the 2018 version was the big, buxom vintage with the civilised amply fleshed presence of a well-fed Viennese opera singer. Black Label 2019 is a completely different kettle of sashimi. The wine’s fragrance is one of potpourri and Provençal herbs, with a hazy ocean mist. On the palate attack, cherry and black-currant play with the senses before a gush of shuddering dark-fruited denseness, almost spooky, haunts the mouth with a sense of amazement and alarm, that calms down to a post-coital, sated joy.

This is one of those wines where the mere presence usurps more fleeting aspects such as taste and flavour profile. An example of greatness and presence that hits you like a cannon-ball to the heart.

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Love in the Time of Crystallum

Florence, my charming Burgundian friend, joins me on a terrace looking out on the Place Madeleine in Beaune, the scent of fermenting grapes hanging over the town-square like heavy clouds ahead of a storm. It is harvest time in Burgundy, the greatest wine region in the world, and this normally be a joyous time, one alive with animated excitement and emotion you can feel. Not this year. The frosts of spring caused havoc among the vines, decimating the shoots and massacring 40% of the harvest. So, despair hangs in the air, infiltrating the aroma of grape-skin, fermenting juice and wild yeast.

“Our vineyards in Corton and Musigny are stuffed,” says Florence, “and the Chardonnay crop in Beaune is lighter than Mrs Macron’s underwear.” (French women do have a way with word, especially when referring to one another.)

I have a gift for Florence. A bottle of wine from South Africa. I place the glass vessel, crisply labelled in white, on the table. “God, I need that now. To take my mind away from Burgundy, for a while.” She gets up to go to the inside bar, returning with a cork-screw and two glasses. I am allowed to open the bottle. “You the gentleman, no?” she asks.

As I press the screw through the wax closure, she whispers the name of the label. “Crystallum…Pinot Noir.” I nod my head while sniffing the cork and then pour the wine. It slides into the glass like a Ferrari-driver slipping into his Formula One vehicle.

I tell her of the wine, made from grapes growing on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, outside the town of Hermanus. “Where we saw the whales, no?” she asks. I nod, a bolt of nostalgia shooting through my memory. It was in Hermanus where Florence and I met. Met, before the encounter.

Also, what made me bring the wine Crystallum for her is because this Cuvée Cinema Pinot Noir has impressed me since the maiden 2008 vintage. And yes, we now have the young 2020 wine before us, but the winemaker, Peter-Allan Finlayson, is a genius when it comes to making great wines that are accessible in their youth.

“You were accessible in your youth,” Florence reminds me, sniffing the glass like a Siamese cat who has just seen the sushi bar open.

A few tourists in masks take selfies before us, and a Japanese couple in striped Brittany fisherman shirts and berets walk past, a baguette in each hand.

We focus on the wine.

Crystallum Cuvée Cinema Pinot Noir 2020. The vineyard is from shale, clay and granite soils, implying an immense structure. This would appear to be, looking at the dense colour of the wine. Although the fact that this vintage does not have the rather invigorating sluttish perfume that normally characterises Cuvée Cinema, implies a sterner wine than the ones I am used to from the Crystallum marque. The nose is brooding and ominous and stern, so much so that I wonder if the aroma will not make Florence pop one of her anti-anxiety tablets in preparation of the wine’s entry to the palate.

Into the mouth, and like Florence does, I want to close my eyes and allow the presence of the wine to overwhelm me. There are few things in the world as immensely reassuring of the planet’s beauty and of the greatness of civilisation as a mouth of weighty, juicy, succulent Pinot Noir. And this is what the Cuvée Cinema 2020 offers, a confident and dominating slug of satisfying excellence.

The usual Cuvée Cinema line of wild strawberries and blackcurrant are there, drifting on a tapestry of cunningly interwoven tannins. Some porcini powder is present, as well as a hit of dried sage and fresh bay-leaf. But the beauty is in the feel of the wine, the marvellous combination between a sinewy, flexible prod from the crisp acidity and the enthralling, complete voluptuous fleshiness within which the dense flavours are found. Confident, that is the word, this Pinot Noir is confident and expressive, without being pushy or opinionated. Yet, there is bit of arrogance in the ease and guile and assuredness with which this wine presents itself as a commanding force in South African Pinot Noir. Year-after-year.

A waiter brought some snails and cuts of baguette as Florence removed her shoes and slid her legs underneath her, shaking her head so that the soft sunlight rippled through her dark hair and I put the glass down and asked her if she remembers what happened after we saw the whales.

  • Lafras Huguenet

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