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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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.

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Government rings name-changes for SA wines

In a week that saw certain South African place names being changed abruptly the South African wine industry learnt last night that it is now faced with a few new names of itself.

According to a directive from the Department of Arts, Culture and Agriculture, the Government decided it was time to adorn new identities on certain integral parts of the South African wine landscape. First up is Pinotage. Deemed South Africa’s national grape as it was founded on local soil as a crossing between Pinot Noir and Hermitage, Pinotage will from now on be known as “Huku machende”. Literally translated in the Shona language as “chicken testicles”, Huku machende colourfully illustrates the resemblance between a bunch of these wine grapes and the balls of the roosters who play such an important role in township life.

Triya Nutherun, spokesperson for the Department of Arts, Culture and Agriculture, says that this new term to describe South Africa’s native grape variety and its wine will decolonise the wine lexicon as well as making the grape and wine more approachable to the majority of South Africans.

A cockerel airing its Huku machende

“We love the man-chicken and we love its swinging little balls as it chases the hens between the township houses,” says Nutherun. “When our people see the wine ‘Huku machende’ on the bottle they are going to buy it and drink it because why, now they know it. Who knows Pinotage? Nobody. But everyone knows the chicken testicles, so now they know the wine too.”

Nutherun says the Department was proud to rename Pinotage as it is South Africa’s most famous wine. “It is going to be so wonderful, gosh!” he says, “and with this, Government is going to get involved with all that happens under the name Pinotage. Now you will see the Absa Top 10 Huku machende Competition and a lot of other exciting stuff to bring together the wine with the South Africans who don’t know the wine.”

The spokesperson says the changing of the name Pinotage was only the beginning of an exciting revised chapter of the South African wine industry. “We hope to shortly announce a new more democratic name for the Cap Classique sparkling wine, it is to be called ‘Fafaza’,” says Nutherun. “This Fafaza is the isiZulu word meaning ‘spray’, so beautiful as the Cap Classique is sprayed over all the loved ones when the cork is popped sending the wine spraying all over the people.”

Fafaza time!

Nutherun says the new name will definitely be legalised in time for the celebration of Cap Classique’s 50th anniversary, set to officially take place later this year. “It is going to be a great year for Fafaza, in which we can also still love Huku machende red wine. I look forward to seeing all South Africans raising a glass to this new chapter in the history of our wine industry with two names representing the soul of our people.”

The information office for the local wine industry was not available for comment as all representatives were at a conference in Gqeberha, formerly known as Port Elizabeth.

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6 Things I Expect from my “Sommelier”

By Earl Dexter

Check out the explosion in restaurants offering customers access to their “sommelier”. He/she is described as an “in-house wine-expert, especially trained to ensure your wine choice matches that of one’s culinary whims, ensuring an all-encompassing dining experience that you – our valued customer – deserves.”

Organisations such as the Sommeliers Association of South Africa and true pro’s in the trade like Miguel Chan, Jean Vincent Ridon and Higgo Jacobs have most definitely helped to improve local wine service at some restaurants. Unfortunately the bulk of South African eateries claiming to employ a sommelier end-up sending you nothing more than an average waiter who has versed him- or herself in the difference between a Waiter’s Friend and a Tea Break, and is adamant that Nederburg Baronne is a red grape cultivar made at the Masterchef studios.

If you claim to be the sommelier your owner describes you as, I expect the following:

  • Ask who at the table would like to see the wine-list instead of just plonking it down before the person – usually the oldest whitest male – who you deem to be well-heeled, sophisticated and smart enough to select the wine for the meal. Women, especially of the liberated and wine-educated kind, deem this a huge affront. Their subsequent rejection-issues can turn the rest of the evening into an ill-tasting, dismissive nightmare – for the other guests, as well as the so-called “sommelier” whose consideration of human rights and gender issues could be called into question.
  • Upon receiving a request from the table for a certain bottle of wine, “sommelier”, please do not present the customer with the wine-list and ask him or her to physically point out the name of the wine in question on the hopefully clinically clean page of the wine-list. This mostly happens when the “sommelier” does not seem to know that the wine requested is actually on the list or – more than likely – the service provider is not able to deploy the linguistic complexities of a reasonably lucidly pronounced “Vriesenhof Pinot Noir 2017”.
  • Please do not overfill the wine-glass. You may think that by doing so your guests will be polishing-off that 300% marked-up bottle of Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2017 quicker than normal, leading to further orders. However, overfilled-glasses appear uncouth, implying a greedy customer and a 2/3rds filled glass is going to wreck havoc on your boss’s fine cotton table-cloth once I begin swirling the wine. The latter action, by the way, is undertaken to unleash the wine’s complex aromas as well as to give the wine some air. It is not, as I have been told by a sommelier, to wet the glass from the inside.
  • However important your “sommelier” badge makes you think you are, I the customer am always right. Yes, I actually do want a De Wetshof Bateleur Chardonnay 2018 with my dish of sous vide lamb fillet with sage, rosemary and buttered truffles. Red meat may be consumed with white, pink or purple wine if that happens to be the way I like it. Condescendingly urging me to change my decision to a red variety on account of the detailed and taxing wine course you did with the Two Oceans Wines brand manager is irritatingly invasive as well as being incorrect.
  • If a wine is faulty, it is faulty. Sure, the customer has no right to complain and reject a wine on the grounds of it being over-wooded, green-picked or excessively tannic. But if there is TCA, VA or oxidation, accept my word and bring another bottle. It really is no use trying to tell me that “this is the winemaker’s particular style” or stating “but it is an alternatively made wine””. I am not buying – even if the wine is one of those weirdly named things crafted naturally outside small towns occupied by one horse.  Just send the bottle back to the wine-maker who will replace without question.
  • Most importantly, use your tool correctly. When opening the bottle at the table – as you should – cut the closure cap neatly instead of slashing the foil and ripping the whole thing off before attacking the thing with your cork-screw.

And please guys and girls, do not grip the bottle between your legs when struggling to remove the cork. This is an unappetising beginning to the evening. If the wine steward is holding the wine bottle in his or her crotch out in the open, what the hell is going on in the kitchen?

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The Louw Road to Sancerre

By Lafras Huguenet

During the crisp late-mornings of early summer, I sit at a café in the town of Sancerre reading the rugby papers and watching life go by, and thinking wine and, now and again, talking to Gaspard who runs the café I attend almost daily. Or used to, before the China bug sent me packing back to South Africa. The breeze racing from the Cathedral part of town becomes chilly, and out towards the Loire a hazy mist lingers even at noon, and the sun shines with slack, will-less lethargy.

Gaspard sniffs the air of ground coffee, growing vines and water, and shakes his head. “Sunlight,” he says, “if only we had more sunlight to lift the Sauvignon Blanc, to make it taste more alive than what our wines here in Sancerre tend to do.”

Sancerre in central France.

I’d sigh and return to my paper, not wanting to break the air of relaxed camaraderie by telling him how fortunate he is to be in France and in one of the world’s great wine towns and to have access to a centuries’ old culture of vignerons making truly astounding and classic wines from the Sauvignon Blanc grape.

When the Cathedral’s bell bangs 11.00, great brassy, doomsday sounds hanging about the town in layered lakes of noise, Gaspard brings a bottle of local wine, and we pour and smell and taste, and sometimes I do get what he’s on about – should I wish to pay credence to the Frenchman’s lament. The wine tastes of cold and rock, dark sub-surface canyons drawing the light and the sun and the joy out of the wine. Leaving the serious austere and chilly parts in the Sauvignon Blanc. Obviously not in all the years, such as 1998, 2003 and a 2011. But serious and austere can be beautiful, too.

Now I think of Sancerre and of Gaspard often, and I wonder if he is healthy in mind and in body. I’ll send him a post-card from the Cape. He likes to see the mountain and the sun and the blue sky, and maybe he will come and visit.

I think of Sancerre and of Gaspard when I open a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc delivered to me, because it is a wine from the land of sun and warmth, and from Diemersdal, a winery in love with this grape of Sancerre and whose winemaker Thys Louw has an obsession with the grape, and the home-town of Gaspard.

The wine is the Diemersdal The Journal Sauvignon Blanc, from the 2020 vintage. Gaspard would snort at its youth. But I’d have to remind him that, if he wants to drink wines from the countries of the sun, he needs to know them in their youth. That’s when they shine, restlessly and young and tantalising.

The Journal Sauvignon Blanc is Louw’s nod to Sancerre, the making of the 2020 vintage being for him an especially emotional one. Louw had planned an extensive visit to Sancerre in 2020, planned to bury himself in the region and the wines, and the people, and look what happened. Lockdown lament.

The Journal is made from a vineyard on Diemersdal comprising vines of between 28 and 38 years of age. Durbanville being maritime as compared to Sancerre’s continental position, I was curious to see how Louw would fare using an old-world style from this very different environment.

Besides the provenance of the fruit, the winemaking deployed for The Journal is attractive. The Sauvignon Blanc was matured for 11 months in barrel with a substantial new wood component. And, as Louw had borrowed with his eyes from Sancerre, the maturation occurred in a cool space, chilled to a bone-numbing 9°C. This slows down the maturation process, yes, but allows for more nuanced drawing of taste and texture from those dense, indecipherable living masses of lees. Because that is where the magic lies. No wine should be weak at the lees.

Poured, The Journal Sauvignon Blanc from Diemersdal drifts up from the glass like a beautiful butterfly that has been feasting on nectar from bright-coloured flowers. It hits the nose effortlessly, notes of arum-lily, fig-leaf and candied quince engaging with the olfactory space. The wine even smells sunny, yet it’s backed by an assured and mannered hint of cultured European civility.

Thys Louw

My god it is a gorgeous wine to taste. The Diemersdal The Journal 2019, the maiden release, was a slight tad showy, some tropical, sun-kissed sexiness coming through. The 2020, however, has this bookishness to it, a studied and accurate ticking-off of classically conventional white wine splendour. I taste steel and stone, so very French Sauvignon, meeting the forefront of the palate to confidently announce the regal presence which should command the respect it deserves, which it does. Warmed to the mid-palate, the Sauvignon Blanc holds the cold, classic line for a moment before unleashing Crusader warriors bearing woven baskets of white fruit: Normandy apple, pear and nectarine, all the flavours embracing a brisk and forceful ocean wind that has just the slightest unsettlingly exciting patch of kelp and oyster-shell.

The wine drinks wonderfully, a weighty presence on the palate, but never clogging the motion of a great wine that maintains pace and vigour for the entire journey.

Gaspard, here comes the sun.

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Wine: Purest of all Art

Wine is not just art, but art in the very essence of the word’s meaning. Obviously, this would depend on one’s definition of art. But here I’ll take the cue from Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, Roman philosopher and dramatist, who said “all art is but an imitation of nature”. I also like Picasso’s definition namely “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life from our souls”, a relevant and literally fitting explanation in matters liquid and vinous.

Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards

Wine is pure art. And nothing else. Unlike painting, literature, film and drama wine cannot be hijacked by political agendas, both in the expression thereof nor its interpretation. Although a winemaker purporting to make a “non-binary, equal-opportunity Chenin Blanc committed to democracy” or a wine-drinker finding “a right-winged, fascist and misogynist presence” in an oaked Syrah is surely just around the corner if one considers the increasing verbose state of wine communication and opinion.

It is the bottle, the glass and the wine. Nothing else. No theory, hidden motives or the subliminal expressing of a childhood affected by domestic abuse involving stale Rice Crispies, abusive and disorderly parents as well as the noisy assaults from a cruel Maltese Poodle named Cyrus.

In wine, all the drama is in the taste and presence, and currently I cannot think of a more dramatic and emotional wine-drinking experience to match the Chardonnay from Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards.

When they say “mountain”, they are not kidding. Uva Mira hangs high-up on the Helderberg Mountains of Stellenbosch, up to 620m above the sea, with the Chardonnay growing at 400m. Decomposed granite soils and south-west facing, the site draws the afternoon sun while the air constantly moves in ripples from the great pool of blue ocean at False Bay, nine kilometres yonder.

Uva Mira Chardonnay is the winery’s top offering out of the three wines from this variety, originating in an acutely disciplined vineyard which is honed and harvested in a complex web of tranches and ripeness levels.

Winemaker Christiaan Coetzee puts the wine into French oak for nine months, half of the wood being new. The result is a Chardonnay that speaks of mountains high and wide where broken and weathered pieces of rock have been worn down by African wind and climate over 100 million years. That wine symbolises the fact of Uva Mira’s patch of earth having been tamed, the vines bordering on edges of fynbos wilderness in which reptiles slither and rodents rustle.

A feral, untamed spoor bursts through Uva Mira Chardonnay 2017. There is a lot of grace, with all the blue-blood this noble white of Burgundy brings. White flowers, cool green almond and cut Packham pear. But the sensual swoop of taste is accompanied by a yellow set of talons, sharp and threatening, giving the wine an edge of danger. The calm, comfortable frame the Chardonnay grape has imprinted on the drinker’s mind is ripped and cut and torn. Once the nerves and flesh have reset the scar-tissue will provide stronger, firmer thought and more vivid a memory with which to approach this variety from now on. It is a stunning wine, nature’s raw offerings of rock, plant and ocean ground together with merciless power to be reborn as liquid magic, and pure art.

Natalie and Joris van Almenkerk

More amenable, sensual artistic offering of Chardonnay comes from cool-climate Elgin where Almenkerk is fast becoming one of the top addresses for the making of a diverse range of wines offering clarity, weight and flavour.

The Almenkerk 2017 places the drinker on more familiar ground than Uva Mira, oozing gently the white fruit, honey-comb and grated citrus-peel of classic Chardonnay. Joris van Almenkerk, owner and winemaker, allows for spontaneous fermentation, after which the wine is left in barrel on lees for 10 months. Older wood and natural yeasts provide a more burlesque wine, but with a fresh lean run of acid ensuring the absence of fruit-skirted blousiness.

It is all pleasing, this art that is Almenkerk Chardonnay. Pale gold to the eye, with a slight autumnal amber. A nose harnessing green apple, crushed between planks, and young fresh hay and freshly laundered linen, lying in bright morning sun. The flavours are wonderous. Quince and young Calvados distilling-wine meet with Portuguese green summer plum, cantaloupe and a wedge of salted, cured Moroccan lemon sprinkled with fresh spring water. It all lies firm on the palate, the lasting presence continuing the to nether regions of the finish.

If this imitates nature, the world’s looking great. So is the art.

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