Today is my birthday and I turn 19, again. I am celebrating by throwing a Braai-style BBQ in Brooklyn to accompany a large, multi-regional tasting of wines procured from South Africa. If I can’t spend my B-Day in Stellenbosch, then I will bring the spirit of the Cape Winelands to a Brooklyn Heights apartment with a bonafide patio and grill (unfortunately not mine, but a generous friend’s).
I spent weeks obtaining 36 wines from 18 vineyards. Most are samples, but a precious few are direct from my wine fridge, carefully cared for since bringing them back from South Africa 2 years, 3 months and 17 days ago. And holy shit, I didn’t even look at the calendar before spitting out that number, and I just verified it was on the dot. Eerie!
Why a birthday party around South Africa? Skeptics say I can’t fall in love with a place I only knew seven days. Maybe I wasn’t there long enough to outgrow the honeymoon and commence day-to-day life with my sweetheart, flaws slowly unfurling, first charming, and eventually grating. Was I romanced by the vineyards of Stellenbosch, the adorable village of Franschhoek and long wine producing history of Constantia like a contestant on the Bachelor–all helicopters rides, fantasy suites and chiseled abs? Actually, that wasn’t my experience at all.
Most of the world is aware of South Africa’s history and problems, her citizens quite painfully. But with dramatic lows come equally dramatic highs, particularly with regard to her physical beauty; the scenery is flat-out stunning, probably made more so because I wasn’t expecting it. How often do close friends, even acquaintances, rave about her wines or the beauty of South African wine country? Most haven’t been, probably from fear of the 17-hour flight or misperceived cost of travel so far from home. Those who do visit, often consider South Africa synonymous with Kruger National Park or Table Mountain and Cape Town; and for the adventurous, maybe a cage-dip in Shark Alley to see the Great Whites.
But the flight is manageable (particularly with Valium, Ambien and free cocktails). South African Airways flies direct to Jo’burg from JFK, a United partner and accepting of FF miles. And without miles, airfare this summer (winter there) is on sale for $1000. That is cheaper than flying to Europe. Once arriving in Jo’Burg, you have an easy connection to Cape Town. Rent a car and off you go another 1.5 hours up to Stellenbosch. Yes, I know it sounds painful, but your reward is great. That first view of vineyards tucked into the mountains, laid-out one after another between the Wineland towns is heart-stopping.
The wineries are as sophisticated as Napa without pretension, and the lodging extraordinary in quality and variety offering relative reasonableness of price. We spent several lovely nights in the Hawksmoor House, a beautiful B&B set in an old Cape Dutch country home filled thoughtfully with antiques and modern touches—a retreat to which you could imagine retiring one day. Each morning’s homemade breakfast was served on the patio with views over the rectangular garden pool that stretched to the mist-shrouded mountains beyond. Evenings at Hawksmoor offered complimentary dessert wines from the honor bar; we would slip into the house after dinner each night, choose our wine, and relax in whichever stately parlor room we fancied to pretend was ours for a few hours.
The restaurants are numerous, varied in cuisine and price; if your wine country vacation isn’t complete without fine multi-course dining, however, there are tasting menus to rival Yountville at half the price. We adored our anniversary dinner at Rust En Vrede, a 350-year old Country Dutch property that offers exceptional estate wines paired with their exemplary cuisine. Try a cocktail (or wine) on the balcony of the beautiful Delaire Graff Estate, watching the sun dip down, forever gone for that day, then pop over to Tokara restaurant across the road for dinner in a chic setting that belies the prices on the menu.
The wineries, however, impressed the most. I was struck over and over by the level of sophistication, attention to detail, aesthetics and use of technology. Part of what makes wine travel so fun is to see how each vintner and winery owner applies their personal-touch to the final wine and design of the buildings. Much of the architecture shows-off the charming Cape Dutch-look, but several were über-modern; all capitalized on the dramatic views, gardens and countryside greenery available to them. Overall, the wines were of reasonable price for very good quality (although only occasionally transcendental). South Africa is often associated with Chenin Blanc and Pinotage, but their Rhone and Bordeaux blends stand-out, and varietal bottlings of Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay deserve attention.
As is the case with most non-traditional European wine-producing regions, finding the same diversity of wines you sampled while visiting, back home in the States, is impossible. So the point of my tasting tonight is to explore the depths of what is available from South Africa in our market so as to inform friends and readers of this extraordinary place. Greater demand for South African wines will bring more variety of selection. I plan to compile the tasting notes from this evening in my Unscrewed column in the Village Voice sometime in May or early June. Hopefully my words will encourage readers to spend more time considering South Africa on their store shelves and in their imaginations.
And for our Braai tonight? Yes, I know that we aren’t using real wood and a massive fire, so we are technically not doing it right. We are making do with what’s available in an urban environment, however, and working off cookbooks, the internet, an iPhone text and facebook messages, to put together a semi-authentic collection of dishes to pair with the wines. Below is our menu, and further down, our vinous line-up!
|Peri Peri Shrimp and Chicken Drumsticks|
|Lamb Sosatie (kebabs)|
|Homemade Boerewors Sausage|
|Gestoofde Boontjies (fancy name for beans)|
|Hot Rice Salad|
|Chakalaka and Pap|
|7||Bradgate||Sauv Blanc/Chenin Blanc||2011|
|10||Bruwer Raats||Chenin Blanc||2011|
|11||Bruwer Raats||Bordeaux Blend||2010|
|12||Cape Grace||Chenin Blanc||2011|
|16||De Morgenzon||Chenin Blanc||2011|
|17||De Morgenzon||Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon||2012|
|18||De Toren||Fusion V||2008|
|19||Elgin Vintners||Pinot Noir||2010|
|22||Excelsior||Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot||2011|
|23||Glenelly||Red Blend: Syrah, Cab, PV, M||2008|
|25||Hamilton Russell||Pinot Noir||2010|
|30||Kanonkop||Pinotage Blend: Kadette||2009|
|31||Ken Forrester||Chenin Blanc||2011|
|32||Ken Forrester||Chenin Blanc||2012|
|33||Music by D’Aria||Shiraz, Cab, Merlot||2009|
|35||Thelema||The Mint Cabernet Sauvignon||2008|