Monthly Archives: December 2013

Holiday Sparkling Wine under $20–Stock Up for New Year’s Eve

SparklingWineHoliday.jpg

As festive as shopping and wrapping gifts can be (if battling crowds in search of the perfect gift to present neatly in a beautiful, Martha Stewart-approved package complete with red ribbon can be considered fun), the joy of the season quickly evaporates when the credit card bill comes in January — and the post-holiday hangover and crummy weather make the first month of the new year depressing enough. To keep your celebratory, seasonal buzz going sans bank-account depletion, you need bubbles that are delicious and well-made, that provide layers of flavor, and that are a good value. I plumbed the under-$20 sparklers at Astor Wine and Spirits (399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500) (because most in the $10-$15 category just don’t pass muster) to find out how easy it would be to compile a recommended list.

My goal was to find five bottles worthy of your dollars, but assuming a stinker or three might end up in the group, I left with eight. Amazingly, all picks impressed. Good work Astor, and happy (tasty and affordable) holidays, readers.

Val de Mer NV, Crémant de Bourgogne, Chablis, Burgundy, France, $19.96
Chablis is known for crisp, mineral-driven Chardonnay, but the region also produces bubbles. This Crémant (“Crémant” signifies a French sparkling wine made in the traditional method), has full-bodied flavors of quince, apple, and chalk with vigorous bubbles.

Gruet Blanc De Noirs NV, New Mexico, USA, $15.99
Great value sparkler full of creamy, rich red fruits; this New Mexican house has been around since the 1980s.

Avinyo Cava Brut Reserve, NV, Penedès, Spain, $17.99
Cava has become a mainstream, reasonably priced alternative to Champagne; made in the traditional method with no dosage, this apple and lemon-scented bottle will appeal to those who like their tipple crisp and bone dry.

Szigeti Sekt Grüner Veltliner NV, Neusidlersee, Austria, $18.99
An unusual selection — although not for Austrians — this attractive, Grüner-based wine made in the traditional method is dry and creamy with lemon and stone fruit base notes and white pepper and celery seed laced throughout.

Luis Pato Bruto Baga Rosé, Vinho Espumante 2010, Bairrada, Portugal, $12.99
Ever heard of the Baga grape? You’re not alone if not. This Portuguese variety has been lovingly cultivated by distinguished winemaker Luis Pato — he’s pretty much dedicated his life to it. The resulting sparkling wine has the grape’s characteristic earthiness mingled with red fruits — plus a streak of blood orange — at a superb price.

Ch. Greffe, Vouvray Brut NV, Touraine, Loire, France, $21.96 on sale for $18.96
This delicate sparkler from Chenin Blanc grapes has pretty flavors of Bartlett pear and white peach, and it delivers a bright, citrus finish with each effervescent sip.

Col Vetoraz Prosecco Brut 2012, Valdobbiadene, Veneto, Italy, $15.99
I find much of the ubiquitous Prosecco too sweet and lacking in complexity; this bottle, recommended highly by a staff member, revealed toasty notes with its pear and stone fruit, all in a deliciously dry package.

Contadi Castaldi Rose NV, Franciacorta, Lombardy, Italy, $21.99
Okay, I cheated adding this wine since it technically lies $2 above my price limit. The premium sparkling wine region of Franciacorta is considered the Italian equivalent of Champagne, often with comparable prices, so finding a bottle for $22 piqued my curiosity. Fortunately, the wine’s delicate mousse carried lovely flavors of strawberry and rhubarb pie, making this a wine I would definitely toast the holidays with again.

 

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Ten Gifts for Wine Lovers (Yourself Included)

Wine tasting in a warehouse - Only in Brooklyn, USA

Celebrate with bubbles from BOE in Brooklyn

We all know that while you’re out hunting for the perfect present, you often end up inspired by your market research and buy duplicates — one for your lucky gift recipient, and one for yourself. Here’s my list of what to give and give yourself this year, if you and your recipient both love wine.

Built Wine Bottle Tote, $16.99

NY-based company Built has been improving wine transportation and insulation, one scuba-suit neoprene sleeve at a time. For a festive look, slip a gift bottle into one of four season-inspired totes such as Wintergreen Forest, or skip hanging stockings on the mantle and fasten a sleeve stuffed with wine gadgets (or, duh, wine). A stocking that’s useful once unstuffed!

Astor Wine and Spirits or Center Gift Card, Astor Wine and Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street
Let the wino who has it all decide how to spend your money. An Astor Wine and Spirits gift card can be used to pluck a bottle from the store’s mega-selection of wines. Alternatively, purchase an Astor Center gift card (different from the store) to apply toward an excellent class or seminar. Upcoming topics include “Old World vs. New World” and “Nebbiolo beyond Barolo,” featuring vaunted importer Neal Rosenthal at the tasting helm. Astor Center gift cards are shipped directly to the buyer — not the recipient — in three to five days, so don’t wait until the last minute unless you plan to hit the store in-person.

The Wine Check, $75
This one’s for the wine travel junkie. Planning to hit a new wine region and hoard bottles you can’t find at home? Tired of paying exorbitant shipping fees? (What’s the going rate for a case of wine from Australia back to NYC, anyway?) Or dreading wrapping your treasures in dirty laundry, sleeved with tube socks, rolled in a Shiraz-stained sweatshirt, and sealed in a cheap convenience store plastic bag, only to pray throughout the flight that your cargo doesn’t break and drench your suitcase in red alcohol? If you or a loved one fit this description, you need this suitcase-cum-wine shipper. The Wine Check holds 12 bottles, is lightweight (less than five pounds, and has attached wheels and a strap, which make it easy to roll behind you. The Wine Check is also collapsible and reusable (when the wine shipper box/insert is removed), so you can store it and use it whenever you want to take wine with you. Just make sure to sign up for an airline credit card with a free luggage allowance to maximize savings, and you’ll never pay to bring wine home again.

Wine Diapers, $14.99 for two
For a cheaper, less committed solution to wine transportation than the Wine Check, stuff a wine lover’s stocking with a couple of Wine Diapers. Lightweight, flat, padded, and reusable, they are easy to pack and toss in a suitcase for that “just in case” moment that will inevitably come. The diapers seal, so if the bottle does break (it needn’t be wine — olive oil, whisky — whatever fits), the liquid stays in the bag, not your recipient’s shoes.

Brooklyn Oenology Wine, $19.99
How cool is a present of wine from an urban winery in Brooklyn? Alie Shaper, winemaker for Brooklyn Oenology, crafts a range of vinos in Williamsburg, including a zippy, brut-style sparkler called Shindig Fizz. At $19.99, gift a few bottles and keep the festive bubbles flowing from Christmas Eve until Santa’s arrival at dawn. (Assuming he doesn’t drink too much and forget to show up.)

Coravin Wine Preservation System, $300
Tell the lucky gift recipient to toss out all their gimmicky, subpar wine-saver systems, because they’ll only ever need the Coravin. The tool is equal parts dispenser and preserver: It allows users to pour wine from a bottle of still wine (no bubbles) stopped with natural cork without actually pulling the cork and exposing the remaining wine to oxygen. Days, weeks, months, and even — supposedly — years later, that same bottle will taste just as fresh and lively as the first time they sample it. A total game-changer for a wine collector.

The World Atlas of Wine, Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, $35

This seventh edition may be marketed as a wine reference book, but it reads like a menu of desires for vinous travel obsessives. The stunning photography brings palpable beauty, while detailed maps let geeks plot and drool over future tasting itineraries. The tome is packed with regional information and data; this is an essential book for any student or lover of the grape.

Wine and Beverage Pairing at The Musket Room, 265 Elizabeth Street, $125/person
I predict the New Zealand wine and food scene will continue to earn international attention, and not just for its Sauvignon Blanc and lamb. For a chance to drink exciting, non-SB wines (Millton Chenin Blanc, Man O’War Syrah) and dine on superlative food in a pretense-free space, celebrate the holidays with the gift of a six-course tasting menu ($75) and beverage pairing ($50) at Michelin-starred Musket Room. Chef Matt Lambert just returned from a trip to New Zealand, so expect fresh ideas on your plate(s) as he works towards a second star.

The New California Wine, Jon Bonné, $21
Wine is produced in all 50 states, but California has been and continues to be the most important domestic region. California wine authority and San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné applies astute, epigrammatic, and engaging writing to the voluminous topic of California’s wine industry, acknowledging its past and present success stories and failings while identifying the revolutionary paradigm shift underway that will become its future. A bonus purchasing reference lists all the must-know producers and their best wines. This book is great for any wine enthusiast, especially those whose hand recurrently reaches for the fruits of the Golden State.

Zalto Denk’Art Glassware, $59-$354
Tired of drinking from stubby, fat-lipped glasses at your parents’ house during the holidays? Treat them to a new set of stems. If they’ve been really good this year (or your end-of-year bonus was), splurge on the ultimate in glassware by Zalto. A set of six universal glasses runs steep at $354 (or one for $59). Expensive? Very. But for your lips (oops — I meant theirs), only the best will do, and these feather-light, thin-as-razor Austrian crystal vessels will transform the drinking experience from ordinary to transcendent. Each handblown glass appears gossamer-delicate but is durable enough to withstand the dishwasher (although I wouldn’t risk it). It’s like flying first class — you’ll never want to go back to coach.

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Winemaker Ken Forrester from Stellenbosch, South Africa

KEN

Yesterday marked the culmination of a weeklong celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life as he was buried in his childhood village of Qunu, South Africa. Continuing my conversations with South African winemakers, Ken Forrester of his eponymous label Ken Forrester Wines, takes a few minutes to share his thoughts on Mandela, the state of S.A.’s wine industry, and why Chenin Blanc is the most misunderstood (but not for long) grape.

A brief background on Ken Forrester Wines:

Situated on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountain, in the heart of South Africa’s most famous wine region Stellenbosch, our vineyards are commonly referred to as the Home of Chenin Blanc and other premium award-winning wines. Over the years our range of top quality wines has received massive national and international acclaim with literally hundreds of awards and accolades over the last 20 years and are broadly available in reputable restaurants and exported around the globe. Ken Forrester’s philosophy has always been to create a range of handcrafted, individually made wines that suitably complement a wide variety of food styles and provide excellent value.

Signature Wines:

  • Ken Forrester Petit Chenin Blanc ($11.99 SRP)
  • Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc ($14.99 SRP)
  • Ken Forrester The FMC ($64.99 SRP)
  • Ken Forrester T Noble Late Harvest ($54.99 SRP)

Where were you born and where do you live now?

I was born in Chingola, Zambia, miles from any vineyards or wineries! I am now living in the shadow of the Helderberg Mountain in the region of Stellenbosch right on the Atlantic ocean – the most beautiful place in the world.

 How did you get into the wine business?

Sheer luck–not sure if it was good luck! Passion, passion, passion, careful what you wish for!

The world witnessed the passing and subsequent burial of Nelson Mandela last week. What was the mood of the country and how do you think he influenced South Africa’s wine industry?

With the recent passing of Nelson Mandela and the very extensive world interest and wonderful coverage, it is an amazing time to almost re-live the Magic of Madiba. There have been so many poignant reminders of his canny way, his amazing statesmanship, his ability to grasp a moment and define it for all time. Again, we as South Africans and pretty much all of the world, are reminded about our transition from Apartheid, minority government to the democratic government of today, and the many pitfalls and crevasses on the way, it is truly a modern miracle that we made it happen. And it in no small part rests with the incredible leadership of Mandela, a man often content to allow the younger more nimble members of the flock to lead the way while he, like the good shepherd brought all the flock with him; he was always a shining example of humility and thoughtfulness. Here passes a great man…

Do you think South African wines have any particular reputation in the States that you think is inaccurate?

Yes, too often we are seen as cheap and cheerful “critter” wines – 2 cats, 3 dogs, spotted frog, etc. This is because we are seemingly naïve enough to provide buyers with their request “for the cheapest possible juice”  but this is not what SA is all about; our best wines can stand their ground with the very best in the world and this “cheap wine” perception is unfortunate and inaccurate.

Which wine or grape is the least understood or respected?

Chenin Blanc, but its time is coming; more and more quality producers are making great wines from Chenin Blanc.

What excites you most about South African wine right now?

Better quality every year and we’ve got a great new wave of young winemakers!

What do you drink when relaxing at home?

Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc or Renegade (a GSM blend).

What types of food do you enjoy eating?

Fresh, wholesome pasta; grilled/barbeque meat; risotto;  and fresh, garden grown salads.

What music do you listen to?

Blues, Jazz, Rock & Roll

Winery dogs?

Yep! Max, Bella and puppies Phantom & Whiskey.  

Puppies

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Carl van der Merwe, Winemaker for De Morgenzon Wines, Stellenbosch, South Africa

De Morgenzon Carl2

Today marks the culmination of a weeklong celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life as he was buried in his childhood village of Qunu, South Africa. Continuing my conversations with South African winemakers, Carl van der Merwe of DeMorgenzon takes a few minutes to share his thoughts on Mandela, the state of S.A.’s wine industry, and why a tainted wine from a faulty cork is the worst part about being a winemaker.

A brief background on DeMorgezon Wines

“Our slopes rise from about 200m to nearly 400m above sea level and our vistas embrace Cape Town, Table Mountain…with the ocean as a backdrop. While we could call ourselves ‘mountain vineyards’ we prefer to be known as ‘garden vineyards’. In Spring specially, chosen wildflowers flourish between our vines. We have no doubt that a biodiverse and ecologically sensitive environment produces infinitely better grapes and the beauty of our gardens is captured in every bottle of our wine.  We pipe Baroque music through our vineyards 24 x 7 and believe that the power of music positively influences the ripening process. At DeMorgenzon, we are totally committed to excellence and focus on crafting wines which express our unique terroir and fruit within a classic structure – we believe that the finest South African wines combine New World-style fruit with Old World-style elegance.”

Signature Wines:

  • DMZ Rosé ($11.99 SRP),
  • DMZ Sauvignon Blanc ($17.99)
  • DMZ Chardonnay ($17.99), DMZ Syrah ($17.99)
  • De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc ($34.99)

Where were you born and where do you live now?

I was born in Cape Town and have stayed near the mountains and the sea ever since. I am currently living in the greatest wine producing region in Africa, namely Stellenbosch!

How did you get into the wine business?

Before deciding on a career, I did an in-depth analysis of what I wanted and needed in a job to best express my values and interests. I narrowed it down to natural sciences in an agricultural field and being a lover of the outdoors, figured that working in the winelands, which tend to occupy some of the most beautiful spots on earth, was the best option. I planned my course of study and have spent a lot of time travelling around the world to various wine regions in search of inspiration and perspective.

The world witnessed Nelson Mandela’s passing and burial this week. Do you feel he made a contribution, either directly or indirectly, to the wine industry?

Nelson Mandela’s release from jail and subsequent formation of a transitional government, aided the dropping of sanctions that strangled not only South Africa’s ability to trade internationally, but also South African wine producer’s desire and ability to be exposed to an international wine market. Since 1993, a greater percentage of winemakers have traveled abroad and returned with a keen sense of South Africa’s unique selling points, and the importance to produce wines that compete on an international level. Winemakers, although proudly South African, benchmark their wines and abilities against the best in the world and have brought a new sense of focus to the industry. Winery owners desire to make “world class” wines has assisted in raising the quality bar with the necessary investment in facilities and vineyards.

What is the mood around the country right now?

South Africans are a resilient, hopeful and strong people. We have weathered the storms of migratory, political, social and environmental change. At times we have been on a tipping point but hope, forgiveness and a genuine desire to “make it work” is evident amongst the vast majority of us. We are all saddened at the loss of Mandela, but his legacy surpasses his physical presence.

What is most and least rewarding about being a winemaker?

Most rewarding are probably the people who all share a common interest in good food and good company–not to mention good wine! Least rewarding and bottom of the list are great bottles of wine tainted by faulty corks.

What are the challenges of making wine in your region?

The Cape can get very hot and windy in summer and this can result in stressed vineyards and rushed picking dates. To achieve a balance of freshness and ripeness one needs to be very in tune with your vineyards and able to make rapid picking decisions.

What excites you most about South African wine right now?

Freedom. We are not bound by rigorous industry control and there is so much opportunity to innovate and be recognized.

What do you drink when relaxing at home?

A glass of cold South African Chenin Blanc is always a treat, otherwise, I have a small cellar of international wine and I really enjoy drinking great wines from around the world.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be?

In Piedmont, Italy during truffle season!

Which wine or grape is the least understood or respected?

Nebbiolo from Barolo or Barbaresco.

What types of food do you enjoy?

I love cooking with fresh ingredients, especially fresh sea food. Fresh mussels cooked in white wine cream and herbs with fresh crusty bread is one of my favorites. Fresh Cape Crayfish, lightly boiled and finished on the barbecue is also a great treat.

What music do you listen to?

I often have to listen to my children’s CD’s for as long as I can handle; otherwise, my personal choice is varied and suited to my mood. Anything from classical to jazz and hard rock.

Winery dog?

Yes–Dottie and Jane, Jack Russell terriers.

DMZ Stell mountain w house DSC_1312

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Abrie Beeslaar, Winemaker for Kanonkop, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Winemaker

Continuing my conversations with South African winemakers this week, Abrie Beeslaar of Kanonkop takes a few minutes to share his thoughts on Mandela, the state of S.A.’s wine industry, and why a judgment of Paris with South African wines is long overdue.

A brief background on Kanonkop:

Founded in 1910,  the fourth generation family farm, presently run by brothers Johann and Paul Krige, has been owned and operated by the Sauer-Krige family since the early 1930s. The name Kanonkop is derived from a “kopje” (small hill) on the property, from which a cannon was fired in the 17th century to announce the arrival of the Dutch East India Company’s trading ships at Table Bay.  Situated on the lower slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain in Stellenbosch, Kanonkop encompasses just over 247 acres of vineyards at altitudes of 195–395 feet above sea level.  Kanonkop boasts some of the Cape’s first commercially planted Pinotage vines, with an average age of over 50 years. These are maintained as traditional bush vines, while the Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc are trellised. The estate’s legendary Pinotage serves as a benchmark for this unique and exotic South African grape.

Where were you born and where do you live now?

I was born in Worcester and now reside on the Kanonkop farm which is located on the lower slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain in Stellenbosch.

How did you get into the wine business?

I wanted to study Medicine, but did not qualify to get in. They recommended that I study agriculture for a year, and then reapply. I never reapplied.

We all witnessed around the world, the passing of Nelson Mandela this week. Do you feel he made a contribution, either directly or indirectly, to the wine industry? What is the mood of the country right now? 

Mr. Mandela made a huge difference, both directly and indirectly. For instance, he improved land security and helped make South Africa more visible to the world. To talk about his legacy is a humbling feeling, and I think 99% of South Africans are morning the country’s loss, and are refocusing on what Mr. Mandela fought and stood for,

What are the challenges of making wine in your region?

The biggest challenge is the wind, and trying to figure out the intrinsics of each vintage.

Have South Africans’ wine preferences changed in the last 10 years?

I don’t think the South African wine consumer has changed differently than the rest of the world. The consumers are buying from the shelf to drink immediately; they are also buying wines they can understand, for instance a wine that has coffee aromatics.

Do you think South African wines have any particular reputation in the States that you think is inaccurate?

I think we still have a chance to establish ourselves as a quality driven country. Unfortunately, people are not prepared to take a risk on a wine at a higher price point. I see too many cheap wines in the market with labels I do not recognize. We must also do a Judgment of Paris with S.A. wines included!

Which wine or grape is the least understood or respected? I think Pinotage is not fully understood by most, but it is still respected.

What do you drink when relaxing at home? I like properly aged wines, especially from Burgundy and Italy.

What types of food do you like to eat? Like any South African, we are born with Braai tongs in our hands. So all kinds of meat, and my wife’s homemade sausage.

If you could be traveling right now, where would you be? Germany, in the Mosel!

Kanonkop Cannon at Sunset

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Winemaker Albie Koch of De Toren, Stellenbosch, South Africa

De Toren Albie Koch with Milo

In light of Nelson Mandela’s passing and the publication of my article on his vinous legacy, I decided to offer South African winemakers a channel through which to share their stories. I interviewed a handful of winemakers and winery owners regarding their thoughts on Mandela’s influence on the industry and the mood of the country as it mourns this week. We also dig into the challenges of their respective regions, the foods they like, and everyone’s favorite, winery dogs.

A brief background on De Toren Private Cellar:

Emil and Sonette den Dulk left the bustling metropolis of Johannesburg in 1991 to seek the beauty and serenity of the Cape winelands. They stumbled upon what Emil refers to as “a little piece of heaven” in the Polkadraai Hills, with the magnificent Stellenbosch Mountains as backdrop. It was here that they established De Toren Private Cellar. With the help of specialists from the University of Stellenbosch, Emil set out to carve a niche for his boutique estate by creating South Africa’s first five-varietal Bordeaux blend, the now legendary Fusion V. The current winemaker is Albie Koch.

Albie, where were you born and where do you live now?

I was born in Vryburg (Kalahari), South Africa, and I now live at De Toren in Stellenbosch.

How did you get into the wine business?

Out of curiosity. How does one grow grapes and make something so enjoyable!

We all witnessed around the world, the passing of Nelson Mandela this week. Do you feel he made a contribution, either directly or indirectly, to the wine industry?  What is the mood around the country right now?

Nelson Mandela lead us out of the apartheid era and into the opening of international markets. This lead to an explosion of our wines being exported to all over the world. Yes, he most definitely contributed to the wine industry. Currently the country is in deep mourning and in a somber state. The world needs more leaders like Nelson Mandela.

What are the challenges of making wine in your region?

Stellenbosch is blessed with all aspects: weather, diversity, and sunshine! Our biggest challenge each season is also the most appreciated thing in a season–wind. Wind ( southerly wind here has a nickname: The Cape Doctor)  at the wrong time (flower stage) can have detrimental effect on your crop, but then wind during the season (southern winds are cool) is the air-conditioning in our vineyards, which gives us the cool climate.

Have South Africans’ wine preferences changed in the last 10 years?

South Africans are becoming true wine consumers and are now opting to explore the higher-end of wines, not just the bottom.

Do you think South African wines have any particular reputation in the States that you think is inaccurate?

In the past, the overseas markets were flooded with low-quality wine from South Africa, thus S.A. was not recognized as a high-end producer. If you look at the ratings and weigh them against some French and California bottles, however, one will see that we are a wine producing country that can punch in the same weight class as these highly-rated wines. We should be taken seriously!

Which wine or grape is the least understood or respected?

I do not know about understood or respected , but underestimated is definitely Malbec. The Malbec we can grow in South Africa is awesome! Just ask the few that have tasted our Malbec.

What do you drink when relaxing at home? 

I tend to drink more of our fellow winemakers wines from South Africa, and on the odd occasion, will have French or US wines. My every day drinking wine: Chenin Blanc from South Africa. We have some wonderful examples of stunning stuff.

What types of food do you enjoy?

Because our weather is so great we tend to prepare our food outside on a braai (barbeque), whether it is steak or fish. Anyone that has had a braai with a glass of wine, overlooking False Bay on a clear summer evening, will tell you there are probably very few things that can beat that feeling.

If you could be traveling right now, where would you be?

Kalahari/Botswana. The tranquility of the bush can be found nowhere else. Believe me, nowhere else.

DeToren CellarExterior02

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Interview with Peter de Wet of Excelsior Wine Estate, Robertson, South Africa

Peter de Wet

In light of Nelson Mandela’s passing and the publication of my article on his vinous legacy, I decided to offer South African winemakers a channel through which to share their stories. I interviewed a handful of winemakers and winery owners regarding their thoughts on Mandela’s influence on the industry and the mood of the country as it mourns this week. We also dig into the challenges of their respective regions, the food and music they prefer, and everyone’s favorite, winery dogs.

Peter de Wet, Winemaker for Excelsior Wine Estate in Robertson, South Africa

Signature Wines:

Excelsior Chardonnay, Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon, Excelsior Syrah and Excelsior Sauvignon Blanc. All listed at $9.99.

Where were you born and where do you live now?
I was born in the pretty town of Montagu, about 10 miles from my current home on Excelsior.  

How did you get into the wine business?
I was born into it. We have been farming and making wine on Excelsior for 150 years –I am the 5th generation. Some of my earliest memories were of sitting in front of my father on the motorbike staring at vines.

The whole world witnessed the passing of Nelson Mandela this week. Do you feel he made a contribution, either directly or indirectly, to the wine industry?                            

Mandela made a massive contribution. SA was at a precipice in 1992, and civil strife was a very real possibility. We only have to look at the many examples in Africa to see that this creates long, lasting problems. Mandela saw the big picture and lead form the front. He got all races to pull together and in the right direction. Our business has grown exponentially in the following 20 years and SA is a better place. There is still a lot more to do, but at least we know that we can do it. All South Africans should be grateful to this great man.

What is the mood around the country right now?

Strange and not how I expected. There is sadness, but more a reflection of what he stood for and what we can learn from that. There is also a celebratory vibe, we celebrate his life. Take a look at our blog for an interesting story that my cousin Anton told about an interaction he had with Mandela.

What is most and least rewarding about being a winemaker?

I find it very rewarding following a vineyard’s path from planting to the production of quality grapes, and finally seeing customers enjoy it! Wine is possibly the most fascinating agricultural product. The most depressing part of my work is unfortunately the weather–having rain during harvest can destroy a whole season’s hard work.

What are the challenges of making wine in your region?

Robertson is well-adapted for wine growing. There aren’t too many challenges; we are blessed with a dry climate, which means we rarely need to  spray, and wonderful limestone soils. We are not well known as a wine region which is a challenge, but Roberson is growing its reputation as an area for producing quality wine.

What excites you most about South African wine right now?

South African wine manages more complexity in its wines than most New World regions. We are still new in the sense that the modern phase of the wine industry only really started in the early 1990’s. There is huge potential for growth.

What do you drink when relaxing at home?

Wine! I love crisper, mineral-y styles of Chardonnay, whilst in winter, Cabernets really hit the spot. I also have a soft spot for Rhone-style reds.

What kinds of food do you enjoy eating?

There is nothing better than a South African braai (barbeque). Lighting a fire with real wood (never charcoal) waiting for the coals to be the right temperature, whilst enjoying a glass of wine, and then cooking whatever is available. Recently, I have been braaing quite a bit of game fillets. The trick is to have a hot base of coals, and then just sear the meat for about 3 minutes per side. The meat is incredibly tender and flavoursome. We often post recipes on our blog The Horse’s Mouth.

What music do you listen to?

Anything that gets my two year old son Matthew dancing. Super cute!

Is there a winery dog?

Of course! My dog is a German Shepherd called Nyanga.

Excelsior Vineyard12

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Nelson Mandela and His Vinous Legacy in South Africa

SouthAfricanvineyards.jpg

Interviews with South African winemakers will follow this piece over the next few days, including comments on the recent passing of Nelson Mandela and his role in expanding and improving the wine industry.

Throughout the week, South Africans will gather to grieve en masse the loss of Nelson Mandela. A courageous statesman, Mandela began his political life as a young Soweto lawyer steering the resistance against apartheid, only to be imprisoned for twenty-seven years for his labors, later emerging to become president. Undoubtedly, his post-release navigation of the country away from the shores of a civil war into a peaceful, thriving, multiracial democracy will be regarded as his greatest achievement, and one for which he won the Nobel Prize.

However, Mandela’s leadership had other positive ripple effects — for example, it helped expose the local wine industry to the outside world, forcing improvements in viticulture and winemaking practices. Thus, this week we pay tribute to his extraordinary legacy through a missive exploring South Africa’s wine country.

The Cape wine industry is considered New World despite the arrival of vines via the Dutch in 1655. The industry’s three and a half centuries of production were as fractured as the country’s politics, and in several key instances, mirrored the nation’s political movements. Setbacks included the devastating wrath of phylloxera, a rash of overproduction, restrictive quotas, and a significant knock-back in the form of international trade sanctions in the ’80s as protest against apartheid. However, many credit Mandela as having influenced, both directly and indirectly, the Cape Winelands’ transformation into a modern New World industry. Authors and South African wine authorities Elmari Swart and Izak Smit expound upon Mandela’s impact:

This rather unsophisticated local market, when compared to international markets, did nothing but limit the winemaker’s scope for creativity. It was only after Nelson Mandela’s release from political imprisonment and the subsequent elections in 1994, that serious international focus fell on the South African wine industry. Mandela’s support for South African wines formed a necessary political stepping stone for the true emergence of Cape wine. Mandela toasted his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Cape wine. —The Essential Guide to South African Wines

I journeyed to South Africa two years ago and fell in love at first sight — it was easy to see for what Mandela was struggling to keep free but intact. The unrivaled drama and grand cinematic beauty of the Cape Winelands — rumpled terrain, mist-shrouded peaks, and endless green velds — coupled with the gravity of her complicated history, a country that’s collectively endured the peaks and troughs of joy and sorrow electrified my senses and left an indelible stamp on my spiritual passport.

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In addition to the scenery, the wineries themselves impressed. The charming architecture often reflected the classic Cape Dutch look, but several were über-modern, full of glass and steel; all capitalized on the dramatic views, gardens, and countryside greenery available to them. Perhaps my deep captivation hinged on the fact that the gap between my expectations and the actual degree of sophistication was so wide. After all, the country’s modern wine industry was still nascent, begun not long after dismantling the apparatus of apartheid.

Overall, the wines were of reasonable price for good to very good quality (although only occasionally sublime). South Africa is associated with Chenin Blanc — also called Steen, but the name’s use is dwindling — and Pinotage, but the Rhone and Bordeaux blends stood out, and varietal bottlings of Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay deserve consideration.

Unfortunately, frequenting South African wine country is made difficult by a very long flight — 17-hours direct from JFK to Jo’burg, then another two-hour flight to Cape Town — so most of us may ever only taste her vinous fruits on our shores. To that end, a few months ago, I gathered nearly 40 bottles from our local market to suss out the best of what’s available here at home. Many bottles were samples, some I purchased and a few I pulled from my personal collection (those are still available in our region).

I gathered a panel of 20 friends and colleagues. We made boerewors sausage, peri peri shrimp, bobotie, lamb sosatie, and chakalaka, attempting to marry the spirit of South African foods with the wine.

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We tasted poorly made wines, a number of classic styles (e.g., oak-aged Chardonnay), and several killer bottles. However, a large percentage of the wine we sampled sat firmly on the right side of safe, offering broad mainstream appeal to international tastes while lacking maverick spirit. As the industry is still young, it is likely on track to have a second wave of winemakers with a renegade approach that’ll bring more cutting-edge wines to market. Perhaps the movement is underway now — it’s hard to know without being on the ground, and the interesting, small production stuff isn’t often exported (a major selling point for traveling!).

My resulting list of 10 picks, with input from all tasters, is Chenin Blanc- and Stellenbosch-heavy, in part because those wines showed the best, but also because we had more of them in the sample pool. These 10 wines are by no means meant to suggest the top in our market (we didn’t taste everything), and they shouldn’t discount the fact that wonderful wines are made in other regions like Constantia, Swartland, Franschhoek, Elgin, etc. But they are good and provide a range of price points to suit your wallet.

It’s also worth noting that the Mandela family has entered the wine business, producing a line under the name House of Mandela. Makaziwe (Maki) Mandela and Tukwini Mandela, respectively daughter and granddaughter of Nelson Mandela, came to New York in October to show their Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Sauvignon Blanc. I haven’t tasted the wine, so I cannot comment, but it appears Mandela’s wine legacy will continue, at least for a few more generations.

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Kanonkop Pinotage 2010, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, $35 
The finest Pinotage I’ve ever tasted. Smoke, red and black berries, an edge of minerality, and a full-body with decadent, silky mouthfeel. Will convert Pinotage detractors.

Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2011, Stellenbosch, $15
Made by a Chenin specialist, this bright, citrus-scented, tropical fruit-filled wine, with obvious but carefully integrated oak, shows a hint of nut and spice on the finish.

Raats Original Chenin Blanc 2011, Coastal Region, $14 
A great value for under $15 — I’ve found it for close to $10! The wine is refreshing and lively with pineapple, crisp apple, and floral notes. Thanks for keeping this one out of oak.

Cape Grace Chenin Blanc 2011, Western Cape, NA,
Loaded with tasty white fruits like apples, peaches, and pears plus a kick of honey and guava, too. Bright, cheerful wine.

Bartinney Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Stellenbosch, $29 
The winery sits nestled high on the slopes of Helshoogte Pass, the altitude providing concentrated flavor and fresh acidity to this dark berry-, plum-, cocoa-, and fig-saturated wine.

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Thelema The Mint Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Stellenbosch, $39 
The panel favorite, I found this bottle hidden in a cabinet — another taster tried to save a final glass for herself. Notes of mint lace the classic Cabernet flavors in this balanced wine, but just enough to provide interest without overwhelming.

Rudi Shultz Syrah 2010, Stellenbosch, $30
A rather big, meaty wine with smoked-bacon, mocha, anise, blackberry, and pepper, made by a next generation winemaker who is also winemaking for Thelema.

Excelsior Chardonnay 2012, Robertson, $9 
Super value, enjoyable white plumped up with 3 percent Viognier, showing peach, apricot, and pineapple — a perfect aperitif wine.

De Toren Fusion V 2008, Stellenbosch, $50
I drank this post-panel, but it probably would’ve been a contender for the top prize — after all, it is the winery’s premium bottling. A concentrated, elegant, well-made wine, like drinking crushed velvet, showing hints of leather and tobacco interspersed with dark chocolate and blackberry. A wine for angels, the producer writes. I agree.

De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc 2011, Stellenbosch, $35
A “high-achiever” if you follow scores, this solid wine spent almost a year snuggled in new and older oak, but the mouthwatering acid and citrus, acacia honey, and stone fruit notes remain intact. SRP is $35, but I have seen for $25.

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Where to Eat in NYC:
Madiba, 195 Dekalb Ave, Fort Greene, 718-855-9190. On Sunday, December 15, at 6 p.m., the restaurant will be screening the funeral from Qunu, South Africa, with a prayer and live performance by the South African Allstars.

Where to Buy in NYC: 
Chelsea Wine Vault, 75 Ninth Avenue, 212-462-4244
Union Square Wines, 140 Fourth Avenue, 212-675-8100
Astor Wine and Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500

 

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