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Wine is Too Cheap, and Other Lessons from a South African Harvest (Part 2)

This story is continued from “Wine is too cheap: Working Harvest in South Africa (Part 1)

Drew'sHandsRiesling

Cradling Riesling. Paul Cluver makes far too little of this wonderful wine.

As a tasting exercise during meals, Burger pulled two bottles of wine for me and the assistant winemaker Drew to sample blind and guess the grapes and origin. We could ask four strategic questions to narrow down the answer. Swirling and sniffing, we discussed the attributes in each glass. “This wine has the aromatics of a Sauvignon Blanc,” I’d comment, and we’d ponder whether it included Sémillon as a blend. The cellar hands, peculiarly, had little interest in tasting wine with us, despite spending all day in the pursuit its production. Only one team member extended his glass for a sample, although he contemplated the wine quietly at the other end of the table. The rest preferred to drink hard cider (a new Cluver product using their orchard apples.)

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The inside of the Cluver cellar.

In my mind, I could ascribe reasons for the local black employees’ lack of interest: they perceived wine as a white person drink or possibly it seemed complicated or expensive or maybe they felt intimidated to talk about it around their white, educated employers. Maybe they didn’t like the taste, or maybe working at a winery was as much a job to them as picking apples or working in a factory; a job they desperately needed in a country with 25 percent unemployment. Too desperate to worry whether the Pinot showed red or black cherry fruit. Whatever the impetus, their disinterest carried a tinge of sadness that seemed to allude to a larger socioeconomic dynamic within the country.

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Part of the cellar crew.

When I first arrived at the farm, I asked Burger if any other interns would be joining us. “A few months ago I had two German wine students emailing me about flying down” he said. “However, this season I decided to give the work to the local men who needed the position – and pay – more than a foreign intern student [interns are unpaid].” His decision demonstrated a smart and solicitous attitude towards the welfare of his community.

Speaking to some of the cellar staff over punch downs or mopping, they seemed happy for the work they had. But few believed moving up in the wine industry – beyond a cellar rat role – would ever be possible. Did they want for enterprise, or believe in the existence of an employment ceiling, knowing better than I with my American optimism, that black South Africans just don’t get assistant winemaker jobs? (It’s important to note that most winemaking positions require viticulture and oenology degrees, and have become scarce even for those holding one, due to increased competition. Of course, aspiring winemakers need money to attend school in the first place.) Clearly these are complicated questions with roots deeper than my time in South Africa afforded me to dig.

According to Burger, programs to provide training and certification to cellar staff interested in pursuing long-term employment in the industry are growing. Also, the Cape Winemakers Guild, of which Burger is chairman, instituted a protégé program to help young students with demonstrated aptitude, finish school and gain winemaking experience through a three-year paid internship at Guild member wineries. It seems there is progress afoot.

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Most gals sorted and cleaned, but she ran the forklift.

For two weeks, I aided a tight knit team of people in the process of moving grapes from vine to barrel (obviously I wasn’t there long enough to see any wine through to bottling). Ascending and descending ladders; lifting, bending, squatting, and standing all day on one’s feet. Winemaking isn’t for out-of-shape acrophobes afraid of injury and long hours. And, frankly, it is still a male-dominated industry, from the head winemaker, down to the cellar hands (at the majority of wineries I’ve visited around the world, not just in South Africa). It’s not that women can’t do the physical labor (yes we can, dammit), but it could be a limiting factor for some women when considering winemaking versus wine marketing, as a career path.

The experience also cemented my belief that consumers demand too much wine for too little money. The number of hands (and risks) involved in turning healthy grapes into a characterful, lively drink, let alone one with a soul that speaks of a singular time and place, are numerous.

Vines only bear usable grapes several years after planting. Pruning, pests, disease, weather, and now a changing climate: all these variables demand management and determine the quality of the fruit. Add training in proper picking and sorting technique, ensuring healthy ferments, keeping the power on so your temperature controlled tank stays cool. There are many critical points in the process where mistakes (not catching bacterial spoilage in the wine), accidents (falling into a tank and dying), and natural catastrophes (birds wiping out a vineyard), can lead to long-term consequences. Producers only get one vintage a year from which to earn an income.

Winemaking IS washing.

Winemaking is washing.

And what about the farm workers: the cogs in the wheel of the wine industry? Minimum wage for agricultural labor in South Africa is 130 rand a day (about $10 U.S. dollars). Many employees live on the farms of their employers; those that don’t, and can’t afford cars (most), are transported by trucks en masse from their villages to work and then home again at night. The Cluvers commendably provide education and health care for employees and their children, but these basic securities aren’t accessible to many others around the country. (Not to single out South Africa, the U.S. has a troubling reliance on cheap Mexican and Central American labor.)

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Fermentation cap on an ambient yeast Chardonnay.

The wine business is fraught with fragility, tenuously held together by people who share a common devotion to its cause, not big salaries and handsome margins. But that doesn’t justify forcing producers to price wine arbitrarily at $11.99 because consumers have decided that’s all they want to pay or because they perceive, to use South Africa as an example, the wines to be cheap because they historically were. Government and our three-tier distribution system all take big bites out of that figure, too. Writers that argue solely in favor of drinking cheap wine do an injustice to the industry at large by perpetuating the notion that wine should be inexpensive and accessible to all at all times, while failing to acknowledge that often the only way to achieve low price points is at the expense of someone else’s livelihood, or quality, or worse, both.

Shouldn’t the producer turn some profit to compensate for their risk and investment in the business? Shouldn’t winemakers afford to pay off education loans and save for their future? Shouldn’t a laborer earn a living wage to buy a $20 dollar bus ticket to see a sister in Johannesburg, the equivalent of two bottles of weeknight Merlot from the supermarket?

Before my sojourn to South Africa, I admired winemakers for their labor of love, but mostly as a notion, an ideal. After spending two weeks with one – especially one making wines of purity and finesse (now that I’ve tasted Burger’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), while balancing the well-being of his team and minding the pesky bottom line – I’ve found that ideal chiefly congruent with reality. While I’m not sure I want to follow in his footsteps permanently back up that ladder, I might work another harvest; after all, in their line of work, I’m cheap labor.

PCTeamPhotoVV

Drew, Andries, Me, and Dr. Cluver

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Wine is Too Cheap, and Other Lessons from a South African Harvest (Part 1)

Looking at its narrow frame and spindly rungs, lashed to the top of a seemingly skyscraper-high steel tank by a single, knotted rope, I was briefly prompted into panic. But winemaker Andries Burger’s comment echoed in my head: “the two French girls we had last season did everything the men did. They carried buckets up those ladders.” With my right leg trembling, I fought the instinct to remain grounded and clambered to the top, balancing the metal handle of my plastic container of nitrogen addition (to keep yeast happy and functioning), awkwardly in the crook of my elbow.  It would be a small, short-lived victory. By the end of the day, ladders posed no more challenge than climbing into a car. I had a new problem: how to punch down Pinot Noir grapes without falling into the tank (and suffocating from CO2).Winemaking is a physically demanding job. Particularly during harvest when hours are long and grapes are waiting; days can start as early as five in the morning and continue well past the last rays of light for months. As a writer on the topic, I felt understanding the finer details of the process, set within the broader framework of the wine industry as I already knew it, would make me a better, more insightful journalist, and possibly more sympathetic to the challenges and choices winemakers face.
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Riesling grapes waiting to be sorted.

To sample the experience, I elected to join Paul Cluver in Elgin, South Africa for an unpaid, two-week internship during the recent 2015 vintage. My participation was part of a larger initiative aimed at encouraging women to work in the wine industry, the brainchild of Kathy Jordan of Jordan Wine Estate in Stellenbosch.
The “women in wine” mentoring program elicited applications both from around the world and locally, in conjunction with the support of Jancis Robinson (the world’s most notable woman wine journalist), to join harvest with a member winery of PIWOSA (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa, a collection of likeminded producers pooling their marketing dollars and power.) Applicants needed to hold either a winemaking degree or the WSET Diploma. I carry the latter.My résumé was selected by a winery nestled in the cool-climate Elgin Valley. Burger, the longtime winemaker, earned a reputation for producing elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with one of the finest sought after Rieslings in the country. Not being available in the New York market, I banked on the Cluver reputation by flying to the southern hemisphere to work at a winery without having first tasted its wines.

Tall and burly with vivid blue eyes, I figured Burger for the winemaker as I exited Cape Town airport. We drove off in his bucky (South African for truck) and 45-minutes later arrived for lunch at the local Elgin farm stall/bakery/pie shop Peregrine. Eager to jump into the rhythm of the country’s meat-hearty diet, I opted for a taste of the native game and ordered springbok pie (antelope-gazelle, ubiquitous around southwestern Africa).

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Zebras and an ostrich sharing a feeding bowl in the sanctuary. Likely a tenuous friendship.

My accommodations (like many of the winery employees, as well as the entire Cluver clan) sat two kilometers deep into the family farm, a sprawling property of apple and pear orchards, and vineyards, defined partially by mountain borders. The Cluvers carved out space for a wildlife sanctuary (home to two zebras and two ostriches, comically fed from jumbo bowls) and built a challenging mountain biking course to tempt ripped athletes in colorful Lycra from around the world. A natural amphitheater set within towering ghost gum trees drew a large domestic audience for monthly summer concerts.

I was assigned a modest cottage, an old laborer’s dwelling that sat at the base of several vineyards (the same Pinot grapes I’d be fighting with later in the week). A rondavel formed the attached bedroom. It had a conical thatched roof like those that capped traditional dwellings in the bush or luxury safari properties mimicking the experience for well-heeled tourists. My temporary home fell midway on the spectrum between the two (I had hot, running water, but lacked a dedicated gin and tonic butler.)

That first night, I collapsed on the bed; I hadn’t lain down in nearly thirty hours since departing New York. Peering into the shadows of the cone-shaped ceiling, I wondered if I might find a bird (or a bat) nesting in its cavity. Outside, the wind surged and retreated, beating at the hut’s walls like the pounding of ocean surf against an intruding rock. At that point, the reality of my location finally switched from dream state to “on.” I was alone, in the dark, on a wine farm, in Africa. Mercifully, sunlight washes clean the dramas of the nocturnal mind and I awoke fresh for the start of my first day.

Mornings at the winery started just past seven. One facet of the harvest experience I would escape was grape picking. Hand harvesting of bunches occurred in the chilled air of night. Local workers were trucked out to designated rows at ten o’clock P.M. where they snipped with shears and headlamps until dawn.  It looked difficult; exhausting. But the grapes, ranging from Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, to Pinot Noir, remained cool, plump, and taut for pressing the following morning, while the workers avoided the grueling daytime heat.

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The ladies found me hilarious for a number of unfavorable reasons.

The days took on a fairly predictable, labor-intensive routine. After the dawn delivery of fruit (the pickers would head home to snooze until dusk), grapes were hand-sorted to pull out rotten, infected, shriveled, or generally defective specimens. Pictures posted near the table reminded workers what flaws to identify. The female team, composed of permanent and seasonal employees, always sorted. Never the men, who made up the core team of cellar workers. The ladies chatted and laughed about the daily soap opera viewed the night before (so they said). Speaking Afrikaans, their dialogue was inscrutable, but they seemed amused at teaching me words so they could snicker at my atrocious pronunciation.

After the sorting table, grapes went through the de-stemmer (unless left intact for whole bunch pressing, e.g., Chardonnay). White grapes then went to the Vaslin press, and red grapes went into tanks to start cold maceration. The rest of the day was spent monitoring the progress of presses, cleaning, tasting and recording the development of ongoing fermentations, cleaning, punching down red grapes (the act of puncturing the thick “cap” of grape skins and solid matter that float to the top of a tank so as to integrate it back into the juice below), cleaning, making additions with buckets on ladders (like the aforementioned nitrogen), transferring wine between tanks, cleaning, and then washing down equipment, followed by cleaning, cleaning, and cleaning. I started to believe winemaking was 50 percent cleaning. (Another winemaker I met estimates it at 75 percent).

We spent lunch as a family, or at least I felt like I carried the Cluver surname given the warmth they extended and interest they took in my city life back in New York. Burger actually is family: he married Inge Cluver, the eldest daughter of Dr. Paul Cluver (the patriarch and a former neurosurgeon), who works in the office alongside her brother Paul (the managing director), Karin (production director), Inge (financial manager), and sister Liesl (marketing director). For a family that lives a short stroll away from each other, and works an even shorter distance apart, they maintained a remarkable harmony.

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Night picking by headlamp to avoid the heat of the day, for both worker and grapes.

Repast discussions toggled between updates on the vineyards to updates on the orchards. The other hot topic: installation of a new solar panel system. South Africans have endured a year of “load shedding,” a polite term for the equivalent of rolling power blackouts scheduled (and sometimes not) around the country, instituted by the mismanaged, national power company to deal with an aging, overloaded grid. With many more years of blackouts projected, the Cluvers had the foresight (and wherewithal) to reduce their carbon footprint as much as to protect their investments.

The energy at dinner was different. The cellar staff and winemaking team gathered for evening family meal (exclusive of the women who cleaned and sorted). Offerings cooked or purchased by the daytime staff, were simple and hearty — sausages, chicken, hot dogs, and salami sandwiches. Most nights, dinner only provided a break in the work before the men returned to the floor to finish the last press and then, of course, clean.

Continued tomorrow in Part 2: The life of a cellar worker.

PCWinemakerHandsVV

Harvest ink.

 

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Postcard: Sunset Over Stellenbosch, South Africa

StellsunsetSunset over the Upper Blaauwklippen Valley, Stellenbosch, South Africa 

 

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Sleep Here: Vineyard Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa

Vineyard Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa 

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Seamlessly blending old with new, the Vineyard Hotel on the fringe of Cape Town in South Africa, delivers the charm of a 200-year-old heritage house with the comfort of modern amenities and stylish décor, all set to a stunning backdrop of Table Mountain along the Liesbeeck River.

Contemporary architecture utilizing glass and steel, has expanded the property beyond the original wood structure, delightfully wrapped during summertime in green vines punctuated by shocks of pink blooms. Built in 1799 by British colonial servant Andrew Barnard for his Scottish wife Lady Anne Lindsay, the property’s name derived from the vineyards found near the grounds at the time. Notably, it was the first English country house built in South Africa. Lady Anne set to cultivating beautiful, meandering gardens along the riverfront setting, which still afford guests today the chance to enjoy indigenous flora and fauna and abundant bird life.

Chic rooms feature cool color palates in contemporary fabrics; mine was in soothing sandstone and sky blue. The mountain view reminded why I came to South Africa in the first place: It boasts one of the most spectacular landscapes on earth. The warm service at the hotel left me wishing I’d had more time to relax on the beautiful grounds or utilize amenities like the expansive fitness center, exceptionally equipped for a hotel gym.

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Highlight of Stay

The Javanese massage at the spa. Poolside with views of Table Mountain.

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Location

Tucked into the leafy, upscale suburb of Newlands, the Vineyard Hotel is within easy walking distance of the up-market Cavendish Shopping Centre and is just 10 minutes away from the City Center and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

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Amenities

  • 207 Rooms
  • Conference center
  • Free Wifi
  • Indoor and outdoor pools
  • Two restaurants, a lounge, plus patio and poolside dining
  • Angsana Spa by the Banyan Tree Group
  • Hair salon
  • Fully equipped fitness center
  • Garden walkways and jogging paths along the Liesbeeck River
  • Two tortoises, Herbert and Gloria

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Should Wine Writers Join a Harvest?

 

Drew'sHandsRiesling

Cradling Riesling Grapes

The fundamental physicality and mechanics of winemaking have eluded me until now. Raised in the uniformity of America’s Midwestern suburbs, and seeking their antithesis for the last fifteen years living and working in New York City, neither locale has afforded any opportunity for immersion in vineyard life.

As a wine journalist, I’ve often wondered if it’s fair to producers of this highly romanticized elixir, to proffer opinions, particularly harsh criticism, without having learnt in situ how it’s made. I’ve studied books, and taken courses in viticulture and vinification (and earned my WSET Diploma doing so); I’ve traveled to vineyards as close to home as Long Island and far-flung as New Zealand and Namibia. The countless tank and barrel room tours, and long repasts with winemakers discussing the trials of a particularly tough vintage, have been illuminating, but knowing and doing sit on two different planes of experience. I’ve never beheld firsthand the hand-wringing over picking in the face of inclement weather, or witnessed the minutiae of decisions, as they occur, that lead to a wine’s final expression in the bottle; decisions that culminate with the consumer’s delight or dissatisfaction, and a critic’s reputation-making or -breaking score.

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Trimming Riesling Grapes

A deeper understanding of a subject always leads to a greater appreciation of it (e.g., oft bewildering modern art, with context, can become less so), so should participation in a harvest, then, be a prerequisite for a wine writer? What about a wine critic who calculates scores? Will knowing firsthand, for example, the struggle to grow healthy, sustainable grapes, while fighting pests and a changing climate, cultivate greater compassion, forgiveness even, towards the end product, especially a wine that might otherwise be determined unremarkable? Could it abrade objectivity? Conversely, a behind the scenes experience might dispense with part of the “backstory” illusion employed as a marketing tool (sometimes genuine, sometimes deceptive), and result in a more informed, and thus critical eye at tastings.

With these questions in mind, I arrived in South Africa last Saturday, to join the team at Paul Cluver Winery in Elgin, for two weeks of harvest.

My internship at Paul Cluver Winery came about after I learned of a global search for female interns by the PIWOSA group (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa). In an effort to encourage women to explore careers in the wine industry, the member wineries accepted applicants holding either a winemaking or WSET Diploma certification. The Cluvers, including longtime winemaker Andries Burger (married into the family) selected my application, and invited me to their winery and into their homes.

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Winemaker Andries Burger

Prior to departing, I emailed a few questions about the farm, the region, and South Africa in general, to Paul Cluver, the managing director of the family business. To read that interview, click here.

I hope the culmination of my time at the farm will conclude with clarity on the winemaking process, and lend a deeper respect for the people who get grapes from the vine, into a bottle, and to our tables. But as is often the case with learning, it rarely settles curiosity and questions, but rather drives deeper inquiry.

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Why Pairing Wine With Your Super Bowl Snacks Isn’t Pretentious

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Wine shouldn’t be foisted onto every culinary event; no matter how grand or mundane, some matches are better left alone: the Kentucky Derby and bourbon, or bagels, lox, and black coffee (OK, a glass of Champagne wouldn’t be so terrible with either). “Super Bowl & Beer” sounds like another archetype that doesn’t need tinkering. But there’s a case to be made for wine.

Consider traditional binge-watching football foods: bean chili, beef-cheese-jalapeño-smothered nachos, Sriracha hot wings, short-rib sliders, guac and chips. At first glance, pairing wine with any of these might sound like a disastrous exercise in pretentiousness. On closer examination, though, there are, in fact, a number of wines that would temper heat, complement spice and salt, and cut through fat better than a beer. We’re not suggesting you forgo the keg of Founders All Day IPA, but consider supplementing your beverage rotation with these five wines.

Sparkling Wine
By now, perhaps you’ve heard of the Sommelier Special: pairing a high-brow bottle of Champagne with a humble bag of Lay’s. Champagne’s chalky, bright acid and persistent stream of effervescence has a way of cutting through fried, oily dishes like chips and fried chicken. But Champagne is expensive, and few of us wish to waste it on a bag of spuds (or our Patriots-supporting frenemies). Look to American bubbles instead.

Roederer Estate Brut, NV, California, $21: Best-value, complex American sparkler made using the Champagne method.

Zinfandel
I’m not talking about the white kind (that comes in a box and is called Franzia), but the ripe, juicy red stuff pumped out of the classic regions of Sonoma, Lodi, and the Dry Creek Valley in California (also found in Southern Italy, where it’s called Primitivo). If you’re inclined to pair junk food with your vino (no judgment), you might enjoy the synergy found between a sip of Zinfandel and a mouthful of spicy Doritos, a ubiquitous Super Bowl snack. Zin also complements spicy-sweet meat dishes like pulled pork, and baby-back ribs doused with Dinosaur BBQ sauce.

Bedrock “Old Vine” Sonoma Valley, California, 2013, $25: Full-bodied, lush, with black cherries and spice.

Sherry
This fortified wine from Andalucía in southern Spain elevates salty foods like cured meats (ordering a six-foot-long Italian sub?), olives, and peanuts, and fried finger foods such as calamari, spring rolls, or croquettes, from mindless pop-in-your-mouth status to “holy crap, what did I just eat?” sublime. Pick up a crisp, bone-dry, saline Fino (made via the biological method; no oxidation) and a richer, nuttier style like amontillado.

Valdespino, Fino “Inocente” NV (375 mL), $12.99: Tastes of almonds and ocean breezes.

Lustau Dry Amontillado “Los Arcos” NV, $15.99: Nuts, dates, dried fruit.

Sauvignon Blanc
This crowd-pleasing, workhorse white pairs surprisingly well with chile-pepper-laden dishes, especially bell peppers, jalapeños (which have a flavor profile also found in Sauvignon Blanc), poblanos, anchos, and serranos. Notoriously difficult wine pairings like artichokes (found in dips or fried), tomatoes (think salsa), and the herb cilantro (also in salsas, guacamole, and most Mexican food) love Sauvignon Blanc. The wine’s bright flavors range from herbal to tropical; classic examples are from New Zealand and Sancerre, but South Africa increasingly makes compelling, well-priced versions.

Seresin, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2012, $24.99: More money, more complexity than the typical NZ S.B.

Mulderbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2014, $14.99: Easy to find, easy to sip, a little grassy, and a little tart.

Rosé
Who says you can’t drink pink in the winter? Or while watching football? To quote Julia Child, who incontrovertibly knew her shit, “Rosés can be served with anything.” Why? Rosé straddles the world of white and red: It delivers zippy, palate-cleansing acidity with enough body and fruit to stand up to typically heavy game-day dishes. Dry rosés work particularly well with charcuterie, BBQ, hamburgers, pork, and even sausage. Like she said: anything. The only problem with rosé is tracking it down in the middle of winter. Fortunately, Sherry-Lehmann stocks emergency cases of pink year-round.

Chateau d’Aqueria, Tavel, France, 2013, $18.99: Ripe berry fruit, a hint of tannin, and fresh acidity.

Where to Buy:

Astor Wine & Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500

Sherry-Lehmann, 505 Park Avenue, 212-838-7500

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Winemaker Ken Forrester from Stellenbosch, South Africa

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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.

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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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