Tag Archives: stellenbosch

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: The Cellars-Hohenort Constantia Valley, Cape Town, South Africa

CellarsHoenhortVineyardView

All images by Lauren Mowery

 

The Cellars-Hohenort

Transporting guests back in time to a more genteel epoch, Relais & Châteaux property The Cellars-Hohenort predictably attracts an older (almost elderly), stylish crowd.  One of three Liz McGrath properties (the iconic hotelier who also owns The Plettenberg in Plettenberg Bay and The Marine in Hermanus), the historic manor, adjacent to the stunning estates and vineyards of Constantia, dates back to 1693. Originally called the Klaasenbosch Farm, the Cellars-Hohenort was the expansive estate that belonged to the chief surgeon of the Dutch East India Company, Hendrik ten Damme.

CellarsHoenhortGrandRoom

Recently refurbished, today’s patrons can spend mornings at local wineries, and afternoons wandering the fragrant gardens blooming with rose and jasmine on the path to sunbathe at one of two pools.  A chic spa and hair salon ensure guests are relaxed and perfectly coiffed prior to dinner at highly-awarded The Greenhouse, run by R&C Grand Chef Peter Tempelhoff. The restaurant is bright and airy, enclosed in glass — hence the name — with white furnishings stamped in a green plant motif. No need to go off-site for a post-prandial; a range of wines and cocktails can be sampled at the Martini Bar.

CellarsHoenhortGreenhouseResto

Table Mountain is an impressive vision, made especially so from the privacy of a terrace room at Hohenort. Accommodation runs from luxury villas, suites, to smartly-furnished singles. My room, “almond,” was a charming space in eggshell white and seaglass blue, with French doors opening on to the pool. Outdoor furniture needs updating, and some edges of the property show the fray of time, but the freshest common rooms blend contemporary textiles, patterns, and colors with antique furniture and objets d’art.

CellarsHoenhortRoom

Highlight: Exploring the gardens while in full, intoxicating bloom; breakfast of eggs Benedict and fresh summer fruit on the terrace.

Location

Situated on 9.5 acres of lush, manicured gardens, the Hohenort lay a few minutes’ drive from the wineries of Constantia Valley and approximately 20 minutes from the CBD of Cape Town, South Africa.

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Amenities

  • Two award-winning restaurants, including The Greenhouse
  • Bar
  • Business center
  • Tennis court
  • Two pools
  • Spa and Hair Salon
  • Wifi
  • Private transfer available upon request
  • Acres of gardens

 

Contact

Ariana van der Merwe

reservations@collectionmcgrath.com

+27 (0)21 794 5535

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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

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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

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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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