This year, my wife Kathy and I decided to take a trip filled with danger and unexpected challenges; a 36 hour journey with our 15 month old daughter to South Africa. With a semi-successful trial flight to Detroit, it was with some major trepidation that we boarded the Lufthansa flight to Munich from Dulles. The little monster turned out to be an absolute angel, having slept the whole way, but as soon as we touched the ground the little ball of energy woke up. Every inch of the airport was purveyed during our 10 hour lay over, with more than a few rides on the escalator. Another 12 hour flight to Cape Town with our little one fast asleep, travel bliss for mom and Dad.
The whole point of this trip was to introduce Aria to Grandpa, who had as of yet still not met our little one. Bonding was swift, as Aria was taken to a multitude of beaches and taught the intricacies of building sand castles. Grandparents were loving their new role, so Mom and Dad decided that the time was right to venture off and introduce our friend Aaron, who was also visiting from the US, to the offerings of the Constantia and Stellenbosch winelands.
Our first stop was Groot Constantia, the oldest wine estate in South Africa established in 1685. It also happens to be the winery I first started working at in 1995, so I always try and make a point of stopping in and saying hello. The Constantia area is located just a few kilometers from False Bay, with the influence of the sea breezes regulating the vineyard and ensuring that it is a relatively cool climate site. As such, Sauvignon Blanc does incredibly well. The wines tend to have vibrant acidity and range from pure grassy, grapefruit character, to a more flamboyant and flashy gooseberry and granadilla flavors; with wonderful weight and texture. Some winemakers are experimenting with small portions of oak fermented wine, back blended in with the tank for that added weight and complexity. Semillion is also making a splash, playing more than just a supporting role to Sauvignon Blanc; Groot Constantia blends 58% into theirs and was one of my favorites. My favorite red wine was their Gouverneurs reserve, a Bordeaux blend showing an abundance of dark fruits on the palate, supported by big tannins with a hint of chocolate and mint on the finish. This is truly a beautiful wine that will only improve with cellaring of 5-8 years in my opinion.
After a short 30 minute drive up the N2, we found ourselves in Stellenbosch, surrounded by the picturesque Helderberg mountains. Our first stop was at the house of J.C Le Roux, a winery that specializes in sparkling wines. The tasting room is contemporary and hip, with a vivid display of colors and little tasting nooks that lead out to decks with panoramic views of the mountains. Typically when one resorts to talking about the views at a winery you can infer that the wines do not warrant much of a discussion, but this winery creates an impressive portfolio of wines made both in the traditional and carbonated method. Kathy’s favorite was the Le Domaine, an off dry carbonated sparkler with 7.5% residual sugar, made up of a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and White Muscadel grapes. The wine is fresh, vibrant, easy drinking and sweet on the finish, no wonder it is the most popular sparkling
wine in South Africa. My favorite was the 2007 Pinot Noir, a traditional method sparkler with a drier finish, displaying red fruit character and a creamy finish which I imagine comes from the 18-24 months maturation on the lees. We also purchased their flagship wine, Scintilla which was not available for tasting. This blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was drunk recently at a dinner party and did not disappoint. I found the wine to be a bit more citrus dominated, with typical bread and toasty character on the mouth, all in all a beautiful wine.
Next Stop Tokara, with once again gorgeous views of Stellenbosch, surrounded by beautiful mountains. South Africa has an abundance of natural beauty, it is truly breathtaking. Once again, we were very impressed with the wines, with my two favorites being the Director’s Reserve white and red, amazing how I gravitate towards the more expensive wines. The Reserve white, vintage 2011 is a barrel fermented wine of Sauvignon Blanc 71% and Semillion 29%, matured for 9 months in French oak. This wine had an intriguing palate of almond and brioche, an extremely viscous and complex weightiness without sacrificing the brightness and citrus undertones that is Sauvignon Blanc. John Platter rated this wine 5 stars and it is also regarded as one of South Africa’s top 100 wines; I would totally agree. The 2008 Director’s Red is a Bordeaux blend made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Malbec, matured for 20 months in 100% French oak, 83% of the oak being brand new. The oak is really integrated though, allowing the dark fruit character to shine through, while finishing with an almost espresso finish. What made this wine most intriguing though, was the underlying mint character in the wine. I wanted to ask where this character was derived from, but unfortunately the winemakers were hard at work with harvest and were not available. What is interesting to note, is that their neighbor Thelema actually makes a Cabernet wine called the mint, so it must be something about the vineyard or soil, all in all it makes for a very unique character.
Neil Ellis, was our next visit, and we were excited to see the winery since we get their Sincerily Sauvignon Blanc in our local South African restaurant, The Shebeen, right here in Charlottesville. Kathy opted to taste their premium range flight while I opted for the vineyard selection, swapping back and forth to get the full experience. The 2009 Aenigma, a blend of Cabernet, Cabernet franc, Merlot and Shiraz really stood out for the spicy character with leather and earthy undertones. The 2012 Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc was one of our favorite wines, being a touch more tropical than others, with good cut and chisel to the frame. This was one of the most elegant wines we tasted during the day. The stand out wines were definitely from the Vineyard Selection flight. I am always a bit skeptical when wineries bottle small lots under a vineyard designation, I feel that the wines are very similar to other wines produced and do not display enough of a varietal or quality difference to labeled as such, not in this case.
The Cabernet, Shiraz, Grenache and Sauvignon Blanc were all gorgeous. The Cabernet was an understated, focusing more on purity of fruit than raw power. The tannins were soft and supple, the oak well balanced and managed, beautiful. The Syrah was dominated by crushed black pepper with an almost jammy quality underneath, not in the sense of over extraction as once again this was an extremely well balanced wine. The Grenache was the most floral of the wines, with the fruit coming from bush vines in mountain vineyards of the Pieknierskloof. The wine is medium bodied in structure, but is bright in fruit, supple in texture and extremely well made. My only criticism of this winery is the fact that I cannot get these wines in the U.S. and unfortunately space was limited in the suitcase, although I think I may have left a few clothing items down there to make some.
Driving back to Cape Town, Aaron fortunately persuaded us to stop at Meerlust Estate. Established in 1756, this winery has been in the hands of the Myburgh family for 8 generations, it has history and charm which transcend to the wines. The 2010 Chardonnay struck me as being more Burgundian in style, with flinty and citrus undertones backed by a weighty and creamy frame. This is a wine I would put in the cellar for a few years, I believe this wine will be beautiful in 3-5 years. The Pinot Noir was an intriguing blend of mustiness and perfumed fruit, supported by bright acidity and supple tannins. The standout wine for me was the 2008 Rubicon, a blend of mainly Cabernet, with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. This is a fantastic wine displaying dark fruits, cigar box and underlying spiciness. I loved this wine, but unfortunately this wine shattered in my suitcase on the way back to the States. I sucked every drop out of any piece of clothing that absorbed this wine, dang it, as this was truly one of the iconic wines of South Africa. I will have to persuade Aaron to open up one of the bottles he brought back with me; I think this wine will be a blockbuster 10 years from now.
This trip was more centered around family, but the wine industry and wines are truly remarkable. The Estates are gorgeous, the history of the industry is evident and you will be hard pressed to find more picturesque vineyards in the world. The wines are truly coming into their own and can compete on any international stage. Sadly, most of these wines do not make it to U.S shores, most of the wines are exported to the UK and German market and most of the wines mentioned in this blog will be impossible to find unless you visit. Hats off to the vineyard managers and winemakers, I know first hand the challenges in creating a fine wine, but this industry has proven to be up to the task, and I thoroughly enjoyed the efforts of your labor.
As for the trip back home, out little monster was wide awake for the trip from Munich back to Dulles, but those tales are to be chronicled in an other blog post. Unfortunately the wine on the plane was not up to the same standard as what we had just tasted, but it did help me deal with a very active toddler confined in a plane.
Winemaker and Vineyard Manager