Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Adventures in Winelands

Our friend Joe is the director of the University District Foodbank, and last year we attended their annual auction. It's a great event, with lots of wonderful auction items (you can support it this year if you live in Seattle and have a free evening on October 5th). And though we were madly saving money, we ended up winning one of the wine-related items--a plethora of South African wines wine and wine-related accoutrements (openers, a wine chiller fridge) with another friend. Thus our first introduction to many South African wines. And after two months in super-light beer to no alcohol countries, we were ready to hit wine country, or Winelands, again.

Typical Winelands scenery. It also made us realize how long we'd been travelling--last time we'd been in the Southern Hemisphere, it had been grape-picking time!

With our trusty Chico, we headed south and spent two nights in Stellenbosch, one of the main cities in the Wineland region about one hour outside of Capetown. With little time, we decided to do a bit of winetasting at one of the local restaurants that night with a wine tour the next day of four local wineries.

I have to admit, I have officially made the leap from wine appreciator to, well, a bit of a crazy person. We got to the restaurant and saw you could get tasting pours of three whites and three reds for 30 rand (~$5). But we were already familiar with three of them from our wine auction wine and I didn't want repeats on our whirlwind tour of the region's wines. Fortunately, the bartender was willing to humor us and allowed us to personalize our wine tasting...twice. So with my trusty notebook for making tasting notes at hand (strike two to being a bit of a crazy person), we dove in. Here are a couple favorites:

(Note: I forgot those notes; I'll add soon!)

The next day, we got ready to go on our wine tour. We'd been reluctant to be part of an organized tour in New Zealand because they were not inexpensive and we really wanted to go to certain wineries that appealed to us rather than the large-scale ones we thought we'd see on tour. But with our time constraints, and the hazards of driving around while wine tastings, we decided to give it a go. Lucas, our Dutch guide, picked us up along with two students from Saskatchewan, a British couple, and five Dutch couples/friends. We'd visit four wineries in the region (including Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek) and have a cellar tour at one, along with lunch and a cheese tasting.

The first stop was at Boschendal, one of the oldest wineries in South Africa. Apparently, the Dutch first started growing wine there, but were producing really low quality wines. So they invited some French to emigrate down, granted that they would bring their wine-making skills with them, so Franschhoek, or French Corner, was born. And because we were there over Bastille Day weekend, the town was decked out in the tricolor flag and people wearing berets.

While there, we tasted five wines: a blanc de blanc (or unoaked white blend), Chardonnay, Shiraz Rose, a red blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and a 2005 Shiraz. And, because I was curious after tasting one in New Zealand, we also got a taste of the Blanc de Noir, a white wine made with red wine grapes, rose-esque but with a sweeter smelling nose. Of the tastings, I liked the Chardonnay and Rose the most, but the one side to being one a tour is that it made it a lot harder to concentrate on the wines. It was much more social, and because we actually knew the most about wine of all the others in the group, we ended up sharing our knowledge with others we sat with. I was afraid they would think we were pretentious or killjoys, but it actually was fun to talk to people about the wines as we drank. Also, Tyler and I normally share tasting pours, so we drank more wine than we normally would at four wineries.

Our first tasting at Boschendal, one of the oldest wineries in the region.

After lunch, we went to what was probably my favorite of the batch, Dieu Donne Vineyards. Though I was disappointed to find that they had sold out of both their sparkling (they call Methode Cap Classique in South Africa, since it can't be Champagne) and their late harvest dessert wine, Tyler and I managed to make it through all nine wines they had for tasting by sharing our tastes instead of just doing five each as the others did. The highlight for me was definitely their 2003 Shiraz, light tasting but with good spice and a long finish. I also liked their Chardonnay quite a bit which had a toasty nose and good oaking for a butter-y, biscuit-y taste. Surprisingly, as much as we had enjoyed unoaked Chardonnays in New Zealand, I found theirs to be too acidic rather than the fruitier taste charactistic of the Kiwi versions. They also had a nice Pinotage, which is the cultivar specific to South Africa, a cross-breed of Pinot Noir and Shiraz. It was dark fruits with some mineral tastes and a little spice, with a long dry finish. Overall, their reds impressed me more than their whites, but it was pretty solid across the board.

Wine-stained barrels at Dieu Donne Vineyards in Fraschhoek

Appreciating a red and the views at Dieu Donne

Our third visit was to probably the most well-known South African wine in America, Goats do Roam, one of the labels of the Fairview Winery. It's a cheeky take on the French Cote du Rhone, and one the French were none to happy about, though they've all made friends again since. In addition to the Goats do Roam range, they also have an Italian range called Agostinelli, a Spice Route range of spicier wines, as well as some under the Fairview label. Again, by splitting our tasting, we tasted a good number (14 all told) of wines. I enjoyed them all, though most I would categorize as being fun, easy drinkers, with a consistent spiciness among all the reds we had. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing terribly complex either. The best of the batch in my mind were: Fairview Sauvignon Blanc, with nice bright acidic gruit and some green pepper taste; Fairview Mourvedre, which was a juicier red, with some nice white pepper spiciness, the Fairview Pinotage Viognier, a red blend with a dash of the floral Viognier for a spicy, juicy red; and the Agostinelli label Barbera, with nice fruit, spice and some acidity. But award for best name was the "Bored Doe" as part of the Goats do Roam label.

Goats actually do roam at the Goats do Roam winery

Our final stop was at the Seidelberg Wine Estate, which was until about 10 years ago the De Leuwen Jagt Winery; they changed the name for the international market that couldn't pronounce the Dutch words for "Lion Hunter." We tasted six wines there, and had a good everyday Sauvignon Blanc, a decent Pinotage that probably needed more age, and a Reserve Syrah which was very good, with a velvety mouthfeel and good spice. I was a little surprised to find that they age some wines in stainless steel containers with oak staves to re-create barrel conditions. The one we tasted, a Chardonnay, was way too oaky for my tastes.

Vines leading the way to Seidelberg Wine Estate

Tasting dessert wine at sunset with the whole crew

As much as I enjoy South African wines, I do have to say they have been less of a revelation than New Zealand wines. I don't know if it's because we have some more familiarity with them or because we just had less time and money to search out really unique wines, but many of those we tasted were good but not "I've got to find a way to get this in the States!" great. But we did have a great, inexpensive bottle last night recommended at a wine shop (Post House Bluish Black, a Bordeaux-style blend), so I'm sure more great finds are out there. Fortunately, many more seem to be available in Seattle, so even if we didn't have them here, they can still bring back memories of our time tooling around wine country in South Africa.

1 comment:

Michel said...

I can attest to the fact that we still have the wine fridge but the South African wines have long since vanished! I am intensely jealous that you have now toured the area and had many in person tastings!