That Long-Overdue South Africa Recap

PREAMBLE

It's been a long time since I last posted here. Like, way longer than I ever intended to go without updating, actually -- which I don't intend on repeating. That said, this was all for a very good reason: around a month after my last post, I was offered a position at Palate Partners School of Wine and Spirits here in Pittsburgh to lead the wine school and assist with private and corporate events. I started in this role in March right after my return from the South African adventure about which you'll read below, so it's been nonstop since then (and thus explains my lack of posting). I'm thrilled to now be educating about wine full time, and I look forward to incorporating more of that experience into this website. Now, with that out of the way, let's start the show...

Part 1: Cape Town

Hi, Cape Town!

Hi, Cape Town!

I had two nights in Cape Town at the beginning of the trip, and the first evening was spent alone while waiting for my husband to land late that night (yes, we flew separately -- use of frequent flyer miles explains this). For dinner I headed down to Black Sheep and enjoyed a fantastic meal and view (the Burmese pork curry with a glass of Beaumont Chenin = perfection), which included, perhaps quite unexpectedly, a thunderstorm out over the winelands somewhere. 

A bottle with my name on it? Yes, please. (But I will share.)

A bottle with my name on it? Yes, please. (But I will share.)

My timing on this trip turned out to be quite fortunate: I learned that Publik Wine Bar had just opened in their new location on Kloofnek Road right around the corner from the restaurant. Naturally, I had to check it out -- after all, I had a few hours to kill before Mike was due to land, and what better place to do that than a wine bar?

It's without exaggeration or hesitation that I say Publik is the best wine bar I've ever visited. From the moment I walked in, I got the sense that this was going to be something of a special visit. From the regular who insisted I share some of his food as soon as I sat at the bar to the group of WSET students on my right, it was clear that everyone passing through that Tuesday was very much there for the stellar wines offered both by the glass and bottle. I got to geek out and finally enjoy Alheit's La Colline Semillon -- figured I might as well just buy the bottle and share with whoever might want a taste since that's very much the vibe I got from Publik. What's more, I got to speak quite a bit with Chris, the head bar manager, all about South African wine. I was, in short, in my happy place. If I lived in Cape Town, I'm pretty sure I'd just allow this place to directly debit money weekly from my account.

After Mike arrived and we crashed at the hotel, we woke up the next day with a plan to have lunch at the (also newly-opened) The Bistro at Klein Constantia. This would be my first trip to Constantia, and I have to say that the lunch was a quite pleasant affair. We wound up a table over from the winemaker who then insisted we drop by the tasting counter after lunch. We were quite happy to heed his advice: a 2004 Vin de Constance was pulled out for us, and I'm mentally running out of superlatives to describe what a joy this wine was on the palate: a whirlwind of heady dried pineapple and mango that still enjoys fresh and lively acidity to keep everything in exquisite balance. In other words: damn, Gina.

We napped at the hotel for a bit due to the combination of jet lag and tastings, then made our way back to Pot Luck Club for dinner (note: I had to stay up until 1:30AM on New Year's in order to book as soon as February reservations opened). The elevator was broken, so it made for a fun hike to the top of the building and dumped you into the frantically busy kitchen area. While the food was overall quite delicious (and I finally got to try the delicious Newton Johnson Pinot Noir!), I will say that the ambiance was notably rushed and felt harried at times. Still, as long as they're serving that beef filet with black pepper and truffle cafe au lait, they'll probably be reeling me in once per trip. 

Part 2: Stellenbosch

The next morning saw us leave Cape Town and grab a rental car from the airport for the next part of the trip. Our first destination was Keermont -- assuming I could manage driving on the left side of the road, I mean.

After a little bit of a stressful start getting out of CPT, things went smoothly and we were soon making our way down Upper Blaauwklippen Road and into Keermont's facilities. Owner Mark took Mike and me up into the vineyards and gave us the lay of the land before leading us through what wound up being one of the top 2 tasting experiences of the trip. I'd not had any wines from Keermont prior to my arrival at the farm and I was absolutely blown away. I'd read plenty of good things about their wines, of course, but I'm not sure they fully described the goodness that winemaker Alex Starey is producing. The whole lineup was eye-opening, although I personally keyed in on the Syrahs -- both the Keermont range and the Single Vineyard Steepside -- and the Riverside Chenin Blanc. Mike and I actually returned to the farm a couple days later to lend (slow, Katy the matriarch of the picking team would note) hands to pick grapes for a few hours and hopefully not get in the way too much. I can't say enough positive things about the people and the wines of Keermont, and if you're ever in a position to give them a try, pretend it's a Nike commercial and just do it

Table Mountain in the distance as seen from Keermont.

Table Mountain in the distance as seen from Keermont.

It's time, Viognier.

It's time, Viognier.

The next stop was just down the road 20 minutes at Ken Forrester Wines  after my new employer set up a tasting (we are currently distributing their wines here in PA). The lovely Alette met with us for a bit and we were guided through a tasting of some of KF's powerhouse wines, including the red The Gypsy blend and perhaps the wine of the estate: the FMC. After explaining why it's called "FMC" (Google that one, y'all), we actually tasted what wound up being my personal favorite: Dirty Little Secret Chenin Blanc. The vines for this Chenin were planted in 1965 in the Piekenierskloof, and the wine brims with minerality, intense fruit, and a spellbinding texture with a finish that doesn't quit. This is a wine worth every single penny.

After a delightful dinner at Delaire Graff (that view never gets old), we woke up the next morning and made our way to Franschhoek to taste Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines at the Wine Studio there. Having been a fan of their Syrah for several years, I was especially excited to finally try their Single Terroir range. The delightful Nicola Tipping dropped in to chat with us while we tasted, and, as you can imagine, the wines themselves knocked my socks off. I enjoyed the peppery and brooding Iron Syrah quite a bit off the bat, but I suspect the Schist Syrah is going to be the belle of the ball after time in the bottle. The wines that were perhaps the biggest surprise to me came from the Leeu Passant range -- specifically the Stellenbosch Chardonnay. The flinty, fresh minerality of this wine was remarkable; I'd never tasted a Stelly Chardonnay like this one, and I couldn't believe how clearly a crushed shell characteristic was coming through in the wine. Again, buy this wine. Buy as much of it as you can. And consider tossing in the Dry Red, which is perfumed, elegant, and a fun take on the 'classic' red blends of the past.

Backsberg was next up on our list. It was important for me to pay a visit to this producer since Bryce, their North American sales & marketing manager, reached out after coming across information online about the South African tasting I was doing for Vassar alums. Also, I'd enjoyed some of their Chenin Blanc in New York at a favorite wine bar, Ardesia. Along with Simon Back, we got to chat quite a bit about not only Backsberg but the industry in general, as well as social challenges in Cape Town and the Western Cape as a whole. Bryce was a masterful host who took us all over the property, into the cellar, and finally back outside to taste even more of their lineup. The real star of the day for me was the John Martin Reserve Sauvignon Blanc -- a complex wine that offers wonderful citrus and gooseberry on the nose and palate with a luxurious mouthfeel due to its time in oak. This is exactly the kind of Sauvignon Blanc I wish were available more often to break up the sea of relative monotony we tend to find these days. (Don't sleep on their MCC or Family Reserve White, either, by the way.)

A quick note on dinner that night: we returned to Rust en Vrede, which is becoming something of a tradition for us upon visits to the Cape. There's a new chef and a new sommelier since our visit 3 years ago, and what a world of difference they made. I knew it was going to be special when we noticed goat cheese butter on the table -- which none of the others had. We asked the staff if they placed it on the table because Mike mentioned loving it during our last visit 3 years ago, and...yes, they confirmed, that's exactly why it was there. That sort of attention to detail is remarkable. The atmosphere at Rust en Vrede was also lighter, more relaxed, and more inviting than last time. While the food was still top-notch, the welcoming nature of both the new chef and new sommelier breathed some fresh air and new life into a classic establishment. Seriously, hats off to you, Fabio and Tawanda. I can't wait to come back!

Oh, one downer note about Stellenbosch: Spek & Bone was a general disappointment. Not sure if we came on an off night or what, but the food was largely off the mark and the bathroom was, for an unknown reason, covered in vomit. Staff was super friendly, though, so there's that, at least?

Part 3: Hemel-en-Aarde (& a Sliver of Franschhoek)

After giving our livers (and everything else) a break for a day, we left our little Airbnb in Onrus and made our way to Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde a mere 8 or 9 minutes away. I'm sure it's no secret that I was really excited to visit them considering they produce my favorite Pinot Noir and what I think is still the best value Chardonnay outside of Burgundy. 

Anthony Hamilton Russell guided our group through wines in the Ashbourne range (note: the bracing Sauv Blanc/Chardonnay blend is a killer deal, and if you can manage to get your hands on the Pinotage/Cinsault blend, don't hesitate), then he led us into the cellar to taste 3 vintages of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay among the barrels. It was fascinating to taste wines I knew so well at the place where they were grown and made, and the differences in vintages were quite apparent. Although much of the group enjoyed the more muscular 2015 Pinot, I personally was more drawn to the 2016 and 2017, the latter of which I found to be particularly expressive and delicate in the same vein of a Chambolle-Musigny. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those were also the Chardonnay vintages I appreciated most. 

Tasting Pinot by candlelight at Hamilton Russell

Tasting Pinot by candlelight at Hamilton Russell

After the tasting, Anthony led us up to their house on the property where wife Olive welcomed us with an artfully-prepared lunch packed with high-quality ingredients and flavors. Added into the mix was some of the Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc, which has such a clean, pungent, and expressive personality that I adore. Slowly folks departed and we found ourselves later enjoying a braai while gabbing all about wine in South Africa and here in the States. Anthony and Olive are gracious and generous hosts who just so happen to make some of the best wines out there, so the day spent on their farm will not be one I soon forget.

Our last day consisted of a brief stop into Newton Johnson Vineyards before doing a tasting and lunch at Creation Wines and staying the night in Franschhoek. Beginning with Newton Johnson, I have to rave a little bit about the Family Vineyards Pinot Noir (and the Chardonnay, too). The personality of the Hemel-en-Aarde really shines through here with a spiciness that cradles the tart red fruit notes. Underpinning all of that is the trademark forest floor aroma, and everything coalesces into a serious, complex, and straight-up delicious wine. This easily belongs up there with Hamilton Russell and Storm among the greats of the valley. 

After a lovely walking tour of the property, we enjoyed a tasting and lunch at Creation. First, the food was lovely, and I don't think there was a single element of any dish that was out of place in any way. As for the wines, while they're seemingly known more for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (much like the rest of the valley), the real standout of the tasting for me was the Sumac Grenache. It's spicy, it's floral, and the fruit is present but not overwhelming. There's also a decidedly peppery aspect to the wine that was really appealing. (This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the Pinots or Chardonnays; rather, I did find their style to recall cooler parts of California, which is just a little less my scene than the wines from farther south in the Hemel-en-Aarde.)

After all was said and done, we headed to Franschhoek for the night to enjoy our last sunset of the trip the veranda. We stayed at the house of the winemaker at Dieu Donné Vineyards, which was a delightful Cape Dutch masterpiece full of character and charm (and a cat that jumped in through the open window). Although we didn't get a chance to talk shop with Stephan, we did meet briefly the next morning before we made our way back to the airport to begin the long journey back to Pittsburgh (via Johannesburg, Paris, and Detroit...).

See you again soon, I hope.

See you again soon, I hope.

In all, the trip was so much more than I even expected it to be. This was planned before I knew I'd be taking a job as a wine educator, and the timing couldn't have worked out better in the end. There's something special about South African wine, and I want to help ensure its success here. With wines from places like Keermont, Hamilton Russell, Mullineux, Backsberg, Creation, Ken Forrester, and Newton Johnson leading the way, I'm hopeful more folks grab a bottle from the South African section of the store instead of passing it by on their way to the register.