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.

Tasting Recap: A South African Wine Safari

This past week I had the pleasure of leading a wine tasting for alumni/ae of Vassar College, where I was fortunate enough to pursue my undergraduate studies (thanks, need-blind admissions and generous grants!). The Pittsburgh Vassar Network hosts a series of events, and I thought I'd volunteer my services to help put together a wine tasting focusing on a country that's too often overlooked in the world of wine: South Africa. With the blessing of the college and the local chapter president, the all-around amazing Patty, I set out to select wines to showcase the breadth of quality production coming out of the Cape these days.

Setting the scene

Setting the scene

The venue for the event was the Board Room at the distinguished Allegheny HYP Club in downtown Pittsburgh, just across from the wonderful Hotel Monaco (which, I should note, has a lovely beer garden on the roof -- check it out once winter releases Pittsburgh from its clutches). As you can imagine, a Harvard/Yale/Princeton club comes steeped in tradition, and this one certainly lives up to its lofty reputation: warm and handsome wood throughout complemented by the colors of each of the three schools (crimson, blue, and orange, respectively). As luck would have it, Vassar's colors are pewter and maroon, so the decorations in the Board Room fit perfectly for our event (note: Vassar's colors are technically pewter and rose, but apparently maroon was more readily available and cheaper, thus the switch). 

We had space for 20 people at the event, and I was thrilled to discover that we'd be having a full house for this inaugural tasting for the Pittsburgh Vassar Network. I could have gone in several directions with this tasting, perhaps concentrating on a particular district like Swartland or Stellenbosch, but I instead chose a wide variety from various districts and wards throughout the Western Cape. Equally important to me was selecting wines that attendees could purchase in state stores or via avenues like wine.com; Pennsylvania's liquor laws are notoriously quirky, and it isn't always easy to find certain wines. Considering South African wines aren't widely known in Pittsburgh, I wanted guests to see quality examples demonstrating the diversity -- and relative affordability! -- of viticulture in the Cape for this introductory tasting. Down the road, sure, we can get super niche, but for now? I was throwing the kitchen sink at 'em, complete with maps and pictures of the South African winelands as supplementary learning materials. Oh, and I made sure to provide some biltong, because...well, would it really be a South African event without it?

So, what was in that kitchen sink? Here's what we tasted and the order in which we did it:

The lineup for the evening

The lineup for the evening

1.) Graham Beck Brut NV: It seemed like a no-brainer to start with a glass of bubbles because, hey, who doesn't like that? No one in the room, as it turned out, was even aware that South Africa produced sparkling wines, and everyone was shocked when I revealed that this wine, which offers lovely notes of bread yeast and baked apples, retails locally for under $18. A few attendees mentioned they'd consider stocking up on this with upcoming Christmas and New Year's celebrations in mind -- which is exactly what I plan on doing. Pro tip: grab some of their rosé sparkly, too, which is just as good and offers hints of strawberries and raspberries.

2.) Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc 2016: These days people are quite keen on Sauvignon blanc, particularly with the abundance of affordable and high-quality examples from New Zealand lining the shelves. Not taking anything away from those, of course, I wanted to show that South Africa offers excellent takes on the grape, too. For me, Klein Constantia's Sauvignon blanc represents a textbook example of what the grape can do in the Western Cape. Vivid aromas of tropical fruits jump out of the glass while a crisp acidity keeps it all in balance, and it was no surprise that several guests found this to be their favorite white of the evening, although they'll need to wait a few months to enjoy it on a patio outside with a nice, refreshing summer salad.

3.) Tania & Vincent Carême Terre Brûlée Chenin Blanc 2016: "I love my French Chenin blancs," one guest said aloud when we got to this wine. I could see the skepticism in her eyes as she swirled the wine in the glass, took a sniff, and then sipped. I knew how wonderful this wine was, but what would she think? Well, I'm happy to report that she, too, was won over by this wine's flavors of ripe, juicy pineapple and citrus blossoms. Guests accurately pointed out that this wine offered a more voluptuous, almost waxy texture than the Sauvignon blanc, and we had a nice discussion about Chenin's history in the Cape. 

4.) Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2016: Following the sun-baked fruit of the Swartland, we moved to the cooler reaches of the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley for the next two wines, starting with this lovely Chardonnay. This wine was somewhat polarizing for the group: the folks who said they didn't like Chardonnay remained in that camp, but those who stated they enjoyed Chardonnay found this to be an excellent example of the varietal. Several guests remarked that this was far less oaky than those to which they were used and found that restraint to be a pleasant surprise. My two cents? I don't think you're going to find a better-value Chardonnay for the money anywhere else on earth.

Discussing, debating, and deliberating

Discussing, debating, and deliberating

5.) Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2015: We've now moved onto the reds for the night, and although I could have chosen a different producer, I stuck with Hamilton Russell because I think of them as the benchmark for both Chardonnay and Pinot noir in South Africa. In addition, this wine is relatively easy to track down in Pennsylvania -- no small feat, given the aforementioned liquor laws. I really enjoyed the group's reaction to this wine; the room got strangely quiet as guests tried to pinpoint what it was they were smelling and tasting in this wine. Smoke? Earth? Cherries? Orange peel?! All of the above, I think, and that's what makes it such a compelling wine in my view. The parallels between this Pinot and Burgundy were very apparent, and a few guests remarked that this wine was nowhere near as sappy or heavy as the California Pinots they were used to -- which, as Martha Stewart would say, is a very good thing.

6.) AA Badenhorst Secateurs Red Blend 2012: This wine was a hit with most of the group, and it's easy to see why. Fruity without being overripe, this juice goes down remarkably easily. Guests noted how well this red blend, which is dominated by Shiraz (with a hefty helping of Cinsault), would pair with a summer barbecue. The friendly price tag of this wine, roughly $16, was an added bonus.

7.) Mullineux Family Wines Syrah 2015: "There is a very nice warmth about this wine," remarked one guest upon tasting this Syrah. We got into a nice discussion of the stylistic differences between Shiraz and Syrah, and this example demonstrated all of the hallmarks of a good Syrah: blackberries, black pepper, savory spices, and even a little bit of cured meat. To be sure, the "funk" of Syrah that I personally love isn't for everyone, and a couple of guests remarked that they preferred the more fruit-forward offerings that a Shiraz brings to the table. Different strokes for different folks, right? Much like what we saw with the Chardonnay earlier, those who typically like the varietal truly enjoyed this wine. For me, this tied with the Hamilton Russell Pinot noir as the best red of the night.

8.) Stark-Condé Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: This was another wine that was quite well received across the board, which is understandable: it exhibits a lot of textbook Cabernet characteristics (think red fruits with cedar and tobacco notes) and isn't all that dissimilar to a solid Napa Cab that folks here drink regularly. What did surprise some people is its $25 price tag, showing that this is a wine that punches well above its price tag. 

Pouring the Stark-Condé Cabernet Sauvignon

Pouring the Stark-Condé Cabernet Sauvignon

In addition to the wines themselves, it was important for me to address some of the issues and challenges facing the South African wine industry. This being a Vassar event, I especially focused on the ugly legacy of Apartheid both within the industry and South African society overall, as well as what is being done to combat it -- such as the Freedom Road project put in place by Backsberg in Paarl. In fact, the discussion was so lively that the event went on longer than anticipated, and it was wonderful to be with a group of engaged, enthusiastic guests.

All in all, the tasting was a resounding success. Perhaps my favorite quote of the evening, which makes me feel like I achieved my goal with this event, came from one guest before we all parted ways:

"We honestly would just walk right past the South African wines at the store without giving them another thought. It's safe to say I won't be doing that again."

So what are yinz waiting for? Head to your nearest wine shop and check out some South African wines! For readers in Pittsburgh, the Sewickley, Shadyside (Centre Avenue), Aspinwall/Waterworks, and Monroeville Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores typically offer the best selection. You can even search online to see where certain wines are in stock, so give it a try!

Have any other favorite South African wines? Don't be shy, share 'em in the comments below.

 

The most gorgeous winelands in the world? Quite possibly.

The most gorgeous winelands in the world? Quite possibly.