India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Wine & Dine
March 20, 2012

A Safari to Savour

Text by Sheetal Munshaw.

Much has been said about the Garden Route and its pristine beaches, its scenic vistas, its ostrich farmlands and lagoons. However, the jewel in the crown is the Cape wine route starting at Constantia and Stellenbosch winding all the way down to Paarl and Robertson, notes Sheetal Munshaw who claims South Africa as one of her most memorable trips

Vivid images of wildlife and devouring lions and leopards, the Johannesburg mafia out to mug or murder me flashed before my mother’s eyes as we announced our honeymoon destination – South Africa. In a very DDLJesque moment, she explained her agony with passion over a tête-à-tête with my then would-be husband stating that he could well replace his wife if eaten by the lions but she couldn’t quite imagine replacing her beloved daughter.

A very strange outburst of emotion in my husband’s eyes, who comes from a family that should receive honorary African citizenship for the innumerable visits to this mesmerising continent. Finally, the plot comes to a close with reassurance from ‘Mama Africa’ my mother-in-law, the beacon that portrayed the dark African continent in a very different light; we gained the family’s blessings and set out on our most memorable trip to this day.

As we landed on African soil in the spectacular city of Cape Town I was immediately rid of all my classic cliché expectations of what I had imaged it to be…. No, there was no savannah, no wildlife teeming at the airport to welcome us, no tribes waiting on us with drums and no safari kombis or jeeps to transfer us to our hotel either! We were in Cape country reminiscent of any part of Europe actually.

Cape Town is a cauldron of cultures, a sensuous, vibrant and multi-faceted city that has a multitude of attractions to offer its visitors. A city of four seasons in a day, it is both captivating and inviting in its appeal…the journey is in the destination and what a journey it is…. If there’s one thing you ought to know about Africa it is that you will never be satiated with just one trip and you will keep coming back for more, as I did. While I could write a book on South Africa’s beguiling beauty, I’m going to cut the chase and take you straight to the Mecca for wine lovers in the Cape. Much has been said about the Garden Route and its pristine beaches, its scenic vistas, its ostrich farmlands and lagoons. However the jewel in the crown is the Cape wine route starting at Constantia and Stellenbosch winding all the way down to Paarl and Robertson. As I set foot at the Cape Wine Academy in Stellenbosch, university city and prime wine country, I was surrounded by passionate professors of wine and aspiring sommeliers and hospitality professionals.

What started with the advent of the Dutch back in 1655 with Van Riebeeck planting the first vines in the Dutch East India company gardens, and then the settlement of the French Huguenots in 1688 in Franschhoek valley, is today among the top 10 wine producing countries and most revered new world wines on the map. And while the influence is French, the identity is distinctly South African. If you ask a French winemaker about grapes he will talk ‘terroir’ a concept that covers location, soil and climate and much depends on nature and its course impacting the wine. In South Africa, winemakers have to constantly adapt their wine practice to ‘terroir,’ making it more technique dependent.

Over the next few days, we discovered nose charts and the indigenous flavours and aromas that characterise South African wine. A gooseberry and green pepper flavoured Sauvignon Blanc or Fumé Blanc as they call it. An indigenous Pinnotage that was developed in the Cape with the unusual cross pollination of Pinot Noir and Hermitage (the name by which Cinsaut was known in SA in the 1920s). This unique wine has cherry fruit and jammy aromas with hints of candyfloss, cinnamon and a strong ripe banana nose. Its spicy nuances team beautifully with barbecued meats.

South African Chardonnays are among the most premium in the world especially the  wooded varieties with characteristic vanilla, brioche, butterscotch and creamy buttery aromas. It is also often blended with Sauvignon and is of course the key ingredient behind some of the most spectacular Cap Classiques. Sparklings that are made in the traditional méthode champenoise are popularly known as Cap Classique. Other methods include the Charmat or Cuve Close or Carbonation/Perlé methods. Currently very popular are the red sparklings made with Shiraz or even Pinnotage.

In so far as white varieties are concerned, the Chenin Blanc rules the roost. The most versatile grape varietal, it is made in a plethora of styles including the wooded and un-wooded varieties, off-dry to sweet and fortified as well as sparkling and Noble Late Harvests. The South African Chenin is a very fruity, light, easy drinking varietal with very tropical fruit salad, peachy aromas and flavours. The sweeter varieties have notes of fragrant honey. Other prominent varieties include the Cape Riesling, the Weiser or Rhine Riesling, Sémillion, Gewurtzraminer among others. Most red varieties in South Africa are Rhone Valley (France) style. Popular varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and the Pinot Noir. The Cape also makes some stunning ports, sherrys and fortified wines notably the Noble Late Harvest ones.

The aromas are not the only distinguishing factor of SA wines, unravelled Andre Morgenthal, communications manager of WOSA (Wines of South Africa). Wines in South Africa are made in the traditional old world style, estates are maintained with the yesteryear charm but the bottling, labelling, marketing and tasting approach is very nouveau monde. Remarkable examples of which are the 2010 vintage 12ºC white blend, with a strong lemon and ripe citrus nose, mélange of Sémillion, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc and the 17ºC red blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Malbec and Shiraz giving it a hint of spice, plum and berry influences. Part of the Maison Joubert collection, a tenth generation South African wine maker, originally from Provence, these wines are striking and straightforward, named after ideal serving temperatures making them extremely user friendly and sublime on the palate too!

Most of the wine production in South Africa is in the Cape region with some production in Kwa Zulu Natal. In as little as 20 minutes from Cape Town city centre one could well be in the winelands in Constantia. The key regions include Breede River Valley, Klein Karoo, the coastal region that includes Constantia, Stellenbosch, Paarl, Darling et al. For avid travellers and gourmands the drive to the heart of the wine country is well worth it both in terms of its scenic beauty and the food and wine offerings.

There is a bustling touristic activity around wine with a multitude of wineries, estates, tasting facilities, restaurants that specialise in food and wine pairing, stunning accommodation options both B & B and luxury estate properties with opulent and well-appointed rooms. Wine enthusiasts are welcomed with wine flowing freely to acclimatise them with the local wine varietals. Over several visits, I’ve had the pleasure to discover many a hidden treasure along the stunning Cape Winelands, and a place that remains etched in my memory is the Grande Roche Hotel in Paarl.

Part of the prestigious Mantis Collection, Grande Roche has won many an accolade from the esteemed Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, Fodor’s publishers and has also been conferred membership by the revered French chain Relais et Châteaux. Not only does it have luxurious accommodation and a stupefying setting, but also delectable wines and sumptuous cuisine. My dinner at The Bosman’s Restaurant remains among my most memorable meals. The restaurant has been acknowledged as one of the Top 100 in the world and in the Top 10 in South Africa, and received awards for the best wine list and best wine steward among others as well as an Award of Excellence by the Wine Spectator. Its head sommelier, Josephine Gutentoft, who manages an impressive list of over 600 wines, is a natural when it comes to food and wine pairing. With Indian cuisine he reckons that the Cape whites usually harmonise well due to their fruity character and high acidity levels, notably the Chenin Blanc varietal. For meat dishes like lamb or chicken, he recommends a fruit-driven red like a Pinot Noir or Shiraz or a Rhone style blend.

To me, Indian cuisine and South African wines are a perfect example of bringing different worlds together in one seamless tapestry. The indigenous Cape Malay cuisine is reminiscent of Indian fare due to its spice and curry quotient and marries perfectly with the local wines. During my stay at the magnificent Steenberg Estate, we organised a pairing of Indian cuisine with the award-wining Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2004 Reserve. On the menu was saffron rice pilaf and a yoghurt and tomato based poulet curry made by yours truly adapté to South African spice tolerance levels of course, which by the way are quite remarkable! The result? Outstanding! The fresh, crispy and peppery notes of the distinctive Sauvignon paired exquisitely with the tomato, cashew and saffron flavours. The creamy aftertaste of the wine rounded it off with perfection. In my personal experience, South Africa is probably among the few countries whose wines pair so effortlessly with Indian gastronomy. Be it the Malay curry influence or the staple South African braai (barbecue) that is much like the tandoor grill preparation of marinated and then barbecued meats. Chenin, Sauvignon and the Cape Riesling or Gewurtzraminer do very well in this endeavour. Their inherent sweetness and roundedness off-sets any sharp, spicy or tangy flavours making for well-balanced fare.

While there may not be too many great quality South African wines available in India at the moment, we do see a fair amount. Most being entry level to mid range varieties with a few premium ones foraying into the market. What’s interesting is that South Africa’s four main varietals include Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz which are incidentally the varietals that are mainly produced in India and naturally the easiest available option.

So, if you have a natural affinity for these varietals, here’s one more reason to sample the wines of South Africa…the next time you’re looking for a wine to go with your desi culinary dishes look for Cedeberg label in Bangalore, Rupert and Rothschild Vignerons, Graham Beck and Wildekrans wine estates in New Delhi, Ayama, Two Oceans, Nederburg, Le Bonheur, Hill & Dale and Waterford wine estates in Mumbai.

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