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Wine & Dine
November 20, 2012

Grape Experiences

Sheetal Wadhwa Munshaw journeys to the Cape Winelands of South Africa to attend the first-ever wine tourism conference in Cape Town and discovers wine farms and wine trails in heavenly surroundings

As I was setting out for the first-ever wine tourism conference in Cape Town, I was mentally preparing my four-year-old son for a week-long separation. Promptly the questions popped – how long will you be gone? Where are you going? As soon as he heard the word Africa he asked angrily, “How can you leave me behind and go enjoy a safari Mamma!” It’s amazing how even to a toddler, the image of the African continent is immediately that of wildlife and safaris. While the African bush is an out-of-the-world experience in itself, it never ceases to amaze me how unilaterally people perceive Africa despite the versatility of the tourism offering and the slew of premium quality wine estates and wines that beckon!

So here we were at the first edition of Vindaba and its older cousin the Cape Wine, two simultaneous wine related events, showcasing wines and wine routes galore. My first ‘find’ along the journey was the stunning Vineyard Hotel. A veritable ‘made to measure’ property for wine lovers and connoisseurs alike, the hotel has wine at the epicentre of its philosophy. Over 115 years old, the Vineyard Hotel was the erstwhile home of Lady Anne Barnard. Tucked away in the ‘perfect setting’ along the lakeside and overlooking the magnificent Table Mountain, only 15 minutes from the city centre of Cape Town and more interestingly, only 10 minutes away from the historic Constantia wine route, home to the emblematic Vin de Constance at the historic Klein Constantia Estate. Part of the original ‘Constantia valley’ established in 1685 by Simon Van der Stel, Klein Constantia is the custodian of some of the most historic vineyards not only in the Cape but also in the world. The Vin de Constance the emblematic, characteristic and legendary wine of this estate was once vied for, for possession in European courts over Yquem, Tokay and Madeira. In the heart of the historic library and tasting room of the estate surrounded by wines dating back centuries, we had the very special privilege of a vertical tasting of the Vin de Constance through vintages 1996 up until 2007.

We were at aperitif in the heart of the Vineyard Hotel. Wine is the leitmotif of this charming property and resonates through its unique concept of ‘wine partners’. The property nurtures a row of vines from each of its premium hand-picked  partnering wine estates transforming it from being symbolic to symbiotic with its neighbouring estates.The concept was unfolded through our fiesta of a five-course food and wine pairing in the company of the doyens of the Vineyard and its partnering estates. Each delectable course was paired in perfect harmony with representative wines of the select estates including Warwick estate that was the founder of Trilogy a Bordeaux style blend that was a significant chapter in the history of wine making in South Africa, Meerlust Estate that is home to flagship wines in the hands of eight generation custodians of the Myburgh family,  Simonsig Estate that was the pioneer of the Methode Cap Classique, Waterford Estate that conjured the ‘Jem’ a signature red wine blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Mourvèdre, Sangiovese, Barbera and of course the iconic Klein Constantia Estate. While the vineyard is adept at creating exquisite dining experiences, the wine partner experience travels well beyond the dinner table into the winelands through wine and dine safaris, golf and grape experiences, vintage car transfers and private lunches combined with vintage motor museum visits to family fun with wine, penguins, picnic lunches et al.

Heaven and Earth
Moving on from the historic valley of Constantia, we were on Route 320 headed  to a relatively new and unexplored wine route in the Cape that is bound to make history. Tucked away behind the spectacular seaside resort of Hermanus, in the heart of the Walker Bay wine district nestles the Hermanus Wine Route in the Hemel-en-Aarde (Afrikaans for Heaven and Earth) valley that is home to some exquisite wineries and is often dubbed as the ‘viticultural grail trail’ of the Cape.  Engulfed by towering mountain peaks, scenic vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and picturesque vineyards along the fynbos clad hills and slopes in the valley it is truly paradisiacal. A small valley is home to six of Platter’s (John Platter, South Africa’s leading wine critic and advisor) current 45 five-star wines in South Africa, producing  some premium quality wines in small volumes in very boutique estates or wine farms as they are known in South Africa. Led by our very knowledgeable and passionate guide Glynis Van Rooyen, incidentally the co-author of the Overberg wine guide, we were in for a serious treat. A treasure trove of hand-picked wine farms and delectable wines awaited us in the days to come and this coupled with the opportunity to get up close and personal with the magnificent Southern Right whales on the eve of the whale watching festival and the stupefying scenic beauty of Hermanus. It couldnt get better!

We started out our discovery of the ‘heavenly abode’ befittingly with ‘Creation’, as we drove up to the wine farm through the breathtaking views uphill towards the doorstep of a very contemporary and stylish tasting room adorned with huge glass windows overlooking uninterrupted views of the vineyards that surround it.

To begin with, eye-catching labels entice you with their sheer simplicity and elegance. The passion laden ‘Creation’ has conjured up a menu of food and wine pairings, wine and chocolate pairings, as well as the opportunity to create your own blend as an unmatched souvenir of your wine travels in South Africa. They even have a walking vineyard tour with a tasting in the vineyard which we had to miss due to the Cape’s patent ‘four seasons in a day’ weather. We happened to be in the African monsoon while at Creation but were greeted by our very hospitable sommelier who indulged us in a signature wine and canapé tasting with wines poured in appropriate Riedel glasses by style and varietal or cultivar in South African terminology enhancing the tasting experience.

The full bodied Creation Sauvignon Blanc 2011 laden with fruity aromas and a distinctly refreshing nose combined with a melt-in-the-mouth aubergine and goat’s milk cheese cannelloni.  We then tried the Sauvignon Semillon blend, by far my favourite white blend, this one had oodles of minerality combined with richness of ripe fruits and great mouth feel. Our next wine was the fragrant and forthcoming Creation Viognier 2012, a young vivacious wine that paired beautifully with the chicken laksa. Being in the valley of the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir, that was our next pick. A luscious vanilla flavoured Chardonnay with a peachy nose and crisp acidity followed by a fragrant full bodied Pinot Noir with great structure and supple tannins rich in aromatic profile with a berry nose. As our pairing drew to a close after having sampled the entire portfolio of Creation, we then backtracked along the valley to the stupefying La Vierge private cellar and restaurant. You are ushered into a world of wine through steel tanks on either side of the ‘show-case cellar’ onto the petanque play area and the champagne verandah through a gateway of views that whisk you off your feet even on a rainy day! This is a window to the stunning  landscapes in the valley and no spot, not even the ladies room, is spared of its breathtaking views!

A fusion cuisine menu paired with la Vierge’s ‘sinful’ wine collection beckons you to temptation that you must not resist. The valley resonates in Biblical references and it takes a crescendo in La Vierge with la Domaine des Dieux Methode Cap Classique to the Original Sin-Sauvignon Blanc 2011 to the oaked Jezebelle Chardonnay and so on. The labels were intriguing beit Annthelia or Nymphomane or the Satyricon; both names and labels are hard to miss or forget! And the wines are sublime too…. As we indulged through the Last Temptation Riesling 2011, the only one of this cultivar in the valley a lovely dry style straight forward  Riesling followed by the characteristic varietal of the valley the Pinot Noir La Vierge Noir or Black Madonna  2010. My Cape Malay curry was successfully paired with the Satyricon an Italian style blend of Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera. Going back a little further in time, to the abode of the ‘Father of Pinot Noir’ in South Africa we were at the Bouchard Finlayson estate founded in 1989. The winemaker Peter Finlayson is the Pinot Pioneer of the country and needless to say we started our tasting with a sampling of the flagship Galpin Peak Pinot Noir. Other hallmark  wines of the estate include the Hannibal a unique blend of classical varietals of Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir and The Crocodile’s Lair Kaaimansgat Chardonnay, bringing in grapes from a nearby valley with the wine named after it.  The cellar and barrel room host music concerts alongside tastings to further heighten the experience.

Tracing back to where it all started, we made our way to the iconic Hamilton Russel Vineyards. Having laid the foundation of the Hermanus Wine Route and the story of the ‘heartbreak grape’ and won it over with passion, Hamilton Russel’s Pinot Noir has won a near cult status and has often been dubbed as the ‘most Burgandian wine outside of Burgundy’! The only cultivars on the estate are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and the first vintage was released in 1981 on the rich stony and clay rich soils through 176 acres creating an expression of its own, seducing many a palate and placing the Hemel-en-Aarde valley on the world wine map!

After an ‘arduous’ day of tasting sumptuous wines all day (I could get used to this) we slowly made our way back to our home away from home The Marine Hotel Hermanus. If we thought the best was behind us and we were about to retire to our hotel it was time to think again. Received in true Relais et Chateaux style into the opulent yet elegant foyer of this ideally located property perched above the waves with ideal sighting spots for the nearby whales, we were led into our rooms overlooking the bay around us. If you happen to be in Hermanus and are looking for a property look no more.

Our final tasting for the night was the family owned and run Newton Johnson estate’s labour of love. A very refreshing start to the evening with the Sauvignon Blanc 2012 infused with lightly oaked Semillion, followed by the Resonnance 2011 an aromatic Sauvignon  Blanc with enhanced complexity backed by a stronger influence of 16 per cent Semillion and a hazelnut driven ‘family vineyard’ Chardonnay 2011 comprised of our whites. Clearly everyone in the valley has an affinity for Pinot Noir. The head of the Johnson family completed his master of wine in a Pinot Noir dissertation which stays imminently close to his heart producing a soft, supple, well rounded tannic structure with aromatic and fruit flavour and influences.

The evening was concluded in the charming company of the GM with another indulgent meal taking us though wines of the region paired immaculately with regional cuisine such as the succulent Klein Karoo lamb or the sumptuous Springbok with a final dash of sheer decadence in the form of a sinful dessert. It had been a gourmet journey in earthy South Africa that was made in heaven!

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