In South African Wine
on 30 Jan 2010

This weekend I was determined to go wine tasting – being surrounded by incredible wine farms the past two weeks and only visiting two of them due to a lack of transportation has had me feeling like a eunuch at the Playboy mansion, so I made it my mission to find a tasting buddy with a good nose and a good set of wheels. I found both in Dana, my buddy who works in the Blaauwklippen vineyard, and we took off on Saturday with nothing but wine in our plans.

Delaireview Tokaraview Thelemarow

Our first stop was Delheim, and the drive-up alone was absolutely amazing. The road was lined with flowering trees and winded up a mountainside, with pines in one direction and vineyards in another. The wine centre had a log cabin vibe, and we were served at a table for two rather than at the counter, giving us time to linger over and discuss each wine. Three dessert wines on the list immediately jumped out at me: a Noble Late Harvest riesling, a semi-sweet gewürztraminer, and a riesling/chenin blanc semi-sweet blend. I was intrigued to find the sort of wines we make up in cool New York State, and impressed to find them delicious and complex. Though I like a little more acidity in my dessert wines, the gewürztraminer was particularly tasty; the description mentioned Turkish Delight on the nose, which I found delightful and accurate.

Our next stop was Tokara. I realized at that point I should just stop thinking to myself “THIS is the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen,” since it seems every place I go is more gorgeous than the last. Tokara’s vineyards run steeply down the side of a mountain which can be seen from the giant window of its classy, modern tasting room. The standout here was a wooded chenin blanc, absolutely luscious with toasty buttered almonds and tropical fruit flavors and the sexiest mouthfeel I’ve experienced here so far – while most of the whites I’ve tried here so far have been crisp and refreshing, this was the first that I would actually want to spend an evening with. I bought a bottle for about R50, a steal at around US$5.

Zorgvliet, located in the Banhoek Valley near Stellenbosch,came highly recommended to us, and the wines exceeded our high expectations. A fascinating menu offered several single cultivars we hadn’t seen before including petit verdot, pinot noir (unfortunately sold out!), tannat, and that grape that is closest to my heart: cabernet franc. I went straight for the franc and with one sniff I felt like I was home in New York: the nose was poblano, peppercorns, and pencil shavings, the palate was sumptuous and fleshy, and the finish was spunky tannins and awesome length. I could’ve spent the whole afternoon getting franc’d but forced myself to move on to the malbec, tannat and petit verdot. The last was most impressive, an intense,concentrated, no-messing-around red that begged for steak. Zorgvliet’s winemaker has a gentle hand with oak and an obvious affinity for single cultivar reds. I bought a bottle of franc and made up my mind to visit again.

One winery, Thelema, was about to close when we showed up, but I immediately thought of my friend Andrea when we drove past the vineyards and saw roses planted at the end of each row. Andrea, a botanist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, had asked me if I had seen this practice. As I understand it, if there are certain diseases present in the vineyard, it will show up on the roses first and give the viticulturist a heads-up that something is wrong. This is the first time I’ve seen it in South Africa but Dana informed me that it’s fairly common. There you go, Andrea!

We finished our day of wine tasting at Delaire, a nationally renowned wine farm whose sauvignon blanc was recently awarded Best Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa. We were too late for tasting but were encouraged to have a glass of wine while enjoying the high mountain view from the wine centre patio. We couldn’t pass up a chance to try to famous sauv blanc. Indeed, it was snappy and zesty with nice grapefruit and gooseberry on the finish, but the nose had just a hint of that withered-spinach-leaves scent that I’m not crazy about in sauv blanc. Though it was certainly a pleasurable wine and perfect for the circumstance, the best sauv blanc I’ve tried in South Africa thus far is still Slaley’s more complex and clean version.

After all this wine it was time to eat, so we grabbed a pizza at a café in Stellenbosch that actually had two chickens running around under the tables. I knew I had only scratched the surface of the Stellenbosch wine scene, but if today was any indication, I’m in for more world-class wine than I’ve ever had in my life.

Julia Burke is a wine educator and writer.