Archive for the ‘Heritage and innovation’ Category

Celebrating winemaking

Monday, February 1st, 2010

As the first few tractor and trailer loads of grapes start to make their presence felt on the roads of the winelands it’s good to be reminded that Christ’s first miracle was turning water into wine. This was the subject of the reading at a special mass held in Stellenbosch this week – as it has been for the past 16 years.

Southern hemisphere winemakers are in the fortunate position of having the feast day of the patron saint of winemaking, St Vincent, fall very close to the annual harvest. Vignerons in the northern hemisphere celebrate his feast day (January 22) while snow is still on the ground, whick makes for a chilly event. Not that it stops the Burgundian Confreries resplendent in their scarlet regalia from having a darn fine parade and feast over the last weekend in January.

In Stellenbosch the event is low key, having been held at the local Catholic church for the past 16 years. It must be said that although having patron saints is a Catholic thing, many of the worshippers who attend the event observe other religions. Behind it all is the bushy-bearded ‘Ole man wine’ of the SA fraternity, Dave Hughes, and he always makes a point of inviting someone from another religion to deliver the sermon. Having a Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim perspective presented during mass makes the conversation over lunch at La Pineta interesting!

The collection taken goes to the Stellenbosch hospice which currently provides care to 600 patients in the district – up substantially from the 100 patients when the observance of St Vincent’s began nearly two decades ago. Another interesting local tradition is that the winemakers (and some distillers) bring along a bottle or six that is then donated to the church and provides enjoyment for the clergy.

As Dave says, it’s handy having a bit of spiritual intervention if you’re a producer reliant on the vagaries of the weather…

Bottelary bonding

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Yngvild Steytler of Kaapzicht told me some wonderful stories at a dinner recently. I won’t steal her thunder (or potential material) because she’s thinking of starting her own blog – and after hearing a few of the tales I think she should.

The event was a dinner for 20 or so folks at Mooiplaas. The family-run farm’s marketer, Dirk Roos, is a keen cook and has gained a reputation for his Langtafel (long table) lunches. The whole thrust of what Yngvild was saying is that Bottelary wine farmers and grape growers are a rather special group of people. “They are always willing to help – no matter what. When I go overseas on a marketing trip they feed my husband. If Oom Kosie’s (Steenkamp) lorry breaks down in the middle of harvest, one of the neighbours will be there within an hour or two to make sure the grapes get to the cellar… and if someone’s wife is in hospital, the kids will be picked up at school and taken care of without a problem.”

Steytler son and heir, 29-year-old Danie jnr chipped in with a few stories of his own. He’s worked harvests in America, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Greece, Germany and after all that experience, there’s nowhere he’d rather be than in the Bottelary hills of Stellenbosch. That might have something to do with his heritage but then there’s also a two hectare vineyard of the second oldest block of bushvine Chenin Blanc on the farm too. “And it’s got a SAWIS certificate proving its age,” Danie said. Together with lanky Bottelary wine centre manager Donovan Rall (he of the inaugural 5 Star Platter rating for his Rall Wines Swartland white blend fame…) Danie’s hatching a few plans for this special parcel of old Chenin Blanc.

Not only are Bottelary producers Mooiplaas, Kaapzicht, Groenland, Hazendal, Bellevue, Goede Hoop, Sterhuis, Fort Simon, Koopmanskloof and Hartenberg making good wines, but these selfsame producers were in the forefront of biodiversity efforts too. This group of farmers banded together to proclaim a conservancy in the Bottelary Hills long before it became fashionable to do so. Listening to Mooiplaas viticulturist Tielman Roos talk about the fauna and flora you realise how close to nature they all are.
“Where else in the winelands will you find a group of wine farmers who are prepared to help each other out rather than compete – and then still go on holiday together, canoeing on the Orange River?” was Yngvild’s parting shot. I find that sort of old-fashioned neighbourliness reminiscent of bygone times and while it’s a characteristic that’s in short supply nowadays, it doesn’t make them dinosaurs. It makes them special.

Heritage and innovation

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

It was quite a contrast, going from a muddy vineyard in Durbanville to the place where goats frolic in Paarl. The first event was the symbolic planting of 350 new ‘old’ Pinotage vines at Meerendal, one of the original farms to plant Professor Perold’s crossing of Cinsaut/Hermitage and Pinot Noir. Meerendal GM Benny Howard said the event was to mark the 350th anniversary of winemaking in South Africa and also to celebrate Meerendal’s history and association with Pinotage.

I say new ‘old’ Pinotage because the stokkies were cultivated from vine material in Meerendal’s Heritage block, originally planted in 1955. The first wine is expected to be made in 2012 and is intended for a reserve bottling, Howard said.

Marking the historic occasion was interesting for me because of an interview with former UK supermarket wine buyer Alan Cheesman I’d read that day. He recently judged at the Pinotage Association’s annual Top 10 competition. While he dismissed the country’s 350-year wine heritage as “rubbish”, stating that it really is less than two decades old, he had a lot of positive things to say: that SA winemakers and viticulturists are “among the best in the world”; the marketing arm of SA wine, WOSA, is the second-best of its kind in the UK (Chile is first); ethical trading and biodiversity will probably prove to be one of South Africa’s biggest strengths in the future; SA wine has huge mass market appeal in the UK because of old Colonial links, the numbers of South Africans living in the UK – and vice versa – and the strong sporting ties between the two countries and also that SA is succeeding in getting Britons to appreciate mid- and high priced offerings, not just value wines.

The one thing that really resonated for me was Cheesman’s statement that “South African winemakers and marketers are outward looking and have a ‘can-do’ attitude sorely lacking in some European producers.” Nowhere is this more obvious than at Fairview in Paarl – my second wine event that day.
Prior to the opening of the revamped tasting room, Charles Back had shared a lineup of wines – and some typically unique insights – with a few people. Alongside the first wine ever bottled by Fairview, a 1974 Shiraz made by his father Cyril, were anecdotes of an auction at the farm, preceding the Nederburg auction by a year. Braam the butcher was the biggest buyer – and his purchases fitted into the boot of his Roller! Contrasting this was a preview of a completely new range of wines – La Capra. Capra is the Latin term for goat but Back says it could be broken down into ‘Cap’ – from the Cape, and ‘Ra’ – the Egyptian sun god…

The intention is for La Capra to be the vehicle to carry a lot of the produce from the past few years’ extensive planting projects. “It also gives us the opportunity to be more versatile than in the Goats range. That is almost exclusively Rhône-based… we tried to break out a bit with the Bored Doe but it wasn’t a huge success.” It also means that Back’s wines will be heading onto supermarket shelves, something he’s steered clear of until now.

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