Saturday, July 24, 2010

Eeny meeny miny moe – is there a better way to pick the perfect wine farm?

With nearly 200 wine producers represented on the Stellenbosch wine route, 42 active wineries in Franschhoek, and even more in places like Paarl, Tulbagh, Robertson, the Elgin Valley and Constantia, the Cape wine region offers an almost dizzying array of wine farms to choose between when planning a day trip. The chance to experience special wines not widely available has become an expected part of a wine tour – so nowadays the “perfect” destination choice is all the more important and can leave an impression on your experience that extends beyond the rim of your glass.

The sheer number of choices in the Cape attests to the fact that each wine farm offers something special and unique to its visitors – so depending on what you’re looking for in a day-trip, not all will rank the same. Plus, the type of experience you’re looking for might also change from trip to trip – perhaps based on your mood, your company, or even the weather. Thankfully there are so many options there’s bound to be something suitable for any occasion. You can choose between the Grand Dames of historical significance, stylish boutiques with an international flare, down-to-earth farmer’s farms, and destination estates that make you feel like you’ve left South Africa and stepped into another part of the world – perhaps to a château in France or to an architect’s dream in Napa – with all the “fabulous” and none of the expense or unsavory jetlag. Frumpy and formal, laid back and social, warm and cozy, chilled and minimalist – the choice is yours.

With all these options the question remains – how do you choose the “right” wine estate, especially if you have high expectations and limited time? Ultimately the answer depends on you – since your idea of the perfect day probably won’t be the same as mine, your best friend’s and definitely not your brother’s – but starting to plan your experience can be straightforward if you give some thought to a few parameters. Here are a few tips and suggestions to help get you started:

The Vibe: Think about how would you like to spend your time while in the tasting room – do you want to find a relaxed spot by the fire and linger over your wine while chatting with friends, or would you prefer a more formal affair where you can taste at the bar while investigating your fancies with intricate questions about the vintage, the viticulture or the wine making techniques?

Informal: Muratie Wine Estate, Stellenbosch – Here you’ll be greeted by the mostly University-student staff who run the tasting room with a friendly, welcoming spirit, keeping the terroir-driven wine flowing as much as the conversation. Best of all, they seem to enjoy the experience as much as you do, even after closing time. Noteworthy wine: 2007 Shiraz, awarded 92-points by the Wine Enthusiast.

Formal: Kanonkop Wine Estate, Stellenbosch – Recognized as one of South Africa’s top makers of Pinotage and as one of South Africa’s top wine estates by the John Platter Guide. The tasting room is polished and gleaming, the attendants well-informed. Noteworthy wine: 2008 Kanonkop Kadette, awarded 91-points by Wine Enthusiast; 2006 Kanonkop Paul Sauer, ranked five-stars by the John Platter Guide.

The Wine: Since different regions excel in different types of wine depending on the terroir you should consider whether you have a particular type of wine you’d like to explore and may help you to choose the right area for you – cool and coastal for Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc, or warm and sunny for rich berry reds. If the region isn’t a good indicator, perhaps try specialist wine farms who take great care and pride in your preferred tipple:

Method Cap Classique: Cabriére Estate, Franschhoek – One of South Africa’s premier sparkling wine estates, the tasting room is set below ground level and view of the cellar further below creates a cozy feeling. If it’s a sunny day, enjoy your bubbly on the front lawn while taking in the towering views of the Franschhoek Pass. Noteworthy wine: Cuvée Reserve, 5+ years on the lees.

Chardonnay: Jordan Wine Estate, Stellenbosch – Off the beaten track, the road leading to Jordan takes you past farms and fields creating the feeling that you’re away in the countryside. Enjoy a leisurely tasting on the shady deck while taking in the view of the lake and the mountains. Noteworthy wines: 2006 Jordan Chardonnay and 2007 Nine Yards Chardonnay, both awarded 90-points by Wine Spectator.

The Personality: The architecture, surrounding landscape, views and general personality of a place can leave a big impression on your exerience so if you think carefully about what you’re in the mood for you’ll probably have a better time. To highlight just a few there are the Grand Dames, flanked by the legacy of winemaking history, and there are new players inspired by a cosmopolitan playfulness and design culture:

Grand Dame: Vergelegen Estate, Somerset West – An understated rare find –Vergelegen was founded in 1685 and is complete with historic buildings, 17 themed gardens, a 1,000-year old Camphor Forest, some of the Cape’s most highly regarded wines and a legacy of intrigue. Noteworthy wines: 2004 Stellenbosch V, awarded 92-points, the 2003 Stellenbosch flagship Red Blend, awarded 93-points, and the 2005 White blend, awarded 94-points, all by the International Wine Cellar; 2008 Vergelegen White, awarded 5-stars by the John Platter Guide.

Cosmopolitan Player: Delaire Graff Estate, Stellenbosch – Set at the top of the Helshoogte Mountain Pass, it would be easy for Delaire to rely on the view alone to draw a crowd yet no expense has been spared at creating a premier tasting experience in a luxurious setting including calming water features, original artworks, custom-made leather furniture and one of the wineland’s most renowned restaurants. Noteworthy wine: 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, awarded 5-stars by the John Platter Guide.

The Approach: Sometimes the approach a winemaker takes towards the final product is evident in the feeling of the estate. There are the stylistic icons, where every detail is attended to and quality is the holy grail, perhaps like the approach taken in Michelin Star kitchens, and there are others where the feeling is more relaxed, perhaps like the vibe in a warm and inviting country kitchen:

Michelin Star: De Trafford Wines, Stellenbosch – Hidden away at the end of a quiet country road, De Trafford sits among overgrown greenery and bougainvillea. A boutique winery, attention to detail is critical and everything is done by hand – including picking the grapes, filling and corking the bottles. Noteworthy wine: 2006 De Trafford Perspective and 2006 De Trafford Shiraz, both ranked five-stars by the John Platter Guide.

Country Kitchen: Springfield Estate, Robertson – Set on a relaxed farm in Robertson, Springfield is family-run and well away from the hustle and bustle. The tasting room and cellar are bordered by a dam framed by mountain views and you’re welcome to spend time with your own picnic basket under the shade trees. A short meander and you’ll no doubt meet the resident flock of ducks and herd of springbok. Noteworthy wine: The Méthod Ancienne Cabernet Sauvignon is made from a single vineyard using native yeast fermentation and spends two-years on the lees plus a minimum of two more years in the bottle.

The Setting: Sometimes you feel like getting away from it all – maybe it’s a simple trip to the country you’re dreaming of, or maybe you want something more glamorous – like a trip overseas. Even if you can’t indulge in a full-blown holiday, you can spend time at a destination estate and start to feel like you have – if only for a few hours:

French Château: Waterford Estate, Stellenbosch – Visitors are greeted by neat rows of citrus groves leading to the steps of the winery, designed in the style of the classic Bordeaux châteaus of France. The inner courtyard and a lovely fountain make a pleasant setting for your tasting – if you’re feeling like something sweet, try the unique chocolate and wine pairing. Noteworthy wine: ’03 Kevin Arnold Shiraz, awarded 91 points by Wine Spectator.

Rural Classic: Rustenberg Estate, Stellenbosch – As if historical significance and top quality wines were not enough, Rustenberg’s picture is completed by a beautiful setting 2-kilometers down an idyllic road lined with babbling brooks, overgrown oaks, and happily grazing cattle. Noteworthy wine: 2006 John X Merriman, a red-blend, awarded 91 points by Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar and the Wine & Spirits Magazine; 2008 Chardonnay, awarded 90-points by Wine Spectator; 2007 Rustenberg Stellenbosch Syrah, awarded five-stars by the John Platter Guide.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

American wine tastings can be bitter

OK, so I am an American and have been living in South Africa for over four years. Today I spent the day enjoying the Cape Winelands and, just as I have in the past, happened to bump into a few American tourists. First, let me say how fantastic it is to see my fellow countrymen enjoying this corner of the world - well done, for only so few of us ever make it out this way. Second, at the risk of sounding like a foreign-wannabe-snob, please indulge me as a give out a few hints to my fellow countrymen at how to fly a little bit more "under the radar" when touring abroad.

OK, before I proceed, I can feel it - you're already thinking, what is she talking about, she's one of us?! And before you think too far down that path, let's be honest with one another and face an unpleasant truth. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all know those stereotypes of "the loud annoying American tourist" usually clad in white Reeboks with fanny pack in tow? "Yes!" you're thinking, "so 'not' one of those!" And thankfully, it's true. A lot of Americans in Africa are not dressed that way - instead we wear safari gear and expensive photographic equipment, and unfortunately, the 'annoying tourist' is not always defined by wardrobe choices.

Anyways, I digress. If you should perhaps find yourself in the Cape Winelands, here are three tips on how to fly a little more under the radar - you'll have a better chat with the people around you and maybe get to know the place a little better, too:

Tip #1 - if the volume of your conversation exceeds the volume of all of the combined conversations around you, notice it and consider speaking just a little bit more softly

Tip #2 - if you have finished your wine tasting and are ready to purchase a few of your favourites, yet find that the person who was attending to you has started to chat with the people around you - perhaps wait until the chat has concluded, or better, join in yourself, rather than interrupt the chat to insist on "ordering" your bottles right now. There is a laid back vibe in the tasting rooms of SA and people are not really accustomed to taking abrupt orders - rather chill out and enjoy your time, what's the rush in any case?

Tip #3 - if you really need to know the price in dollars rather than rands before you make your purchasing decisions, to determine whether the wine is a "good deal" or not, rather talk quietly among yourselves and bear in mind that the people working in the tasting rooms earn meager salaries and live practically at the bread line. Whether you're rich in America or you're just an Average Joe, you are living at a standard way beyond most people in South Africa and a little tact will go a long way.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Life in Limboland

Living abroad makes you feel like you're odd man out - you know, like that feeling you get sometimes, like everyone is watching you? Like maybe you just realized you’ve had something stuck in your teeth for the last hour, or you’ve been walking around with a section of toilet paper stuck to your shoe? You feel conspicuous, like suddenly everyone else is very noble and you are just, well, you.

Well, I’ve realized that when you decide to live abroad a similar phenomena happens – you are a foreigner, you are indeed odd man out. And even as I get more comfortable in my new life and hear that my accent is evolving, I know without any doubt that I am not from “here.” I am from “there.”

But sometime even though I know this to be the truth, an even stranger thing happens. Sometimes people whom you’ve gotten to know “here” seem to forget that you are from “there” – like in conversations with people who sometimes correct your pronunciation so that it sounds more like “here,” like maybe I forgot or perhaps spent too much time watching American television. Worse still, there are those that don’t believe you could really be from “there,” even to the extent that they mistake me for an imposter – a person who is just putting on a funny accent – a pretender, a wannabe, or someone who spent their childhood holiday in the States and became so enamoured they could never bear to shake it off.

The worst phenomena of all that happens when you’re living abroad is that sometimes people from “there” – from where I am really from – start to think that I am odd man out, too. Imagine when your friends start to tell you stories as if you’re actually a foreigner to them – they all start the same, “Well in America, blah blah blah...” I don’t know why this bothers me, probably because I never expected it and because deep inside I am still hoping to fit in someplace in the world. But I guess to be fair I must admit that this is at least partially true. I’m not like everyone “there” any more – even though I’m also not like everyone “here.” I am a member of a small population of people who are just like me, even though they’ve never met me or even each other, because they have also left home and started a new life someplace far away. The very nature of our decision means that we live in isolation from one another. We are Limbolanders – sort of in between – having the foundation and values of our homelands, the new learnings of our new lands and a sort-of understanding of both as we slowly lose touch with our old place and gain touch in our new place.

Life for Limbolanders is a kaleidoscope of learnings gained “everywhere” – I have friends all over the world, yet most of them don’t know each other and sadly, will probably never even be in the same room together. They are my virtual Sunday afternoon walking partners, my Friday-night-drinks crew, my shopping buddies – the fact that we are chatting over the phone while in different parks across the globe, or that we are in our separate homes connected by Skype over a glass of red, or that the shop happens to be on the internet – doesn’t change our connection to one another.

And this, in fact, is the most amazing phenomena of all – the fact that the deepest and truest of friendships can survive travel miles and time zones, that no matter where in the world you hang your hat you can keep these treasures with you like jewels in your pocket, even as you gather new ones.