Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Southern Africa: A Wine Safari

Words by Jeff Salisbury. Images by Rev. Christine Plepys.

This past November myself and (to blatantly steal a turn of phrase from Mike) my Sweet Partner in Travel (SPIT), Christine, took a trip to Southern Africa that included a safari in Botswana, a day at Victoria Falls in Zambia, and about a week in South Africa near Cape Town and in the wine country of the Robertson Valley. [MJR note: some amazing photos can be found here.] While we were able to have wine with our meals throughout the trip, this report will focus on the wines we had in the Robertson Valley, with two notable exceptions.

First, when we initially got to Botswana we stayed one night in Audi Camp, a base camp before starting our safari. The camp had an outdoor restaurant and the SPIT had a glass of the house wine, which was listed on the menu as–I am not making this up–Chateau de Cardboard. Upon further inquiry we were informed that it was whatever box wine they had on hand. We didn’t find out what it really was, but the SPIT said she liked it. I took a sip and thought I tasted the hint of vinegar making me think maybe it was time to change the box. But at R15 (South African Rand) per glass (a little over $2) the price was right.

Second, in Cape Town we had dinner one night at a restaurant called Arnold’s. Arnold’s is a nice, somewhat upscale restaurant with a menu typical of such places, except for a number of wild game items like Okapi sirloin and crocodile ribs. I thought about getting the Okapi, but the SPIT said I should get something that we had actually seen on safari (SPIT is a little warped in that way) so I had the Smoked Wild Warthog Ribs.
See Warthog...Eat Warthog!
The ribs were basted in a tomato sauce, and they tasted very much like regular pork ribs but leaner and not quite as tender, with a flavor that was less gamey than I expected. Having never had warthog before, I asked the server for a wine recommendation. He suggested the 2003 Altydgedacht Dry Red, a blend from Durbanville, South Africa. It retails at around R140 or about $18 per bottle at current exchange rates. As the name indicates the wine was dry with good fruit and very well balanced. The SPIT and I both liked it enough to order a second glass. It was very good by itself, but I thought it was much better paired with food and was a really good complement to the warthog.

On to the Wine Country

I would not call the SPIT and I overly sophisticated wine drinkers (more like students of TNV), but we know what we like and we actually liked all of the wines we tried in South Africa, some more than others. Our first winery stop was at the Viljoensdrift Winery where we sampled five different wines.

Life for The Naked Vine foreign correspondent is arduous and fraught with peril – or not.

2009 Colombar Chenin Blanc (R24 or $4 per bottle). You are not reading that wrong. It was $4 a bottle. This is a 60% Colombar 40% Chenin Blanc blend. It had nice fruit up front with a little citrus flavor and some sweetness to it. We both liked it enough to buy a bottle to have with a picnic on the winery grounds by the Breede River with some cheese, bread and ostrich carpaccio.

2008 Cape Blend (R39.50 or $5.50 per bottle). This wine is a blend of 34% Pinotage 66% Shiraz. According to the winery it has a good tannin structure allowing for excellent ageing potential and is good with venison. We thought it was very tasty, particularly the SPIT, who prefers her wines on the dry side.

2008 Chardonnay (R50 or $6.60 per bottle). This wine had good fruit with a hint of vanilla and oak. It was a very refreshing dry wine.

2007 Pinotage (R58 or $7.70 per bottle). Pinotage is what South Africa is known for, so we had to try this wine. It had a vibrant red color with a lot of berry flavors and a nice soft finish.

Finally, we tried the Villion MCC Brut (R65 or $8.60 per bottle). This wine had tiny, delicate bubbles with a bready aroma. It had very good body and nice balance.

Our next stop was at Springfield Estate Winery which had been recommended by the manager of the nature reserve where we had stayed the previous night. Once again all the wines were excellent, but a few stood out.

2009 Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc (R67 or $9 per bottle). The vines for this wine are planted in very rocky soil. It is a somewhat austere wine with an almost flinty, grassy flavor. SPIT and I both loved this wine. It had a very clean flavor which we found out later pairs well with spicy and creamy foods.

2009 Special Cuvee Sauvignon Blanc (R66 or $9 per bottle). Unlike with the previous wine, these vines are grown in sandy, alluvial soil and the difference in the two wines clearly evident. It has a lighter and softer flavor than the Life from Stone. It was very different and very good.

2003 The Work of Time (R100 or $13 per bottle). This is a blend of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. The grapes were fermented whole with native yeast and left for 5 weeks on the skins. A slow 18 months of barrel maturation followed and 2 years of bottles ageing it had a spicy, peppery flavor that would go well with spicy foods and cheeses.

Finally we tried the Methode Ancienne Cabernet Sauvignon (R205 or $27 per bottle). This wine is a little out of the Vine price range, but well worth it. It is aged two years in new French barrels and a further three years in bottles in the winery cellar. It was dry with a lush, full flavor and a long finish. It was great when we tasted it at the winery, and with 5-6 more years in the cellar it will only get mellower and round out nicely.

The next and final stop on our wine safari was at the Fraai Uitzicht Historic Wine & Guest Farm where we stayed for one night. Fraai Uitzicht is Dutch for beautiful view and it lived up to its name. For dinner at their restaurant we both indulged in the Degustation Menu – seven courses paired with wines from the Robertson Valley. We really enjoy paired dinners because someone who knows wine has done the work for us and made sure the selections complement the food. They are a great way to increase your wine knowledge.

The first course appetizer was a selection of finger foods that presented a variety of flavors. It was paired with Methode Cap Classique Sparkling Wine from Graham Beck Wines (R125 or $17 per bottle). The wine was a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir with fine bubbles and went well with all of the foods in the course.

The second course was a salmon trout fillet on a bed of wasabi leek. The pairing was Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc from Springfield Estate Winery (see above). The wine was very crisp which helped offset some of the heat from the wasabi. The leeks were prepared in a creamy style and the wine actually helped cut through that, so that each bite was as tasty as the first. We thought this was the best pairing of the night.

Next we were served a spicy butternut soup paired with gewürztraminer from Weltevrede Winery (R75 or $10 per bottle). The soup was delicious with only a slight spiciness (The SPIT, with Texas upbringing, said she couldn’t even taste any heat). The wine was a little sweet with a slight honey flavor which paired nicely with the soup.

Then came the springbok carpaccio, thinly sliced and lightly smoked. This course was paired with the 2005 Fraai Uitzicht Merlot (R148 or $20 per bottle). Fraai Uitzicht only makes a small amount of wine (about 5,000-6,000 bottles per year)--all merlot. It’s very well crafted, easy drinking with a nice long finish with some plum flavors coming through. It held up well to the smokiness of the carpaccio. We liked it so much we bought a bottle to bring home.

The next course was medallions of beef fillet in a port wine jus with tipsy onions (onions marinated in red wine) with spaetzle. The pairing was Red Gold Cabernet Sauvignon from Bushmanspad (R78 or $10.30 per bottle). The cab was lighter and fruitier than the merlot with some vanilla flavors peeking through, though food wise this was probably our least favorite course.

Finally, we had dessert–Dream of Africa. This was a freshly baked fondant of Belgian chocolate served with vanilla yogurt cream and berry coullis. The word decadent does not do justice to this dish. It was paired with a Cape Muscat from Weltevrede (R105 or $14 per bottle). The wine was very sweet with a slight strawberry taste, which went well with the dessert.

All in all we really enjoyed the wines we had in South Africa and highly recommend giving them a try. For the time being, though, the limiting factor with regards to the wines described in this article may be availability. The Graham Beck wines are widely available in the U.S. and the Springfield wines are available in a number of states along the Eastern seaboard. However, the only other wine we found for sale in the United States was the Weltevrede Cape Muscat while the rest are available only in South Africa or in European markets. So while they are certainly within The Naked Vine price range if you buy them in South Africa, factoring in the $1,000+ flight to get there might make them a little pricey.


JC said...

"was a really good complement to the warthog."

Where else but a Mrs CMP adventure could this sentence ever be heard?


JC said...

WILD BOAR BACON - NOW AVAILABLE IN SAN DIEGO - http://blog.rifftrax.com/2008/08/12/wild-boar-bacon/

There are a lot of nice wineries in California - I say ROAD TRIP FOR WART HOG BACON - and find a California wine to go with it!


The Naked Vine said...

I'm in for the warthog road trip!

And I guess we're drawing wider and wider audiences...