The top ten wine events of the year

Monday, 7 December, 2009
Graham Howe
Looking back on the year that was, Graham Howe offers an idiosyncratic take on the top ten highlights of the local wine scene in 2009.
He picks his best media events of the year after revisiting his own scribblings on thirty wine tastings he enjoyed out of 300 or more on offer. He would love to attend every event - but some days a writer simply has to stay at his desk and make deadlines for a living. He can still spot the stains left by lively wines which passed his lips, his glass and blotted his notebook.

Funniest winemaker comment of the year: On a visit to Buitenverwachting I spotted a hilarious comment on the controversy over wine ratings by a frustrated winemaker. Above a rave review of his Meifort red blend, someone (the winemaker revealed the receptionist) had scribbled "Suck on that WINE Magazine!" - referring to a lower rating of the same wine. Winemaker Brad Paton also won a Veritas double gold for his unusual Rough Diamond, his innovative maiden blend of Petit Verdot and Malbec. It got me thinking about the need for dialogue between winemakers and writers - could WINE.CO.ZA host an "open mike" forum online to facilitate exchange?

Most successful winery of the year: I enjoyed watching Rust en Vrede pull off a triple-crown at three of the country's best food and wine events I attended in November. First Coenie Snyman won 2009 Diners Club Winemaker of the Year. This modest fellow simply said of his winning Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, "I wasn't trying to make a show wine. I'm a conformist not a perfectionist. You do it right or you do it right. I just made 80,000 bottles of a normal, well-balanced, structured wine." Next I watched chef David Higgs and his crew win third place in the top ten restaurants in South Africa and coveted service award at the Eat Out 2009 Oscars. Finally, the cellar restaurant was named South African winner of the Best of Wine Tourism Awards 2010 by Great Wine Capitals Global Network over a fabulous lunch at Rust en Vrede.

Best wine route event: Robertson Wine Valley won the "innovative wine tourism experiences award" at the Best of Wine Tourism Awards for annual promotions like Robertson Slow and Wine on the River which from my experience, remain the best showcase for a wine route on the wineland calendar. Never resting on their laurels, the valley's farmers are holding an inaugural hands-on harvest festival in February 2010. I also enjoyed my best walk in the vineyards in the Robertson Wine Valley in 2009 - with viticulturalist Briaan Stipp of Robertson Winery who taught me all about terroir on a tour of sites from Wolfkloof to the virgin koppies of Prospect in the Kalkveld.

Best wine route visit: My first visit to the most remote wine route in South Africa was one of the highlights of wine travels in 2009 which took me far and wide from the vineyards of Asia and Eastern Europe to Keimoes and Kakamas. Over 800 kilometres from the lush Cape winelands, the Orange River wine route is the last frontier where wineries materialise like mirages among the cactus and palms in the desert. When I close my eyes on a hot summer's day, I can still taste the stunning red muscadel from Grootdrink and a wine tasting in Keimoes cellar of the best barrels with winemaker Rianco van Rooyen, a young gun at Oranjerivier Wine Cellars.

Best new winery restaurant: I enjoyed the longest lunch of the year at the launch of BistroSixteen82, the brand-new winery restaurant at Steenberg. Cresting a wave of new energy in Constantia Wine Valley, Steenberg is set to increase cellar-door sales from 10% of overall sales by attracting consumers to a spectacular new wine tasting lounge and 70-seater restaurant. The massive glass grape chandelier, landscaped garden and glass window look into the cellar where John Loubser and crew will enjoy a well-fed harvest - while diners quaff new wines like HMS Rattlesnake Sauvignon Blanc at minimal mark-up on cellar-door prices. A re-tasting of Magna Carta 2007, the cellar's flagship blend, was one of the highlights of a lunch with Loubser.

Best new wine bar/wine-list: I really enjoyed the recent launch of Cru Café, a wine-bar and bistro in the new Cape Quarter Extension. The innovative categories and contemporary selections on the wine-list and wine flight concepts created by Cape Wine Master Elsie Pells suits the consumer-friendly approach to wine in the 2010 tourist zone. The wine-bar is worth visiting to enjoy Roland Searle's hilarious wine caricatures alone. I also enjoyed wine tastings in 2009 in the Wine Loft at One&Only Cape Town - a stunning new showcase for Cape wine at the V&A Waterfront.

Best varietal tasting: Paul Cluver attracted media to an event billed as "the Sauvignon story" - a benchmark tasting of the last six vintages of a signature variety of the Elgin estate. Debunking a myth that local Blancs don't age well, Paul Cluver commented, "The biggest mistake is to judge Elgin Sauvignon too soon - South African Sauvignon needs time in the bottle." In a Savvy lesson, we learned which of six clones produce which flavours - and how minerality, natural acidity and restraint are the hallmarks of Paul Cluver Sauvignon. Winemaker Andries Burger quips "I don't make Dolly Parton Sauvignon Blanc" - instead his style of Sauvignon Blanc takes "the middle road between Loire and New Zealand - not kiwi gooseberry Sauvignon".

Best Bordeaux blend tasting: Charles Hopkins once told Emil den Dulk "You need to be niche - otherwise you're dead". Celebrating a decade of winemaking at De Toren in 2009, media were treated to a tasting of the sublime maiden 1999 vintage of Fusion V as well as recent vintages. At the winemake's table, we learned about the art of the big blend. Albie Koch, a perfectionist, revealed that up to 1% variation in the assemblage of the five Bordeaux varieties changes the outcome, they bottle and archive every variety separately - and monitor the blend components every five years.

(* I was unable to attend the 25th vintage anniversary tasting of Delheim's Grand Reserve blend in 2009 - another landmark when it comes to great Cape red blends.)

Best Rhône blend tasting: Cellar master Dewaldt Heyns recently led a vertical tasting of the first five vintages of Saronsberg Full circle over lunch at La Colombe. The passionate winemaker is serious about making a great blend. He reveals, "We're working with young vineyards. The best is still to come. You've got to believe in yourself - and stick to what you want to do. We always use the same vineyards and the same wood treatment in the cellar (100% new French oak). No-one has ever taught me how to make a blend. The wine is only finished when it's in the bottle - and ready for release. I never take people into the cellar to taste wine in the barrel."

Best food and wine match: The special food and wine menu created for the Saronsberg wine tasting by chef Luke Dale-Roberts at La Colombe, Eat Out restaurant of the year in 2009, was by far the best match of the year - picking out the complex flavour variations of each vintage of Full Circle from year to year. We could have done without the orange and cointreau sorbet though - like palate anti-freeze.

Last but not least, the sake, sushi and sashimi tasting at Nobu at One&Only Cape Town to launch the new omakase ("from the heart") set menu was both the most unusual tasting of the year - and a showcase for global food and wine matches. We learned "the seven ways of sake" from"the devil slayer" to a bamboo carafe of sake called YK50 (after the degree the rice is polished to extract the pure grain) and 10 year old sake aged to the sound of classical music. Yellowtail (hamachi) from False Bay (and local writers) has never such an exotic treat. You're never too old to learn a new trick or toast. Pssst! Pass the unagi (eel) and an unfiltered shot of milky sake.

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."