Last week I was back in South Africa for a fortnight and this trip was designated primarily as a wine tasting and networking with other bloggers, cookbook authors, chefs etc. trip. I visited several wineries in the Paarl, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek area, including Fairview, Simonsig, Muratie, and a few in the Constantia area, Eagle’s Nest, Buitenverwachting and Groot Constantia but the highlight of my trip was the Robertson valley.
Robertson Wine Valley Statistics
- Number of vines planted in the area: 48.7 million
- Produces about 199 000 tons of wine grapes
- Has 14.25% of South Africa’s total area under vine
- Mostly planted white varieties: Chardonnay, Colombar and Chenin Blanc
- Mostly planted red varieties : Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Ruby Cabernet
- Would not be able to grow grapes in the area, if it were not for the river running through the valley
- One hectare of land is home to between 3 000 and 6 000 vines and sometimes even up to 10 000
- There are between 35 and 60 clusters of grapes per vine
- Each bottle of wine contains about 1,5 kg of grapes.
- One vine produces between 24 and 36 glasses of wine
- A ton of grapes makes about 720 bottles of wine
- One barrel of wine equals 1 800 glasses of wine
While Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and even Paarl are often regarded as the hub of the South African wine industry, those in the know will point you in the direction of Robertson as the new star of the SA wine scene. The popularity of this wine producing region reaching new heights in the last few years. So, Stuart and I set off in our Noddy sized rental car. From Cape Town, it takes about 2 hours to drive to Robertson along very easy, freeways, a tunnel and a small stretch of beautiful mountain pass, the du Toit’s Kloof pass.
First stop was Graham Beck
Graham Beck’s Robertson estate, Madeba, is situated in the breathtaking Breede River Valley bordering the semi-arid Little Karoo region. The unique dry, cool climate of the Robertson region combined with the rich limestone soils produce wines with universal appeal and star quality. Their state-of-the-art Cap Classique cellar delivers Méthode Champenoise style wines worthy of their reputation as among the best in the world. The cellar is divided into three sections. Cellar 1 is dedicated to sparkling wine production, barrel maturation and wine tasting. Cellar 2 is where the grapes are received after harvest and also houses the fermentation and maturation tanks, while Cellar 3 is reserved for bottling, storage and container loading. Guided by the superb cellar-master, Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira.
The team adheres to their winemaking mantra: ‘quality is not a destination, it is a journey’. Their mission: the eternal pursuit of the perfect bubble!
I had arranged for the cellar-master, Pieter, also known as Mr Bubbles, to take us on a tour of the facility and guide us in a private tasting. Now, for all those of you who know me, and my great love of champagne and all things bubbly, you can just imagine my excitement and anticipation for this particular stop. All I can say is that my expectations, although very high, were greatly surpassed. It was by far, the best, most informative, most fun tour that I have ever done. Pieter spent a good part of 2 hours with us. We got to see and experience the entire process involved in making a bottle of their sparkling wine. Not being in Champagne, they cannot call it champagne and so in South Africa, bubbly is called MCC, Methode Cap Classique, if it is made in exactly the same way as in France. All our questions were answered and most were answered before we even thought to ask them due to his amazingly informative tour of the cellars and bottling and packing facilities. Then came the highlight of the day, the tasting. Graham Beck, from this year onwards, now makes only bubbly as they want to concentrate on what they do best. And believe me, they are the best when it comes to MCC. Their range consists of 7 bubblies. There are three non vintages (NV), Brut NV, Brut Rosé NV and Bliss Demi Sec NV; a Blanc de Blancs, a Vintage Brut Rosé, a Brut Zero and the Cuvée Clive. All were superb and could compete very easily with any French champagne. Do not let anyone tell you that South Africa does not make excellent wines. In fact, I would say that their Cuvée Clive is as good, if not better, than any of the top Champagne houses.
My favourites were the Blanc de Blanc, (Produced from 100% Chardonnay this delicious and versatile bubbly combines rich creamy aromas with hints of fresh lime fruit on the nose. On the palate you can expect an exciting fine mousse with an explosion of tangerines. Great brioche and yeast complexity broadens the palate leading to a long elegant finish), Brut Zero, (Brut Zero represents the ultimate transparency in premium Méthode Cap Classique. This extra special cuvée was created without the use of dosage resulting in a deliciously different and more natural style of bubbly. With no added sugar, what remains is a sparkling wine in its purist form. This style of wine can only be made in truly exceptional vintages. This exceptional and highly exclusive wine (a blend of 78% Chardonnay and 22% Pinot Noir) remained on the lees for 60 months (five years) before disgorgement. Elegant, fresh and lively, the Brut Zero is a study in rich minerality. Fresh green apples and hints of brioche, citrus and barely perceptible iris perfume develop on the mid-palate as the wine is left to stand. Brut Zero joins the ranks of the very few zero dosage wines – these having been almost non-existent a few years ago. It’s a category gaining in popularity among chefs, sommeliers and food enthusiasts. Virtually sugar free, the natural salt affinity of this zero-dosage wine makes it the ideal partner to crustacean dishes and sushi.“Making this style of sparkling wine is a challenge and a risk: there is no margin for error in a zero dosage wine,” explains Graham Beck cellar master Pieter Ferreira. “That’s why there are so few of them – it’s an avant-garde style.” and the Cuvée Clive, (Their most prestigious and exclusive Cap Classique yet. This Cuvée is produced only in vintages of exceptional qualities from the two classic varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The fruit for the Chardonnay is from the rich limestone vineyards on the estate in Robertson while the Pinot Noir is from their estate in Firgrove, Stellenbosch. Both varietals were hand-picked with the Chardonnay contributing fruit and elegance and the Pinot Noir complexity and length of flavour. In the cellar both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were whole bunched pressed, separately. Only the highest quality juice (tête de cuvée) was settled overnight and then fermented in stainless steel at 16°C, with a small portion of Chardonnay fermented in specific Piece Champenoise (205 L) oak barrels. After fermentation the portions were selected to enhance the minerality, elegance and finesse. It was then bottled for the secondary bottle fermentation with a minimum of 60 months yeast contact before disgorgement. This exceptionally complex, yet subtle MCC is approachable and round with the potential to age and remarkably versatile with food.)
What a wonderful start to our wine tasting in Robertson. But that was not all. Before leaving Pieter asked me where else we were headed to and I showed him my list of suggestions in no particular order. He offered to call two places on the list as they were good friends of his and set up a tour for us with the owners/wine makers. What a treat!
The Robertson wine valley boasts a number of well-loved and quality estates, but one of the most prominent must surely be Springfield Estate. The Bruwer family are fourth generation wine farmers and ninth generation descendants of French Huguenots. The current owners are brother-and-sister team Abrie and Jeannette Bruwer. Their hands-on and involved philosophy towards wine-making ensures each wine is crafted uniquely and in the most natural way possible. Pieter had set up a meeting for us with Abrie. Once again the generosity of his time and just plain niceness of a complete stranger totally amazed me. We started with a tasting of their wines while waiting for Abrie to join us.
They have 5 whites and 3 reds. They are well known for their whites, the most well known and absolutely delicious being The Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc, Life from Stone derives its name from the incredibly rocky soils in which it is grown. Every year the vineyard battles against nature in order to produce highly concentrated, powerful wines with a flinty, mineral character true to the quartz rock in which it is grown. Monumental human effort was required to plant the vines – implements destroyed, and, in the case of the older vineyards, dynamite deployed. They also produce another Sauvignon Blanc, two Chardonnays and a white blend. The reds are two Cabernet Sauvignons and a Bordeaux blend. The methode ancienne Cabernet Sauvignon is excellent with an intense berry flavour and colour. No sooner had Abrie arrived than we felt we had known him as a good friend for years. In the bakkie and off for a tour of the estate with Abrie pointing out all the various vines, the issues experienced with growing grapes in this rather harsh climate and soil and the bureaucracy surrounding the industry in South Africa. He took us to see all his heavy machinery and equipment, many of which he has designed himself to cope with his terroir and then after about 2 hours of the most fascinating tour, we headed to the cellar and the bottling and packing facility. Once again, we visited every nook and cranny and after we had asked millions of questions, Abrie invited us to stay for a cup of tea on the veranda overlooking the lake in front of the tasting room. Sheer bliss. What a way to spend the afternoon.
Two excellent stops, Graham Beck and Springfield, and 5 hours later, we headed to the Robertson Small Hotel, our lodging for the night.
Robertson Small Hotel
Situated in the heart of Robertson, a favorite tourist attraction spot that’s located along the longest wine route in the world, Route 62, resides the chicly quaint Robertson Small Hotel providing luxury accommodation and fine cuisine all year round. It is a 5 star, boutique hotel that also hosts its signature restaurant, Reuben’s at the Robertson. Well known Chef Reuben Riffel’s newest restaurant is a recipe for sheer elegance and success.
This superb boutique hotel comprises ten luxurious guest suites. The service from all the staff was exemplary, the room huge and furnished with elegance. We were upgraded to a pool side suite on arrival and once settled in, we got ready for dinner at Reubens.
The restaurant is small and intimate yet has an air of coolness due to its all white design.
We shared a biltong tart as a starter, a good choice as it is a local South African delicacy. The tart was small yet very flavourful and creamy.
As a main course, I chose one of my favourite fish, kingklip. It was served with an interesting orange and coconut sauce. I found the sauce a bit too tart for my taste and might have preferred a lemon sauce.
Stuart settled on the crispy pork belly which I think was the better choice, The meat was meltingly tender and full of flavour and served with an assortment of baby vegetables.
For dessert we chose to share the malva pudding. This is a South African classic and one of my favourite desserts. However this one was very disappointing. It was a take on a deconstructed malva pudding but by doing that, it lost the delicious gooey, moist texture usually associated with that dessert. The pudding was dry and not at all representative of the classic.
Coffee was accompanied by two date balls, another South African delicacy and those were definitely up to scratch and took me back to memories of my childhood and buying them at school bake-sales.
We finished off the evening with a glass of port and an amarula in the bar and turned in for a good nights sleep after a busy day of wine tasting and touring.
The hotel offers complementary breakfast to all guests and is well worth trying.
Day 2 involved more wine tasting and touring and will be included in the next blog entry. Stay tuned….