Category Archives: South Africa

It’s locals that are key to travels


This is my entry in the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge 12. For more info go to the challenge’s blog!

Being challenged to get out of my writing hiatus by no lesser than Anatoli and Jeff, encouraged by Linda, and having felt the drag of not writing for a while, I checked out this month’s wine writing challenge’s theme: The Armchair Sommelier won the last challenge, and picked the topic “local”.

While I have mixed feelings relating to the word “local”, and tried to write a diatribe fueled by these, I decided to spare you my anti-hipster and local does not equate good rant, and instead use this theme to sing an ode to locals, the people that make my travels awesome. After all, I like to be positive and upbeat.

One of the reasons I love traveling so much is the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, travelers and locals alike. I am keen on meeting people who have been living in a city for all their lives, or have intimate knowledge of the region (whether they are from there or just happen to live there or have spent a lot of time there). Our travels mostly revolve around where we can visit friends and tap into their local knowledge. Because it is locals that truly understand what is local and what should be part of our experience. Locals have a keen interest in you getting to know a region through their eyes, so that you can see why they love where they live.

This summer, we stayed in Tuscany for a week, in a small hamlet on a hill, about 10 miles from Siena. The next village was a couple of miles away, and it had an insanely typical tiny Italian grocery store which was our main source for fresh veggies, cheese, and meats. The store owner and I hit it off in Italian (I speak some), and one morning as I was there, a Belgian older man asked for a restaurant in English. The owner asked me to translate his directions to the Belgian and I did. As the man left, I told the owner that this was a great coincidence, because i had meant to ask him where we could eat well. He looked at me, horrified, and exclaimed: “No, no, no! Don’t go where I told him to go!! Let me think, there are no good restaurants here, but there is one, a couple of villages down the road.” He told me because he realized that I cared, and because we had a relationship with each other. It is always worth building up a relationship.

Sunset over Siena

Sunset over Siena

Last year, when we were in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, we stayed at a small guesthouse in the university part of town run by a young couple. The first morning when we came down the stairs, our host Tee asked whether we wanted western or Thai breakfast. When we said Thai (of course), he walked us to a tiny place in a side street, run by three women. The breakfast consisted of chopped chicken breast over rice cooked in chicken stock, and you added your own blend of ginger, chilis and soy sauce over it. It was divine. The ladies spoke no English, and when it was time to pay, we realized it was under a dollar. We went back every day, and our excitement about the place was only matched by the ladies’ excitement that we kept coming back. We communicated with hand and feet, as we say in German, and it was awesome. While I have no photo of the stall, I do have a photo of these local mushrooms, that our host’s mom had collected. They were delicious.

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This summer, we also went to Le Marche, a region in Eastern Italy around Ancona, and visited Tenuta San Marcello, a young biodynamic estate, at the owner’s invitation. We had met Pascale and Massimo at VinItaly in New York this spring, and they invited us. When we arrived, we were floored by their hospitality (more on that in a separate post). However, one of the most amazing things was that Massimo wanted us to use one of our two days with them to visit other wineries in the region. He set up a whole itinerary for us, we visited an olive oil maker (a retired RAI journalist who gave us a two and a half hour tour) and several winemakers. It was a stunning show of what locals can do for you, and how their love of their region can make you fall in love as well. We fell in love so hard that we changed our plans and returned for another three days with my mother in law after our stay in Tuscany.

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

Staying at Majeka House in Stellenbosch, we had a long conversation with the reception staff. After Nina had convinced them that she is outright crazy when it comes to adventures, they told her that the world’s highest commercial bungee jump was six or seven hours away on the Garden Route. We changed our itinerary to make a detour there, and while I was so scared I had zero body control anymore, the result was this awesome photo, and the knowledge that I don’t ever have to do a bungee jump again. Needless to say, Nina jumped twice.

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

During our second visit to Le Marche, Jonathan Zeiger of ZGR Imports (I wrote about his awesome business here), arranged for us to visit another winery. Jonathan is considered a local by many of the people we met, including the owner of Vignamato, Maurizio, the estate we visited with Jonathan’s help. The owner had received Jonathan’s email Saturday morning, after hosting his birthday party on Friday night for over 100 people. We spent a good three hours with him that same Saturday evening, had tons of fun, and when I asked him “dove si mangia bene” (where does one eat well? – remember that sentence when in Italy!), he thought for a while, made a phone call, and then sent us to the most enchanted little husband and wife restaurant in an old Palazzo: Osteria sotto le Mura. At first, we missed the place, because there were no signs, but another local, a cute rotund septuagenarian walked us to the restaurant once I asked.

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

While we visited my host family in Burgundy (my host brother and I have known each other for 25 years this year!), they went on a mission to make me try true local foods. Everyone knows boeuf bourguignon (Beef Burgundy) and mustards, and some might be familiar with Dijon’s spice bread pain d’epices, but there is so much more! I tried jambon persillé for the first time, which is chunks of ham in a gelée of parsley, like a terrine. It was wonderful, and the genius idea of throwing it in scrambled eggs was Nina’s. Speaking of eggs, I also had my first oefs en meurette, poached eggs covered in a red wine sauce that is similar to a bouef bourguignon sauce, just without the beef. It was eye opening in its deliciousness. I had spent significant time in Burgundy before, but these were still firsts for me. Locals have an immense trove of treasures to share, and it never gets old.

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

I could go and on (like our friend in Milan making sure I have the most extensive restaurant list for Rome, where he had lived for a couple of years or the random Boer at a rural gas station who sent us to the most amazing guesthouse that was on no internet list), but my main message is this: When you travel, go find locals and talk to them, in bars, in restaurants, in shops. You don’t need to pay a fortune to get a “guided” tour by someone. I have never contemplated this as an option, because these tours don’t allow you to do whatever you please, and go wherever the wind or local advice takes you. Even if you find yourself in a bind, there are usually tours offered directly in a town or region and this cuts out the middleman. Locals are the true heroes of my travels, and I am thrilled to meet more on my next trip. So, thank you, locals, for making my travels awesome.

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Pancake and Cupcake Tastings at Delheim

Delheim Logo

When I first received our itinerary for Stellenbosch, a pancake and cupcake pairing at Delheim Estate immediately caught my eye. Were they serious? A wine pairing with cupcakes? What crazy mind had conceived this idea? The pancakes somehow seemed more doable, but these cupcakes really made me scratch my head. In any case, being the wine explorers we are we were excited to give it a go. Unfortunately, both pancakes and cupcakes were not for Nina due to her food allergies, so this review is all on me…

Delheim Estate sits on land up in the hills that was first turned into agricultural land in the 1800s by Jan Andries, who purchased parcels of land over a 50 year period to create one farm. In 1938, Hans Otto Hoheisen bought the 200 hectares which he wanted to use as his retirement home. By 1940, he had decided on parcels of land that he wanted to cultivate vines on, cleared the scrub and got going. In 1951, the German nephew of the owners, Michael Sperling, also called Spatz Sperling (Spatz meaning sparrow, Sperling being a synonym for sparrow), joined the operation and worked at the winery for 60 years, establishing it as a leading winery in the region.

The wine that made Spatz famous is his “Spatzendreck”, which was conceived in 1961 when he poured this newly developed wine (a sweet dessert wine with a brownish color) into the glass of a friend who exclaimed “Now, Spatz, this really is just ‘dreck'”, Dreck meaning dirt. Spatz’ sense of humor is expressed in the name of the wine, and he also created a hideous label that won Decanter’s prize for worst label of the year in 1970.

The day we went to visit the winery, we met with its national sales manager Johan van Dyk in the winery’s restaurant which is located in the midst of its sprawling holdings. Johan explained to us that Delheim is particularly proud of its family-friendliness, which was not only shown by all sorts of certificates attesting it, but most vividly by the children’s birthday party that was held at another table in the restaurant: The kids were digging into the cupcakes served to them while the parents enjoyed a glass or two of wine. All this happened in a great, relaxed atmosphere. If you have kids, this is definitely your winery to visit first and foremost.

Delheim's delicious pancakes

Delheim’s delicious pancakes

I started lunch with the pancake pairing. The genius of this dish is that it comprises a starter, a main course and a dessert in three small portions of pancakes which were delicious. The menu starts with a salmon and cream cheese pancake, is followed by a lamb shank pancake and then crowned with a pickled butternut squash pancake for “dessert”. The pairings were the 2014 Pinotage Rose with the salmon, the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon with the shank, and the 2013 Edelspatz dessert wine with the squash.

The pairings really worked: The Pinotage Rose had some residual sugar with aromas of raspberry and strawberry as well as some cream and was very tasty with good acidity. Combined with the salmon pancake, it accentuated the salmon and its acidity cut through the cream cheese. We ended up taking a couple of bottles of the Rose because it was so tasty! I wish I could drink this every day on a sunny day.

The Cabernet Sauvignon, which had aromas of cooked red fruit, some cinnamon and was mostly fruit-driven, was made even fruitier by the lamb shank which also brought out more vanilla aromas in the wine. I thought the Cabernet Sauvignon was very drinkable (which, as you know, is quite the statement by me!) and the pairing did work.

Lastly, the Edelspatz with its strong aromas of canned peaches and apricot, was definitely enhanced by the butternut squash. The wine lacked some acidity for my taste and was too sweet tasting on its own. But combined with the pickled squash it was an eye opener: There were now aromas of nutmeg and cloves and the wine seemed way drier. Well done!

After the pancake pairing, Delheim Estate served us a lunch (I know, I know…I did gain tons of weight on this trip). One thing I want to mention about the lunch is how accommodating Delheim’s kitchen was to Nina’s food allergies. The kitchen had not received the memo that contained information about her allergies and so was completely unprepared, but the chef immediately came to our table, discussed Nina’s needs and came up with a wonderful curry dish which she whipped up in no time. This is a commitment to service that is rare to find worldwide, but a defining feature of our time in Stellenbosch.

I was so excited, I ate the first cupcake before I remembered to take a photo...

I was so excited, I ate the first cupcake before I remembered to take a photo…

After lunch, it was time for the cupcake pairing, which pairs four cupcakes with four of Delheim’s wines. The cupcakes were a Roiboos (which is a South African tea) cupcake, a pomegranate cupcake, a Makataan (an African melon) cupcake, and a pumpkin cupcake. These cupcakes were paired with (in order) an unwooded Chardonnay, again the Pinotage Rose, a Chardonnay Sur Lie (a Chardonnay that spend time on the lees), and the winery’s Pinotage.

Again, the pairings were interesting and accentuated different aspects of the wines and the cupcakes. For example, the Chardonnay Sur Lie, that had a bit too many bitter aromas for my taste and was a tad too alcoholic, definitely worked with the melon cupcake. The Pinotage Rose brought great acidity to the pomegranate cupcake which alone lacked that freshness. But most striking was the pumpkin cupcake and the Pinotage. The Pinotage and the cinnamon in the cupcake made for a super interesting combination that made my day…

All in all, Delheim’s line up of wines is mostly fruit driven for easy and mostly early drinking. The wines were very tasty and also quite affordable. The pairings are 70 Rand (which is about $7), so definitely, go and try it out. Great fun, you learn about your tastebuds, you get surprised by what pairings actually are capable of, and you will enjoy the leisurely atmosphere.  Make sure you make a reservation, though! The place was packed, despite this being low season.

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Meeting the Vintners: Kleine Zalze, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Entering the estate in the evening

Entering the estate in the evening

It is hard not to notice the size of Kleine Zalze’s business endeavors as you enter the compound through a security gate: To your left, you find rows of apartments, there is a lodge, and in the distance is a golf course operated by Kleine Zalze, but at the heart of these operations, geographically and by importance, is its winery.

Kleine Zalze was founded in 1685 and was purchased by the current owners Kobus and Mariette Basson in 1996. Its production is 720,000 bottles per year. The winery has between 50 and 60 hectares under vine, but it also buys grapes from 23 suppliers that have long-term contracts with Kleine Zalze. This stems from the simple fact that some grapes are simply not suited for Kleine Zalze’s holdings (like Sauvignon blanc), but are seen as essential by the owners for their portfolio. These contract growers are spread out over the Cape, with some over 400 km away from Stellenbosch. The logistics of this seemed to be quite intense, with regular inspections at the vineyards and then bringing the grapes in cooling vans to Stellenbosch so that they don’t start fermenting after picking. I know that this practice is common in many wine regions, but I think it was the first time I got to talk with a winemaker about the logistics.

With assistant winemaker Dirk van Zyl

With assistant winemaker Dirk van Zyl

Dirk van Zyl is an assistant winemaker and vineyard manager at Kleine Zalze. His family owns a small winery, so it was natural for him to go into the wine business. At Kleine Zalze, he is in charge of integrating vineyard management and winemaking. This means that a big part of his job is driving to the contract growers and inspecting their vineyards, adjusting methods and doing what is necessary there. In the cellar, he is involved in all areas of winemaking. Dirk very clearly loves his job, and he loves working at Kleine Zalze. When I asked him about future plans, he told me he wants to stay with Kleine Zalze as long as he can to learn more about different vineyard sites and cellaring methods. Eventually, he plans to return to the family farm but not for now.

Kleine Zalze produces three lines of wines (a practice that seems common in the Stellenbosch region): the Cellar Selection, which is meant for early drinking with usually low use of oak and more fruity in taste; the Vineyard Selection as the middle tier of quality, in which all white wines are barreled; and the Family Reserve, which is their highest tier.

Our line up for the night

Our line up for the night

I will focus these reviews on the high end wines for the sake of readability, but I want to point out the two whites we tasted of the Cellar Selection, a 2014 Sauvignon blanc and a 2014 Chenin blanc, which were both great easy drinking wines. The Sauvignon blanc was fruity with great acidity, and the Chenin blanc struck me with its fruit mix of guava, gooseberry and peach.

The 2012 Sauvignon blanc Family Reserve spent 12 months on the lees in stainless steel and is meant to be more in an Old World style. The color was slightly golden, and the nose was intriguing: full aromas of tropical fruit (and some banana?) and honey, with some acidity noticeable in the nose already. Most of all there was something that reminded of an older Riesling. I couldn’t nail it down to what it was, but definitely intriguing. Its mouthfeel was nicely velvety, much heavier than the Cellar Selection. Aroma-wise, I got gooseberry and green pepper, but all in all it was rather restrained, which wasn’t a bad thing. It was nice mixture of soft and muscular, with good acidity and a nice finish to it.

The 2012 Chenin blanc Family Reserve was the maiden vintage for this line’s Chenin blanc. The grapes come from three sites in Stellenbosch, which all have different soil types (granite, decomposed shell, and sand and clay mix). Vinification begins in stainless steel and then the wine spends one year on the lees in first and second fill barrels. The color was golden, and the nose quite expressive and complex. There was tons of tropical fruit (probably pineapple most prominently). On the palate, you could taste a bunch of minerality, acidity was again spot on, and the wine was creamy and balanced with an elegant finish. Everything was well made in this wine, but somehow it didn’t touch me the way it probably should have. It probably needs more time to age.

And two of the whites we tried...

And two of the whites we tried…

The 2010 Shiraz Family Reserve was made from grapes from one block which contains three different soil types which produce different kinds of grapes: some with thicker skins, others with thinner skin and therefore less tannin potential. The batches are fermented separately, some in open cement containers, and then are blended afterwards. The color was a dark ruby red, and the nose was intense and concentrated, with chocolate and coffee aromas. Nina and I both loved how well integrated the wine tasted: it was grippy with great tannins that held it all together, with dark fruit aromas and a long finish. The balance of it all was great. When I just checked Nina’s notes, I saw a smiling face beside this wine. Mine has a bunch of plusses. A total winner.

The 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve we tried comes from one block in Stellenbosch and is aged in first fill barrels for 26 months. The nose of the wine was complex and very intense, almost aggressively so. I picked up boiled green peppers, bitter chocolate and what I would describe as tomato stalks (have you ever smelled them?). Nina’s notes read pencil shavings and spice with lots of red fruit. On the palate, despite its age, the 2008 was still very firm and closed, with restrained fruit, and still a bunch of green aromas. It was very hard to assess at this stage because it didn’t really want to come out of its shell. When I voiced some frustration about this, and that I would love to try it again in three years, Dirk got up and told us to wait. He came back with a bottle of 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve that had been opened a few days before! While the nose was pretty much gone, just a whiff of prunes left, the flavor worked on this one: great tannins and what I would describe as port wine like flavors (fortified, prunes, sweet cherry). It was succulent and full, enticing and alluring. All of that topped by a long finish. This was an impressive wine, and it did give an idea of where the 2008 might be headed…if that’s the case, there’s some good times ahead for it…and what a great way to finish the tasting.

If you visit the estate, make sure you book lunch or dinner at Terroir, the restaurant on the estate. The food is exquisite and very well prepared. A must for me in Stellenbosch.

2005 Kleine Zalze Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve

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