Before we start I must state that I know very little about the art of wine. For example, all I know about ‘terroir’ is that it is the French word for ‘earth’. I am an absolute beginner (yes, and a David Bowie fan) so my contributions at wine club are usually limited to “yum”, “double/triple yum” or “it’s OK”. But I am learning, and I love wine a lot, especially a good Chardonnay that spent much time in small oak barrels. The Rustenberg Five Soldiers, for example, has the same effect on me that black lacy suspenders and three-inch stilettos have on the average man.
It is for this reason that I think I should start a wine club for people with a passion for wooded chard. Then I can print club T-shirts that read, “I like a lot of wood”. It is always so disappointing when wine merchants at festivals hesitate, slightly alarmed, even squirming a tad, when you ask them if their chard has been oaked. More often than not they respond with, “Very little.” And then they look you straight in the eye, trying to gauge whether you think six months in second-fill barrels is a little or a lot.
The delightful exception at this year’s Cellar Rats Spring Wine Festival at the Old Mill in Magaliesberg was the woman from Alvi’s Drift. She was a gushing champion for the AD chard, which tasted like the 11 months it spent in French oak and was just wonderful. She answered the question with “Lots!” but did not seem to know exactly how much. But she appeared to be bouncing with the pure joy of the thought, and, bouncing, leaned forward to find the wine in the brochure that was open on the table. She could not quite focus her fingers, so she just waved them across the page and said, “Kyk daarso, baie!” We looked and then we tasted, and without being moved in the slightest by the great number of awards bestowed on it, I made a positive note in my book. I was still busy with my first circle of the stands, so I was hoping to find lots more wood along the way. I found some.
The Christina van Loveren was of the lightly wooded variety, so I hurried by to stop at Freedom Hill. I had to wait a little for a couple that got there first. The very pretty blonde woman held our her tasting glass and asked for “semi-sweet white wine”. The vendor (I call them vendors, but often the winemaker or owner will personally attend the stand, sometimes you are advised by a merchant or wine master who may or may not be directly associated with the estate, sometimes family members pitch in, and sometimes you luck out with a student who tried to learn the specs before the show but failed) was only speechless for a second. “Eh… we don’t have that here. Try the Sauvignon Blanc over there,” he smiled, and pointed her away from his collection, trying to be helpful.
It was the first real indication that wine snobs were not the majority of attendees at the festival. Most of the folk who were there just loved the sunny weather out and a couple of glasses of wine before, after and in between meals. Like with art, there were many who did not know much about the product, but knew what they liked. Some liked to clutch their beer with their thumb, index-, middle- and ring fingers, while holding the foot of their tasting glass against the bottom of the beer cup with their pinky. I suspect these were a “beer, with a Bordeaux blend chaser” crowd. They may have mistaken the small tasting samples as shots.
The great variety of wines, ciders and home-made brews certainly meant that there was something for everyone. Like, for the group of young enthusiasts who were told by an apparent veteran, “Bru, last year we were here until they started taking down the tents and we were drinking straight out of the bottle,” there appeared to be a lot.
For me, there was the Freedom Hill 2010 Chardonnay – thirteen months in 100% new French oak barrels. It really was delicious and pipped Alvi’s Drift at the post. It was not the overall winner. In the end, shortly before the tents came down and after a terrible row with my credit card, I had to give the blue ribbon to the Bartinney chard and take it home with me. But Freedom Hill signalled the end of the first round of tasting.
I have a few personal guidelines when it comes to wine festivals. I usually start with some bubbly, trying to find the ones I am not familiar with, and then stick to one cultivar, which means that I usually end up tasting Pinot Noir, mainly because the good ones are too expensive to buy, ever. This is a good strategy at Winex, where the Sandton Convention Centre draws the kind of crowd that will most probably order the Pinot by the case load, so the estates tend to dust off a couple of bottles from the single barrel of nectar they produced, and bring them along to taste. This was not so much the case at the Old Mill, so I had to abandon the cultivar approach and try to drink what was good. I decided to have a round of white, take a break, sit down, drink some water, listen to the old-toppie band (which shone with many years’ practice) and then do a round of red.
This meant that I tasted a number of wines I would normally only have at wine club, and there were some real gems: the Meinert Riesling, which was light and fruity and not too turpine (I think Riesling often smells like turpentine and tastes like petrol, but apparently that’s only the ones Rudi calls ‘good’); the Sutherland Viognier/Rousanne blend – unusual, new, and partially wooded; and possibly the best reds at the festival, from Idiom. I tasted the Cape Blend, which slipped down like silk, and the Zinfandel (Primitivo), which tempts one into fantasising that one may be able to afford to drink R190 bottles of wine if one, say, halved one’s consumption and then halved it again, and perhaps stopped drinking in September and March altogether. Or something. They were really very special.
I started my red round a little late, so the Meinert Synchronicity was finished by the time I got there, but I tasted the La Barry and the Merlot – the former smooth, uncomplicated and easy-drinking, the latter an impressive attempt with a grape that, some say, rarely does well on its own. (The Meinert Merlot would get a double yum at wine club.) And I had a great chat with Martin Meinert, who is affable and keen to engage any arbitrary passer-by in conversation about wine at a level they can actually understand. I was completely charmed, and did not feel like an idiot once. Something for everyone, as I said.
It was my first time at the festival, an annual institution at the Old Mill, and I was chuffed no end to have made it this year. It is an energetic and happy affair. Hundreds of people brought blankets, eezy shades, chairs, food, children and dogs and the carefree melange of these elements spread itself on the Highveld winter grass in the spirit of generous neighbourliness. We sat under a tree close to the band who made passionate, pitch-perfect covers of popular songs that were on average 20 years old. One could sing right along. There was no drunken uproar, there was no aggravation that I saw. It was a cool-but- sunny spring afternoon filled with music and a bunch of folk communing with Dionysus. It was very groovy. It was also nearly time to go.
In a last look around, I held out my tasting glass for the Tierhoek Chardonnay. It was wooded, and in spite of its meagre six months‘ oak I had a little taste – I get sentimental towards home time at the end of a splendid party. It was surprisingly pleasing. I hesitated. I asked a second opinion – it is so rare to find a value-for-money chard that is also lovely to drink (the last one I discovered was the Cloverfield; at something like R42 a bottle it still has the best deliciousness-to-rand ratio of any wine for me, ever) that one has to be careful to keep one’s wits about one – sometimes the wine lies.
I read the Tierhoek label, and I think I fell a little bit in love. The farm is described as “one of the loneliest wineries in the Cape” – a devilishly cunning phrase that touches your heart even before you go to the website and see the pictures of the simplicity and remoteness of this Sandveld estate, 760m high in the Piekenierskloof on the edge of the Cederberg. It is one of my favourite parts of the country, relentlessly rugged and beautiful. The thought of making wonderful wine in such a place is almost unbearable. It was clearly time to go home and recover.
I was sober enough not to buy cases of the chard, something that will probably bother me for a couple of months, ceaselessly, when I will call the estate to find out where I can find a bottle in Joeys for a 2nd tasting. In my imaginary wine club for wooded-Chardonnay lovers, that would be the right thing to do.