Vergelegen's Stables restaurant
The interior of Vergelegen's Stables
Stables restaurant at Vergelegen
The exterior of the restaurant at Laborie
Sofia's at Morgenster
Building brand synergy at the Cellar-door
04 May 2012 by Graham Howe
Graham Howe reports on the role of signature chefs and signature
varieties, hospitality and heritage values, in building cellar-door
destinations at four iconic Cape wine gateways.
A tasting in situ at cellar is almost always preferable to a wine launch in the city. Wine always seems to taste at its best at its source. Wine travels well - all over the world - but a tasting at its origin among the vineyards where it is grown is always a more memorable experience. Attracting visitors to the cellar-door is a sure-fire way of building brand-loyalty among consumers who will forever associate the memory of a cellar visit with the imagery of a familiar wine label on a faraway shelf or wine-list.
Take a recent wine launch at Paul Cluver under ancient trees at the family’s heritage homestead in Elgin, a stopover on the old wagon trail from Cape Town to the interior - on a farm described by Lady Ann Barnard in her diaries. Talk about a unique sense of place. Who could forget tasting Paul Cluver Riesling overlooking the rich ironstone soils of the very vineyard which gave its name to the Ferricrete Riesling made for Woolworths? When Dr Paul Cluver talks about the river stones, the flinty minerality of this wine lingers on the palate as long as the botrytis in their late harvest Riesling.
The art of food and wine pairing was showcased to wine writers and trade at the launch of Paul Cluver’s Seven Flags Pinot Noir, a sought-after ticket on the Cape wine calendar. Wine and food of origin - home-grown beef from this old sheep, cattle and fruit farm settled by the Cluver family in 1896 - was served with farmhouse skilpadjies, fritters and osso bucco prepared by renowned chef Craig Cormack (of Overture at Hidden Valley and Sofia’s at Morgenster). There is a deep sense of continuity at the farm where winemaker Andries Burger has handled fifteen vintages.
Pinot Noir is the “pinnacle” variety for Paul Cluver - a cellar which has grown four versions of the variety Pinot Noir since planting the first Burgundian clones in the early 1980s. Winemaker, father and son spoke about their shared passion for Pinot - “Elgin is the most exciting region to grow this variety. We’ve seen an improvement every year at Paul Cluver. It’s been a real learning curve. Seven Flags Pinot is our commitment to excellence. The 2009 is the best vintage ever - sourced from one of our old vineyards.” A key debate is whether to focus on varietal character or terroir.
When it comes to wine and food on the farm, a signature chef is as important to the drawing power of a wine cellar as the winemaker. On my tasting rounds around the winelands, I also attended the launch of the chic new tasting centre and Stables, one of two new restaurants (bistro and fine dining) at Vergelegen (1700). A multi-million rand modern makeover of the heritage offerings at one of the Cape’s big five wine tourism destinations makes Vergelegen a key gateway to the winelands on any tourist itinerary. We rediscovered the many attractions of its octagonal gardens, ancient camphors, camellia and rose gardens, bontebok, nguni kraals and gravity-fed cellar.
Andre Van Rensburg - a winemaker with staying power who has made fifteen vintages at Vergelegen - led a tasting of signature Sauvignon Blanc blocks in the cellar. He also unveiled his new DNA 2006, an exciting new Cabernet Franc led blend which bears his actual thumbprint - to symbolise the cellar’s commitment to wines which express the terroir. The new releases were paired to tapas off the new menu at Stables (a family bistro-style venue) designed by culinary guru Garth Stroebel, a mentor of modern South African cuisine. The wine-list adds value to a cellar-door visit by showcasing Vergelegen wines by the glass and bottle, tempting visitors with limited releases and back vintages of Vergelegen’s flagships - V, the Estate Red and White.
A visit to Vergelegen is never complete without a controversial quote or two from the outspoken winemaker who is now showing the French how to make a Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend along the lines of Cheval Blanc. On a tour of his individually named blocks tagged in micro-tanks in cellar, Andre van Rensburg declares, “There’s no f***g way I’ll ever name a vineyard after a kiwi or anywhere in Pretoria”!
While in the Helderberg vicinity, another annual highlight of my wine dairy is the launch of Morgenster’s two estate blends. To mark the tri-centenary of the farm (founded in 1711), Morgenster also launched a flagship White 2011 this year - A classic Bordeaux blend of barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon with a Graves-style minerality. At the launch, Giorgio Nava of 95 Keerom served a fabulous lunch in the grand manor house to the new releases - pairing a sublime dish of fresh asparagus with poached egg to the maiden Morgenster White 2011 - and beef from his own farm to the flagship Lourens River Valley 2009 and Morgenster 2009 blends. All vintages back to 2001 have been re-released in a unique cellar-door proposition.
Last but not least, the annual launch of the flagship Mentors wine range at KWV’s landmark cellar complex (1918) in Paarl underscored the renaissance at this gateway to the Paarl winelands. The young trio of winemakers who have made “one of South Africa’s most awarded wine ranges in three vintages” offered wine writers insights into the evolution of a contemporary winemaking style at KWV. Cellar master Richard Rowe comments, “The Mentors range is a winemaker driven concept. It focuses on identifying key sites - and exploring the potential of a particular variety … to see how the market responds to Cabernet Franc (or Grenache Blanc and Viognier)”.
The Mentors, a boutique range from a cellar within a cellar - creates a halo effect for KWV’s huge volume brands such as Roodeberg (3.2 million litres), Golden Kaan, KWV lifestyle and Cathedral Cellar. Attractions drawing happy tourist feet to the cellar door include chocolate and brandy tastings at the KWV Emporium, a tour of the vast cellar complex - with the oldest and biggest oak vats in South Africa like Big Bill - and the priceless collection of fortified wines in vats and brandies going back to the 1930s. Only sixty tons of grapes go into the Mentors in a 300 ton boutique cellar - out of an annual crush of 11 000 tons (and another 11 000 tons of bought-in finished wine for KWV's high-volume brands).
We sampled the new Mentors releases over a superb food and wine pairing at Laborie, the showpiece heritage estate in the KWV portfolio. The restaurant was recently re-launched as Harvest under signature chef Matthew Gordon, one of the leading restaurateurs in the Franschhoek Valley. The contemporary makeover of the manor house builds on core heritage values - and features a permanent Cecil Skotnes art exhibition which will soon feature on Laborie wine labels. A new modern South African menu focuses on organic, free-range winelands produce - served with herbs and vegetables from the restaurant garden. The attention to detail in the pairings of Mentors Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc to prawn ravioli and smoked local trout were superb as was the flagship Bordeaux blend The Mentors Orchestra to Karoo lamb. At how many cellars can you finish lunch with a glass of 1973 Hanepoot Jerepigo?
When it comes to food on the farm, Cape wineries are mastering a new synergy of heritage and contemporary styles and values to build wine brands at the cellar door.
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