Taste Is In The Palate of the Beholder

A lot of fuss is made annually about numerous awards, about wine guide ratings, about what the learned critics say about any particular vintage from a specific cellar. Can these opinions be used as viticultural law? Should these opinions be used as the begin-all-and-end-all of our perceptions of a specific vintage?

The answer lays not in a yes or no, but rather in the question itself. These are in fact, opinions. Perhaps learned opinions, but a personal perspective nonetheless. Attempting to see these opinions as law, rather than as a guide, is an acute error of the palate; each human is an individual and thus, the palate is individualistic. What is excellent to one, may be mediocre or unpalatable to another.

A food critic who raves about seafood, is not going to convince a meat-lover that his/her favourite restaurant is the best in the world. The same goes for wine; a wooded Viognier lover will seldom convince the Chenin drinker that Chenin is too light and crisp on the palate and not an ideal supper compliment. Yes, there are some general guidelines in wine and food, but none of these are law, they’re open to personal interpretation.

I too have been guilty of wine snobbery, turning my nose up at wine with a higher residual sugar. “What, a sweet Cap Classique? That’s so Gauteng!” I’ve uttered those words before. Yet, I have to keep my Capetonianism in check, as my palate is not everyone’s palate and some of the larger, more promising, emerging wine markets may not be as receptive to the dry, sometimes wooded wines we might deem more ‘noble’ a vintage.

The South African wine industry has been lucky this year. With a poor European crop, despite a stagnant economy in the E.U., South Africa has experienced one of the best export years ever, as our exports made up for the European wine shortage. However, this may not be the case in years to come. As developed markets reach their saturation phase, if we want to grow our industry, we may need to appeal to non-traditional markets; this means, non-traditional wines. China, Bahrain, India and south-east Asia may not have our likes-and-dislikes.

This is the case. I looked at Du Toitskloof’s limited production Vin Deux, a sparkling wine produced for eastern export, that resembles Cold Duck more than our locally lauded Sparkling Brut. We may not purchase the former for our birthday or New Year’s celebration, but another market certainly will.

Does this mean a cellar has sold out on traditional concepts of quality, or does it mean its range appeals to a wider range of palates. In a globalised world, I sincerely believe it is the latter. The Cape, European, S. Australian or Californian idea of a good vintage just isn’t going to cut it as a point of departure for all wine production.

We’re entering a brave new world where we may be producing vintages we would not consume ourselves. However, success is thinking wider than our own needs and wrapping our heads around the palates of others’. This does not mean we should abandon our traditional, well-loved favourites. Diversity is the spice of life and a diverse portfolio makes for diluted misfortune; if our eggs are in many baskets, one basket falling in a specific year will do limited harm. Is it not wiser allowing the consumer to choose which basket he/she prefers more? We think so.

Reporting On The Year That Was

DTW-Xmas

The wine industry is a fickle beast, never particularly stable, seldom predictable, always at the whims of the weather gods and often, victim of seismic shifts in fashion, political power-plays and exchange rates. Despite this, with our amazing team, from the hands that tend the soil, to those running from office to client, Du Toitskloof has managed to have a mostly positive 2013 and is looking forward to a promising new year.

We were fortunate to have had a decent harvest in early-2013. This is the cornerstone of our entire year. A failed harvest can make the following 12-months, waiting for the next income injection, an unpleasant experience indeed. Unlike most industries, one event predetermines the upcoming 12-months.

We have been blessed with a market that has been loyal to our brand. This enables us to bottle our wines in early-Autumn with confidence, knowing that most, if not all, of our cultivars will be sold-out by the time bottling takes place post-harvest in 2014.

Autumn came early, then late. Our rains arrived on schedule around Easter, but then stopped. We became quite concerned when some new vines attempted to bud in late-May. Heat suddenly surged in the late season and leaf-colouring was erratic. Luckily though, the seasons got back on track and in the last week of May, winter begun in earnest. Despite a lengthy hiatus of warmth in July, the remainder of our rainy season from August till late-September was cold and very wet.

We had two significant snow events in August and September. People outside the industry do not often realise how important winter is to us. Significant mountain snow means significant rest for the vines and we all know that great sleep makes for energetic wakefulness; this bodes well for the growing season beyond. Spring came very late, but rapidly; this has reflected in our later-than-normal season. Our Jacaranda’s only concluded flowering in mid-December – in Gauteng, it’s over by early-November.

Spring not only saw new growth on the vines. It saw the second annual Cape Cuisine Cook-off with Muratie Estate. A successful event that grows from year-to-year, bringing two cellars and the who’s who of the culinary arts together in the Cape Winelands. This year’s theme was Cape-Malay cuisine. We look forward to the fresh, new, endemic ideas for the 2014 event to be held at our cellar once more.

Soon thereafter, we announced the inaugural Wine Writer of the Year Award, in conjunction with Standard Bank. It was to have an esteemed panel of judges and outstanding auditing standards, ensuring objectivity and absolute credibility. We wanted to become synonymous with supporting free-thought and fresh ideas in the wine industry, becoming an incubator for our industry’s creative talent.

The culinary developments with our brand didn’t just stop with the Cape Cuisine Cook-off. In late-Spring, the announcement of the year came, Du Toitskloof Wines would become the official sponsor of South Africa’s premier Afrikaans-language cooking competition, Kokkedoor. This would catapult the brand into more Southern African homes than ever before.

To complement this, we needed to think bigger when it came to distribution. If we were to be distributed digitally over satellite throughout DStv’s footprint, to complement this, we needed our bottles to be distributed far-and-wide, from Kalahari to coast. The partnership between Namaqua Distribution and ourselves was born, taking our wines to more corners of the sub-continent than ever before.

In late-November, the first annual Wine Writer of the Year Award went to Tim James. Despite having few entries, the famous names in this arena were represented. Standard Bank recommitted themselves to 2014. It’s certain, given the credibility earned, that the competition will continue to grow and new names will begin to enter in the coming years.

We had quite a scare in November, when a vicious Black Southeaster combined with a cut-off-low to bring the Western Cape some of the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in November. Some regions of our province, like Somerset West, experienced significant damage and some loss of life was even recorded. We were fortunate to come out relatively unscathed, except for some sporadic damage near rivers draining mountains to the south-west. Our harvest seems to have weathered the storm mostly unscathed.

Now as 2013 draws to a close, the summer heats up and the grapes ripen, our 2014 harvest is looking pretty good, despite the ups and downs. Plus, with our new partnerships and sponsorship deals, the new year is looking bright and hopefully, prosperous. We hope we can pass this prosperity on to our producers, our staff and our FairTrade empowerment project, as well as you, by continuing to provide exemplary wines at approachable prices.

Du Toitskloof wishes you and yours a joyous holiday season and a fun-filled new year; may 2014’s challenges bear fruit and may you look back on this coming year in late-2014 with fondness. We look forward to being in your homes’ and at your special occasions’ in 2014 and in many years to come. 

Building Trust in Critical Thought

Johan de Wet (DuToitskloof Wines chairperson) left with (2013 winner) Tim James right.

Johan de Wet (DuToitskloof Wines chairperson) left with (2013 winner) Tim James right.

On the 22nd of November, Du Toitskloof Wines and Standard Bank awarded the first annual Wine Writer of the Year Award to Tim James. A prize of R30,000 was given for his critical piece on the impacts of climate change on the South African wine industry. The actual article is still under embargo, for the exclusivity of publishing houses.

Wine writers do not have it particularly easy. Their reputation as leaders of critical thought may proceed them, but the payment for the value they add is not always forthcoming. The South African wine industry is notoriously small. This can complicate the environment for those who wish to point out inconsistencies in the industry, who wish to be critical of cellars or appellations, or those who wish to push the envelope of free thought.

When one believes one’s work is not adjudicated without bias, is can be disheartening. There is nothing greater that shackles the creative-mind more, than the notion that independent opinion is stifled and that free thought goes uncelebrated. However, this slight negativity has been turned on its head by the ironclad vetting, strict auditing and administrative integrity of the Du Toitskloof Wines and Standard Bank Wine Writer of the Year Awards.

The awe was palpable at the awards evening, held on the 22nd of November at Terra Mare in Paarl. There was a relieved disbelief that Du Toitskloof Wines and Standard Bank, the convener and headline sponsor, had no knowledge of who the entrants were, until that night; that names were only given by the independent auditors PriceWaterhouseCoopers, to the PR agency, for invitational purposes only. Entrants were astounded by the organiser’s lack of inside information.

This is how it should be done. This allows that free thought and independent opinion to be just that, free and independent. The fervor with which PriceWaterhouseCoopers kept any details under lock-and-key rendered undue influence impossible. 

It is also important to note, that the judging panel was academic-heavy. If the judging is seen as being populated by industry insiders, credibility goes a begging. However, when you have the esteemed Dr. Gawie Botma, chair of the Stellenbosch Department of Journalism, convening a panel of academics and writers, like Erns Grundling, Maureen Joubert and Prof. Ian Glen, the quality of interpretation of opinion is cemented. Despite the reported high-quality of each entrant, the judging panel was unanimous in its decision of the 2013 winner, highlighting the exemplary nature of Tim James’ writing.

It came to light that only five entrants were received; albeit a small step forward, a cursory glance around the venue would have you believe that all the top wine writers were present and this was indeed the case. All the biggest names entered. It is acknowledged however, that new blood is necessary, for new blood is to the body as new thought is to critical opinion.

The value of translating scientific jargon into layman’s terms is unquantifiable. The research, effort and subsequent simplification of Climate Change terminology is invaluable, as it is now within easy reach of the industry and those interested in it. The publication possibilities and knowledge gained, by writing about such a critical issue, cannot be underestimated.

It is also hoped, the competition will gain traction and fame as the years go by, transforming the notion that the-other-side-of-the-mountain is ‘that lesser part of the Winelands,’ to being ‘a region synonymous with excellence, global-reach and innovative ideas.’

One cannot expect the wine writing fraternity to fall in love with another competition overnight. Trust and respect is earned. We hope our respectful actions will embolden that trust. It is clear for us and for Standard Bank that 2013 was just the beginning for Wine Writer of the Year. The affections from those who entered gave us a similar indication of long-term commitment. That 2014 will see a greater influx as credibility of the process is made known.

We raise a glass of Brut to the custodians of free thought. We raise this glass to those who had initial confidence in us. We raise the glass to those who will follow suit in 2014. As long as we are the purveyors of value-for-money wines, we will be the purveyors of progress and excellence in a notoriously difficult industry, for without critical self-reflection, we cannot hope to grow and improve. 

By Andres de Wet

Changing Face of Wine Patrons

Long gone are the days when wine-drinking was the pursuit of a certain demographic, a certain age group and a certain culture. Some traditionalists may lament the manoeuvres of a romantic-industry becoming approachable and accessible. However, we find it heart-warming to see the spectrum of wine consumers broadening.

This shift has been evident in the changing demographics of festival-goers in the Western Cape, with the latest Soetes & Soup Festival in Breedekloof being no exception. Change is in the air, or shall we say, in the nose, and it’s not the vintages adding a different flavour to South Africa’s wine industry. The broad tapestry that is South Africa’s diverse populous is coming out in force more readily; it is adding a richer dynamic to wine appellations that were previously perceived to be overtly conservative and monocultural.

This diversification is excellent for the wine regions in question; it diversifies the tourism offering as customers become broader in their amenity needs, it adds multiculturalism to lesser-known districts and forces wine producers to think broadly, creatively and become more innovative.

It doesn’t help only empowering the staff associated with the production of wine, as is the case with FairTrade; consumers of all backgrounds need to feel welcome if a brand is to be perceived as “progressive.” Du Toitskloof has always prided itself on being “progressive.” Thus, our utter joy in seeing the tapestry of whom we welcome into our cellar doors and at our tasting-stands becoming more varied. Slowly but surely, we are becoming a universal brand with universal appeal.

The most successful tourism brands in the world are those that are known as “diverse and welcoming destinations.” It is not the exclusive, aloof and single-minded destinations that warm the hearts of potential visitors. It’s this reason why a city like Riyadh does not attract the same numbers as Dubai does.

This is what we’re aiming to achieve be diversifying our offering, including enlarging our deli, improving our landscaping and tasting room, adding adventure-tourism options and broadening our wine offering with the likes of Quest and Cape Beach Club. We want you to feel welcome in our ‘home’ and we want you to enjoy our fruits-of-the-vine whilst building fond memories. No matter your origin, hue or language, we want you to become part of the Du Toitskloof family. The more the merrier!

FacesofDTK-Jul2013Blog copy

 

By: Andres de Wet

Writing the Climate

This article is one of schizophrenia, tackling the seemingly unrelated topics of wine-writing and climate change. Du Toitskloof Wines launched its own Wine Writer of the Year Competition on July 5th. The topic chosen was “The consequences of climate change for the South African Wine Industry.” Someone decried over Twitter that the subject matter was dry. Correct sir, reduced rainfall and excessive heat is very dry indeed.

 

Summer heat waves becoming unbearable & destructive
Summer heat waves becoming unbearable & destructive

I understand what he meant.  However it became clear, few urbanites realise how bad things could get by 2050. Some city-dwellers only realise the impact the climate has on them, when the municipal taps run dry and agricultural produce prices skyrocket. Few realise this topic is the biggest long-term concern for the industry. Short-term issues like land-tenure legislation and labour relations weigh heavily on the minds of the wine industry; but no other issue could cause a literal viticultural apocalypse, like the aforementioned.

Du Toitskloof wants to be associated with sustainable agri-business practices, hence being a proud FairTrade member. Being associated with creative talent giving the industry and wine-consumer perspectives on all-that-is-wine, is another passion. Thus, we’ve created the perfect marriage of topic and project in Wine Writer of the Year.

Many wine-educated people know basics like: Pinot noir prefers cooler regions than Pinotage does. However, what we need to know in the South African Wine Industry is: what will happen twenty to thirty years from now? How will the weather patterns change? Where will vines still be grown and where not? Will Pinot noir still thrive in coastal areas, or will our future climate render it impossible? Will interior districts still be able make quality Sauvignon blanc? The biggest question: Will we still have seasons and enough water?

Whether we like it or not, grapes are Vitis vinifera, a deciduous vine species endemic to Europe and Asia-Minor, originally found from Morocco and Portugal in the south, to Germany in the north and northern Iran in the east. This area has seasons, its nominate climate is wet and cool winters (with snow in the north of the range) and drier, warm summers. If Vitis vinifera loses its seasons, it cannot thrive. It’s a deciduous plant: no winter, no fruit and like all things, no water… death!

South Africa’s wine regions are particularly vulnerable. Situated precariously around 34°South at the mild tip of an otherwise, very hot continent. There isn’t anywhere to go, but into the Southern Ocean, and Vitis vinifera and kelp are not good companion plants. Unlike Europe, South America or even Australia, there isn’t any land further from the equator to migrate towards. Basically, climate change could force the winter-providing, rain-laden cold fronts south of the continent, as the sub-tropical high pressure system strengthens and moves poleward. If this happens, is the gig up? Does the Cape’s favourable Mediterranean Climate cease to exist and become sub-tropical semi-arid? If it does happen, how long do we have left?

Already, snow levels are rising annually, rainfall is increasingly unpredictable, summer heat-waves are getting unbearable and heat-incursions into mid-winter are becoming commonplace. Autumnal colour-change and leaf-drop is becoming more erratic and dull and early-budding more problematic.

This is where the wine writers will be of extreme value. Many of these questions have not been answered. Much of the science, the climatic analysis and agriculture economics have not yet been fused into a cohesive whole, for easy digestion by the South African Wine Industry. The industry can see things are changing, but few answers or insights are forthcoming on this hot-potato topic.

Du Toitskloof has turned up the metaphorical heat on South Africa’s scribing talent. We trust we’ll get some takers and they’ll provide us with some sorely needed knowledge on this “hot” topic. The goal is fostering creative talent and becoming a custodian of knowledge. R30,000 is one small step for wine writers and one giant leap for an industry seeking answers to such a grave concern.

By: Andres de Wet

Wine Writers’ Competition details, log on to: http://www.dutoitskloof.com/pagelist.aspx?CLIENTID=1088&Type=Wine%20Writers&Title=WINE%20WRITERS%20COMPETITION

Master-Coup For Winelands

Arnold Tanzer (MasterChef: Food on the Move), Samantha Linsell (MasterChef Food Stylist: Drizzle&Dip), Benny Masekwameng (MasterChef Judge)

Arnold Tanzer (MasterChef: Food on the Move), Samantha Linsell (MasterChef Food Stylist: Drizzle&Dip), Benny Masekwameng (MasterChef Judge)

MasterChef season two began airing on M-NET with great fanfare, being heavily punted by the South African pay-TV broadcaster and well-received by the South African viewing public. What can be said with the greatest conviction is that the production quality of this hit reality TV-series is beyond compare. The food styling, wine presentation, culinary complexity, camera work and post-production mastery have not been seen on this level in local South African productions, until now.

How lucky are we that this reality TV masterpiece takes place at Nederburg in Paarl, a huge coup for the Cape Winelands. We can only hope that international TV-stations will snap up this series from M-NET, to give our region some exposure outside of Africa and DStv’s footprint. The show puts the Cape on show, both scenically and culinarily. Seafood on the West Coast, to traditional Cape-cuisine in the Winelands, Cape Malay in the city’s Bo-Kaap to food on the open fire at Mzoli’s in Gugulethu – it is proudly South African and boastful of the diversity in a mere 150km radius of Cape Town in every possible way.

MasterChef has popularised food and wine. It has turned its creative masters into overnight sensations. We have been fortunate enough to host the friendly, knowledgeable and talented Benny Masekwameng (MasterChef SA judge) at DuToitskloof Cellar, at a culinary competition in August 2012. It has made food and wine “hip and happening” again, taking the passion out of 5-star restaurants and classy wine estates and right into people’s hearts and homes.

I had reservations about the show, prior to season one’s launch in March of 2012. The Australian version of the show is stellar, albeit extremely lengthy, and tops their national viewership rankings. The American version, although boasting Gordon Ramsay, was an epic fail. The U.S. need for speed trumped the format, with the series feeling rushed, one was unable to emotionally attach to the contestants and the challenges and culinary complexity was lackluster to say the least. Not with MasterChef SA however. They opted for a hybrid between the Australian and American versions and their season two, seems to be following the successful former’s format more closely than season one.

The largest reservation was about South African broadcasters’ Johannesburg-centricity. As much as the economic juggernaut has the bulk of local television infrastructure; a culinary, viticulture and fresh-produce capital it is not. Any thought of a culinary contest being held on the Highveld was as absurd as having a mining-entrepreneurship ‘Apprentice’ series set in Cape Town. To my delight, Paarl emerged bright, mountainous and carpeted in vines, on screen; a mere twenty minutes drive from our cellar’s front door.

We hope the start of season two will bolster interest in the Cape Winelands even more, as a scenic culinary and viticulture destination beyond compare. It is hoped it will broaden the scope of people’s perceptions of the region, of being more than just Stellenbosch. When you’re struck by the helicopter-shot panorama of the approach to the MasterChef kitchen, notice the mountains beyond. There lies the gateway to our region, just a few kilometers over the peaks.

Hopefully, our region too, can learn lessons from this show. Popularisation can be positive if it’s done sensitively, fusing the genuineness of what you have to offer with intense public interest. Given that MasterChef is only a mountain range away, here’s to foisting our region into the popular spotlight.

By: Andres de Wet

Green Secrets of Winter

Hex River Valley from the N1

Hex River Valley from the N1

February is always too scorching whilst June is always too wet and frigid: Capetonians can be a fickle lot. We live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, blessed with weather that most people find utterly temperate; with neither the stifling humidity of Miami, nor the thermo-fan oven that is Dubai, nor the blast-chiller that is Toronto nor the chilly, gloom that is London. Yet, we often confine ourselves to the office, shop and home when the “mild winter chill” sets in from June to September.

Yet, this is when the Cape really goes to town; this is when she dresses

Fonteintjiesberg above Worcester from Nuy

Fonteintjiesberg above Worcester from Nuy

in her winter best, when hardly any tourists even sneak a peek. Taking a break into the country is truly awe-inspiring when the Cape adorns her green garb of the Secret Season. At no other time of the year are the colours more vivid, the atmosphere more crisp and clear and the pursuit of great cuisine and fine reds, more fulfilling.

Take the N1 east from Cape Town. As you travel through the rolling hills of Joostenbergvlakte between Bellville and Paarl, an emerald-green landscape greets you in a genteel fashion reminiscent of Ireland. The N1 then turns slightly northward as it enters the beautiful Berg River Valley of Paarl, with the mountains looming larger now – if lucky enough to make the trek after a winter storm, snow will greet you on the Klein Drakenstein Ranges. Paarl has numerous hidden tourist gems like the language monument and a plethora of excellent restaurants, serving all manner of tasty fare.

Venture over the mountains. On a clear day, opt for the R101 DuToitskloof Pass in lieu of the N1 Huguenot Tunnel. The waterfalls, green fynbos-clad mountainsides and high-altitude vistas are unparalleled. Here, the mountain snow becomes more evident, with the 1995m high DuToit’s Peak often poking into the clouds as a frosted, jagged spire.

Late-autumn colours at Du Toitskloof producers

Late-autumn colours at Du Toitskloof producers

The Breede River Valley opens up on the other side, with a patchwork of stark, dormant vines, with the deep green of winter grass covering each patch of open earth. The mountains are higher, their snow-capped summits, more beautiful. Turning off at R101 Rawsonville, you begin to take in the Breedekloof Wine Route. Here is where you’ll find DuToitskloof Cellar. Take in a scrumptious deli lunch and dabble in some of our value-for-money wines, our multi-award-winning Dimension red and our lauded fortified wines, like Hanepoot Jerepigo, Red Muscadel and Cape Ruby (Port). Do not turn your nose up to the sweeter wines. Given a cold snap, a fire place and appropriate hors d’oeuvre or dessert, there is no better option to warm the heart and enhance the ambience.

Venturing through the surrounding wine route is rewarding, most visitors being dumbfounded by the quality of wines at prices that are at a fraction of other regions. The vistas are truly unique, often looking more like one is touring in the southern Alps, than the Cape Winelands. Do yourself a favour and track the winter storms. If snow has fallen, make your way to the interior Winelands soonest, for the ultimate picturesque experience and bring your camera!

Heavy snowfall at Klondyke atop Swaarmoed Pass, Ceres

Heavy snowfall at Klondyke atop Swaarmoed Pass, Ceres

If time allows, continue up the R43 towards Wolseley, taking in the breathtaking Mitchell’s Pass on the R46 en route to the queen-of-the-snows, Ceres. The Warmbokkeveld Valley opens op rapidly, above the summit of the pass; after storms, snow creeps down to the base of the mountains. The valley is an assault of white and green on the eyes, with a European-like briskness to the air. This region should be a pilgrimage every Capetonian should make once per winter. Through Ceres, venture up Gydo, Theronsberg or Swaarmoed Passes, to take in your slice of a South African winter wonderland.

Make the Cape Winelands interior part of your winter breakaway plans. You can’t beat the winter; so embrace it, revel in it, wine-and-dine it and photographically document it. There’s no more gorgeous a place, where the South African winter comes in its full splendor, than the Breede River, Hex River and Ceres Valley’s.