Wednesday 23 August 2017
The tall, slim dark wine bottles before me were so beautifully Italian. Elegant, refined and fashionable could have described the wine inside too. I have spent wonderful holidays in Italy over many years, including Milan from where the Bottega family originate. Roberto, his wife and 3 children, manage Idiom and its Italian varietals as a proud celebration of their heritage. The Italian connection – collection even – was my reason for visiting today. I had been told that Idiom grew Sangiovese and Zinfandel (Primitivo). It was the day before my Society tasting of Italian cultivars made into South African wines. Why buy expensive imported Italian wines when they are made here? And so I headed out of Cape Town and beyond Somerset West with definite purpose.
I needed that definite purpose to find Idiom too. It seemed to want to hide its secret. I knew it was close to Sir Lowry’s Pass Village at the foot of the Sir Lowry’s Pass. My trusty satnav took me through the shabby township and to the vineyard entrance. Unusually, there was not a sign to be seen. Indeed, I was most confused when I arrived at grand white entrance with Knorhoek written large in black lettering. Knorhoek is North of Stellenbosch! I backtracked, looked around, and returned. The entrance guard told me that Idiom was ‘at the end of the tar road’ and so I headed inside. It was only beyond the entrance that I saw the first sign, functional and in simple blue. It was all so infuriatingly Italian in its quirkiness and inefficiency.
It was later that I learned that the property had once been a part of a far larger Knorhoek estate. Today, 17 cultivars are grown in the Da Capo vineyards. The name ‘Da Capo’ means ‘from the beginning’. It originates from the evening of the first Three Tenors Concert in Rome in July 1990. When Luciano Pavarotti was asked by the President of Italy what song to sing for an encore, he simply said ‘Di Capo’ or ‘from the beginning’. The beginning for Alberto and the Bottega family was in 1999 when the vineyard was laid out to make the most of Cape terroir for the Bordeaux and Rhone, Tuscany and Piedmont varietals. Red vines predominate on the 40 hectares under vine of the 150 hectare farm.
The large stone faced cellar building, containing Restaurant and Tasting Room, stood proud on level ground towards the top of the hill some 3 kilometres from the entrance. Even in the gloom from dense grey clouds, it showed Italian style, form and function with Classic Roman arches sat beneath the open wood and glass panelled top floor. All that was missing were tall dark green cypress trees beside the winding road, bordered by winter vines, for it to be Tuscany itself. Yet, it was so typically South African that I had passed though a drab township – swathed in poverty – to a refined, opulent, modern wine farm. I wondered how many people from Sir Lowry’s Pass Village worked at Idiom and how they perhaps were the lucky ones.
The size and scale of the Tasting Room and Restaurant surprised. Not that I had any preconceived idea beforehand, other than Idiom was a specialist producer. Newly built, the building took 3 years to build and was opened just over a year ago in June 2016. The views over the ‘Helderberg Basin’ towards False Bay and Cape Point beyond were spectacular even through the low cloud. These were the inspiration for Roberto to buy and build the property.
Inside, the spacious dining room with neatly set dining tables and modern sculptures reminded me of Cavalli wine estate, with chefs busy in the open kitchen. A glance at the menu and some dishes on the server made me promise to bring my partner here for lunch on a sunny day.
Johan was my sommelier. Regular tasting is R50 for 5 wines but I managed to sneak in a few more. Pinot Grigio made from grapes from elsewhere, one of my favourite white wines, made a perfect opener. Aromatic, forwards, fruity with pineapple, melon and greengage aromas, it was dry and with moderate acidity and a clean palate. It makes a refreshing change to Sauvignon Blanc and a wonderful aperitif due to its lower acidity, fuller body and restrained fruitiness. It is no wonder that more South African vineyards are planting Pinot Grigio. This was immediately a wine to buy.
I rated the Sémillon and Viognier that followed the same: all 18/20 and 8/10 for my personal score of ‘Likeability’. The creamy Sémillon was lightly oaked to perfection (50% for 11 months in French oak) to bring complex soft caramel and coconut aromas to the lemon, peach and sultana flavours. The moderate acidity, elegant follow through and firm finish made this another quality wine. The Viognier show equal quality on the palate with a dry, cleaner mouthfeel to contrast with flavours of honeysuckle, papaya, white peach and light nougat.
I did not know that American Zinfandel was grown in Puglia in Italy as Primitivo or that it originated in Croatia as Tribidrag and was traded in Venice on the 1400s. As if the white wines could not get better, the Zinfandel (Primitivo) did just that. It was my favourite wine of the tasting. Italians effortlessly match classical with fashionable better than any nation. The gold Idiom brand logo is so simple yet so clever in design. It is one of the best I have seen. Bold and complex raspberry, loganberry, red cherry, red currant and blue gum aromas filled the glass. I might have expected a big wine on the palate but Zinfandel (Primitivo) has surprise. Moderate supple tannins and acidity, with fruit flavours giving way to woody overtones in the mouth, gave a lightness of touch that I did not expect. This is a wine to match any Italian antipasti, vegetable casserole or red meat, and even as an alternative to Shiraz at a braai.
The Sangiovese impressed equally. If you have been to Italy and drunk Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino or Montefalco Rossi you will have drunk Sangiovese. Why have I not been drinking more Italian cultivars? High acidity, high tannins and moderate fruit characterize this grape, in contrast to Zinfandel (Primitivo). I sensed fine layers of earthy liquorice, red plum, red to dark cherry, and chocolate on the nose. Maraschino flavours emerged on the palate that had good tannin structure, a clean mouthfeel, and a lingering finish.
Equal favourite and in rating was the versatile Barbera. This is a less common wine, with grapes typically grown in Piedmont in North-West Italy, and not one I had tasted before. Fewer than 10 vineyards grow the cultivar in South Africa. It was fuller on the nose than the Sangiovese – aromas of darker berry, blackcurrant, blackberry and with a hint of cinnamon spiciness – but as elegant on the palate. The wine has high acidity but lighter but smooth tannins that make it a delight to drink, whether alone or with tomato-based pasta and pizza dishes.
I finished my tasting with 3 regional blends: Rhone-style, Bordeaux-style and Cape Blend, each priced at R300 per bottle. The Cape Blend was my least favourite as sweeter plumy Pinotage flavours and bold tannins overpowered those of the other varietals. Unsurprisingly, the Rhone blend was lighter than the Bordeaux blend. The Shiraz characteristics shone through, with pepper spiciness matching warm cherry and plum aromas mingled with cooler violet and fynbos notes on the nose. Dry, warm and light in the mouth, it needed a firmer finish to hold onto the fruity flavours.
I much preferred the Bordeaux-style blend. Red to dark berry Cabernet Sauvignon fruitiness layered with blackcurrant Merlot flavours. The wine had more tannins than its Rhone counterpart but they were refined and elegant to give a firmer finish. I ended my visit with a brief look at the Idiom collection of luxury handbags and other products made from exotic South African leathers. Johan showed me too the Vinotria Italian Wine Library downstairs, a mouth-watering collection of 250 wines from all over Italy that are distributed by the Bottega family in South Africa.
My first visit to Idiom will not be my last. That is a certainty. Italy meets South Africa makes for a formidable combination – in wine as well as food – as I had previously discovered (with French consultant input) at Morgenster. Much reminded me of Cavalli too, South of Stellenbosch – the contemporary building, the sculpture and artwork, the open dining room and kitchen, the collection of wines – which is high in my Top 5 favourite wine estates. I often write that I need return and soon. Idiom is number 1 on my list. I cannot wait!
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Idiom Heritage Bianco di Stellenbosch Pinot Grigio – R125*
2014 Sémillon – R200
2014 Viognier – R200
2012 Idiom Collection Zinfandel (Primitivo) – R250* FAVOURITE WINE
2013 Sangiovese – R250 2013 Barbera – R250
2010 Rhone Blend (89% Shiraz, 10% Mourvedre, 1% Viognier) – R300
2013 Bordeaux Blend (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot) – R300
2012 Cape Blend (43% Pinotage, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot) – R300