KLEINE ZALZE WINES
Saturday 28 October 2017
Rarely has an experience fallen so short of expectation. Rarely has an experience fallen so short of reputation. My partner had asked me to choose a wine estate we had not been to before and one with a fine dining restaurant. I wanted to be back in Cape Town by late afternoon to watch the Currie Cup Final – me being a Western Province supporter and my partner a Sharks follower – and so a Stellenbosch vineyard beckoned. Kleine Zalze suited. A glance at the Platter’s Guide to South African Wines showed a sizeable amount of red on the page (4½ stars and above). The Terroir Restaurant promised excellent food. The website described it as ‘one of the most sought-after gourmet restaurants in the Cape Winelands’ with ‘a solid reputation for outstanding and inventive contemporary cuisine and excellent service’. Elsewhere mentioned that the Terroir has been ranked as a Top 10 South African Restaurant for every year since 2004.
I booked a table and we journeyed via Somerset West to South Stellenbosch. Security at the vineyard was tight, as expected, and it was well worth getting a PIN number in advance. This considerably smoothed our arrival and, judging by the time it took the car following us to gain access, something I recommend to all. The lifestyle Winelands Estate houses a luxury residential development together with a Championship golf course. Indeed, it is one of only 3 working vineyards to house a golf course in the World (and 1 of the other 2 is also in South Africa, at Steenberg in the Constantia Valley).
The arrival started well. Shaded parking was close to the Restaurant and the Tasting Room. I had booked lunch before wine tasting but, since the outdoor seating area was clearly far from full, asked to swap around. The Tasting Room was modern yet functional, traditional yet intimate, and with walls covered with framed wine awards.
Wine making at Kleine Zalze dates back to 1695. Successive owners have made wine through the years but it was not until 1996 that Kobus Basson and his family bought the property. Cellar renovation and modernisation, together with extensive vine replanting with new clones, followed soon after. The award-winning vineyard is noted for its international sales and focus on Chenin Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are also grown on the 90 hectare farm. A further 200 hectare of vineyards are leased. The cultivars are grown on South-facing slopes in dark, well-drained soils. Coastal breezes add to the cool climate that makes up the terroir.
The Wine Tasting
Juandre was our tasting host and I introduced myself as a wine enthusiast, student and founder of the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society. Kleine Zalze offers a comprehensive range of wines for tasting (though not dessert wines). These are grouped into several ranges: MCC/Sparkling; Family Reserve; Vineyard Selection; and Cellar Selection. My partner and I chose the 5 wines for R25 option (waived on wine purchase), selecting different wines between us to be able to sample a wide range. Bottled water and dry biscuits were supplied without asking, a nice touch for the tasting.
All was set but the experience rapidly went downhill from here. Juandre chose to bring the MCC in a different order to my selection. Different bottles were set down as I sampled the wines and this further confused. It did not help that the tasting sequence was changed without me knowing. It is not always easy to write, listen and taste at the same time. My tasting notes, as a result, were completely muddled. They are of little use as I write now.
I will not try to separate my comments but instead to make general observations. The MCCs showed fine bubbles in appearance with shy apple and lemon citrus aromas on the nose (some strawberry too for the Brut Rosé). The wines were light in the mouth, with little lees taste, and clean on the palate. Undemanding or easy drinking? Take your pick.
The Family Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Sur Lie (literally ‘on the lees’) was unwooded and green in style. Less acidic than most, green pepper, lemon, lime and guava flavours emerged on the nose and palate. The 7 months of lees contact showed to give the wine a mildly buttery mouthfeel that is uncharacteristic for a Sauvignon Blanc.
I wanted to taste the Old Bush Vine and the Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc that I and my partner had selected together to compare. This was no easy task as Juandre was on a mission of his own. He knew the detail of the Tasting Notes but seemed unswerving in his delivery. It mattered not to him that I was well educated about wines and needed time to listen, consider and write. He delivered his oft-rehearsed pitch with little situational awareness or acceptance of my requests for pouring coordination and time.
The Old Bush Vine Chenin Blanc was noticeably deeper in straw colour than its Barrel Fermented cousin. The aromas were more concentrated and intense on the nose – of lemon, lime, melon and fig – as one would expect from the age and trellising style of the grapes. This wine, albeit not this vintage, Juandre explained was a previous winner of the coveted ‘Best White Wine in the World’ award at the Concours Mondial.
I rated the Barrel Fermented Chenin a little lower for the nose (less intensity) and palate (limited finish). Tropical guava, pineapple and lemon flavours hid the wooded notes derived from 6 months maturation in New and 2nd fill oak barrels.
Next it was the turn of the red wines, all from the Vineyard Selection and priced the same. The 4 we selected were of different cultivars (1 was a Rhone Blend) and so the tasting became easier. My favourite wine of the tasting was the Pinot Noir made with grapes from both the Stellenbosch and Ceres regions. It had a good intensity of flavour – sweet cherry, cranberry, redcurrant and leather – and acidity. I liked the floral fruitiness underpinned by light tannins from 14 months in 2nd and 3rd fill French oak barrels.
The ‘SMV’ Rhone Blend was obviously Shiraz-led (80%) with more plum and blackcurrant fruitiness than spiciness and with a moderate mouthfeel and finish.
The 2 final wines of the tasting – the Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz – were both barrel-matured with similar regimes of 40% new, 30% 2nd fill, and 30% 3rd fill French oak before blending and bottling (20 months for the Cabernet Sauvignon, 22 months for the Shiraz). The Cabernet Sauvignon showed typical dark berry flavours of mulberry, blackcurrant and blackberry. The tannins were youthful, green and astringent and need more time to soften and settle down.
I preferred the smoother moderate palate of the Shiraz that had more structure and better rounded tannins. Full bodied and a mix of deep ruby red and purple in colour, the wine was more fruity than spicy with moderately intense aromas of blackcurrant and blackberry.
The tasting over, it was time to unwind a little after the intensity of the Cellar. We headed to the Terroir Restaurant that was, surprisingly, barely a quarter full. I introduced myself again as a writer and journalist from the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society and explained that I would be writing about the lunch for the Society website. The Provençale style Restaurant has a pleasant and relaxed setting. Small neat tables were set out under dappled shade that hid from the heat of the sun. The edge of the golf course was visible though the trees below.
Menus were set out on chalkboards that gave an enticing choice of starter and main courses. We shared a Pinot Noir, my favourite wine, and ordered. I ordered the Prawn Risotto with Americaine Sauce whilst my partner ordered Asparagus with Poached Hen’s Egg, Green and Mediterranean Salsas, and Parmesan Glaze. A nice touch, while the food was being prepared, was a small tray of home-baked bread, smoky aubergine purée and olives.
The starters arrived and were as colourful as they were tasty. We exchanged plates to savour both dishes. The prawn risotto had a fresh seafood character with creamy, if too soft, risotto rice to accompany. The asparagus spears were laid out on red and green salsa with a perfectly poached hen’s egg, dusted in burned leek ash, on top. The starters, to steal wine language for a moment, both had good flavour intensity and complexity.
We ordered different main courses too: Seared Loin of Springbok with Watercress, Chestnut and Whiskey Sauce, together with Beef Fillet with Anna Potato, Carrot Purée, Mushroom Ketchup, Basil and Almond. There was quite a wait for them to arrive and, when they did, my partner commented on how similar their plating and appearance looked. Very soon after, I realised that the waitress had made an error with our order and brought 2 loin of springbok dishes. This was certainly not what I expected from a Top 10 restaurant. A replacement course was offered but this would take 20 minutes to prepare. I was left with a choice thus either for my partner and I to watch each other eat for 40 minutes, wait 20 minutes for 2 new courses to be cooked, or accept the mistake. In reality, there was no choice as we needed to be back in Cape Town for the rugby final. I therefore accepted the springbok loin and the offer of complimentary wine with the main course.
The portions were modest (of meat especially) and whilst well put together were not overly rich. There was time for a dessert before leaving although the experience was already ruined. I chose the Seasonal Berries, Vanilla, Honeycomb, Black Pepper and Violet Sorbet. My partner ordered the Pistachio Soufflé with Caramel Anglaise and Dark Chocolate Sorbet. The desserts were interesting and with some nice touches. I liked the violet flavour of the sorbet. The soufflé was airy. The accompanying caramel sauce was served in a jug and poured by the waitress into the soufflé. Before long, it was time to return to Cape Town.
Kleine Zalze promised so much – former winner of the Best White Wine in the world and a multiple Top 10 award-winning South African restaurant – but delivered so little. It was not just the restaurant mistake that spoiled the occasion but, frankly, the wines were not exceptional. Like the luncheon, the tasting was spoiled by staff error and presentation of wines in the incorrect sequence as ordered. This was an unfortunate double lapse in customer service to say the least. It was not as though either the Tasting Room or Restaurant were busy or at capacity. They were barely a quarter full and this for a Sunday lunchtime when surely business is at a peak. As I left, I wondered if (as with several other multiple award-winning vineyards) Kleine Zalze has rested on its laurels and lost focus as a consequence. Or, indeed, whether my experience was not unique and hence the lack of patrons.
Oh, and we just made it back to Cape Town for the Currie Cup Final and Western Province (my team) succeeded in winning away from home against the Sharks. At least there was something to celebrate and enjoy.
I wrote to the Terroir Restaurant on the following day to explain my experience. I did not immediately intend to and was so shocked at the time that I chose to accept the order error without making a major scene that would have further ruined the occasion. On reflection, I felt that the Restaurant management needed to know of my lack of satisfaction and why. It took a second email to gain a response which, too, was not coincident with exceptional customer service. The Marketing Manager has offered for my partner and I to return for a lunch paired with Kleine Zalze wines. I accept the gesture and shall write again of my second experience. It will not be soon though as I need some time to be able to return for a second time.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2011 Chardonnay Pinot Noir Vintage Brut MCC (60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir) – R178
NV Brut MCC (60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir) – R110
NV Brut MCC Rosé (60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay) – R110
2016 Family Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Sur Lie – R178
2015 Family Reserve Chenin Blanc Old Bush Vine – R178
2016 Vineyard Selection Chenin Blanc Barrel Fermented – R93
2015 Vineyard Selection Pinot Noir – R128* FAVOURITE WINE
2016 Vineyard Selection Shiraz Mourvèdre Viognier (80% Shiraz, 15% Mourvèdre, 5% Viognier) – R128
2015 Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Matured – R128
2015 Vineyard Selection Shiraz Barrel Matured – R128