AMBELOUI WINE CELLAR
Saturday 18 March 2017
It was a rush to get to Ambeloui from Stellenbosch but I didn’t want to miss today. Ambeloui is the smallest of small vineyards in Hout Bay. The name appropriately translates from Cypriot Greek loosely into ‘little vineyard’. The Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines grown on the gentle slopes cover barely half a hectare. However, they produce enough grapes (supplemented by grapes bought in from Somerset West and Elgin) for this family-run MCC specialist to produce around 10,000 bottles a year.
The small scale production of MCC Brut and Rosé is only released on 2 days a year – one being at the annual Harvest Festival in March. I made a sneak preview visit here on Tuesday and bought 2 bottles of each from Alex (son of the family and winemaker) without tasting. This was because I knew stock was limited and wanted to be sure to buy, not knowing if I would be able to travel to Hout Bay from Stellenbosch before Festival end.
As it happened, the third and last day of the Certificate Wine Course run by the Cape Wine Academy finished at lunchtime. It was apt that the final day of study involved the ‘sparklies’. Indeed, it was rather bizarre to finish the course by tasting sparkling wines and MCCs, then to arrive an hour later in Hout Bay and to taste more.
Valley Road was full of cars and so it was easy to find Ambeloui, which could otherwise be any other family home on this quiet road. The festivities were in full swing. Music was playing and blue flags fluttered over the vines. There were long tables on trestles dotted about the garden and on the farm path through the vineyard. I could smell the souvlaki on the coals. The guests were all ages and clearly enjoying themselves – and their glasses of MCC.
The first people I saw were neighbours from my street in Wynberg. They offered the Rosé that they had opened which was refreshingly light and fruity, coral pink in colour, just as an MCC Rosé should be. It was great to relax after the intensity of the classroom and course.
I soon met Alex again and bought a ticket in support of the families made homeless by the recent fire in the nearby Imizamo Yetho settlement. The Rosé soon ran out and so I went to buy a bottle of the Brut MCC and to buy some food. The traditional Greek food was clearly popular and I was fortunate to order just in time before supplies ran out. The mezze platter and chicken souvlaki were indeed tasty and I could have eaten much more. Next year, they will need more food for the hungry drinkers.
Meanwhile, I browsed the cellar that had been transformed from bottling and labelling (on Tuesday) to a sales area for the guests. I noticed that Ambeloui was selling a potstill Brandy too – also made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – and was eager to taste. It was delicious and instantly buyable! It was smooth and mellow, made in the French style, and with a caramel sweetness due to ageing in American oak.
In case you don’t know, and I didn’t until the brandy lecture at the Cape Wine Academy course yesterday, there are 3 grades of brandy: potstill, vintage and blended. South Africa has the strictest brandy production regulations in the world. Consequently, the country produces some of the world’s best brandy, as evidenced from the many award winners at the International Wine and Spirits Competition. All South African brandy is required to be distilled from wine, at least 30% using copper potstills, and matured after for at least 3 years. Potstill is the highest quality.
Soon after, Alex introduced me to his parents and vineyard owners, Nick and Ann Christodoulou. It was a real privilege to meet them. Looking around, it was difficult to imagine that Ambeloui was started as a hobby vineyard little more than 20 years ago. People always fascinate and so I was interested to hear the family history from their origins in Southern Cyprus a century before. Ambeloui is very much a family affair. Each MCC release bears a different family name. I notice too now that so does the brandy.
With food eaten, wines drunk and shadows lengthening, it was time to leave. The family atmosphere and camaraderie between the many helping staff, who were extremely busy, was a delight to see. The mix of Greek Cypriot hospitality and (by their admission) some chaos made for a fun afternoon. My partner summarised the occasion as being ‘cheerfulness in someone’s backyard’. I shall return again, either in November for full MCC release or for the Harvest Festival next year.
There was something very intimate and magical to be sitting in a vineyard and drinking wine just a few metres from where the grapes were grown.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2014 Cleo MCC – R175* (previously)
Rosanne NV Rosé – R210* (previously)
Theodoro Potstill Brandy – R450*