Red Chair in the Morning
1 June 2017
It was an early start to avoid the morning Cape Town traffic for the journey to Robertson for my first Wacky Wine Weekend. Darkness gave way to dusk to daylight on a chilly morn. Dense mist, barely more than head level, moulded itself into the soft contours of the Breede River Valley floor.
I arrived at Rooiberg Winery in plenty of time and before the 10 am ‘unofficial’ start (officially the event didn’t start until 2 pm on the Thursday). This was deliberate. I planned to spend Thursday and Friday at the Wacky Weekend and so avoid the peak Saturday and Sunday periods. Rooiberg was the optimum start point from which to collect my ‘Passport’ – I had to choose from where to collect it when I bought my online ticket a month ago – as the winery was en route between Worcester (N1) and Robertson.
My gamble that the Rooiberg Winery might offer breakfast paid off. Traders were just starting to set up their stalls as I arrived but the restaurant was open. It was cool, even to the cheery staff better acclimatised than me, but a cup of hot coffee and the flickering wood-effect gas fire warmed me both from the inside and outside. The hearty Red Chair Breakfast (great value at R60) was equally welcome. I very soon realised, and not just because of the piped sockie sockie music, that I was in a majority Afrikaans region.
It all made for a relaxing start but I was excited too as I hadn’t visited the Robertson area before nor tasted its wines. Robertson Winery seemed the sensible next tasting location as the road East from Rooiberg headed into Robertson town. Thereafter, I decided I would ask for opinions from more experienced Wacky drinkers. South-East along the Breede River looked good and especially so as I wanted to try my hand at blending at Excelsior Wine Estate.
I perused the shop while waiting for 10 am. Rooiberg offers an extensive range of wines. The tasting sheet listed close to 40 products: box wine; entry level dry red and white wines; semi-sweet and natural sweet wines; Premium and Reserve Ranges; MCC and sparkling wines; dessert wines; and grape juice. The winery is vast too, with some 667 hectares under vine (65% white; 35% red) that annually produce more than 16,000 tonnes. It sells to Woolworths and exports to several countries under different brand names.
Rooiberg Winery has an interesting history. It is more than half a century old (it was founded on 14 April 1964) and began as a group of pioneer wine farms along the Breede, Vink and Noree rivers. The original band of 11 farmers and 5 directors has grown to a co-operative that operates 20 farms under the direction of 29 shareholders. I didn’t know this at the time but the sheer size of the cellar gave clue to the scale of production. Another clue was the large double tanker, presumably transporting wine or grape juice, that was waiting on the weighbridge as I went outside to see the Big Chair.
Red is the brand colour to fit the Winery name. I scaled the mammoth Red Chair, built in 2012 and the largest in Africa, to get a better view. Ten o’clock came and I was first in the queue to collect my Wacky Weekend Passport. The pack contained my tasting glass, tasting coupons (6 per participating vineyard), bright pink plastic wristband, map, programme and bottle of water. I bought a ‘hands-free’ glass holder (R20) that proved useful throughout the Weekend.
Tasting was inside a marquee set up in front of the cellar shop. Mini red chairs were hung beside the lights in the ceiling. Tables were set with red table cloths and proteas to match. Unsurprisingly, and given 6 coupons, not all from the extensive Rooiberg range was available to sample. I began with 2 white wines from the Rooiberg (Standard) Range, complete with bright red splash of colour and modern label logo. The unwooded Chardonnay was nothing special, as youthful and vibrant as the label, but at a price well pitched for the market.
I picked the Cape White after, as I had not tasted Colombar before. The Colombar(d) grape – the ‘d’ is usually left off in South Africa – is one of the mainstays of brandy production. Thus, despite being grown in 12% of total vineyard area, and mostly in the Breede River Valley region, it is not common as a single variety wine. Semi-sweet and light in body, it had tropical guava and pineapple flavours. I bought a bottle for a future Society tasting evening.
I then tasted from the Premium Range (Reserve Range wines were not available) beginning with a lightly wooded Chenin Blanc. It was lightweight on the palate, shy yet drinkable, and with warm fruity flavours. I preferred the Premium red wines. My favourite, of all wines tasted, was the Cabernet Sauvignon. Though light in style and body, the dry tannins enriched by 18 months in French oak balanced the fruity flavours well. I was not surprised it was the Flagship wine from the range. I scored the Pinotage and Shiraz a little lower. Typical in flavour of their cultivars, they were nonetheless dry in character and weak on the palate. Neither particularly excited me.
My tasting coupons having run out, I asked to taste one final glass. It was a Merlot and, interestingly, made by Graham Beck. I had seen the wine farm listed in the Wacky Wines Weekend programme but without opening times. This surprised. I remember passing the gates en route to Rooiberg and seeing extensive groundwork in the vineyards to put up new trellising systems. My tasting host explained that Rooiberg took over sales of Graham Beck still wines (I thought the winery produced only MCC) in July 2016, as the estate focuses on sparkling wines only.
The Game Reserve name reflects partnership with the Wilderness Foundation, together with practical initiatives for fynbos conservation, the eradication of alien vegetation, and habitat preservation. Each bottle label depicts an animal that is endemic to the region – a Cape Clawless Otter for the Merlot. The wine had classic Merlot blackcurrant aromas that combined with dark plums and black berry notes. Cedar and spice flavours emerged to balance the palate, from 12 months in a mix of 1st, 2nd and 3rd fill French oak. I liked the elegance and bought a bottle.
Rooiberg Winery shall forever be my first Wacky Wine Weekend vineyard. I recommend it as a start point for Passport collection for anyone travelling to the event from the N1 via Worcester. The wines matched their market and price. Their style however surprised me. I had somehow expected the climate of the region to be hotter and so the wines more fruity and full-bodied. The Mediterranean-style weather made for wines lighter in body and more to my taste. I was content with the 4 bottles I bought and left for the Robertson Winery with a smile on my face.
Wines tasted (* bought):
2016 Chardonnay – R43
2016 Premium Chenin Blanc – R55*
2016 Cape White (Colombar) – R38*
2014 Premium Cabernet Sauvignon – R75* FAVOURITE WINE
2014 Premium Pinotage – R75
2014 Premium Shiraz – R75
2015 The Game Reserve Graham Beck Merlot – R85*