SPICE ROUTE WINERY
Friday 4 May 2018
It was the shortest of drives from Fairview Wines to the Spice Route Winery, between sister wineries owned by Charles Black. Unusually for a Cape vineyard, there was no elegant, sweeping, white-washed gated entrance but merely an entry warning/disclaimer notice in the vineyard beside the road rising to the winery on the hillside. The vines didn’t even belong to the Spice Route either, more on that later.
The original spice routes wouldn’t have had signs either as they were the network of sea routes than linked the East with the West. Also known as the Maritime Silk Roads, the sailors brought precious spices such as cinnamon and cassia from Japan, through the islands of Indonesia, around India to the Middle East and across the Mediterranean to Europe. Ivory, silk, metals, precious gemstones and porcelains were traded too. The names are reflected in some of the wines too: Saffron and Malabar.
It was back in the late 1990s that Charles Back stumbled on a tank of Sauvignon Blanc in a Swartland cooperative. The quality was such that he did not believe it was from the Swartland, a region then not known for its fine wines and certainly not (as a warm area) for Sauvignon Blanc. The experience led him to Amoskuil, a derelict tobacco farm and home to South Africa’s oldest block of Sauvignon Blanc, bush vines that were planted in 1965. He bought the farm and, with the help of winemaker Eben Sadie, set up the cellar and planted new vines.
Today, barely a quarter of the land is under vine (90 hectares out of 400 hectares). The grapes are not irrigated and grown as dryland bush vines on the Koffieklip, Oakleaf, Malmesbury Shale and Duplex soils. The rolling hills are just 4 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean with a climate characterised by cold wet winters, when most of the rainfall occurs, and hot, dry summers when water is scarcer. The vineyards I drove through on my arrival at the Spice Route belong instead to Fairview as Charles Back did not want the 2 wine farms to compete. Ten cultivars are grown, including many lesser known ones such as Roussanne, Viognier, Carignan, Petite Sirah, Tannat and Sousão.
The Tasting Room is but one of many attractions at the busy winery. Its elevated position offers glorious views South-West to the Simonsberg Mountains. The Tasting Room is open fronted with comfortable seating, tables on the lawn outside, and decorations that include tiled maps of the Spice Routes and ancient Table Bay. A nice touch was the spittoons that were made from magnum wine bottles cut in half. I remembered the winery from a visit many years ago and before I formed the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society.
Natasha was my tasting host who guided me through the tasting options or ‘journeys’. I chose the basic Swartland Wine Journey (R50 for 5 wines). I could have chosen the Wine & Charcuterie Journey (R85 for 4 wines and cured meats with fresh fruit) or tasted the flagship Malabar red blend (R40). I chose to taste the flagship Amos Block Sauvignon Blanc first. The shiny wine was green in colour and character with notes of fresh lime, grapefruit, bitter lemon and green melon. The freshness showed in a youthful acidity that was almost too bright for my taste.
In contrast, the Chenin Blanc was more rounded and better balanced. Grapes from 2 pickings are fermented in stainless steel and oak before being blended together to make for another lively wine. It showed aromatic, forward notes of warmer, honeyed lemon, greengage, gooseberry, guava, kiwi and litchi. I liked how the aromas followed through to the palate that was smooth and creamy in texture and with a decent finish.
The Grenache Rosé was a pricey R142 per bottle, unusually high for the style. The colour intrigued too, being neither pink nor true salmon but towards copper to onion skin. The ‘serious rosé’, as Natasha described it, showed a good intensity of strawberry, white cherry and raspberry flavours. This gave a red wine taste that complemented the clean dry and refreshing palate. The wine was good but so are many in the R50 to R100 bracket. The rosé would have had to be exceptional to warrant the R142 price tag.
The Grenache wine was the lightest red of the tasting and my favourite. Grenache can be thought of as a bolder Pinot Noir with higher fruit, body, tannin and alcohol though less acidity. This wine showed a moderate intensity of red cherry, cranberry and white pepper spiciness, with good balance and intensity on the palate and a decent finish.
I chose next the Mourvèdre, a cultivar with greater body, tannin and acidity than Grenache but less fruitiness. It was fuller in medium ruby colour and full of warm fruity red fruits – red plum, cherry, mulberry and raspberry – that showed good intensity. Soft spiciness on the nose gave way to a savoury palate complete with fine, well balanced tannins that will improve with ageing.
I ended with the Chakalaka, a Shiraz-led red blend of 6 cultivars, and one of the most popular Spice Route wines. I learned that chakalaka is Zulu for ‘togetherness’ – hence the name for the blend – which surprisingly I did not know beforehand. The full bodied wine showed the ruby to purple colour of Shiraz. Blends often give added complexity on the nose or they may confuse. This wine was the latter with obvious red to dark fruit aromas that were not easy to distinguish further. The wine was lighter in mouthfeel than I expected, showing its youth on the palate with tannins that need time to round off their rough edges.
I explored the other Spice Route attractions before leaving: the shop, the charcuterie, the restaurant, the distillery, the ice cream shop and café, as well as the artisan chocolaterie. I sampled a plate of 5 delicious meats (R35) from the Richard Bosman charcuterie: French white sauçisson; truffle salami with garlic and black pepper; pork fillet, cured and lightly smoked with paprika; Spanish chorizo, made with chilli, paprika, red wine and fennel seed; and Diablo, spicy with chilli, paprika and pepper.
Lastly, I bought a selection of artisan chocolate bars for my partner from the chocolate shop that is home to one of the few ‘bean to bar’ micro chocolatiers in the world. I could not resist an ice cream tasting too (R60) for a pre-selection of banoffee, salted caramel crunch, raspberry crumble, chocolate brownie and cookies and cream.
The Spice Route offers many other attractions – a deli, craft brewery, glass blowing studio and art gallery too – which means that it would be easy to spend an entire day at the winery. The range of artisan producers fits in well with Charles Back’s vision of providing an ‘overall experience’ for ‘local and international tourists’ and visitors. The wines were decently made and it was a surprise, given the location just outside Paarl, to find that the grapes come from the Swartland. The hand of Charles Back in making a strong brand, at neighbouring Fairview too, clearly shows and the two wine farms complement each other. Visit the Spice Route and Fairview together and you will be guaranteed a fun day out as well as some interesting and varied wines.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2017 Amos Block Sauvignon Blanc – R111
2016 Chenin Blanc – R117
2017 Saffron Grenache Rosé – R142
2016 Grenache – R122* FAVOURITE WINE
2015 Mourvèdre – R122
2014 Chakalaka (41% Syrah, 15% Mourvèdre, 17% Carignan, 10% Grenache, 10% Durif, 7% Tannat) – R177
FAIRVIEW WINE & CHEESE FARM
Friday 4 May 2018
I am usually hesitant, as an oenophile, to visit wine farms that are popular and with a touristic reputation. Some work for me (for example, Groot Constantia and Boschendal) while others do not (Meerendal, Babylonstoren and Avontuur). Much depends on the relative management focus on the winemaking and on the ‘vinotourism’ elements of the business: restaurant, delicatessen, craft beer, gin or brandy production, bread making, artwork, mountain biking, accommodation etc. Fairview pleasantly impressed and this notwithstanding owner Charles Back’s comment that ‘You can’t get away with wine tastings only anymore. You have to create an overall experience for visitors’.
Fairview was the first of 3 wine farms in the Paarl District I was visiting today. The Spice Route and Landskroon, conveniently next door along the Suid-Agter Paarl Road to the South West of the city, were to follow. The drive from Cape Town via the N1 was straightforward with parking plentiful for a Friday morning. I had been to Fairview before, some 5 years ago and before formation of the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society, and so remembered the ‘Goat Tower’. I had not remembered, thankfully, the acrid smell of its occupants! The 6 metre high building is the distinctive landmark of Fairview. It houses a select few of the 1000 plus herd of goats that supply milk to the Vineyard Cheesery as well as give their name to the cheeky wine brand name of ‘Goats do Roam’. Legend has it that some of the herd escaped when Charles Back’s young son Jason left a gate open. The tower also extends to Africa’s first goat ‘skywalk and activity park’.
Fortunately for me, the main focus remains on the vineyard. Three hundred and fifty hectares of the 600 hectare farm in Paarl are under vine. There are also plantings in the Swartland (155 hectares), Darling (140 hectares) and Stellenbosch (35 hectares), each optimised for specific varietals. The farm beginnings date back to 1693, which surprised, when the land was granted to the first settler. Six years later the first Fairview wine was made. But it was not until 1902 when Lithuanian immigrant Charles Back I arrived in South Africa that the farm began is current development. He purchased Fairview in 1937. Cinsault was the main varietal grown until son Cyril Back and wife Beryl inherited the farm from his father. Their son, Charles Back II, took over full responsibility for Fairview in 1995. He built the Fairview brand to what it is today. He wanted to do things differently and introduced Mediterranean cultivars such as Viognier, Verdelho, Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Petite Sirah. He also owns the Spice Route Winery, the adjacent property.
Cheese and wine feature in a number of tasting options. There’s the Classic Tasting (R40 for cheese pairing with 6 single variety wines), the Pioneer Tasting (R60 for 6 wines and cheeses, including red blends) and the (pre-bookable) tutored Master Tasting (R80 for 8 wines) in the separate Beryl Back Tasting Room. I chose the former in my haste. The full Fairview Collection is immense: Fairview – classic, single varietal; Regional Revival – a Cape twist on the Old World; Single Vineyard – highest quality from each vintage in small and limited batches; Bloemcool – an esoteric range of age-worthy wines produced in limited quantities; La Capra – fruit-driven, approachable single variety wines; Goats do Roam – affordable value-for-money wines; and the Flagship Cyril Back.
The Classic Tasting included wines from the Fairview Range. Nosipho was my cheerful tasting host. It being International Sauvignon Blanc Day, I started with this wine which was paired with feta cheese with olives. The grapes were from Darling to make a bright, shiny wine with positive aromas of litchi, green fig, greengage, gooseberry and lime. The promising start disappointed as the complex aromas fell off on the palate that was too tart. It seemed there was added acid as the acidity was not fully integrated.
I rated the Chardonnay, paired with a cream cheese with chilli and lime, the same. It too was sharp on the palate though with a little more creaminess as expected from 7 months on the lees and 4 months maturation in oak. The wine was oak forwards which largely masked simple apple aromas.
I preferred the Mourvèdre which I did not know is called Mataro by the Australians and Californians and Monastrell – the grape from the monastery – by the Spanish. The brie pairing was the best of the tasting. Light and medium bodied, warm red fruits of cherry and plum invited on the nose. A light spiciness emerged on the palate as the soft fruits held on to balance low tannins.
The full-bodied Pinotage, 90% of which is matured in French oak (10% in American oak), was predictably bold and spicy with jammy red to dark fruits. The wine was weaker on the palate than the bouquet suggested and paired with chèvre cheese with garlic and herbs.
I tasted side-by-side the Shiraz (last wine of the Classic Tasting and paired with cream cheese with black pepper) and a Petite Sirah. Petite Sirah is not real Syrah and known also as Durif. I had not tasted before as a single variety wine but only in Shiraz-led blends at Ken Forrester and De Morgenzon. The Rhône Valley cultivar is actually a cross between Peloursin and Syrah. Its name stems from the small berries that are known to produce dark, tannic wines with a savoury, meaty character and blackberry fruits.
Both wines were full-bodied and matured for 14 months in French and American oak. The Petite Sirah showed more purple to the deep ruby colour. The Shiraz was spicy on the nose together with red and dark fruits. Oaky tannins overpowered these notes on the palate to give a wine that was less well balanced than it might have been. I preferred the Petite Sirah due to a better balance on the palate. The wine showed potent tannins from the higher skin-to-juice ratio than the Shiraz, combined with heady aromas of dusty dark fruits and tobacco leaf.
I finished the tasting by choosing some wines from the Pioneer Tasting. It gave me the chance to taste some rarely found cultivars and some interesting blends. The Portuguese grape Verdelho is typically grown in Madeira and a major component (at least 85%) of Madeira wine. It is increasingly being blended in Bordeaux-style white wines (by Muratie, Solms-Delta and Cavalli) as South African producers experimentally make wines from classic Port and fortified wine varietals. Like Petite Sirah, I had not tasted as a single variety wine before. The pale shiny wine was reminiscent of Sémillon on the nose with aromas of white stone fruits, peach, sweet lemon, apricot and pear. It was dry on the palate with moderate acidity, a clean mouthfeel and a short finish.
Fairview offered a rare Spanish blend and a Portuguese blend which were too tempting to miss out on. The Extraňo was a blend of Spanish cultivars Tempranillo, Grenache (Garnacha in Spanish) and Carignan. Extraňo means ‘stranger’ as the varieties are rarely blended together. The medium-bodied wine showed a Shiraz-like character with aromas of spices and fruits – mulberry, black plum, raspberry and black pepper – that was chewy on the palate due to heavy dry tannins that overpowered any fruitiness from the nose.
The Broken Barrel, the second batch to be made and so called because very limited quantities are made, was a blend of traditionally Portuguese grapes: noble Tempranillo (Tinta Roriz in Portugal) and rustic, dark, rich Souzão. It was one of my favourite wines of the tasting, being full-bodied, spicy fruity (mulberry and dark plum), and with rounded, integrated tannins.
I ended with a Barbera, an Italian cultivar known for low tannin, high fruit flavours and high acidity. I liked the full intensity of red fruits on the nose – red plum, cranberry, red- to dark cherry – and white pepper spiciness. The medium bodied, medium ruby coloured wine was light in the mouth and well balanced between fruit, tannin and alcohol.
It is always a treat to taste a new cultivar and Fairview gave me two in single variety format: Petite Sirah and Verdelho. Frankly, it was an impressive surprise as I did not expect. Fairview was so much more than the ‘cheesy’ and caprine reputation suggest. It was certainly a surprise to learn that 31 different cultivars are used in the winemaking. I could have tasted Tannat that I have tasted only within a blend at Glen Carlou and Rickety Bridge had it not been sold out and thus unavailable for tasting. Do therefore visit Fairview. Enjoy the cheeses and the cheese tastings (I am never a huge fan of wine-pairing tastings) but pick out and roam amid the interesting single variety wines and unusual blends along the way. You will be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Darling Sauvignon Blanc – R82
2016 Chardonnay – R106
216 Verdelho – R82*
2016 Mourvèdre – R111
2016 Pinotage – R111
2015 Shiraz – R111
2015 Petite Sirah – R137*
2015 Extraňo (75% Tempranillo, 17% Grenache, 8% Carignan) – R100
2015 Broken Barrel (96% Tinta Roriz, 4% Souzão) – R100
2016 Barbera – R111* FAVOURITE WINE