Last weekend was spent at Groot Constantia. Constantia is the leafy, undulating valley hiding behind Table Mountain’s more famous face. The weather was perfect, the surroundings beautiful. This estate really does have it all – views, expansive grounds to walk in, historical buildings, modest charm and good wines. There is modern art and multiple tasting areas. Not even bus loads of foreign tourists can mar it. But I was there to go back to school – wine school. I was there to do WSET Level 2: two days in the classroom – lead by the super Cathy Marston – learning about grape varieties, wines of the world and viticulture, with plenty of tasting and even some sabraging. This Saturday is the exam. I have plenty to revise and so I’ll combine this post with revision, and take you on a trip to France.
Imagine if every wine farm in Constantia grew only Sauvignon Blanc. Imagine if all the wineries in Paarl grew only Shiraz. Imagine going to a wine farm, only being able to taste and buy one type of wine. Welcome to France. Each major wine growing region has to follow strict guidelines on which grapes they grow and how, the yields per hectare, which wines they can make and in what way. In the Côte Rôtie in the Northern Rhône, one can only make red wine from Syrah. Viognier is grown but must be used in a red blend. And, back over in the Northern Rhône in Hermitage it’s rosé that is a no-no.
Compare this to the SA approach to wine making – complete free for all. Wine farm owners can set up shop anywhere, plant any grape and make any wine: even a sparkling Shiraz (can’t wait to get to Durbanville and try Nitida’s) if they so wish. And, when the wine is bottled, they very helpfully tell us which grape it is we are drinking, which estate and part of the country it comes from. We are spoiled in the New World.
Back to France. Despite living in France as a child and getting drunk for the first time on French wine, in my adult years I have always had an aversion to it. The amount of wine that comes from the country is vast and my meager knowledge has me a bit scared. And then there is the case of the labels. Nowhere will the grape varieties be mentioned – rare cases excepting. You’re expected to be an expert on wine and know that if the wine is red and it says Burgundy on the label, it’s going to be Pinot Noir. If the wine is white and comes from the Loire, it is going to be Sauvignon Blanc. Wine from Vouvray will only ever be Chenin Blanc. A wine from Bordeaux will always be a blend of the Holy Trinity (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) forming the foundation, with Petit Verdot and Malbec as a sprinkling on top.
Many of our native farms make a Bordeaux blend. From Stellenbosch, Edgebaston’s The Berry Box is hearty and accessible; Constantia Glen’s Five is more heavy duty and complex – one that demands slow sipping. Their Bordeaux blend Three is a lot more easy going.
Moving over to the bubbly – Champagne can and only ever comes from a region called Champagne in France. We use the word as a generic to cover all manner of bubbles, but it is technically incorrect. South African “champagne” is called Methode Cap Classique. It is made in exactly the same was as the wines of Champagne, but it may not be called Champagne. I am not a bubbly girl (though, ask me again in summer) – but if I had to choose some cracking local ones I would recommend come from Groot Constantia’s neighbours: Steenberg’s pink 1682 Pinot Noir, their 1682 Chardonnay and Buitenverwachting’s Brut MCC.
Wish me luck in the exam… I’ll be raising a glass afterwards, whatever the outcome.