Grape Town, South Africa
We flew into Cape Town and traveled by car to Stellenbosch, South Africa's second-oldest city (after Cape Town) and the true heart of the West Cape's wine country. Outside the city, the vineyards rest in a valley lined with brilliant panoramas and majestic peaks, while perfectly preserved examples of Dutch Cape architecture line the tree-lined streets of Stellenbosch properan ideal backdrop for my first foray into the wines of the country.
To kick things off in decadent style, our guide arranged a private tasting with Allan Mullins, South Africa's premier wine expert and professional buyer for the Marks and Spencer (U.K.) and Woolworth (S.A.) stores. Held at the highly touted Tokara Restaurant, our tasting consisted of eight of Mullins's favorite wines.
I quickly learned, though, that you don't have to taste everything to discover a wine you like. I could almost discern which wines I would prefer based on their sugar content and (for whites) whether they were aged in French or American (the former is twice as expensive as the latter, though both impart strong notes of vanilla, cedar, and dill to the wine while it ferments), old or new oak barrels, and for how long. All this after just two tastings!
But a real expert can understand the story behind the notes. When Mullins introduced the Thelema Chardonnay he asked us if we could smell the wood smoke in the wine, a by-product of a fire in the adjacent vineyard in 2000. Try as hard as I could, my nose wasn't quite so well trained yet.
But even a novice can tell when a wine isn't up to par. We were particularly puzzled by a certain 1999 Syraz (normally quite tasty). In trying to determine the nose, David Bristow, the very personable editor of the extraordinarily popular South African travel magazine Getaways, proclaimed that it had more than a hint of "goat's piss." We unanimously agreed that something wasn't quite right with our bottle and opted to heed the advice of the vintner who, in his notes, said that, although the wine was drinkable after its August 2001 bottling, it was "strongly advised to hide it away for another couple of years for optimal tasting."
One of my favorite wines of the night was Vin de Constance, the legendary 18th- and 19th-century vintage touted by European aristocracy and praised by the likes of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Baudelaire. This late-harvest wine (the grapes are dried on the vine almost to raisins) is as popular today as it was during the Napoleonic Wars, before its disappearance in the late 1800s due to a devastating bout of phylloxera in the Cape. The revival vines were planted in 1982, the first grapes harvested in 1986, and the first bottle presented in 1988. It's also qualified as one of 100 Legendary Wines according to the French coffee table book of the same name. And the taste? Thick, sweet, golden. Nectar of the Gods.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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