Grape Town, South Africa

A Tale of Two Vineyards: Stellenbosch, Part II
By Joanne Mills

The next morning we headed off to Meerlust, one of the most revered vineyards in Stellenbosch, where we were privileged to meet with Georgio Dalla Cia, wine creator at Meerlust for the last 24 years and the "grandfather" of South African wine—pretty much every South African vinters look to Georgio for new trends in regional winemaking. As we wandered leisurely through the stunning vineyards (open on Wednesdays—and by appointment only), the vineyard's history surrounded us. The original settlement was built in the late 1600s and its cellar dates back to the early 1700s. Fifteen years ago, the vineyard was declared a national monument by the South Africa government. At its peak, they had over 400 people working on the estate. Today, they are down to 70 essential employers.

Georgio was an excellent educator—not just about his own wines, but about the whole viticultural process. A witty line or two would always accompany his explanations. "Wood should not be overpowering," he explained when asked about the importance of using oak barrels. "It’s like perfume for a woman; a couple of drops is important, the whole bottle makes her unbalanced."
After darting through lawn sprinklers, Georgio led us to a small, dark tasting room in his cellar furnished with long oak tables. The tasting started out in the normal fashion, but little did we know that our host had a few surprises in store for us that morning. We started with his 1998 Pinot Noir, a blend that has the highest concentration of pheromones.

"So you know a guy is serious if he brings this wine to dinner!" mused a fellow sampler. Georgio smiled and simply advised that women should invest more in a good bottle of Pinot and little less in perfume.

After tasting the rest of his 1998 vintages—a Chardonnay, a Merlot, and a Rubicon—he broke open a bottle of his 1989 Merlot Reserve. Now the perfect age for tasting, the Merlot helped exemplify the changes that can occur in a wine if its left to reach full maturity.

According to Georgio, over 85% of wines are consumed too early. This he blames on today’s architects, who never design a cellar in any house, restaurant, or hotel. As for the latter two, he quips, managers should know better, but they have a "buy today, sell tonight" mentality, and just go around the corner to the local shop and pick up their wine. "And then they keep the Chardonnay chilled with the beer and Coke!" Meerlust, Georgio proudly admits, is actually one of the few South African vineyards that will hold back its wine several years before releasing it.

And what a difference a decade can make! The '98 Merlot was very fruity and acidic, but after breathing, the wine had a very mellow taste and color—almost a brick hue with a distinctly sweet, subtle flavor hinting of roasted pheasant and black truffles.

But probably the most amazing transformation came in the Meerlust Chardonnay, which Georgio asked us to return to at the end of the tasting. The first taste was quite smooth with a hint of hazelnut and a slight buttery flavor. After 15 minutes of breathing space, the change was dramatic—in short, absolute perfection. Georgio's description of its nose captured it perfectly: nougat, marzipan, and white chocolate. When we all took a whiff there was an audible moan from the women in the group—a candy box in a glass! And the taste lived up to the expectations articulated by the aroma—by far the best Chardonnay in South Africa.

From Meerlust it was off to Kaapzicht (Cape View) for an entirely different type of tasting. We sat out on the patio with a host of chickens, a Doberman, and a long-haired standard poodle wandering beneath our feet. Owner and vintner Dannie Staytler was simply delightful, his deep commitment to his vineyard and passion for winemaking shining through, especially when he displayed his latest "war wound." The day before we arrived, Dannie was hand-mixing a new batch when he noticed something amiss and decided to check the vat, only to discover the valve that lets out the carbon dioxide had been inadvertently been closed. As he went to open it, the pressure was so great inside the tank that it shot grape seeds out the pips and embedded them into Dannie’s forearm. Ah, the dangers of winemaking!

A wine farmer, as he likes to be called, Dannie believes the geography of the vineyard is ideally suited for producing red wines, so he is focusing on those for the time being. His collection includes an excellent Merlot, a Pinotage (for which Dannie prefers to use bush vines instead of trellises, which give smaller bunches and smaller berries and keep the color in the skin, not the juice), and a truly outstanding blend he calls "Vision," produced under the Steytler label.

Joanne Mills is a freelance writer focusing on the specialty travel industry. Whether its traipsing through the gardens of Britain, exploring the culinary traditions of Thailand, or drinking in the wines of South Africa, Joanne can often be found following her lifelong passions...wherever they may lead.

Published: 10 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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