We are blessed to have lots of family and friends down there. The Chevallier net in
particular spreads far and wide, and there is a significant diaspora of them in the Cape. Happily, the old line “you can
choose your friends, not your family” is well and truly de-bunked by our African cousins. Settling 3 generations ago in
Malawi, they have slowly and steadily moved south, and unless they have plans to move to Antarctica, that will probably be the end
of the African odyssey from a latitude perspective at least.
And alongside their landing in Africa, we have also amassed a good posse of friends in the area too. So journeys to the Cape always had friends and family at their heart, and being a typical male, in that I can only focus on one thing at a time, I wasn’t as on it perhaps as I could have been, enjoying the company first and the scenery and surroundings second. Because let’s face it, with good company you can be just about anywhere, a good view simply helps, it doesn’t necessarily define.
Well, our latest trip there opened up my eyes well and truly to what a fabulous place the southern cape is. From the windswept coastline up in Paternoster, down through stunning Churchhaven with its wonderful sea lagoon and wildlife, to Smitz, an off-grid cove south of pretty Simonstown; it was a real trip of “how did I not see all this before?” And whilst I never want to judge a city by what it drinks, that particular offer had been hugely underwhelming on previous visits – particularly in the beer and cider department. Even the wine had been tainted by a UK prejudiced “Chenin Blanc on discount” mentality.
Thank goodness, much has happened in the craft beer market in South Africa since our last visit 4 years ago, as I found out; but as for the wine, not much has changed – like the city itself, I just needed to look a little harder. Happily, we had a readymade crew – and a gorgeous backdrop – with which to share my epiphany!
Here are 5 star tipples from the trip:
Cape Brewing Company
Well, these guys certainly weren’t around when we last visited.
I stumbled across them at the very first lunch we had after landing, their Amber Weiss being on tap at the gastropub we called in at. Wow, I love a good Weiss beer, and this was right up there – it could so easily have been German in origin, which, given that the Brewmeister is German, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Spicy fruity aroma on the nose with hints of clove and tropical fruit; at 5.4% the body is solid, and the subtle hop bitterness makes it incredibly moreish. They have a great range, but sadly I only managed to partake of the Pilsener and Lager – both equally impeccable. The brewery is actually out in Paarl, so sadly no time for a visit this time around. But it’s always good to have a reason to go back.
Rijk’s ‘Touch of Oak’ Pinotage 2012
So when I told my friend Dhruv I had drunk a stand out bottle of Pinotage in South Africa, his response was along the lines of “uurggh, all dirt, leather, creosote and bonfires Pinotage?”
The fact that it came from South Africa didn’t help the cause. I suggested he should come over and taste the bottle I had brought back, to which he responded he would bring a trusted claret with which to “rinse our palates”. At time of writing we have yet to put this to the test (diaries – blah), but I fancy I might. There is certainly an element of truth in what he says; like Cabernet Franc, only in the hands of a particularly skilled winemaker can this grape be made to sing, and in Rijk’s case, the barrel maturation has been key. As expected, it pours a deep red colour; the aroma wafting out had rich dark fruit and the mearest hint of vanilla and oak. The body is luscious and smooth with layers of tannin that are soft and velvety. Again, the hint of oak supports this without overpowering. Wonderful. I might actually keep that bottle all to myself...
Jack Black Lager
This is about as far removed from the bland fizzy liquid that is so ubiquitous throughout Africa (and the rest of the world), and was so hated by the real ale fraternity back home when it started to take over the bars of our locals 30 years ago.
With good reason in many cases. But a good lager is a fine thing to behold and whilst there are many out there, they can be difficult to find. Happily, the craft revolution in South Africa has taken off, and South Africa Breweries’ firm grip on distribution channels has been loosened considerably. As a result, this is a beer that is readily available in many places in Cape Town. The problem with most mainstream lagers is that they brew to cost, and malt and hops – the things that give flavour and body – are often cut to the bone. Not here, the colour alone suggests something a great deal more robust than its skinny relatives – it looks almost like a golden ale. Good head retention and the aroma offered up is fruity with background toast and biscuit. It has a full body and a delicious balance between malty sweetness and bitter hop. Highly drinkable.
Babylonstoren Mourvedre Rose
Where to start with Babylonstoren? Well, that would have to be that the vineyard is based round one of the oldest Cape Dutch farms in South Africa.
Dating back to 1692, it took on a new lease of life when it came in to the ownership of Karen Roos who took on a huge, sympathetic restoration programme. This includes the stunning gardens; historically, these would have provided food for ships passing the Cape and stocking up for the next part of their journey. Everything in the garden is meticulously planned – and edible – and it easy to wile away a huge amount of time here. And that’s before you get to the wine tasting. I was still carrying my ‘South African wine’s not up to much’ baggage when we visited, so when this rose was offered up I hope I didn’t visibly screw up my nose at the prospect – bad rose can be a horrid thing. But this took me completely by surprise. Mourvedre is not a grape I normally associate with rose, but who cares what grape they used if the wine is this good. For a start there’s the colour – a perfect salmon pink. Nose is delicate raspberry which transforms into luxuriant strawberry on the palate with a racy acidity that gives a lingering, subtle finish. This really is a stunning wine. We bought 2 cases…
Birkenhead Honey Blond
If I’m honest, Birkenhead Honey Blond is not my favourite SA craft beer, but I put them in here as they were my first exposure to what would become the dynamic craft beer movement we see in South Africa today.
A whole decade ago, Lizzie and I hired a motorbike from Cape Town and rode up through the Karoo to The Wild Coast and then back down to the Cape via the Garden Route. Our last stop was at Cape Agulhas, that point on Africa’s southern coast where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. My drink of choice on the trip had become Castle Milk Stout – not a bad stout in truth, but given the other choices on the South African Breweries menu, it is most definitely in “Hobson’s Choice” territory. The small guesthouse we stayed at in Agulhas served Birkenhead Honey Blond, and my curiosity was peaked mainly because it was the first beer I had seen on the whole trip that wasn’t made by SAB. And oh the joy to sup a beer that actually tasted of something! So I take my hat off to Birkenhead (also a fine vineyard) for being one of the first out there – a little like Sierra Nevada in the US perhaps. There may be more interesting beers available now, but it’s still bloody good and deserves recognition not only for that, but also for the part it played in expanding a nation’s beer repertoire. And as we sat at a streetside cafe, enjoying the spring weather in Cape Town on our latest trip, one sip of my Honey Blond whisked me back to a 2-wheeled adventure we had taken a long time ago. Bliss.