2021 SA A Weekend of Wine and Wonder

Fri 26 Feb 2021 10:15

A Weekend of Wine and Wonder

I awoke to a fishy smell that pervaded our cabin, it was just as bad in the saloon and I had established my innocence anyway. The source was yet another upside-down cormorant, floating in the water, a large chunk of its anatomy now in the belly of a seal. Poor creature.

After breakfast Mohammed drove us in his cherished white Toyota Corolla out of Cape Town and onto the N1 highway northward over flat plains, once home to antelope, lions, giraffe and roaming human groups of cattle farmers and hunters, the Khoi and San tribes. In the distance high mountains, grey, rugged and dominant drew our gaze.

We turned onto the R301, a narrower road that turned toward the east and Mohammed told us how this was locally called the ‘Freedom Road’ because it was along here that Nelson Mandela made his way to Cape Town when he was finally a free man.

I showed an interest so Mohammed asked if we would like to pause at the gate of the Drakenstein Correctional Centre where Nelson Mandela stands in bronze salute to commemorate the day of his final release from confinement on February 11th 1990. Called the Victor Vester Farm Prison back then, Mr. Mandela lived in a house there to prepare him for a life back in society after 27 years a ‘convict’ revolutionary for the anti-apartheid cause.

I remember the day well and the build up to it. Emily and I were staying with my parents at their Cornish cottage home and as the keenly anticipated moment approached, I would walk around their home chanting “Free Mandela” like so many others, my fist raised. My mother would smile in silent agreement, my father disapproved.

Mr Mandela’s liberator, the new president F W de Klerk, had been in power four years when he and Mr Mandela were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Our friends here typify the sentiment that Nelson Mandela was a good and honest man with the right principles who was blessed with that incredibly rare quality in any person in a position of power; compassion. He brought hope and inspired the masses to rise above their predicament. Todays South African young reflect that capacity to do well but there are few jobs for them and unemployment is currently running at 32.5%.

Soon we saw brilliant white painted Dutch style mansions with their curly apexes nestled amidst uniform rows of vines marching in various directions over hills and vales, towards the mountains that run down both sides of the Franschhoek Valley. Mohammed disappeared into the Tram station to find our guide, Skay (pron; Esskay) who would be with us for the day along with another couple.

David and Jackie are a young couple from Margate in Kent who caught the last plane our here from the UK to avoid the constraints of lockdown. They are an intuitive business couple who like so many are enjoying the freedom of running their projects from wherever they live, in their case the current Airbnb.

The Franschhoek Tram is a much-loved way of visiting a number of vineyards including our first one, The Rickety Bridge Winery. The tram rumbled and rattled slowly down the track and occasionally had to stop at a crossing to check for road traffic. At which point the lithe and energetic young man who had just served us all with our first glass of the day, would don his luminous jacket, grab his flag, leap off the moving tram and rush ahead to the crossing to do his visual check as the tram slowed. Then once our way was clear he would do an elaborate flourish with his flag, run to the back of the tram and leap back on board to the laughter and cheers of his appreciative audience.

At the tram stop nearest to ‘our’ vineyard an aged and faded, like me at times, Massey Fergusson tractor hitched to a trailer with seats, was ready to tow us over the no longer rickety bridge to the hub of the activity and there, as we stood amidst the fabulous natural scenery and on this beautiful day, Skay delivered his potted history of the area and birth of South African wine in his slow, gentle and considered way.

While Europe was still battling with the rise of the Ottoman Empire massive herds of elephants roamed the plains between the mountains so that the first Dutch to arrive for trade and to settle referred to the valley as Olfantshoek, Elephants’ Corner. Cape Leopards, antelope, Rock Hyrax  which are small, herbivore mammals and numerous birds, puff adders and cobra and small reptile species still live in the mountains.

After the opening of the sea route from Europe to the Orient Dutch merchant ships needed to take on stores and water after the long sail south. At first the Khoi and San people were willing to help out but gradually they realised that some of their visitors were permanently settling on their hunting and farming land having seen how rich was the soil.

The Dutch used a strategy as subtle as it was cynical by pushing the two indigenous groups closer together up the valley knowing that they would battle with each other for the remaining land. With reduced numbers they would need less land. Peace talks started and the indigenous leaders asked the Dutch how they would react if people from over seas landed in Holland (Netherlands) and started to claim land and property rights there. The Dutch reply was effectively ‘relinquish or die’. Today the remains of these groups live on the slopes around the fertile land and village and work for the wine companies and in the service industries it has created.

During the naissance of the wine growing industry the Dutch soon learned that while they were good at filling in the sea to make new land, they were not good at filling wine bottles with good wine. They knew that under Catholic Louis XIV in France the Protestant Huguenots were still suffering brutal religious oppression. Many of them were knowledgeable wine growers with a heritage of superb viticulture skills. So Dutch vine growers sponsored 150 French Huguenots and their families to sail to a new home on 31st December 1687 and over the next two years more came totalling around 180 wine making brains. In return for their expertise the French were financially supported until the profits from their work started to flow, a period of years later.

The French families became so successful they eventually bought land of their own and their vineyards still flourish today, fed constantly with nutrients washed down from the granite and sandstone mountains around. They also renamed the area Franschhoek, French Corner, the elephants by this time long gone.

Skay went on to tell us all about the production and fermentation processes while walking us around the stainless-steel vats; also, concrete vats that add their own flavour to the end product.

One thing we have noticed around Cape Town and in this valley is the abundance of European oak trees. The wood for the barrels is imported from Europe as the oak grows too quickly here to be of use for barrel making. Nevertheless it was good to see the English ones healthy and enjoying the clean air and warm climate. When they are finished with, the barrels are sent to whisky and brandy makers and eventually used as plant holders for their long, slow retirement. The potted life of an oak barrel!

From what Skay told us it seemed that the only truly vegan wine has to be made from hand-picked grapes because machinery takes in any creature that might be in the vines at harvest time; the vines must be organic without chemical pesticide sprays to kill bugs before the flowering and fruiting begins, but ironically the wine must be cleared using chemicals as an alternative to ground mollusc shells or egg white. There is one organic vineyard in the valley.

Finally, after wandering through the wine cellar, Skay invited us to relax on comfy sofas while he poured generous portions of four wines. Well, we eventually got the hang of pouring some of the wine into a black bowl centre table, with reluctance. But I thought if I don’t I won’t last the day. By now even an earthquake would have taken on a rosy hue from the mellow mood that was overtaking us. “Time” said Skay “to try some of the Icon Range.” Two more bottles appeared and as Rob remembers (I was beyond the quality appreciation stage by this time) they were both smoother, so we bought a bottle of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon 2017. Just got to get them home now!

Many of the Huguenots who arrived back in the late 17th century were from the de Villiers family and one of their daughters, Paulina, owned and ran this estate in her lifetime. Her Semillon wine with my soup was a perfect match. Thanks Paulina.

A delicious three course lunch followed in the restaurant with its incredible view of the majestic mountains. I remember sitting there, gazing up and wondering if Cape Leopards really did still live up there, so close to humanity.

Our second vineyard, back over the not so rickety bridge to a minibus, was the Grand Provence where the wines were very dry by comparison and the emphasis was as much on a shady place to relax and dine beneath the oaks in the company of numerous slender sculptures of the female form, with a gallery to soak up the artworks and maybe part with some cash, as it was to savour the juice of the terroir, the quality earth the vines grow in. Jackie’s nose wrinkled as she sipped the wines; they were so different to our previous tasting.

I don’t remember the drive to the last vineyard, La Bri, but I do remember the tasting as it was paired with a choice of Vegan Chocolate, Free Range dried meat ‘Biltong’, Rob’s choice, or ‘Lokum’ locally made Turkish Delight which I tried and discovered the flavours of lavender and roasted nut.  It was such a contrast to the style and content of our last tastings and our wine taster really knew her story. In amazingly imaginative the different ways the vineyards can present themselves.

An Uber taxi whisked us off to The Chapter House where we would spend the night. Built in 1888 as a meeting house for the church next door the building served as a school until 1974 and is now a comfortable and unassuming boutique hotel with nine bedrooms.

Henry greeted us and showed us around. I could almost hear the noise of children playing in what is now a fragrant lavender and rose garden bordered by indigenous trees. “I’ve up graded your room to a suite with its own courtyard garden.” He said with a friendly beam.

After unpacking our tooth brushes, we went for a wander just around the corner into the village of Franschhoek. Grazing Hadeda ibis shared the lawn with a bronze of Ghandhi, another advocate, like Mandela, of peaceful protest.

The ambience of the area suffers from an abundance of modern oversized vehicles who claim right of way at zebra crossings and there are many expensive boutique and art shops, but in balance there is also a typical used book shop such as you would find in Hay on Wye and lots of bars and restaurants, each different and none too expensive. We walked to the end of the road where the memorial to the Huguenot people takes the form of three arches representing the Holy Trinity with a woman in the forefront discarding the cloak of religious repression. It is the human story of one or another kind of repression and land misappropriation that seems to overflow from the last few hundred years of European humanity’s history, written loudly and unmissably here in South Africa. The other sides to the story are out there and are well worth enquiry.

Sadly, the Huguenot museum next door was closed and would not open until 1.30pm on the Sunday, too late for us. So we supped brew made in the Tuk Tuk bar and retired to our room.

The next morning I had a different breakfast of Avocado Crostini, a mash of avocado topped with halved cherry tomatoes drizzled with chili oil which was livening, before leaving for our last stroll of the high street. Skay was in a kiosk selling The Curated Wine Tour we had so enjoyed with him and knowing the museum was closed to us we went to a Greek Bar and supped beer and nibbled wafer-thin pizza before returning to the hotel for a chat with the owner, Friedrich, who used to work for Raddison Sub Sahara and now longs to get back to his 47 foot Beneteau moored back at Malta. Like so many yachtsfolk who have had to leave their boats somewhere, their worry about whether the boat is ok is something we can understand. One of the lesser- known aspects of Covid.

Mohammed arrived on the dot and took us back via Stellenbosch, another wine growing area, and on past miles and miles of corrugated and cardboard township, with electric street lighting that may or may not work and rows of toilets, some but not all with outlet pipes into the ground. Nearer to the city we could see some of the homes were being replaced with small concrete-walled homes, but progress apparently is very slow under the present government.

With the mention of the word Huguenot, I was reminded of John Everett Millais’ harrowing painting, ‘A Huguenot on St Bartholomew’s Day’ and I wanted to share it with you. The artist was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a nineteenth century group of artists with a strong social conscience. The catholic lady is trying to secure a white cloth around her lover’s arm to identify him as also catholic, but his religious conscience will not allow it. Under the dominance of his mother Catherine de Medici, King Charles IX of France, on the 24th/25th August 1572, ordered the massacre of Huguenots in France resulting in 3000 deaths in Paris and 70,000 throughout France, resulting in the resumption of the French Religious Civil Wars.

One hundred and fifteen years later the first Huguenots arrived in South Africa.

On our return to the marina we discovered that every single cormorant had gone. We wondered why. Back to Robben Island maybe?