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One of the more annoying mysteries of my life is the price of plane tickets to South Africa. I have been reliably told by those in the industry that the most profitable route in the world is the London-Johannesburg route. There are at least at least 5 direct flights that I can think of that do this run every night, plus a myriad other flights that go via destinations in Europe and the Middle East. I have tried most of these routes, on a variety of days, at various times of the year… and let me tell you, they are ALL FULL. So you'd imagine that with the laws of supply and demand beign what they are, fierce competition might drive the prices down, right?
Wrong. All that money wasted on a commerce degree )
Nope, the prices between London and Johannesburg remain resolutely high and those of us trying to live on two continents at once just have to suck it up and pay. So when I get the chance to make a virtual visit home without spending a cent on airfare or leaving central London, I jump at the chance. That's exactly what happened recently when STA Travelbuzz invited me to an evening of South African wine and travel. Some of the guys and girls from STATravel would be on hand to talk about visiting South Africa and my friend Rob of Thirst For Rioja would be taking us through a couple of SA's finest wines. What's not to like?
The evening kicked off with two short presentations from STATravel on two options for visiting South Africa. The first focused on the northern part of the country (Johanesburg, Durban and the Kruger National Park) and suggested that a long weekend in South Africa was a viable option. Given the hilarious prices charged by the airlines to get there, I am not sure this is really a feaslible option for those of us who have not yet won the Lotto (!) but it was nice to hear someody say that Johannesburg is interesting and worth a visit, rather than the usual reviews of "the crime! The horror! The filth! It's all going to hell!" The second focused on my part of the world – Addo Elephant Park, the Garde Route and the Cape Winelands. It also highlighted one of my favourite serivces for budget travellers in South Africa – the Baz Bus, a hop on, hop off minibus service that runs from Johannesburg to Cape Town and will drop you safely at the door of your hotel or hostel.
Up next was Rob and his selection of wines. He kicked off by telling us a bit about the South African wine industry. Although it is traditionally described as a New World wine country, wine has been made there for over 350 years, meaning that it actually occupies a unique position between new and Old World winemaking. The othre thing which Rob highlighted and which I am alway seager to point out to people is that although the most famous wine-producing areas are Stellenboch and Paarl around Cape Town, wine is today made in all sorts of other places in the Cape, including along Route 62, the inland road route between Cape Town and Oudtshoorn. This is where you will find the Robertson wine making area, home to two of my favourite estates in South Africa: Graham Beck and Springfield.
But enough talking – on to the wines!
First up was a sparkler from my favourite South African sparkling producer, Graham Beck. The estate is well worth a visit as they have a super-modern tasting room with panoramic views over the vines – it's very different from the predominantly traditional old Cape-Dutch buildings housing wine farms in South Africa! We had a Graham Beck Brut NV (yeasty, biscuity nose; very fine mousse; lovely full flavour and tropical fruit on the palate but never sweet or cloying).
Up next was a wine from De Trafford in Stellenbosch, where the vineyards are planted on high-altitude slopes originally regarded as grazing land and unsuitable for vines! Although they are probably best known for their sublime Straw Wine (a dessert wine made from Chenin Blanc grapes), we had a De Trafford 09 barrel fermented Chenin Blanc (smoky vanilla wood on nose; quite a citrussy tang on the tongue but melts into a lovely long vanilla finish – beautifully balanced as neither the acid nor the wood overpowers. There are also some guava-like tropical fruit flavours and a clean finish.) Chenin blanc wines from South Africa have generally had a poor reputation, but a new wave of winemakers is treating them with care and the result is this almost Vouvray-like wine. Well worth a try.
On to the reds next, and Rob felt duty-bound to include South Africa's own unique grape variety Pinotage. This hybrid of Cinsault and Pinot Noir grapes created in South Africa by Prof. Abraham Izak Perold in 1925 often divides opinion, with people saying it has an unpleasant burnt rubber flavour. No such problem with the Saam Mountain Pinotage 09 that we tried though (nice dark ruby red colour, deep jammy nose, slightly "savoury" raw meat nose, blackberries. Slightly "cheesey" taste, not very full-bodied, some ripe berry fruit, medium finish). Saam is also known as an ethical business, investing in both community projects and ecologically sound practices and technology.
Saving the best for last, we came finally to the Springfield 08 Whole Berry Cabernet Sauvignon. Springfield is owned by the Bruwer family, fourth-generation wine farmers and ninth-generation descendants of the Bruères, French Huguenots who came to South Africa from the Loire in 1688 with bundles of vines under their arms. Visit the farm and you are more than likely to find the charming winemaker Jeanette Bruwer in the tasting room, talking you through the wines. The Whole Berry Cabernet (where the grapes are fermented uncrushed using naturally-occurring yeasts) is my favourite South African red wine and has been for years. This one had a stemmy, spicy nose and deep garnet colour. The palate yielded soft tannins, melded flavours, dark cherries, green peppers, FULL bodied, smooth and a VERY long finish. FAB.
And just like that, our little virtual trip to South Africa was over. I found the evening to be a great way to focus on a particular country via its wine and food, and it is always interesting to see your homeland through the eyes of visitors – and of course to try your favourite wines! Thanks to Rob for the excellent choice of wines and to STA TravelBuzz for inviting me.
Don't forget to get your barbecue and braai recipes to me by 23 September for the Braai, the Beloved Country event to celebrate South Africa's Heritage Day this month!