Vanishing Castles

US magician David Copperfield is famous for making the Statue of Liberty and a 747 jet disappear but the magic of renowned Chablis winemaker Michel Laroche is even more useful – he made the ugly faux castle on the R44 between Stellenbosch and Klapmuts vanish as I reported in the Financial Mail last week. Plan A was to turn the cannons guarding the castle around and blow it up on Bastille Day but alas they also turned out to be fake and the only thing that blew up was the bottom line of the Sentinel Winery that previously owned the pile when their bet on the Rand/Euro exchange rate went the wrong way.
venue1 Vanishing Castles
A lick of battleship grey paint and some nifty brickwork has transformed the castle into a classy venue with superb views over the Winelands and right out to Table Mountain, 55 Km away. It’s a handy addition to Stellenbosch’s arsenal of wine tourism facilities as long as they don’t close it down evenings and all day Sundays and Mondays as is the case with the region’s best restaurant at Guardian Peak on the Helderberg.

The venue was opened at the end of January by Dr. Johan van Rooyen, CEO of the SA Wine Industry Council who made the point “no wine industry can live on wine production alone. Wine Tourism is becoming an increasingly important supplement to the income of wine producers world-wide as people demand an extension of the wine experience. Visiting the winelands has become as part of any wine industry as getting the product to the wine store. To illustrate this: the South African Wine Industry is currently contributing R22bn to the SA wine economy withaAbout 25% of this is directly related to wine tourism.”

The Laroche group has substantial wine investments on three continents: in France, Chile and South Africa. The diversity of their portfolio was demonstrated in the wines served at the launch dinner. Two reds made an important point: the Piedra Formosa Pinot Noir 2005 from Chile and local boy the L’Avenir Stellenbosch Classic 2005. The former is made from grapes grown in the Casablanca Valley, an appellation more famous for its whites, and the wine was opulently fruited and gloriously smooth.

A complete contrast was the Classic, a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Both wines had similar alcohol levels (around 14%) with a dash of residual sugar and both were eminently drinkable although the smoothness of the Chilean was replaced by a tannic grip in the local and noticeably higher acid levels which made it a better match with the rich braised short rib. On the nose, the Classic had some charry, spicy vegetal notes that foreign commentators such as Jane MacQuitty may have had in mind when she rubbished SA Bordeaux blends in the London Sunday Times in October. She called it a “savage, burnt rubber and earth odour”, comparing it to the Springbok prop forwards who had demolished England the previous week in the Rugby World Cup.

Seated next to Nina Le Roux, CEO of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes, she loyally commented that she preferred the Classic but I noticed the bottles of Piedra disappear at a faster rate. But then the Pinot retails for R225 while the Classic is a great deal at R85 so maybe it was the brain’s inherent snobbishness coming to the fore.

Of course making landmarks disappear is not without a downside. Previously an unmissable eyesore, it now blends in so well with the environment that would-be visitors race by and end up at Morgenhof owned by that other famous French investor, Anne Cointreau from Cognac.