What to drink with Woolies lasagna

After visiting Eagle’s Nest in Constantia in February, I picked their Shiraz 2006 as a surefire commercial winner. Right on cue, the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show now hails it as their best overall red wine. In fact the judges went consumer mad, with Nederburg most successful producer. The wine brings two jokes to mind: UK judge Tony Rose, wine pundit on The Independent, opens his comments on the show with “not much more than a decade ago, the wine industry was more or less confined to the ‘golden triangle’ of Stellenbosch, Franschhoekfranschhoekcellarwines What to drink with Woolies lasagna
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and Paarl.” Pity Eagle’s Nest is in Constantia, where the SA wine industry started. And that infamous Platter taster, who blamed her less than stellar sighted scores on a clashing Woolies lasagna, can now drink Eagle’s Nest Shiraz with her ovenready meals with extra confidence.

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My February thoughts on Eagle’s Nest (Sunday Times Travel & Food):

Tabula rasa is the idea that when you boot-up a baby for the first time, it’s brain is empty – a clean slate to a Roman epistemologist. While the nature versus nurture debate of human development has yet to be settled, the analogous concept of terroir in winemaking is an attractive proposition. Or as Anthony Hamilton Russell might put it “it’s not what, it’s where” – producing a wine with a sense of place is first prize.

After the millennium bush fires in Constantia, the only thing standing on Eagles Nest farm, a 38 ha vertiginous piece of Constantaberg real estate, were some farm buildings and New Age cottages for potters and poets with prosaic names like “moon” and “stream.” The rest – forests of Port Jackson and Proteas, fynbos galore and a community of porcupines and several families of Cape cobra – were reduced to ashes. It was a literal tabula rasa on Table Mountain, although clean was not an adjective that sprang to mind.

But what a great laboratory for viticulturalist Kevin Watt. Brothers-in-law Jonathan Mylrea and Peter Stewart decided to plant vines – after all, the property was once part of the famed Groot Constantia Estate. They opted for Shiraz and Merlot as they are the most globally popular red cultivars along with Cabernet Sauvignon – but there is enough of that already in Stellenbosch. And more than enough Sauvignon Blanc in the valley already. As a blending component for the Shiraz, Viognier was also planted. Taking a leaf out of Burgundy, vines were planted close together in narrow rows – 5000 per hectare, in order to reduce vigour and promote quality.

The first wines from vintage 2005 were made in the cellar of Martin Meinert, the wizard who put Vergelegen on the vinous radar screen, who acts as consultant winemaker. Once made, it was clear that blending the Viognier and Shiraz didn’t produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts, so plan A of producing two reds became plan B: two reds and a white. With a 150 ton cellar of their own recently completed, the winemaking has moved back home with farm manager and viticulturalist Steve Roche becoming more involved in the winemaking.

The 2006 reds have just been released and what stunners they are. Priced at R120 each, the commercial favourite is sure to be the Shiraz 2006 – full of cool climate elegance and subtle spice, the flavours of black plums, tobacco and flint have unusual concentration and hallmark slippery tannins. But even more unexpected is the 2006 Merlot – remarkable flavor concentration in a varietal that rarely rises above wimp levels in SA. The Viognier 2006 is in a class of its own – an initial oiliness transforms into a glorious peacock’s tail of flavor in the glass.

A trip to the top of the mountain is not for acrophobics. But the eagle’s eye view obtained displays vineyards with all the aspects of the compass laid out in a Roman agricultural ampitheatre for giants. Right on cue, a black eagle (or a jackal buzzard) will be scared by the CDs hanging in the vineyards (only classical music is used) which reflect sunlight and scare off the starlings that pick malicious holes in the grapes. Soaring up into the air, its black wings against the sky are a dynamic symbol of a brand going places.