Franschhoek Uncorked, literally

Last month, the vintners of Franschhoekfranschhoekcellarwines Franschhoek Uncorked, literally
by franschhoekwines
pulled the corkamorimcork Franschhoek Uncorked, literally
by Amorim Cork
out at their annual wine festival and the heavens reciprocated with a deluge that would have made Mrs. Emzara Noah congratulate her husband on his foresight. As Sean Granger, operations manager at the splendid Mont Rochelle Hotel noted, “for Franschhoek events, weather is everything.”

fhoek Franschhoek Uncorked, literally

And this year FU had lots of it: Glenwood estate in Robertsvlei recorded 120mm of their annual 2m of rain on Saturday, hundred year old oaks were knocked down like skittles at Boschendal and even the Van Ryn’s brandy sign lost an “s” at Vlottenberg in the worst storm of the winter.

But then the Gods of Weather had smiled on Franschhoek over Bastille Day with punters basking in the sunshine and playing boulle, surrounded by a winter wonderland with more snowcapped peaks than the Alps. So hoping for two in a row was always a big ask. This time Franschhoek got snow capped peaks again plus deluges of aerial cats and dogs.

Mont Rochelle – the hotel – is further confirmation that Germans do ultra luxury hotels ultra well – but then you knew that if you’ve stayed at the Westin Grand, Grande Roche or Arabella Country Estate on Bot River lagoon. As for Mont Rochelle – the wines – the flagship white wine Miko must be the saddest cuvée in SA. A 2006 vintage Chardonnay Sur Lie made as a surprise for the late telecoms mogul Miko Rwayitare who for six years owned and had the same initials as Mont Rochelle estate. MR passed away after complications from a “routine stomach operation” last October, one week before the London launch of the wine.

I kicked off my personal FU 2008 with a celebrity braai at Marc Kent’s Boekenhoutskloof property. Celebrity, not for any famous punters present, but on account of the braaimeister. Reuben Riffel, former Eat Out Chef of the Year, wields a mean pair of tongs although his cutlery let him down: wooden knives and forks are hopeless even for the most tender sirloin steaks and diners were reduced to time-sharing a Furi cleaver of Jack the Ripper dimensions.

I chose to begin at Boekenhoutskloof as Kent’s Journeyman 2005 was the best wine by the proverbial country mile at last year’s FU. This year it was 586 cases of Chocolate Block 2007, a juicy Rhône blend, that were released and carted off in big volumes. As for the Journeyman, Kent reports he’s given away all five barrels to friends and good customers around the globe. Some, like Carolyn Barton, national wine buyer for Makro, passed on his largesse to their customers while others, like Butcher’s Shop & Grill owner Alan Pick, sold bottles at R2500 each at his Nelson Mandela Square restaurant. Which values Kent’s giveaway at a cool R3 million. Using a pilchard to catch a marlin you may think, until Kent tells you there is no Journeyman 2006.

The reason for the freebees is a desire to jump off the ego/price escalator that has top SA reds now nudging the R1000 a bottle ceiling (a price point long passed in some restaurants). When released last year, the Journeyman evoked howls of anorak angst as Kent declined to let it be evaluated by the Platter wine guide, the ultimate arbiter of quality in some circles. An opt-out policy that threatens to undermine the whole raison d’être of the accolade as icons like the Nederburg Ingenuity 2006 and Steenberg Magna Carta 2008 increasingly decline to appear.

On the subject of price, Gottfried Mocke’s Chamonix wines and startlingly aromatic grappa (R90) are still incredible value for money, even if the sticker price for his Pinot Noir 2007 has increased by 50% – but then it is his best vintage ever and still only half the price of the Walker Bay equivalent.

As are the amazingly elegant reds from new kid on the block, Topiary Wines, whose name refers to the elegant shrubs sculpted by farm manager Malcolm Pemberton: a bonsai bottle of wine and two glasses reflecting new pastimes in the valley while a San hunting party with bow and arrow, remember the old ways. Watch out for the fruity Cabernet Shiraz 2006 for R55 while the pure Shiraz 2006 is oral topiary on a bar of chocolate.

DP Burger’s new GlenWood Semillon 2006 is wonderfully expressive in a masculine mode while his more feminine Chardonnay 2007, with a tangy citrus flavour profile and layers of complexity, confirms his lifetime membership of the quality Chardonnay club. No wonder GlenWood owner Alastair Wood has abandoned commuting from Godalming in Surrey and returned to SA fulltime, buying a game farm in the Timbavati for the odd occasion when he needs some sun, the Robertsvlei valley having the highest rainfall in SA.

On Sunday it was necessary to brave howling sleet and dodge water-filled potholes of indeterminate depth on a 3Km dirt road, but we persevered. The previous day we’d had to abandon a trip to Lynx within sight of the goal posts, as the farm road had been so chewed up by SUVs, four wheel drive was advisable to reach the parking paddock.

While Franschhoek are terminally unlucky with their weather (FU last year was also best suited to ducks) the valley remains the best organized wine route in SA. With everyone expecting earlier springs thanks to global warming the opposite has happened and Franschhoek will be better off postponing their spring tasting until October at the earliest. Which still leaves over a month to organize the next festival, the December Champagne and Cap Classique bash.