Wednesday, March 10, 2010
The story of an African wine farm
The Barns brothers, Andrew and Gary, from Mischa Estate invited me at last year's Glamour mag Oscar party to come and see their Wellington wine farm, and it took me a whole year to get there (sorry guys). The visit was a lovely relaxation time before this year's Oscar party, and I was picked up outside Cape Town's very swish new domestic arrivals hall by a busload of celebs and fellow media, looking for all the world like the bus from Little Miss Sunshine as it careered around the corner with the door open and everyone hanging out of the window shouting: "Get in! Get in!"
(OK, that's a slight exaggeration, but us scribes are allowed to embroider a little from time to time.) My fellow occupants of the bus were eager to get on their way, as the Cape was in the grip of a heatwave and temperatures in the winelands had hit 44 degrees. Presumably the grapes were turning to raisins on the vine. It was positively boiling and the air-con struggled. Most of us sat in our seats with our mouths fishily open, gasping for air. The party consisted of footballer Larry Cohen and his lady love Lady Kitty Spencer (who had been savaged by mosquitoes attracted by the soaring temperatures the night before)
... Thoko Qoboza from the Table Bay where most of us were staying,
actress Lee-Anne Summers and her boyfriend Bjorn, Danielle Franco from Bush Telegraph who had supplied VO5 hair products for the Oscar party, singer Jennifer Su (who spent most of the day flat on her back suffering from heatstroke), MAN star Henri Slier (who told us about a old school dive in Cape Town called the Dom Pedro where the German tourists take their dates and everyone sits around and has a jointwith the waitresses who afterwards get up on the tables and show off full-bodied, gorgeous voices) and TV producer Alan Ford. Plus a photographer.
Driving through the dusty streets of Wellington I was reminded of trips to the town as a child, eating dried fruit that we bought at farm stalls. Wellington is one of the Cape's lushest fruit bowls, and is also renowned for its meat and fresh produce. Not in this weather, the tail end of the Cape summer. Men walked shirtless in the searing streets and the town bowed before the heat, silent and motionless. Only its stern Victorian patriach Andrew Murray glared straight ahead of him like Abe Lincoln. The gardens were desolate and flowerless, the trees sparcely planted. No over-arching avenues of Joburg green to break the dry, dust-laden agony as we drove down the main street with its algemene handelaar, requisite bottle store (closed on a Sunday), Pep store and butchery.
It was a blessed relief to bump down the dirt road which led up to the farm, one of the oldest in the district, and be greeted by greenery, a big dam, picturesque cellars and a chilled glass of sparkling wine, grown on the estate.
Andrew's wife Rachel (see both of them, above) dispensed it as we huddled under a vine on the verandah, and he told us Mischa's bubbly is of the few to use Merlot as its base. The estate in fact is mostly devoted to viticulture and the nursery supplies vines to many of the neighbouring winemakers. That's younger brother Gary's job. Both men grew up around wine, as the farm has been in the Barns family for three generations, since the 1940s. The name Mischa is a composite one, after their grandmother's Russian dance partner plus a family friend called Michael.
The estate had finished harvesting and our group was aken to see the grapes fermenting in big vats, covered with plastic taups. Their smell hung heavy in the air and the miggies danced drunkenly above the vats. Gary plunged his hand in to show us the frothy purple juice coming out of the de-stemmed berries. It stained his fingers indelibly, reminding me of Homer's wine-red sea.
I was hoping we might have an old-fashioned grape stamping - certainly few of us were dressed for it. But the organic-ness of winemaking was unmistakable, and seductive.
Andrew led us off to the cellar where the temperature was regulated at a blissful 16 degrees. The cellar was romantically full of pink-stained barrels and Andrew explained the various kinds of oak they are made of, and how each style of oak makes the wine taste different. He drew off various samples from American and French-oaked barrels with a "barrel thief" (a long glass tube that looked like a catheter) and squeezed them into our glasses, inviting us to taste and explaining how the wine evolves and grows in the barrels.
With his patience and knowledge we could start to distinguish the various tastes, and he explained terms like "'open", "closed" and "structure" to us. He was also quite passionately opposed to comparison being made between French and South African wines (Bordeaux, for example). They are two completely different countries, he said, with different styles of wines, climate, soil and methods. There is no need to compare them - just enjoy the good wines from both countries at all times!
Despite South Africa being a wine-growing country few of us encounter the actual processes involved, and so many of us don't drink it or are intimidated by all the pursed-lipped pretentiousness that goes with wine drinking and winespeak. Who knew that there is no longer any need to worry about corkage, with all the new screwtop bottles around. So you don't need to make a wise face, and swill your mouthful around the next time the waiter pours a little to taste in your glass.
By this time the Mischa sparkles had kicked in and I was staggering like one of the drunken miggies. It was time for lunch. Andrew and Gary's parents joined us after our trip to the cellars. The resident chef Duncan explained how he had married the Mischa labels to the meal: springbok carpaccio,
... followed by seared beef with a prune juice sauce (above) and a berry chocolate dessert. I was loving my Eventide Viognier (below) and Cabernet Sauvignon and we were given a gift bottle of the latter to take home with us.
After lunch many retired to the pool, in either their bathing costumes or feet first in the clothes they were in.
Beating the heat ... hotties Gary and Bjorn.
What a blissful end to a wonderful day at an African wine farm ...