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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

PET projects

Oscar Foulkes May 25, 2008 Uncategorized No comments

It used to be that we only experienced consumption guilt when we considered the tens of millions of starving people around the world. Now we also need to take into account the environmental footprint of what we consume; nothing short of dramatic behaviour and lifestyle change is going to save the world from homo sapiens (which has been remarkably non-sapiens in the way it has gone about damaging the world’s ecology).

Apart from the 100,000-odd miles of air travel I do every year, I’m an active supporter of environmental initiatives. OK, I haven’t paid to plant trees to off-set my travel guilt, but that’s mainly because I’m sceptical of the efficacy of these programmes. Often these involve the planting of trees in Africa, which impacts on subsistence farmers. Worst of all, some misguided projects have planted eucalyptus trees. Yes, they grow quickly, but these loathsome Australian exports are exceedingly thirsty, nothing grows under them, and they are invasive.

Calculating the carbon sink value of trees makes a number of assumptions (few of which can be guaranteed in a third world environment). Firstly, that the trees will be allowed to grow to maturity, and, secondly, that they aren’t involved in a bush fire, or, thirdly, that a desperate peasant doesn’t turn them into charcoal.

Last night (in Toronto) I was exposed to the plantatree range of wines (yes, the lack of capital is intentional), which will contribute CAD 2.50 of every bottle sold to Tree Canada. They transport the wine in bulk from California to Niagara, where they package them in locally manufactured, 100% recyclable PET bottles. These are lighter than glass, so utilise less energy to deliver locally.

They make the claim that the filled bottle weighs 40% less than the similar product in glass, thereby “decreasing shipping emissions by 40%”. I have no doubt that there is a reduction, but I very much doubt that it has a straight-line impact. [I have subsequently read that a 10% reduction in load leads to a 7% reduction in emissions]

Be that as it may, the real issue I have with these wines is that they are so depressingly average. Both reds have a strong oxidative streak to them, without any depth on the palate. The chardonnay is similarly short on aftertaste. All of them fit the mould of commercially contrived bulk wine extremely well.

As an avowed pleasure-seeker I’d rather drink decent beer than bad wine. I’ve had enough good Canadian beers (and I’m not talking about the mass-produced big-brand stuff) to know that anyone concerned about food (drink) miles could easily find a satisfying local beverage without getting guilt-tripped into drinking ordinary wines that have been trucked across the continent.

The moral issue for the ancient Greek Hedonists wasn’t what one consumed. Rather, it was the degree of moderation (or excess) that was practiced. The blog site draws attention to the vast quantity of perfectly edible food we dispose of every day. Just being conscious about the food we eat (or don’t) would have a dramatic impact upon carbon emissions, without having to subject ourselves to sub-par products (sadly, there is absolutely nothing Epicurean about plantatree wines).

If not Epicurean, the Paul Mas Merlot/Syrah blend I had in economy class on Air Canada this week was certainly pleasurable. I may even go so far as to say that it qualifies for a position in my top five favourite cattle class reds of all time. It’s packed in PET, which is quickly becoming a standard for airlines desperate to reduce the weight they’re carrying. While it’s unlikely that airlines would ever be allowed to bill passengers in the same way they do air freight, at least my guilt is reduced by the knowledge that my 75 kg (ok, 77kg) are causing the aircraft to pump out less CO² (got to do something about that methane, though!).

(Flying on Air Canada is a somewhat unusual experience. The first time I flew with them I boarded the plane in Frankfurt and couldn’t quite put my finger on what was missing. It soon dawned on me that there wasn’t a screen in the seat back in front of me. The in flight ‘entertainment’ was projected onto the screen at the front of the cabin, and I ended up having to sit through the same movie I’d watched the night before on the flight from Johannesburg.

I’ve experienced the service as being very friendly, in a folksy, Commonwealth kind of way. Airlines seem to work very hard at developing their sex appeal; probably as a tactic to distract passengers from how uncomfortable it is in economy class. Air Canada is clearly different.)

The Nature of Wine Farming in South Africa

Oscar Foulkes May 22, 2008 Uncategorized 1 comment

Terroir is a French word that describes the sum total of soil, climate and landscape; all of which work together to produce fruit (and hence wines) of a unique style and quality. It’s a way of wine that also governs French wine marketing, in that wines are labelled according to the narrowest possible geographical description. For example, Le Montrachet, the source of one of the world’s most expensive white wines, is a chardonnay vineyard only 20 acres in size. There are many thousands of acres of chardonnay vineyards across Burgundy, but there is only one Le Montrachet. Alexander Dumas may have said that it’s a wine to be drunk “on bended knee, with head bared”, but it could as easily be said that its value is driven by the same constraints of supply as any other real estate. Le Montrachet is the Manhattan or Ginza of the wine world.

With its rolling Rs, terroir is a somewhat intimidating word to say out loud, which plays right into the hands of chauvinistic French wine marketers. They forget, however, that a number of their countrymen left for the Cape more than 300 years ago. They may now speak Afrikaans, but their tongues have no difficulty at all in forming strident rolling Rs. The Swartland brei is our version of the French rolling R.

Over the past couple of years Wines of South Africa (WOSA) has used the strapline ‘Variety is in our Nature’ in its marketing campaigns around the world. Touching on the demographic diversity that inspired Desmond Tutu to invent the term ‘Rainbow Nation’, the campaign highlights the amazing floral diversity in the Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK). It’s one of the world’s smallest biomes, and a globally recognised hotspot that’s home to nearly 10 000 different plant species; more than the whole of the northern hemisphere. Just Table Mountain has more species than the entire United Kingdom!

The CFK covers an area that more-or-less approximates the wine growing areas of the Western Cape. Whereas indigenous plants respond to differing growing conditions by spawning new species (the driver behind the CFK’s diversity), vines respond by producing wines that reflect the local conditions, or terroir. Even a novice can taste the difference between an Elim or Rawsonville sauvignon blanc. That’s terroir in action, and the basis for the ‘variety’ part of the campaign.

The ‘nature’ part was introduced by means of the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI), which was formed to ensure that eco-friendly farming became a priority of the wine industry. The programme laid out criteria covering all the possible areas in which a wine farm could impact the environment. Those that complied with the very highest standards could apply to be named Champion (thus far there are seven, with a further 10 applications in progress). One of the requirements for Champion status is that the farm has a minimum area of pristine natural vegetation, which should also be governed by a formal conservation agreement. The ultimate aim is to have 100 000 hectares of natural vegetation – roughly equivalent to South Africa’s vineyard plantings – under conservation agreements.

BWI Project Co-ordinator, Inge Kotze reports that they have now reached over 63% of this target, commenting in particular: “growth in co-op (collective cellars) membership is fantastic – by bringing one co-op onboard we are actually reaching anything between 20 to 150 individual farms, raising significant environmental awareness and neighbourhood policing amongst members.”

”In the last six months of 2007 we brought on 22 new members, 3 co-ops and 2 champions – which is phenomenal growth. Darling is set to become the first Biodiversity Wine Ward, with all members signed up to the programme.”

Darling’s annual Wild Flower Show makes it the spiritual centre of the CFK, so a mass buy-in is a powerful statement on behalf of the programme. Darling’s first Champion was Cloof, and two more are in progress.

BWI provides guidance in terms of day-to-day issues, like cellar waste water management and spraying programmes, focusing particularly on individual farms’ conservation management plans – one is as likely to find conservation officers on wine farms these days as winemakers.

While vitis vinifera is itself an alien – an irony that does not go unnoticed – it is not invasive. Ultimately the CFK will face its greatest challenge from invasive aliens, like Port Jackson, Black Wattle, Eucalyptus and Rooikrans, all introduced from Australia for what – at the time – appeared to be sensible reasons. These aliens are also responsible for raising fire risks and depleting water resources. Alien eradication is a landowner’s legal responsibility, but one of the strongest pressures to conform appears to be coming from the BWI.

While the jury is out on the efficacy of WOSAs ‘Variety is in our Nature campaign’ at a consumer level, there is no doubt that BWI is having a huge impact on conservation. Graham Beck Wines’ (the second Champion) Ann Ferreira says: “We believe in doing our bit for a sustainable future. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do.”

Environmentally friendly wine farming is being pursued on many levels. Backsberg recently became the world’s third carbon-neutral wine farm, Stella Winery is certified organic, and yet others are experimenting with indigenous cover crops.

It doesn’t take Faith Popcorn to recognise that the environment is very hot right now (no pun intended). The French have demonstrated the vast price premiums that result from narrowly defined production areas. If WOSA can effectively link sustainability and terroir in consumers’ minds, Cape wine farms could turn out to be smart investments.

Reproduced with permission from Property Magazine

Mouthfeel or Flavour Wheel – what kind of taster are you?

Oscar Foulkes May 21, 2008 Uncategorized No comments

Our experience of wine, by force of practical necessity, is a personal one. The real experience takes place in the brain, acting – of course – on sensory clues from the mouth and nose. There is no empirical measurement of a wine, so every wine drinker is a universe of one, filtering each successive tasting experience through a database of previous experiences.

Almost every wine appreciation course in the world teaches its students the Flavour Wheel, with a view to developing reference points for describing flavour or aroma cues to describe a wine. The favoured choices for sauvignon blanc (not necessarily simultaneously) are cat’s pee, gooseberries, figs, tinned asparagus, freshly cut grass and others. It’s enough to drive one to drink! Sauvignon Blanc – generally – tastes of sauvignon blanc, and whatever it smells/taste of doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s a pleasurable experience. Unless, of course, the wine is corky, or oxidised, or faulty in some or other discernible way, in which case it does become necessary to add it to the description.

I once asked a group of about 40 people, all of whom were tasting the same sauvignon blanc, to give me their flavour associations for the wine. In short order I had a selection of about a dozen from which to choose, most of them totally unrelated. The point I was trying to make was that they needn’t get too hung up about what flavours or aromas they do – or don’t – identify. (For some fun with wine tasting notes, try out this website:

No, it is far more relevant to be able to understand a wine’s total make-up. Is it well-made? Does it come from a hot or cool region? Was it aged in barrel? Were the barrels new? Is the oak character in balance? Are the tannins largely from the oak or the grapes’ skins?

One now admittedly also ventures into somewhat nebulous territory, because one is looking out for the way the wine ‘feels’ in the mouth, getting a sense of texture and shape.

I know of wine drinkers who actually draw little shapes, or even graphs, indicating how they’ve experienced the wine from the moment it entered the mouth.

So, a wine that doesn’t have much body (perhaps even tasting a little watery), with prominent acidity, may be described as being thin. One that fills the mouth (well, not literally!) with a slightly oily feeling and not much acidity would be called flabby (whoever says winespeak is ridiculous is right). This kind of wine would be unlikely to deliver much refreshment.

There are few wine issues more prone to heated debate than the use of oak, with many wine drinkers declining chardonnay on the basis that many are fermented in barrel. They forget that all red wines above entry level pricing have been subjected to some degree of barrel ageing. The contradiction is that red wines with a prominent oak character are often praised by wine drinkers who most vehemently refuse to drink wooded chardonnay.

It is on the correct degree of oak that the ‘flavour-wheelers’ diverge from the ‘feelers’. The former will be in raptures about vanilla and mocca. While there’s no denying that the texture camp will enjoy the flavours, they’ll be on the lookout for how the wine feels in the mouth. A dried-out blotting paper feeling shortly after swallowing the wine is a clue that the tannins from the oak are overwhelming the wine. Conversely, a fruit pastille-type feeling where the mouth feels coated in deliciousness, would indicate that the oaking has not been overdone.

That’s assuming the wine has even got that far. Legendary Australian wine man, James Halliday, who tastes upwards of 10 000 wines per year, has an amazing knack for summing up a wine in just a few words, within seconds of tasting it. For particularly offensive wines he uses the acronym DNPIM – do not put in mouth!

One could also make use of celebrities. A showy wine with lots of oak and ripe fruit, without any subtlety, is the busty blonde typified by the likes of Pamela Anderson (more likely in her youth!).

In a way, it brings us back to the Flavour Wheel, which is one way of starting to build up a framework for relating future experiences. It’s all about having reference points – there are no absolutes in wine. Building up those reference points takes years of drinking many different wines. I wouldn’t go so far as to write off my daily couple of glasses to education, but there really is no substitute for building up a bank of experiences.

Each wine is the summation of a unique set of circumstances – climate, soil, aspect, grape variety, as well as the passion of the people making it. It’s what gives wine its diversity, its interest, and what ultimately sets it apart from the industrially manufactured beverages. It’s a large part of what determines the price tag; understanding the wine ensures that we are getting value for our money.

It’s when we can build up our own framework of reference points that wine becomes most rewarding.
Reproduced with permission from South Africa magazine

The Freshest Fish?

Oscar Foulkes March 22, 2008 Uncategorized No comments

In my book eating is an important way of pursuing pleasure. And, being someone who could never be described as being risk-averse, I’m generally willing to try most things (I’ve foresworn whole fried birds and insects because I’m not big on fried food; well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it)

I was introduced to sushi in 1993, and have been addicted ever since. For many, the thought of eating raw fish is a concept not only devoid of pleasure, but possibly also nausea-inducing. If only they would open their minds to the experience they would find that the texture is not squishy, and nor is the flavour in any way fishy. On the contrary, sushi is ‘clean’ food – no oil, no cream, no butter – that leaves the body feeling fantastic. Anyone not convinced should visit any one of the many Okinawan centenarians.

To say that sushi is better in Tokyo than Cape Town is to open myself to accusations of name-dropping and pretentiousness. But it is so; apart from the skill and experience of the chefs, one has the choice of a vast array of fabulously fresh fish. Best of all, in a neighbourhood-type restaurant sushi can cost a third less than in Cape Town.

On a recent trip to Tokyo (I’d been twice before, taking part in the annual Foodex trade fair) I couldn’t wait to start eating. When I walked into a sushi restaurant on Monday night it was with a sense of excited anticipation. As I approached the intimacy of the sushi bar I could as easily have been a high-roller about to sit down at a blackjack table, with the croupier and sushi chef performing similar roles in administering the ‘high’. (Toss the potentially fatally toxic Fugu into the equation and one could as easily liken a sushi chef to a crack dealer.) The fish was everything I had anticipated, and more. I repeated the exercise on Tuesday and Thursday (at a different establishment), breaking on Wednesday for a hole-in-the-wall local-type spot purveying large bowls of noodles in soup.

On Friday, my last night, I returned to the first restaurant. All was going well; the chef told me (in broken English, it has to be said, but then my Japanese is so absent it cannot even break) about the restaurant closing for the annual holiday break, he told me about going to Bangkok to eat and play golf, and we established that we share the same non-low handicap. Whether he was trying to empty his fridges prior to departing, or whether he genuinely had taken a shine to his only Western customer, the chef then put a bowl in front of me. Well, it was more like an aquarium. A large number of fish, about an inch-and-a-half in length and translucent to the point of their intestines being visible, were rapidly swimming around in clear liquid.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in making friendships over plates of food it is that – not under any circumstances – do you without due expressions of appreciation and delight eat what is put before you. So, I dipped my chopsticks into the liquid, which only made them zoom around even faster. To my surprise I nabbed one, and then quickly transferred the wriggling creature to my mouth (it would have been very much more embarrassing to have the thing slither around the floor), taking care to get it straight onto my teeth so that its writhings could quickly be terminated.

I’m told that inebriated Japanese men often vomit in trains on their way home late at night. Not only do they do this, but it’s regarded as acceptable behaviour. However, I somehow don’t think that it’s quite the same thing for South African men to bring up wriggling fish all over a sushi bar.

I soon realised that fishing with chopsticks isn’t nearly as foolproof as shooting fish in a barrel. The chef motioned to me that I should bring the bowl to my mouth and shovel the contents in, Asian style. This was worse. Now I had no way of ensuring that I could get the blighters between my teeth. They were jumping around in my mouth resisting every effort on my part to swallow them. Washing them down with sake was not an option – it would have been a giveaway (as if my greening complexion hadn’t already done that!). Wishing away the death throes in my mouth I told myself that eating live oysters was – if only conceptually – no different.

To my great and everlasting relief the torture came to an end without any mishap. I then had the joy a little while later to see two bemused Japanese men go through the same experience.

During one of my family’s misguided attempts at keeping pets we had two goldfish, which we took delight in naming Sushi and Sashimi. Little did I know what gustatory adventure awaited me!

Stimulating the mind by stimulating the palate

Oscar Foulkes January 16, 2008 Uncategorized 1 comment

A couple of years ago I presented an evening of food and wine pairing. Before going any further I should point out that this is not the kind of thing I do on a regular basis; in fact, this is the only time I’ve done such a thing. And, I’ll admit without any shame that I did swallow.

I generally find the world of wine and food pairing more than a little pretentious and very definitely prescriptive. There are just too many people in the field who get very antsy about what wine to drink with which food. It also doesn’t help that few restaurateurs know the difference between ‘complimentary’ and ‘complementary’ (most establishments seem to use the ‘i’ version when they don’t mean free, but matching). While formalised wine and food pairing may not be my cup of tea, so to say, I am a firm believer in the concept of wine-friendly food. There are certain dishes that make wine taste awful (more on that later).

So, there I was, with eight different red wines from around the world – a Bordeaux, a Burgundy, a couple of Aussies, a Pinotage, a South African Merlot, something Tuscan, and a Syrah from the Languedoc – a pretty diverse mix if ever there was one. The plan was to give each taster four differently flavoured sauces to taste against/with each wine. These were:
Classic European – Rich, red wine and beef
Asian – Soy sauce, Chinese Five Spice and beef
Middle-Eastern/North African – Spicy (no chilli) and lamb
European autumn – Pungent mushrooms and truffles in cream

It was no surprise to me that the top-scoring combo was the Classic European with the Bordeaux (it worked well with just about all of the reds, but this was deemed to be the most heavenly match). Again, there were no surprises that the farm-yardy Burgundy had an affinity for the mushroomy sauce.

The spicy lamb (cumin, coriander, cinnamon, tumeric and paprika) was disastrous with ALL of the red wines – so much for red meat and red wine rule! The sauce had been made tagine-style with some orange juice and dried apricots, which probably made it a better candidate for a rich, mature chardonnay.

To the delight of all concerned (this was a South African audience, after all), we discovered a perfect match for Kanonkop Pinotage, in the form of the soy sauce and Chinese five spice sauce. It was so good I may even ask Heston Blumenthal to do one of his mass spectrometer analyses on it.

On a purely practical level, matching every course to a different wine involves opening a substantial number of bottles. Of course, this is no problem if there are eight or ten sitting down to dinner, but somewhat more complicated when there are only two. Hence my preference for starting from a position of wine-friendly food (and yes, there is room for red wine and fish).

I approach this kind of matching more from the perspective of understanding each flavour in terms of its potential impact on a wine. This admittedly simple approach would caution, for instance, against subjecting red wine to sweet Thai chilli sauce. In other words, treating with care – or occasionally avoiding – dishes that will undermine the experience of a wine. The opposing viewpoint was made famous by the wonderfully irreverent wine description: “This is a cheeky little wine that doesn’t f#&k up the flavour of my cheese burger.” It comes down to whether one wants the wine or the food to shine.

It is my observation that few chefs have any understanding of the effect their food will have on the accompanying wine. One is either confronted with a cacophony of conflicting flavours, or main courses that are sweet, which brings me to the first rule: the food should never be sweeter than the wine (and this goes for dessert, too). The impact of this is to make the wine taste sour.

It is perhaps inevitable – despite our best intentions – that our personal experiences with combining food and wine ultimately end up as rules. Or guidelines that by virtue of their degree of prescriptiveness come across that way (like those mentioned below).

Chilli is as difficult for wine as sugar is. Some wines (red or white) can cope with mild doses of chilli, but as soon as the burn becomes too severe it’s time to switch to beer.

Mediterranean foods with olive oil, fresh garlic and other potent flavours are better with a crisp white than a huge, oak-aged red. Lemony sauces fight with red wine, but complement chardonnay.

Any wine that follows vinegar (most often encountered in salad dressings) is going to taste awful. Red wine and oysters leave a metallic taste in the mouth.

What’s interesting about tasting food and wine together is the way in which the matching and evaluation process stimulates the brain. It’s not an exercise that’s only about the nutrition or immediate hedonism.

It’s good to know that we can eat and drink in the pursuit of intellectual advancement!

Pleasure at the Cellar Door

Oscar Foulkes October 15, 2007 Uncategorized No comments

Wine farms are peculiar things. Apart from their ability to absorb almost infinite quantities of cash, they are probably the world’s only large-scale production facilities that are worth visiting. Especially in the Western Cape (and also in other parts of the world) they are surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. Cellar-door sales are not a new phenomenon, but it’s only relatively recently that wineries have twigged onto the marketing benefits implicit in hosting consumers on the property.

From Napa to Adelaide and Stellenbosch wine makers are falling over themselves trying to match proper research and statistics to the observed phenomenon of wine tourism. More importantly, they are making substantial investments in both staffing and infrastructure. But often what is needed is nothing more dramatic than good, old-fashioned hospitality, as evidenced by a friend’s experience 20 years ago as UCT student.

While doing some unstructured Saturday morning wine routing they happened upon Vriesenhof, in what could only be described as a somewhat unstructured state. Not sure that there was anything happening, they were about to drive off when a figure appeared in the doorway motioning for them to come inside. The person was none other than the proprietor/winemaker, recently ex-Kanonkop, and famed Springbok flanker, Jan-Boland Coetzee. He proceeded to take them through a tasting of his wines, after which his wife served them soup and bread. My friend has been a wine drinker ever since, with his wine purchases growing in value as he’s climbed the salary ladder.

These days one is more likely to encounter some kind of commercial operation providing the nutritional base to a day of wine tasting. Winery restaurants – whether on a grand or simple scale – are becoming a base requirement. While it’s not exactly at the winery, one of my favourites is the Klein Joostenberg Deli and Bistro, where you’ll find Joostenberg wines showcased alongside Chrisophe Dehosse’s cuisine. Founded on his classical French training, and making extensive use of the homegrown (and butchered) pork, the food is really good and amazingly good value. Wines are served by the glass or bottle at retail (not restaurant) prices. A further benefit is the large family-friendly lawn, complete with playground equipment. It is not unusual to see fathers rough-housing it on the lawn with their kids, or teaching their sons how to kick a rugby ball.

The Retief family of Van Loveren in Robertson was one of the earliest to launch their own brand. Their way of offering wine tasting was to seat people at a table in the garden, and to deposit the bottles in front of them, for them to help themselves. It should be added that the garden was the pride and joy of Jean Retief, the grandmother of the generation currently running the operation. Each tree was planted to commemorate one or other world event or family occasion. And, when someone inevitably became afflicted by wine drinking rather than tasting, she would pass around restorative vetkoek. These days Van Loveren is the only independent winery advertising on television, which must have something to do with the generous manner in which visitors were welcomed to the property.

Robertson is also the region that hosts the Wacky Wine Weekend. This event, during which each cellar in the area (there are many more than the old days of Jean Retief!) puts on additional activities for the nearly 20 000 people that visit over the course of the weekend. The growth of this event has been a phenomenon.

Its genesis, of course, was a response to the perception that Stellenbosch is the alpha and omega of the Cape’s winelands. Admittedly Robertson is a 90-minute drive from Cape Town, compared with Stellenbosch’s 45 minutes, so it is necessary to give people additional reasons to make the drive.

We face similar considerations at Cloof. While Darling is only an hour from Cape Town, it is geographically very much at the fringes of the Winelands. Our answer has been to offer Gourmet BBQ events on alternate Sundays in Spring, Summer and Autumn. In September we’re hosting Rocking The Daisies, a weekend of live music during which several thousand people are expected to either camp for the duration, or visit for the day.

As an industry participant I find it difficult to approach wine routing in the same spirit of discovery (and anonymity) as regular visitors. I achieved this recently during an afternoon of ‘power wine routing’ in Napa Valley, during which I must have visited 15 properties. I was impressed by the enthusiastic and well-trained staff behind the counter (they’re there to sell, after all), which is not something one could say about every site in the Western Cape. The Californians suffer from a ridiculous neo-Prohibition law which says that wine cannot be drunk on the property without a special licence. So, no restaurants and no picnics. Well, at least they have Dean & Deluca on Highway 29.

It is seldom that wine is consumed by people who have actually visited the winery of origin. They have not felt the particular late afternoon cooling breezes, or made the parallels between the personalities of the winemaker and his wines. It is unlikely that they have trudged through the vineyards, or even tasted the unctuous grapes. And it probably isn’t even necessary; after all we happily spend our money on all kinds of things with which we have no physical or geographical connection. But a memorable cellar visit becomes an inextricable part of the experience of drinking that property’s wines in the future.

Freshness, Flavour & Zing

Oscar Foulkes September 14, 2007 Uncategorized No comments

daisydarlingI think that if I were to list my favourite things about my involvement with Cloof, my absolute A-1 activity would be the development and shaping of products. I get a huge thrill out of the entire creative process.

Most often red wines have dominated the process, largely because of the composition of our vineyards. However, as a result of playing around with our intensely fruity bush vine chenin blanc, and some zippy sauvignon blanc (the grapes came from Burghers Post, next door), we now have a white wine to stand alongside The Very Sexy Shiraz, The Dark Side, Inkspot and the others.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to introduce…


a blend of 60% Chenin Blanc and 40% Sauvignon Blanc.
This wine is the wine!
With freshness, flavour and zing,
It will help you win friends,
It’ll refresh and delight.
The style is unique,
The experience sublime
… make it your choice, darling!

I think it’s an all-round, amazingly fabulous everyday white wine, and great value.

Shiraz Junkie’s Paradise

Oscar Foulkes July 25, 2007 Uncategorized No comments

I think I could almost be described as a ‘shiraz junkie’. Given the choice of a bunch of unknown wines on a restaurant list I’m more likely to pick a shiraz than cabernet or merlot. It’s not that I’m not happy drinking the Bordeaux varieties – it’s just that I’m more confident of finding a shiraz I’m going to enjoy drinking.

In that sense, I’m extremely fortunate to be responsible for marketing the kind of shiraz we have at Cloof. Between Crucible and They Very Sexy Shiraz we have two wines that cover a big chunk of the market.

I still have a vivid recollection of my first taste of the 2002 vintage from the Crucible vineyard. It was in November of that year, when I was being interviewed for the position at Cloof (well, I was also interrogating the wines to make sure I wanted to be selling them!). The acidity was bracing to say the least, but the aroma had all the ethereal savoury shiraz notes for which I’ve never been able to find an adequate description, and find so appealing. This wine ended up in a very successful blend with an over-ripe parcel of cabernet.

The 2003 vintage delivered the first Crucible (lots more on that in the Cloof Life section of the Cloof website, but it wasn’t until 2004 that we had our first look at the excellence of the shiraz fruit from our neighbouring property, Burghers Post.

The wine had such an attractive combination of ripe fruit (with Southern French savouriness rather than New World sweetness) and spicy French oak, that I felt compelled to name it after the experience one has when drinking it, rather than making up a name for the vineyard that provided the fruit. Hence The Very Sexy Shiraz.

This week we released the 2006 Sexy Shiraz. What a wine – it absolutely gushes concentrated, rich fruit that coats the oak tannins extremely well (the wine had a year in barrels, of which 50% were new).

Not only is this wine lush, but its forwardness and ‘out-thereness’ qualifies it is ‘a lush’ in the old-fashioned sense (I once described the very upfront Slaley 1998 Shiraz, also made by Christopher van Dieren, as “a slut of a wine”).

We’ve elected to keep the selling price of The Very Sexy Shiraz at the lower end of what is commercially viable (a case could be made for selling it for at least 50% more), because we want it the wine in as many homes, restaurants and shops as possible, rather than in our warehouse. We want the world to share our excitement and enjoyment of this wine.

Cloof is shiraz heaven!

Alive with possibility

Oscar Foulkes July 4, 2007 Uncategorized No comments

A conversation about the business of wine was reputed to have taken place between Robert Mondavi and May-Elaine de Lencquesaing, the owner of Château Pichon-Longueville, during which Mondavi was lamenting the state of the industry. “Ah, Robert, but it is only difficult for the first 300 years”, came her priceless reply.

Of course, she was describing the situation in Bordeaux, where the cru classé are now selling their wines at huge prices on the basis of reputations build up over, well, three hundred years.

Jan van Riebeeck may have made ‘wine’ in the Cape more than three centuries ago, but South African wineries are still finding their feet in international markets. South Africa’s share of the UK market is around 10% (compared with around 20% for each of Australia and France), but in most countries its share hovers around 1%, which most marketers would regard as being virgin territory.

Sales people have been hard at work, trying to drum up demand for South African wines. At the same time their viticultural colleagues have been scouting the Western Cape for new vineyard sites. The result has been revelationary, with many seriously exciting wines seeing the light of day. It could be argued that these vinous treasures could do more to stimulate demand than the efforts of the marketing people (but don’t tell them).

It is interesting to come back, once more, to France, where wine producers unquestionably benefit from a great vinous tradition. However, they are hamstrung by unbelievably restrictive legislation that governs which grape varieties may be grown in which geographical areas. The Appellation Controlée have been delimited. These borders define where vines may be planted, and which varieties may be planted in which regions. Simply put, there is absolutely no room for creativity or exploration.

Consider then the example of Cape Point Vineyards, with its sauvignon blanc vines that were planted in Noordhoek, an outlying suburb of Cape Town, in 1996. These vineyards are not much more than a mile from the beach, on a breeze-cooled south-westerly slope. The estate markets two different sauvignons, both of which display a wonderful combination of intense fruitiness and zingy acidity. The quality of the wines is such that even the ‘second-tier’ Stonehaven is better than most estates’ premium release.

1997 saw the planting of vineyards in Elim, just 20 km inland from Cape Agulhas. Anyone who has visited this coast in summer can attest to the unceasing on-shore wind. Bruce Jack’s Flagstone was the first release from Elim, and Flagstone’s The Berrio remains (to my taste, anyway) the best sauvignon produced in the region. It delivers a blast of fruity flavour against a backdrop of refreshing crispness.

It seems hard to believe that Elgin is now taken for granted as a source of quality wines. Its only been 15 years since the establishment of vineyards at Oak Valley (however, the grapes were mostly sold off to producers in other regions). With the decline in income from apples many farms have been replanted to vines. One such example is Iona, where replanting started in 1997. These vineyards are situated 420m above sea level, and ripen a good two months later than sauvignon in other parts of the Cape. As one may expect from these cool conditions the wine has a wonderful purity in the mouth – crisp acidity combined with gorgeous fruit. Numerous Stellenbosch wineries have made investments in the region, so we can expect a raft of new releases from Elgin.

The Cape’s West Coast is no less exciting. Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc is produced from vines growing a mere 850m from the Atlantic ocean. The project was started as a hobby for Wynand Hamman and his in-laws, when they planted three hectares of vines near their holiday home in Strandfontein (close to the mouth of the Olifantsrivier). This wine’s fruitiness is so intense it is almost overwhelming, but on its small scale of production one is unlikely to have the opportunity of drinking it more than once a year!

Closer to Cape Town, and thankfully available in larger quantities, are the sauvignons produced in Darling. Grapes are not that new to the region, but with the conversion of Mamreweg Co-op to Darling Cellars, and the planting of vineyards at Groote Post, followed by large-scale plantings by other producers, Darling has taken on an entirely new character. The pioneering wine was Neil Ellis’ Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s also worth looking out for the sauvignon produced from David Tully’s Lanner Hill vineyard (marketed under the Kumkani brand).

None of this is meant to imply that there is anything deficient in the wines being produced by established big names in Stellenbosch, Paarl or Robertson, or even that these are the only interesting ones being made in the ‘new territories’. Curious geography aside, South African sauvignon blanc is at the cutting edge of the world’s most exciting wines.

They are the products of a committed and passionate group of vignerons and an environment that truly is “alive with possibility”.

This piece first appeared in South Africa magazine

The Mystery Brutes

Oscar Foulkes April 24, 2007 Uncategorized 1 comment

In the latter half of 1994 I’d been in the wine trade for a little more than a year, and had acquired a reputation amongst wine producers as a means of shifting bin ends or odd lots. I was offered about 20 000 bottles of Méthode Cap Classique (Champagne-method sparkling wine) that were still on the lees, at a price that covered only the cost of the bottle and a nominal bulk wine recovery. Shortly thereafter another winery offered me multiple vintages of their bubbles (in the same state), totalling some 80 000 bottles. I remember a cost of just over R4.00 per bottle, which looked very interesting to me when related to the R20 retail price of the established brands.

As with all bargain basement deals there was a catch. In this case much of the production process remained to be done. Firstly, the process known in Champagne as remuage, whereby the bottles are inverted (sur point), with the lees (dead yeast cells) collected in the neck of the bottle. Those with time and space on their hands follow the traditional method of using a purpitre (riddling rack); two wooden boards hinged into an a-frame. The boards have holes that the bottles’ necks are stuck into. The bottles start off horizontal and through a process of half-turns end up inverted. The relevance of this time-consuming process (it can take a month) is that the lees are very fine, and need to be coaxed into the mouth of the bottle (it does sometimes happen that the lees stick to the glass).

The less labour-intensive method is to use gyro-pallets. Their name is probably self-explanatory, but I had neither gyro-pallets nor riddling racks. Assuming I’d managed to reach this point, the next stage requires the bottles to be chilled to a couple of degrees Celsius, and for the necks to be frozen in preparation for disgorging – the crown cap that seals the bottle during second fermentation is removed and the frozen plug of lees and wine pops out. The sweetening dosage is added, and the bottle gets sealed with cork.

From this point it would have been a comparatively simple exercise to label the bottles in preparation for the market.

So, in addition to finding a cellar that would do the production for me, I needed to find a way of funding the project. I wasn’t making any progress on either front, and eventually – after a night of not one wink of sleep – I decided it would be better if I walked away. As ‘luck’ would have it, a potential investor came through the following day, and I signed on the dotted line. I was now committed to purchasing what amounted to 10% of South Africa’s annual production of bottle-fermented sparkling wine. This person disappeared as miraculously as he’d appeared, so I needed to start that process all over again.

The one thing I did have was a customer, in the form of a supermarket group that was going to take the majority of the stock. Eventually I managed to badger friends and family into supporting the exercise, but I had to declare myself stumped on the production side.

With November almost upon me I switched to Plan B, and set about assembling my own production line. I rented a refrigerated shipping container for chilling the bottles, and was lent the device for freezing the necks (it turned out not to work), borrowed a corker, as well as the machine that applies the wire cage (that keeps the cork in place), and the machine that shrinks the foil onto the neck of the bottle. I got a short lease on a warehouse adjoining my premises, and then assembled the motliest crew of workers that have ever handled sparkling wine bottles (I suspect that several of them were no strangers to the insides of prison cells).

Finally, at the beginning of November, we started our work. With Christmas upon us time was of the essence. Lacking riddling racks or gyro-pallets we merely shook the bottles and inverted them. Fortunately this worked well enough as far as the lees was concerned, but as we were working in a 30-degree warehouse the six-atmosphere pressure of the contents became more of a hazard. One batch of bottles had production flaws, in that the glass was not an even thickness all over, with the result that several of them exploded. I shudder to think what the consequences could have been.

We worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, energised by the workers’ choice of radio station (played at maximum volume). Other than having the use of a few critical pieces of equipment, every single part of the process was done by hand. For visitors familiar with the romance and prestige of Champagne it was incongruous to witness our make-do operation.

Probably the most epic part of this Heath Robinson affair was the initial opening of the bottle. Under ideal conditions – with a frozen plug of wine and lees in the neck of the bottle – it’s a straightforward exercise. However, in the absence of a functioning piece of equipment, we had to do this ‘on the fly’. The person doing the disgorging would slowly turn the bottle from inverted to horizontal, all the while watching the little pocket of air making its way up the bottle (same principle as a spirit level). Using a special tool he would then need to whip off the crown cap just before the air pocket reached the top. Leave it too late and the lees would end up back in the bottle, rendering the wine unsaleable. Do it too early, and a substantial quantity of wine would be lost. The moment needed to be timed to perfection. Fortunately, the three of us doing this (the other two were Garron Elmes, who is now making wine in Canada, and Stuart Downes, the Export Director of San Pedro wines in Chile) had quite a lot of practice!

The final part of the process – labelling – could also have done with a machine, but we had to settle for doing this by hand as well. The people doing this work (the main one worked as a minder at a printing press by day) worked with amazing accuracy at a remarkable speed.

It should also be mentioned that for a few weeks we became the local supermarket’s biggest customer for sugar, which was then mixed with wine to become the sweetening dosage added to the bottles after disgorging. I thought it quite appropriate that in a few weeks we’d be delivering the sparkling wine to the same supermarket group.

The corker provided its own challenges. It was impossible to get the setting just right, so the corks either went in too much, or too little. The latter option was a problem, because then the wire cage wouldn’t fit. One of the features of corks in champagne bottles is that they slowly lose their elasticity over the course of many years in the bottle. Given the timing, Mystery Reserve Brut was going straight onto the market, so these overly-inserted corks were occasionally very difficult to get out.

We launched at R9.99, which then was an important price point for still wines (the popular Buitenverwachting Buiten Blanc retailed at that level). Customers streamed in to buy it, journalists wrote about it, and the story eventually had a happy ending

A few weeks later (Friday the 13th of January to be precise) we served Mystery Brut at our wedding, on the lawns at Buitenverwachting. It was a magical summer’s evening, and as the ‘I do’s’ were being exchanged we could hear the sound of the corks popping in the adjacent marquee in preparation for being served immediately afterwards.

The fruit of one’s own labour is sweet!