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Wining and Dining in South Africa's Cape Winelands:

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Or, Spitting with the Big Boys - The Travails of Wine Tasting...

A hard drinker, being at table, was offered grapes at dessert. "Thank you," said he, pushing the dish away from him, "but I'm not in the habit of taking my wine in pills." - Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Growing up in a small, bucolic Northern California town afforded me an early introduction to the often delicious and affordable regionally grown wines. (Disclaimer: actually, in my young adult naivete, I was introduced to not-so-delectable wine, say, gut rot, but irresistibly cheap). It took only one youthful indiscretion, however, to learn that far better wines were to be had in far smaller containers, and actually decent enough to sip and savor rather than chug and chuck.

Years later, now passionate about wine, and having moved to the East Coast, I have even greater access to a dizzying array of wonderful European wines, and usually, at better prices than most Californian. I quickly became a convert of the old-world style, the French grape, an occasional Spanish or Italian thrown in for good measure.

I had spent time wine tasting in the Napa and Sonoma valleys of Northern California, more time throughout France, but it was not until a two-month holiday in the Cape Town Winelands of South Africa, did problems arise. It is hard to imagine that problems could arise when one is wine tasting, especially when enjoying such exciting and delectable wines. But, I was soon to find out that unless I drastically altered my methods, my sightseeing adventures throughout the Winelands would be viewed only through Rose' colored glasses.

The primary focus of this trip was to sample the "new world" South African wines, a top wine growing region in the world with microclimates similar to those in Northern California and Provence. I had tasted South African wines during a previous trip but had found limited availability once back in the States. My mission, to taste what the Cape Winelands had to offer, no rush, plenty of time to relax and savor the breathtaking scenery, fabulous restaurants and best of all, many of the wines that so much of the world had not yet been privy to.

The little fanfare or buzz that has accompanied S. African wines has focused mainly around a few of their reds, primarily Shiraz and Pinotage. And while many of the wineries offered velvety smooth and high quality versions of both, I found the lighter South African wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and surprisingly, their Rose', to be world class. The Mediterranean climate of the Wineland's, coupled with being south of the equator, offers a wonderfully light yet complex mix of tropical fruit along with herbal, flinty undertones. And this is where things started to get complicated.

Each day began with a late breakfast followed by a new winery or vineyard. From my tiny rental cottage in the verdant hamlet of Franschhoek, approximately 45 minutes outside of Cape Town, there were more wineries in spitting distance than any oenophile could hope for. Instead of beginning at those closest, I decided to venture off into deeper wineland territory and headed toward the Graham Beck winery and tasting facility outside of the small remote town of Robertson. Graham Beck also has a tasting room and barrel cellar in Franschhoek (and would become a regular stomping ground), but the impressive main facility was near Robertson and well worth the excursion.

A modern, high-tech building flanked by jagged mountain peaks, rolling hills, and surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and lavender, I entered the glass walled tasting room overlooking the glorious expanse of vines and fruit orchards. As luck would have it, no other tasters were present which allowed for Christine, the highly informative manager of the room to indulge eager taste buds. There was no choosing this or that. It was everthing. All of the above.

As protocol would have it, we began with whites, their ethereal sparkling wines or MCC (Methode Cap Classique). Thinking that nothing could come close to true French champagne, I tasted with no real expectations of anything out of the ordinary. I was pleasantly surprised. Their MCC's, particularly the Brut Rose', a lovely pale salmon-pink color, had a soft floral fragrance, a delicate fruit taste, dry, elegant and classy without being overly fussy. I liked it. In fact, I loved it. I sampled a tad more.

After finishing the last pink droplet from my flute, I became aware that holding court on both ends of the counter were two hunkering, ubiquitous spittoons. These looming tankards were no friends of mine and they were cramping my style. Not only did they look menacing but what they represented, well, let's just say that to women, me, they are an affront to my tender sensibilities. I have yet to see any woman wine tasting in a public place (not that I've seen any in the privacy of their own homes) spit a mouthful of wine into a bucket, no matter how attractively presented.

There is something rather perverse about this public display, uncouth even, in tasting the nectar of the Gods only to follow with a messy dribble or spat, and with others bearing witness. I did not know how to get over this aversion, and for a fleeting moment, considered passing on certain wines as to avoid the bullying vessels.

Then, without further ado, it dawned on me that there was nothing to get over. These wines were to die for, some of the best I had ever tasted - the William, a rich, silken blend of Cabernet and Pinotage, The Ridge, an award-winning, smoky, dark and spicy Syrah, the Pinno Rose', perhaps the finest Rose' to touch my tongue outside of Provence - well, I swallowed. How on earth, I wondered, could anyone with a conscience and a wine lover no less, be so frivolous as to spit out such nectar? Forget the dribbling, it was downright blasphemous. And to make a point, however sanctimoniously, I chugged back (sipped) another splash of Pinno Rose'.

I made many points that afternoon, ending with a point of Muscadel, Graham Beck's lovely apricot colored dessert wine, offering a hint of orange and honey, smooth, clean, and decadent. I was afraid to stand up. Three hours had passed and I had tasted each of Graham Beck's wines, and a few more than once. Across the board, they were some of the finest wines I had ever experienced. And it was an experience.

Now, you will say, this woman is a complete novice. Irresponsible. An idiot perhaps. One cannot taste so much, so many, without spitting. The person I was traveling with, however, and of the male persuasion, had no qualms about relinquishing the tasted wines, and needless to say, he did all the driving from that point on. Men are born spitters. (Disclaimer: a lot of men are born spitters). They don't think twice about the act. How often does one see a woman hock a...(I can't even put it in print let alone know how to spell such a thing) in the middle of the street or off the curb near one's nice shoes? Never.

There are moments when spitting is second nature to a man, and sadly, it just may make them the more conscientious wine taster. In truth, I hadn't had more than a couple of glasses of wine in those three hours. But, I would soon find out that I could barely hold any liquor midday and even a few sips would leave me ready for a nap by noon.

Luckily, most of the wineries I visited from Franschhoek to Stellenbosch to Paarl, were often surrounded by wonderful eateries, whether bistros, delis or fish cafes, which tempered the effects of daylong wine tasting excursions.

Slipping into the French Connection Bistro on the picturesque main street of Franschhoek became routine. A light fish lunch of perfectly prepared kingklip, a moist, stuffed chicken breast filled with mushroom mousse and pancetta, or a platter of juicy oysters followed by a crisp mesclun salad, the inexpensive and fantastic dishes were just what one needed to take full advantage of nearby wineries.

For dinner, Rueben's was a find and perhaps one of the best meals I had in the Winelands. Their smoked salmon cakes, creamy seafood and chorizo risotto, succulent duck breast with caramelized orange sauce and roasted sweet potato were sinfully scrumptious. Finished off with the flourless orange cake with pistachio ice cream, or the tangy passionfruit tart and a sip of sparkling wine, and one could forget that earlier, and half-asleep, they had nearly duked it out with a threatening spittoon, and be ready for yet another day of ambitious wine tasting.

Stellenbosch doled up yet more world class wines and soon other favorites became wines from Simonsig; their crisp, refreshingly tropical Chenin Blanc was a must for warm, balmy days, the Frans Malan Shiraz, heady and bold with a classically smooth finish was perfect for a night by the fire when temperatures dipped and the winds began to howl down the Franschhoek mountains.

Delheim's Rose' became another staple Rose' and was a wonderful accompaniment to a homemade bouillabaisse I prepared and coupled with the Graham Beck Pinno Rose' as part of an indulgent Rose' taste test. The Barbere Rose' from Vrede en Lust followed suit and was in the top three Rose's, and closer to the French style wine, but the Vrede en Lust Chardonnay named Marguerite, knocked my socks off and was as fine as any Californian Chardonnay, sans the heaviness of too much oak and butter. This winery, just outside of Franschhoek, also had the good sense of offering the quaint Cotage Fromage amidst the vineyards, specializing in light lunches, wonderful cheeses and breads. For the non-spitter, this place is a must, if only to prepare one's stomach for better absorption.

Stellenbosch, an historic and picturesque university town, offered ideal respite from wine tasting in the forms of Basic Bistro, a pint-sized eatery serving fresh, wholesome food with a creative blend of world spices and a casual, low-key atmosphere. The Fishmonger, another charming cafe just down the street, was a great place to sit along the sidewalk with a glass of wine, a plate of briny oysters, grilled Cape salmon or perfectly prepared yellow fin tuna. Bokhara Indian restaurant just a few blocks away, offered the best breaded, spicy kingklip dish I had ever tasted. Washed down with a dry Sauvignon Blanc, it was the perfect coupling for this savory fish dish.

In the Franschhoek-Stellenbosch-Paarl vicinity, other must stops for wine tasting include Backsberg and Boschendahl. Backsberg winery houses a wonderful restaurant with additional garden seating beneath lush trees and tropical blooms. The wine, specifically the Babylons Storen, a blend of Cab and Merlot, is divine. Boschendahl is another prize winning winery and on a particularly rainy day, a late afternoon lunch in their cafe provided a much needed and hearty bobotie (meat stew) alongside a wood burning fire.

Fairview winery in Paarl was a pleasant experience and I thoroughly enjoyed the Goats do Roam red, the Goat Roti and Chenin Blanc which was a melody of guava and pear. Their Viognier, too, was crisp, fruity without being sweet, with a pleasing sunny yellow color. I was equally impressed with the delicious Fair Valley Chenin Blanc, a new wine produced by wine farm workers.

Fair Valley, some 42 acres adjacent to Fairview vineyards, was purchased with government housing subsidies and was the brainchild of Fairview owner, Charles Back, to provide farm laborers with the security of tenure. Fair Valley wines are made with grapes sourced elsewhere and produced at Fairview cellars. Income from the sale of Fair Valley wines is directed to a communal property association. Thus far and from what I tasted, Fair Valley wines are easy drinking and delicious. Additionally, Fairview produces internationally acclaimed cheeses, primarily goat cheese, and paired with their wines, a visit to this facility is a must for any wine and cheese lover.

Closer to Cape Town and well worth a visit is the Steenberg winery in Constantia. The Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc is in a class all its own. While there, lunch at beautiful Catharina's, a treat for all senses. An elegant, paneled dining room with fireplace, alcove seating and soft lighting, Catharina's artistically creates mouth watering meals that rival anything I've tasted in some of the best restaurants worldwide. The portions are generous, splendid to look at, even better tasting, and suprisingly very affordable. The flaky yet moist fishcakes were hands down incomparable, the West Coast mussels in green curry and coconut sauce will make one swoon if one is prone to swooning, and the pan fried Norwegian salmon was melt in your mouth delectable.

Well, as you've probably ascertained, I have not offered any suggestions or alternatives for women and spittoon spitting during a wine tasting excursion. I have rattled my brain but to no avail - a dainty carry along spittoon (maybe the name needs addressing too, perhaps a spittle-dee-dee?) designed to fit inconspicuously in one's handbag - is not likely. I don't believe I'd any sooner relieve my mouth of a delicious wash of wine if I was carrying my own festive screw-top-spittle-dee-dee.

So ladies, I guess it's time to "cowboy up." Either we spit with the big boys, and enjoy it, or swallow each and every mouthful of grape nectar and hope that by noon, girls, we are not so snockered, we cannot see the forest for the vines.
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Jan Baumgartner is the author of the memoir, Moonlight in the Desert of Left Behind. She was born near San Francisco, California, and for years lived on the coast of Maine. She is a writer and creative content book editor. She's worked as a grant (more...)

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