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Wine Trotting

Hugh & Colleen Gantzer wine trot their way off-the-beaten-track through the ‘new world’ wine countries of South Africa, Australia and Switzerland

Today, the world produces over 36 billion litres of wine every year. That is more than enough to float the Titanic!
Given this bewildering sea of fermented grape juice, how does the discerning drinker choose the right wine? You can join a wine club and soon start spouting terms like Botrytis cinerea, Cuve close, Remuage and Vin de paille. Or you could rely on those ultimate arbiters: your nose, tongue and palate. But, to get a slight edge over your peers, opt for wines grown in areas that they are unlikely to have experienced. We have picked four such regions: the Stellenbosch of South Africa, the Hunter Valley of Australia and the Vaud and Valais of Switzerland.

South Africa
We were first offered a South African wine in London, many years ago. We refused, politely. In those days, anything from racist South Africa was a no-no. When, however, our government and Air-India built an air-bridge to that beautiful land, we drove out of Cape Town and into the title of an ‘Estate’ if it has its own winemaking and cellaring facilities and produces the best wines. Estates guard their enviable reputations very jealously. At the top of the seals of their wine bottles they emboss the much-coveted word Estate.

Quilted Stellenbosch vineyards, South Africa The tasting room in Neethlingshof Estate, South Africa

In the tasting and sales centre of Neethlingshof, we spoke to the young, burly Cellar Master, Hein Hesebeck. Hesebeck’s wines are made from grapes of 17 different varieties, or cultivars as they are called in the RSA. The altitudes on which the vines grow vary from 70 to 282 metres and there are subtle differences in the rich granite soil. The plants are also cooled by the nearby Atlantic Ocean on this western seaboard of the country. All these factors give the Cellar Master a great range of grapes to choose from and his wines reflect these multiple choices. Such varied options are important because tastes in wine are as fickle as tastes in clothes.

“The world market” he said, “is now showing a preference for fruity wines.” And in answer to a question by us, “Yes, possibly even sweeter wines.” Such wines go well with our dishes and, in South Africa, are drunk with the distinctive cuisine of the Cape: food strongly influenced by India and Indonesia. During an interesting tasting session with Hein Hesebeck we savoured a 1992 Weisser Riesling Noble Late Harvest which won South Africa’s Double Gold Veritas award 1993. Noble wines are made from white grapes whose natural sugars have been released by the action of the benign mould Botrytis cinerea.

We also tasted a semi-sweet white wine, the 1993 Special Late Harvest, which, according to Hesebeck, “Is delicious with fruit and dessert.” His comment came as a bit of a surprise to us because, generally, German wines are made for drinking by themselves and not along with food. But then, perhaps, German tastes are changing too, particularly when drinking South African wines.

The most popular of the Neethlingshof estate wines was the 1993 Sauvignon Blanc. It is a dry, white wine described as having a crisp, peppery grassiness. They also produce Off Dry White Wines which tend to be rather fragrant; semi-sweet white wines, very much in keeping with our tastes; and the Dry Red Wines which, though they are very popular with some people, we found to be a little too assertive and the vinous equivalent of music played too loudly!

South African wines took a beating when international sanctions were imposed on the RSA. Very adroitly, Australia moved in to fill the gap, and they managed to establish a firm foothold on the world’s wine markets.

Australia
When we first started appreciating wines, thanks to a Brit friend named Anne, we shunned Australian wines. Australia, we believed, was a land of kangaroos, red-necks, Crocodile Dundees and ‘beeyer and barbie’ parties.

They couldn’t possibly produce anything as sophisticated as a good wine. Then we went Down Under and lost our prejudices in Hunter Valley.

One hundred and sixty kilometre out of Sydney, the valley opened before us as beautifully unreal as a Disney-scape: serried rows of green vines reaching out to designer hills seemingly sculpted out of stryfoam against a cobalt-blue sky with white powder-puff clouds. We cruised across the vineyard-quilted valley to the Hunter Cheese Company. We sat on benches at a scrubbed table just outside the maturing room and tasted cheese on crackers and sipped wine under the expert navigation of cheesemakers Peter Curtis and Rosalia Lambert.

Cheese and wine go well together particularly if they are from the same area: a sort of Made for Each Other thing.

Then we placed ourselves in the very capable hands of Richard Everett: 20 years in the wine industry and boss of Wine Country Tours. So we toured and tasted and let the voice of the vigneron guide us through the wines of the Hunter. “Hunter Valley Semillon, a white wine made in the traditional way. It has wonderful aromas of honey, toast or straw. Great with dishes which accept lemon butter or other mild sauces. And this is our Pinot Noir, a red with raspberry, black-currant and chocolate flavours. Superb with barbecues and mild cheeses. Here’s another red: the famous Shiraz. The young ones are spicy, the older ones are complex. Excellent with duck and strong cheeses.

Navigating through cheese and wine with Peter Curtis and Rosalie Lambert in the Hunter Cheese Company A two millenia tradition - Swiss wines with a Swiss meal

And this is made from a Portuguese variety grown here: a white Verdelho. It’s slightly soft and sweet and goes well with pasta and the lighter Asian dishes. Ah! Tell me how you like our Chardonnay? Our very popular white wine. Can you notice the aroma of peaches and vanilla? Friends of mine love it with Indian food.”

So do we. In fact, until we discovered the wines of Switzerland, Hunter Valley Chardonnay was our choice with tandoori chicken and other robust North Indian fare. Now, however, our tastes have changed. Ever since our visit to the most peaceful country in Europe, we have become converts to their wines.

Switzerland
The Swiss have been making wine for well over two millennia. Back in 58 BC, the invading Romans probably introduced the art of wine-making, and the small Chasselas grape. In the Vaud region, around Lausanne, we saw steeply terraced vineyards of Chasselas being warmed by the direct light of the sun, and its reflected radiance off Lake Geneva. Many vintners, or wine merchants, believe that the greatest wines of Switzerland are made here.

Farmers in the Caveau des Vigerons, Switzerland The white wines of the Vaud, Switzerland

Last year, we drove out of Lausanne, with our hostess Stephanie Chave, to the vine-growing village of Lutry. Its Caveau des Vigerons, literally the Cellar of the Vine Growers, was low-roofed and filled with down-to-earth farmers, sitting around large barrel-tables, talking and drinking wine. It was the sort of pub scene quite common in places like Britain. From the Vaud area, we tasted four white wines, all made from Chasselas grapes. The Lavaux was well balanced, not too dry or too sweet, great to start or end a meal; the La Cote was dry with a distinctive floral touch and excellent with white meat; fish and poultry would also go well with the Chablais which was dry and rather assertive; the Bonvillars was dry and delicate and it seemed a good wine for a seafood meal. There was also their red Salvagnin which we would have liked to have drunk with tandoori snacks.

The Vaud is in the Rhone Valley; so is the Valais. The Vaud, however, is to the west of Lake Geneva, and the Valais is so far on the eastern part of the river valley that the lake is out of sight. This rather confused us, at first, till we realised that the Rhone flows into the western end of the lake, streams right across it, and flows out at the eastern end through Valais. Here, in the beautiful town of Sion (pronounced See-onh), we were introduced to the wines of the Valais by our mentors: Eddy Peter, the boss of Sion’s tourism, and Claude-Nicolas Becker, successor to the Gilliard estates of his family.

Gilliard’s vineyards cling to the steep, flinty, slopes of Mount Tourbillon looking down at the swift flow of the disciplined Rhone River; and the manicured town of Sion. We walked through a tunnel to get to the vineyards, learnt that the dry-stone walls that support the terraces reflect the sun and warm the vines. And then we descended into the depths of the cellars where wine matured in great casks and the carnotzet was the traditional cellar in which wine-drinking friends sorted out the affairs of the world to their entire satisfaction! We relaxed in the carnotzet with Eddy and Claude-Nicolas, tasted wines and learnt to appreciate the skills of the Gilliard family.

One of us didn’t like the dry, white and aromatic Johannisberg, the other did. It was a rather fulsome wine, not really as subtle as we had expected it to be. Both of us, however, did like the white Amigne du Valais because it had a hint of wild berries and was subtly sweet with the presence of sugar. We also liked another white, the Petite Arvine du Valais, and if you really want to make a point with your friends, this is the wine to bring home. Dating back to Roman times, there are only 40 acres of this vine in the whole world, and all of them are in Valais. It is also the only wine, anywhere, which gives a salt taste in the end, a property imparted to it by the grape. And yet, it also gives the impression of being sweet not because of sugar but due to its alcohol. White wines are really golden wines, but this one has a distinctly greenish hue. It goes well with appetisers and seafood and is, in all ways, a great wine to get a party going. We also tasted a red Dole des Monts. Doles are always blends of a dominating Pinot Noir black grape and a lesser input of the bluish Gamay.

We drank Dole on our flight back on Swiss. But there is one wine of the Valais that we have not tasted. Growing in the highest vineyards of Europe, at elevations of 1,100 metres Savagnin grapes. Here they are known as Heida and Paien. From these vines comes the spicy, golden-brown Glacier wine. It is bottled only after it has been matured for 10 to 15 years in casks made of larchwood.

But then, not even the most dedicated Swiss vinolent can hope to taste all the great, and subtly evolving, wines of Switzerland!