Babylonstoren the centre of ‘Simonsberg Wine Route’ in its new wine tasting centre!

Even though it shouldn’t have been a surprise, it was a most impressive visit to the new wine tasting center at Babylonstoren, not only offering a tasting of its own four wines, but also offering for sale two wines from each of the wine estates surrounding the Simonsberg, as well as gorgeous produce in its cheesery, bakery, and charcuterie, which opened two months ago.

One enters the tasting centre, housed in the original smithery and stable on the farm, which has been beautifully restored by owner Karen Roos and her GM Terry de Waal, to keep the building as authentic as possible. Flooring which looks weathered and as if it has been there for ever, comes from the old Dietman piano factory in Wellington.  The walls are part raw brick and part plastered and painted.  As Ms Roos has shown on the estate, she is a ‘less is more’ decorator, giving the tasting room a spacious feel, with only a central table displaying the Babylonstoren wines and one other Simonsberg wine, as well as a cheese of the day to taste. A small wooden table with a bench on one side is the only seating in the room, beautifully ‘decorated’ with a box of just picked and washed vegetables, including carrots and purple potatoes. From the central room the cheesery and charcuterie are on the right, behind modern glass doors, and the bakery is to the left.

Koos Bekker, husband of Ms Roos, has a passion for the terroir of the Simonsberg, and came up with the idea of a ‘home’ on his wine estate for the wines produced at the wine estates on the ‘inner circle’ surrounding the mountain.  When Babel restaurant opened on the wine estate over a year ago, it served wines from the neighbouring wine farms when it had not yet made its own wine, a commendable service. A ‘map’ showing the ‘Simonsberg Wine Route’ is painted onto a tile collage on the wall, showing where each of the 27 wine estates, being Vuurberg, Zorgvliet, Thelema, Tokara, Neil Ellis, Rustenburg, Glenelly, Morgenhof, Remhoogte, Quion Rock, Knorhoek, Muratie, Delheim, Uitkyk, Kanonkop, Natte Valleij, Marianne, Mt Vernon, Anura, Glen Carlou, Neil Joubert, Backsberg, Noble Hill, Rupert & Rothschild, Vrede & Lust, Plaisir de Merle, and Babylonstoren, is located.  A shelving unit stores the wines of the other Simonsberg estates, and as they are lying, it is difficult to see the estate names. Each is price marked, and sold at the cellar door price of each wine estate. Because the ‘Simonsberg Wine Route’ is not a formal one, there are no maps, no price list, nor information about any of the wines, including the Babylonstoren ones, a surprise, given the marketing and advertising background of Mr Bekker (Y&R, M-Net/Multichoice/MWeb, Naspers).  None of the four Babylonstoren wines have their 2011 vintage indicated on their bottles, and the staff could not explain this unusual strategy. They called winemaker Charl Coetzee to come over for a chat, and he seemed to think it odd that I was asking questions about this, only mentioning that they were matured in tanks (with the exception of 20% of the Viognier, which was matured in barrel). He was generally cagey about providing information about the Shiraz, Viognier, Mourvèdre Rosé, and Chenin Blanc.  He explained that there is no price list, as the two wines sold per Simonsberg wine estate will change over time, depending on their customers’ interest in them.  He referred to the launch of their flagship Chardonnay and Shiraz in September, and these will have the vintages on them, having been matured in barrels.  He was previously at Clos Malverne and Kaapzicht, and has been at Babylonstoren for about eighteen months. He said that he personally loves Pinotage, but this grape variety is not grown on the estate.  Grapes were on the farm when it was bought by the Bekkers, and the vines are 14 years old. This is the first winemaking on the farm. The wine side is so new to the wine estate that it is not even on their website yet, he said.  In the upstairs section there is a private winetasting and wine storage area, with minimal decor.

Having got stuck on the wine information, Karen ‘Bread’ Pretorius came to my rescue before the winemaker could be found, and she was extremely friendly and informative. She is in charge of the tasting centre, and also doubles up as the baker, having previously worked in the Babel kitchen. The breads baked vary every day, cost R25 each, and include baguettes; a 50% Rye, with Rooibos and raisins; and a tomato relish on a white loaf.  All are baked with Eureka stoneground flour in their wood-fired oven, which looks like it has been there for ever.  Karen is not formally trained in breadmaking, she said honestly, learning through ‘trial and error’, and ‘stealing with my eyes’, describing herself as a passionate breadmaker.  She was the Head Chef at Umami in Stellenbosch previously, and praised Maranda Engelbrecht for what she has learnt at Babel.  The Charcuterie is a large room, and its painting of a duck, bull’s head, and a pig onto the white brick wall, which is visible from the tasting room, reminds one of the bull painted on the Babel restaurant wall. The meats are supplied by Jason Lucas’ Jamon from Prince Albert, who also was the thatcher of the building roof.  They sell pre-packed portions of Black Forest, Parma ham, Pancetta, and Coppa hams, salami, Kalbsleberwurst, and biltong.  The cheeses come from nearby Dalewood predominantly, but also from Kleinrivier and Nuwehoogte.  The cheeses are displayed in fridges, and also in the airconditioned cheese room, which opens into the charcuterie.  Karen told me that they have a close relationship with their suppliers, all having passion for their products in common with Babylonstoren, being chemical-free, MSG-free, and healthier.

Babylonstoren is bound to come up with further surprises in future.  A Loyalty Card is in the pipeline.  A visit to see their extensive vegetable and fruit garden, to eat at Babel restaurant or at the Babel Tea House, to try their wines in the winetasting centre, and shopping at their bakery, charcuterie, and cheesery is highly recommended.  As the tasting centre is only two months old, there were some information deficiencies amongst the staff, which Karen will fix through training.  A coffee machine may be in the pipeline for the tasting centre too, as Babel does not serve coffees only, and the Babel Tea House is a long walk away.

Babylonstoren Tasting Centre, Bakery, Charcuterie, and Cheesery, R45, Franschhoek. Tel (021) 863-3852. www.babylonstoren.com Twitter: @Babylonstoren.  Cellar Tour 12h00 Wednesday – Sunday, must be booked ahead as they only take 12 – 15 persons, R100. 10h00 – 16h00 for tasting centre. R10 per person entry fee to the wine estate.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage

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