I had not visited Franschhoek for a while, and decided to enjoy a full weekend of the Franschhoek Uncorked Festival, to get to as many of the 20 wine estates as possible. My feedback follows, focusing more on the marketing of the estate, its customer care demonstrated, and the food served (I would never have survived full days of wine tasting!):
Starting at Plaisir de Merle, it was a big disappointment overall. Given that the Festival was on, one wonders why the boom had to be closed and then opened for each individual car arriving and leaving. Commendably all other wine estates kept their booms open for the occasion. The drive up to the wine-tasting buildings is unattractive, with ditches on either side â€“ there is no lane of trees to soften the entrance. Plaisir de Merle is a Distell-owned wine farm, and supplies most of its grapes for the making of Nederburg, I read over the weekend. The farm is one of the largest in the Cape, just under 1000 hectares. We parked and approached the tables at which the tasting was being done and the food was prepared. Seeing other guests queue, we did too, but the procedure was meant to be that we should have sat down at a table, and waited for a “waiter’ to come to us. We gave our waiter the order, but he did not understand the word ‘crÃªpe’, even though it is one of the items on the menu â€“ he asked if I meant a pancake! We decided to place the order with the food preparers directly, and chose an apple and an orange crÃªpe. They were so disappointing compared to the crÃªpes I have enjoyed here in previous years. We had to ask for the bill three times, and in the end we could not be bothered, and left the money on the table. A violinist and flautist provided a lively touch, and the hired staff wore white shirts and black pants, with a branded black beret. The French theme of Franschhoek came through with three serviettes in red, white and blue on the kitsch silver underplates, which seemed out of place, given the history of the estate. Bread was for sale, but nothing told one that it was baked with special flour ground in a recently renovated historic water mill. We left having no knowledge about the wines, but did receive a summary of the wines on request, which had to be printed for us especially, with tasting notes for Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.
Allee Bleue focused its Uncorked activities in its Le Grand Hall, which I had not seen since its completion in March. It is a modern structure, with an attractive entrance, and glass stacking doors. It can seat 300 guests, mainly for weddings and product launches, with space for a band stand and dance floor. The security guard had the boom open, and looked very smart with his Allee Bleue blue bow tie, but spoilt the friendly impression when he answered every question I asked with “yup”! On seeing us, the Food & Beverage Manager Desmond Spangenberg, one of the friendliest persons in the hospitality industry, walked up to us and welcomed us â€“ you cannot beat such a personal touch! Immediately he gave us complimentary Uncorked “passports” (Plaisir de Merle did not offer to sell us any!), a glass of the wonderful newly launched Allee Bleue Brut Rose, and their very tasty Flammkuchen, an Austrian speciality much like a thin based pizza covered with ham, cream cheese and onions. It was far too much to have it all. I was sad to hear that the likeable chef Dane Newton had left. The friendliness, professionalism and generosity of Allee Bleue was exceptional.
I was looking forward to the Tasting Masterclass conducted by Graham Beck wine maker Pieter Ferreira, an expert on sparkling wine production. This estate was by far the busiest and buzziest. The Masterclass was held in an exclusive tasting room on the first floor, with a boardroom table set up with a Graham Beck branded sheet, which allowed for 8 tasting glasses, and a pairing plate with a slice of ham, smoked Franschhoek trout, camembert and a lovely piece of thick chocolate. Pieter sharpened our sense of smell by making us sniff at least 20 different wine glasses, with a wide variety of flavours, e.g. vanilla, cloves, fresh strawberries, pepper, and asparagus. These would be typical elements we should have picked up on the nose of the wines we were to taste. We tasted 12 Graham Beck wines, and Pieter was a most patient, informative and passionate tasting leader. He threw in many interesting bits of information: the size of the glass does not really matter in tasting wines, as long as it is not tulip-shaped; white wine glasses do not have to be smaller than red wine ones; Riedel make 27 different types of glasses, some varietal-specific (Pieter helped them select a design for Pinotage-tasting); one does not have to drink white/red wine with white/red meat; wines should be served as cold as possible, even red wines, 15 â€“ 18 C being ideal for reds; chocolate is a good way to clear the palate; â€˜beer pour’ style is the best way to pour sparkling wine, and not into an upright glass, to retain as much of the bubble. A lovely touch was when I received a bottle of the wonderful Graham Beck Brut Rose as a gift. The Masterclass cost R75.
I stopped at the new Maison wine estate, the newest Franschhoek wine farm, and expected a Weylandt’s interior, as it belongs to Chris Weylandt. I was surprised to see a cute cottage, bales of hay on the lawn at which sunseekers were sitting, and a very laid-back atmosphere â€“ even the jazz band had taken some time off. There were two food choices â€“ a salmon or pork belly sandwich served on a nice wooden board, quite expensive at R 50 each, but the staff assured me that they were fabulous, and the pork belly one was. It had a lovely “fish sauce” spread on it, with rocket, served on the most wonderful rye bread from Bread & Wine. Whilst I was catching up on Twitter, Chris Weylandt came over to have a chat, and told me that the Weylandt’s interior will be introduced in the new cellar and restaurant they are opening in the first quarter of 2011. It will serve â€˜real food’, he said. He is very proud of the great interest shown in his estate, having only opened officially two weeks ago (and is now on Twitter @Maisonestate). Wines offered for sale are Shiraz and Chenin Blanc, as well as a limited edition Viognier. Chris is proud of the wines made from the estate’s grapes, and that they do not buy in any grapes. Anton Bondesia is the young winemaker, having worked in Italy, New Zealand, California, and also at Spier. The Shiraz won the 2009 SA Young Wine Trophy. Chris Weylandt has lived in the estate for the last six years, in the oldest barn in Franschhoek with “contemporary additions”, he said, built in 1796. It has been featured in VISI, Elle, and international design magazines.
Grande Provence was quite a contrast, not having pulled in the crowds, and therefore lacking in atmosphere. A number of winelovers sat at the counter in the tasting room. I met up with the curator of the gallery, Johan du Plessis, and he showed me around the new enlarged gallery, with very interesting works of art. Donovan Dreyer is another lovely Franschhoek Food & Beverage Manager, and he brought me a dessert creation from Chef Darren Roberts. The Grande Provence Pinot Noir 2009 was launched for the Uncorked Festival. Five tasting stations were set up on the estate, with a wine matched to a restaurant speciality (e.g. chicken liver parfait, duck with green olive and date tagine, and gravidlax with apple compote and tapenade), at R 100. A four course meal was also on offer over the weekend, at R 375, for a Gateaux of duck and rabbit rillettes, hot and sour seafood broth, osso bucco and chocolate calzone, each course paired with a Grande Provence wine.
Boekenhoutskloof was very quiet at midday on Sunday. I was interested in going there to enjoy Reuben’s Barbeque Extravaganza, and to catch up with Reuben Riffel before he launches his third Reuben’s restaurant at the One&Only Cape Town in just more than three weeks. He probably committed to the Festival BS (before Sol). Reuben was nowhere to be seen, but his branding was on the braai. Some of his staff was doing steak sandwiches, the prices of his dishes written on a blackboard looking rather unprofessional â€“ the food preparation section was untidy and did not inspire one to order food. Empty containers left by departed visitors were left on the table. The band stand was set up, without a band. Inside, the tasting room was busy, and I had to smile when the sweet tasting lady suggested that I rather buy the Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc at Pick â€˜n Pay, as it would be cheaper there than on the estate. Boekenhoutskloof has been one of Franschhoek most successful wine estates as far as Platter performance goes, for its Boekenhoutskloof Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chocolate Block, Porcupine Ridge and The Wolftrap are secondary brands. The massive plastic The Chocolate Block bottle outside the tasting area was the most commercialised I have ever seen the estate, which seems to pride itself on selling its wines in a low key manner, selling itself, so to speak.
My final stop was at La Motte, and I was excited about my visit there, as the new Pierneef Ã la Motte restaurant, the new tasting room, the new Rupert family museum, art gallery, Pierneef art gallery and the Farm Shop had all opened in the past few days. I started my visit at the Farm Shop, and saw the loveliest breads (including a shiraz-based one, and some potbrood), as well as shiraz-filled chocolates in the shop. Then it was off to the galleries and museum, a building that leads one from one room to another, with less space dedicated to the Rupert family and its patriarch, the late Anton Rupert, and more to the art. Quiet corners have been set up dedicated to the music of Hanli Rupert, who is an acclaimed opera singer, and one can choose which of her music one wants to listen to whilst sitting in comfortable chairs. The art gallery appeared to have more modern art, but the highlight was the section displaying 18 oils and 26 other works by JH Pierneef. La Motte had recently bought the priceless Pierneef art collection from his daughter Marita, who lives in the United Kingdom. Dr Rupert had bought 3 sets of 120 Pierneef woodcut prints each for his three children, and some of these have been used as an inspiration on the Pierneef wine labels. They can be seen in the Tasting Room, and in various buildings on the estate. Hein Koegelenberg, husband of Hanli Rupert, and driver of La Motte, sat with me for half an hour of his precious time, and told me about the dedication of the estate to bring this priceless art treasure back to South Africa. The Pierneef Collection was not available for tasting over the Uncorked weekend, but will be in future. The new wine tasting room has allowed La Motte to have two separate wine production sections in its cellar, one for whites (under winemaker Michael Langenhoven, a passionate Sauvignon Blanc lover) and one for red wines (under winemaker Edmund Terblanche, a passionate Shiraz lover). The tasting room is managed by Werner Briedenhann, and he is passionate about his job â€“ a confident welcome, and a firm handshake. He explained that one could taste five wines, and these were served with some chocolate and ciabatta to clear the palate. Long tasting tables show the fun a group of friends can have in enjoying a tasting jointly. Everything was handled with the greatest professionalism, with only one weakness â€“ the lady at the entrance desk told me that the new La Motte Pierneef Hanli R was made from two blends, which I promptly Tweeted, and was immediately corrected by Hein Koegelenberg on Twitter, in stating that it is made from Shiraz, Grenache, Cinsaut and Cabernet Sauvignon. La Motte dominated the Franschhoek Uncorked Experience by far this past weekend, with its beautiful new buildings, oak trees, lawns and water features. This is now a serious wine estate, supported by serious money, but Hanlie and Hein Koegelenberg are very humble, generous and friendly. Our review of Pierneef Ã La Motte restaurant will be published later this week.
Overall Franschhoek Uncorked is a clever way of attracting visitors to the wine estates of Franschhoek, something the Stellenbosch Wine Festival tried for the first time this year. However, given the captive audience they have on their estates, it is disappointing that not one of the seven estates I visited made sure that the visitors left with information about their wines, and with a restaurant menu, if applicable, or with a program of events in Franschhoek for the next few months. The Franschhoek Wine Valley Tourism Association had been more active in sending our Tweets about Franschhoek Uncorked, but stopped doing so late on Friday, with no Tweets at all over the weekend, when it was needed most! It is so easy to pre-schedule Tweets via Hootsuite. The clashing of the first day of Franschhoek Uncorked with the second day of the Nederburg Auction was unfortunate, and one wonders how Franschhoek could have chosen this weekend to schedule the event.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com