Chef Christoph Dehosse had recommended a visit to the Postcard Café at Stark-Condé wine estate when it first opened just over a year ago, and I only managed to get to it last Friday. Its picturesque setting in the fertile and higher rainfall Jonkershoek Valley must be one of the most exceptional in the Winelands, at the edge of a dam, with the mountains in the background.
My son and I did a tasting of the Stark-Condé wines first, in the Bali-inspired tasting venue which opened in 2010 on an island in the middle of the dam, on the Oude Nektar farm, next door to the well-known Old Nektar, belonging to 99-year old Una van der Spuy, well-known for her garden and the books she has written about it. One can sit inside or out, and sitting outside to enjoy the spectacular view, despite the cooler and cloudy day, was a natural choice. Rick was the winetasting host, and would not allow us to pay for the tasting, despite the board at the entrance indicating that they charge R30 for five wines tasted. He explained that the name of the wines comes from a combination of the maiden name of the mother of owner Hans Schröder (Stark) and the husband of Schröder’s daughter Marie (Jose Condé from Kansas City), who is the winemaker. The Stark-Condé price list introduces the wine estate as follows: “We are a small family-owned winery dedicated to making hand-crafted wines. We use traditional techniques: hand-picking, meticulous sorting of the grapes, open fermentation, hand-punchdowns, basket pressing and maturation in French oak barrels. The Stark-Condé wines are from our own estate vineyards and the Pepin Condé wines are from select vineyards outside the valley”.
Rick explained that ‘Pepin’ means short, Condé’s nickname in Spanish, coming from Columbia. The Pepin Condé range consists of a Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from Elgin, Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, ranging from R75 – R95, and Pinot Noir from Rowey Vineyards in Elgin (R185). The Stellenbosch range consists of a Cabernet Sauvignon (Platter 4,5 star rating for 2008 vintage) and Syrah (Platter 4 star rating for 2008), both costing R130. The Three Pines range has a Cabernet Sauvignon (the 2009 vintage was awarded 5 stars in the latest Platter, and the 2008 vintage which we enjoyed even more was awarded 4,5 stars), and Syrah (Platter 4,5 star for the 2008), all costing R260. The Stellenbosch and Three Pines ranges spent 22 months in French oak barrels and a further year in the bottle. Lingen is a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (40%), Syrah (40%), and Petit Verdot (20%), and costs R145. Rick said the terroir of granite gives the wines spiciness and complexity, while the clay adds a soft roundedness to the wines.
As Rick did not know all the details of the family connections, he referred us to Marié Condé, who owns the Postcard Café, but she unfortunately was not at the restaurant over lunch. We were delighted that wine estate owner Hans Schröder was around, and he came to sit down for a chat. He told us that he grew up in Namibia, but moved to South Africa. He was in the Navy, and then in shipping for a number of years before he went to Japan to study business administration, regarding Japan as the leader on this topic at the time. He had to learn Japanese to be able to study. He started a consultancy, guiding companies in doing business in Japan. He could only bring his Japanese wife on holiday to South Africa, but could not live here with her in the pre-1994 apartheid era. In 1998 he returned to South Africa, and bought the farm in the Jonkershoek valley. He enjoyed wines, but wasn’t a winemaker, and appointed my school classmate Neil Ellis to make the Neil Ellis branded wines. The Neil Ellis tasting room and cellar was set up at their Helshoogte Pass property a year ago, but some of his wine will still be made at Oude Nektar for a year or two, Neil told me, by chance having a table next to ours on Friday, at which he was entertaining Irish clients. Mr Schröder does the marketing of both sets of wines, going on separate Stark-Condé and Neil Ellis marketing trips to Japan, China, Korea, and Hong Kong, as well as Germany, while Neil markets his wines in the UK and Ireland. They produce about 1,2 million Neil Ellis and 70000 Stark-Condé bottles of wine per year.
The Postcard Café is set alongside the edge of the dam, and its water lilies remind one of Renoir paintings and Japan. Wooden tables and chairs are set up on the terrace of the restaurant, and a few steps down alongside the poplar tree forest. A small shop sells wine cooler bags, aprons and Rozendal fynbos vinegar. There is no hostess or manager on duty, and Bella was the first waitress we asked about the table. She was very abrupt and uncommunicative. Having booked, our table was in the lower section. A piece of paper with the guest name is on each booked table. There are no table cloths or placemats, cutlery is ordinary, serviettes are of paper, and a holder contained an unbranded olive oil, salt and pepper grinders, and Il Torrione balsamic vinegar. The menu is printed on the same yellow paper as the wine price list, and contains only ten options, ranging from R54 – R 82. There is no distinction between starters and mains. The menu options are ordinary: roasted pepper and baby marrow quiche, bacon and cheddar omelet, and a ham and cheddar toasted sandwich. I chose the smoked trout salad with cucumber, boiled potato and a most delicious dill cream sauce, served with sourdough rye from De Oude Bank Bakkerij (owner Fritz Schoon was also enjoying lunch there on Friday). My son ordered a cheese and preserves plate, with Brie, gruyere, blue cheese, and a chevin and dill cream cheese served with fig preserve, gooseberry jam, and sourdough rye, heavily covered with rocket. One can also order a cold meat plate, with pork terrine, salami and ham, which come from Joostenberg Deli, served with olives and pickles, or a combination cheese and cold meat plate. The cheeses are supplied by Get Stuffed. In winter the lamb curry dish must be a winner. Each of the menu items has wine recommendations. Wines cost R27 – R35 per glass, commendable low prices, and most of the bottle prices are on a par or even cheaper than those on the tasting room price list, the first time I have seen this at a wine estate restaurant. Water is served in a wine bottle. Our waitress Zelda looked after us well at the table, but was tardy when it came to preparing the bill.
Desserts are basic rustic apple pie, which had a sugar coasted crust and was served with cream on a Postcard Café branded plate; rustic apricot pie; baked cheesecake; dark chocolate cake; pear and blackberry crumble; chocolate pecan bars; and chilled pears in red wine syrup, most costing a very reasonable R26. Disappointing is that no cappuccinos are served – only filter coffee is available, at R14. A ceramic Melitta coffee filter was a plant holder on a table inside, generating a feeling of nostalgia from our family home, which had one too.
Postcard Café has the most amazing location, and its Stark-Condé wines on the estate are exceptional and very affordable. The food choice is disappointingly basic and over-dominated by rocket and greens on top of all dishes, not matching the quality of the wines. Service time between order placed and serving is exceptionally fast, making one suspect that all dishes are pre-prepared. Most ingredients are bought in, instead of being created on the fertile farm. The lack of a manager and a hostess to seat arriving guests and to look after the guests is a weakness.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage