I experienced one of the cleverest wine marketing ideas when I had lunch at Glen Carlou Restaurant on Friday. The Restaurant Manager Janine came to each table with a washed bunch of freshly picked Malbec grapes, so that one can experience the taste of a more unusual grape variety. This brought the vineyard, in which we could see the Glen Carlou staff picking grapes below us, straight to the table, and stimulated an interest in tasting the wines after the lunch, even though I had decided against wine-tasting initially.
Glen Carlou has been owned by Donald Hess for the last six years, and he is an entrepreneur with international interests, such as we have seen at Delaire Graff and Grande Provence – international owners of multiple properties around the world, and lovers of and investors in art. Janine reminded every table about the Hess Collection art gallery, which is behind closed doors in an airconditioned room, containing some interesting works of art – not the place to bring one’s teenage daughter! Hess has wine interests in Argentina, California, Australia and in South Africa. The Hess Family Estates had its first beginnings in Switzerland in 1844, when Johann Heinrich Hess founded a brewery in Berne. The current owner Donald Hess grew the company, in that it diversified into mineral water, Valser Water becoming Switzerland’s leading water brand. He loves wine and art, and married these two passions with his first wine estate purchase on Mount Veeder in the Napa Valley in 1978. Then followed wine estates in Argentina (the highest vineyard in the world), in Australia, and then in South Africa, with the purchase of Glen Carlou (making wines since 1985). Hess is one of the world’s major collectors of contemporary art representing the last fifty years, and his collection includes 1000 works by 65 international artists. Hess only acquires pieces that challenge or touch him personally. “When I have seen an art piece which keeps me awake over several nights, I know that this art piece has touched me deeply and this is one of my most important criteria to buy an art work”, he says in a profile on the Hess Art Collection.
The building is an all-in-one wine cellar (on the lower level) and one can see very little of the wine production side, save for a glass floor section allowing one to see some barrels below, tasting room, art gallery and restaurant. One enters a lovely air conditioned room, which has the wine tasting counter closest to the door, and the rest of the space is taken up by a very spacious restaurant, with a small lounge section too. It has a homely thatched roof ceiling. The terrace has shading so that one can sit outside and enjoy the lovely view onto the vineyards below and the Paarl Mountains in the distance. I could have sworn that I saw a little buck dashing from one vineyard to the other. There is attractive white garden furniture outside, with a glass top and aluminium table. The cork placemats and the old-fashioned wooden salt and pepper grinders seemed out of place with the international character of the wine estate (Peugeot is very in, I have noticed on my restaurant travels), and there is no table cloth, yet there is a material serviette, into which is rolled two forks and two knives, on the assumption that one will have a starter and a main course. Two big glass containers contain olive oil (from House of Olives down the road) and balsamic vinegar (from Serena, according to the waiter).
I was seated by Janine, who was very friendly, but I felt her Capri pants to be out of character with the stature of this Hess winery. The chef Hennie van der Merwe has been at Glen Carlou for about two years, and previously owned The Red Hen restaurant on Wildebraam outside Swellendam. He has also worked at Umami in Stellenbosch, on the QE2, and on the Queen Mary. I was surprised (and impressed) that I was welcomed by Georgie Prout, the Public Relations Manager, who recognised me from the Winestyle launch at Warwick a few months ago, she said. She was very helpful in providing information about the other Hess wine farms.
The menu is presented in a black leather menu holder, and in fact there are two menus. While I had a look through the menus, introduced two weeks ago, the waiter brought two bread rolls (looked like mosbolletjies to me, but topped with sesame seeds), which again did not match the stature of the wine estate, in my opinion. Each item on the menu has a Glen Carlou wine recommendation. As I was just passing through, I ordered two starters, the first being a Caprese salad with Bocconcini (an imported buffalo mozzarella, I was told), ‘baby plum tomatoes’, tiny drops of basil pesto, and rocket – the chef seems to like rocket, as both starters had lots of it on the plate, and it had a really bitter taste (R40). It was served with two tiny triangles of toast (what is it with tiny toast triangles? I had them at Mange Toute as well), which were not enough to eat with the cheese. I would have preferred the basil fresh and not in pesto form. Much more exciting was the seared duck breast served with duck liver mousse, and I loved the orange honey sauce that was served with it (R60). I thought the rocket and grapefruit distracted from and clashed with the lovely duck and sauce, both being too bitter, even though they added colour to the starter. I would like to see this dish become a main course, so good was the duck and sauce. The duck liver mousse was on another tiny toast triangle. Starters cost between R 40 – R65, and other options include smoked trout and asparagus, mussels, and an interesting sounding trio of Kudu carpaccio, steak tartar with poached quail egg and rooibos smoked springbok loin.
Main courses are reasonable in price, costing R85 – R105, and include roasted pork fillet and mushroom fricassee, sirloin steak, roasted quail, kingklip, duck, and trout. Georgie told me that Chef Hennie is known for his wonderful sauces. The second menu has further options, mainly salads and burgers, costing R60 – R85. The cappuccino (R16) took long to bring to the table, but was in a large cup, and very foamy. It was while I was waiting for the coffee that Janine came with the bunch of grapes, so it served as a dessert. Dessert choices are Malva pudding, Crème Brulee, and chocolate mousse, all costing a most reasonable R30, ice cream at R12 a scoop, and a Boland cheese platter at R85 – they are not on the menu one receives on arrival, but on a menu list which includes side orders, drinks other than wines, and the Kiddies Menu.
I had a large jug of farm water and lemon to drink, and was surprised at the saltiness of the water. The waiter said something about putting lemon into the water because of that, but I did not understand this. The wines are listed in a similar black leather holder. I was very impressed that there was no mark-up on the Glen Carlou wines on the winelist at all! This makes them very reasonable to order : Sauvignon Blanc (R18/R65), Tortoise Hill White (R12/R42), Chardonnay (R25/R90), Quartz Stone Chardonnay (R25/R90), Pinot Noir (R36/R130), Tortoise Hill Red (R16/R49), Syrah (R34/R120), Zinfandel (R36/R130), Cabernet Sauvignon (R25/R90), Grand Classique (R34/R120), Gravel Quarry Cabernet Sauvignon (R80/R375) and The Welder (R22/R89). In addition, one can buy Hess wines from Argentina (Colomè), Peter Lehmann (Australia) and the Hess Collection from California, ranging in price from R140 – R 395, at Glen Carlou. I was encouraged via Twitter to try Glen Carlou’s Zinfandel, and having been to a Blaauwklippen Zinfandel tasting a week ago, I tried a small glassfull, and liked it very much. Janine wanted me to know that the Zinfandel is seen as a ‘hobby wine’, and only 6000 bottles are produced. She said that the Hess Zinfandel from Napa has a very different character to that of Glen Carlou, even though both have 15 % alcohol. I then tried a small glassful of the 2006 Shiraz, and it is one of my favourites. The winemaker is a low profile Arco Laarman, whose name I did not know – Janine said he worked alongside the previous cellarmaster David Finlayson, and has been at Glen Carlou for ten years.
The invoice came in a soft black leather holder, and I was irritated when the waiter came to my table with the credit card machine – I had not put down my card, was still having my grapes and water, did not show signs of leaving, and had no intention to pay by card.
As I drive past Glen Carlou whenever I go to Franschhoek, I will certainly pop in for lunch again. I used to love their prawn salad, but that dish is not on the new menu. There are a number of interesting dishes to try at Glen Carlou on future visits.
Glen Carlou Restaurant, Simondium Road (R 45), Klapmuts. Tel (021) 875-5528. www.glencarlou.co.za (The new menu is not yet on the website. Innovative is that recipes are listed on the website, but they are for dishes no longer on the menu). Tuesday – Sunday.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage