Corinna Hardgrave: Make like Bono in South Africa and personalise your own bottle
Did you know that The Chocolate Block, a red wine from South Africa is one of Bono's favourite wines? He likes it so much, when he was in South Africa with his buddy Bob Geldof a few years ago, he dropped out to Boekenhoutskloof, the winery in Franschhoek where it is produced, to have a look for himself. And in inimitable Bono fashion, he left his mark. Rather than signing a bottle, he drew an illustration on the label of one, and it joined the celebrity collection that winemaker and co-owner Marc Kent has on display in this stunningly beautiful winery. That is, until some prat decided that it would be perfectly alright to steal it.
Marc Kent is one of those immediately likeable people. I had a chance to meet him because I was visiting South Africa on a wine trip with Stephen Towler, the person who buys more Dom Pérignon than anyone else in the world. Good company, eh? Okay, it's not for his personal consumption, but as the senior beverage adviser for Emirates, his job is to go direct to the winemakers, and hand-pick the wines for the airline. When you consider that they serve six million bottles a year, you get a sense of the scale. Since 2006, Emirates has invested $700m in wine, which includes eye-wateringly expensive bottles. So if you're flying first class when one of the rarer bottles is being featured, you could potentially recoup the price of your ticket in top-end, in-flight imbibing.
So this is a behind the scenes look at what is involved in stocking up the first class, business class and economy cabins of Emirates with premium wine. And in case you're wondering, yes, as their guest I did get to fly business class - swoon, it truly is wonderful - but I had flown to Cape Town on a family holiday the previous year, and I can solidly vouch for their economy too. I haven't completely lost the run of myself.
Franschhoek is one of the oldest towns in South Africa, about 75 kilometres from Cape Town. It gets its present day name from the French Huguenots who arrived in 1688, when it became knows as le Coin Francais, 'the French Corner', later evolving into the Dutch equivalent, Franschhoek. It is the wettest corner of South Africa, and as I stood in the vineyard at Boekenhoutskloof with the rugged Franschhoek Mountains towering over the valley, I could get a sense of what it must be like when the rain thunders down. The valley was once called Elephant's Corner, Marc tells us, and the last elephant documented leaving the plains was in 1904. It was predominantly a fruit growing region which brought with it the problems of excessive spraying with herbicides, but now, with vines planted, and organic farming, the ecosystem is being restored, and wild animals have returned to the area. These include rarer species like the lynx and leopard and also the more abundant baboons, which create havoc once the grapes start to ripen. It is necessary to have someone sitting in the vineyard full time during the day to ensure they don't destroy the crop.
As we sit outside eating lunch made by his PA, Leona, and trying the different wines, we can hear the call of a fish eagle. The atmosphere is magical. I ask Marc if it is possible for people who aren't rock stars or lucky wine writers to visit the winery and his response is very interesting. Whereas they previously had organised tours that could be booked online, after experiencing really personal hospitality on a visit to the Douro in Portugal, he changed the way things are done. Now, visits are only available on Tuesdays and Thursdays and are restricted to a maximum of 20 people. They are completely free. He feels that people shouldn't have to pay to try the wine or feel pressured into buying a bottle, it is about sharing the experience and tasting really interesting wines. So if you're heading that way, be sure to check out their website and get in touch.
Marc also has another project, Porseleinberg, further afield in Swartland. The following day, I get to put my wine geek hat on and head inland across the mountains on hot, dusty roads to meet Callie Louw, the winemaker there who is one of the young Turks behind the 'Swartland Revolution'. Set up in 2010 by a bunch of young winemakers who couldn't afford to buy vineyards in the more established regions like Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, the idea behind the movement, which ran for six years, was to educate consumers about the unique 'Swartlandness' and terroir of the region's wines. As well as Callie, they included indie winemakers Adi Badenhorst, Eben Sadie, and Chris and Andrea Mullineux.
The set-up here is very different. In blistering mid-day heat, we look out across parched mountains, where vines struggle to thrive. This is the challenge, but also the secret to making wines of extreme finesse. At this altitude, there is very little top soil and even less rain. Bush vines are dry farmed and the yields are incredibly low. Callie grows Grenache and Cinsault, which are used in the blend for The Chocolate Block. It's the added spice, the bit of magic.
But even more special is the 100pc Syrah Porseleinberg and this is where the power of an airline's wine budget comes into play. With just a limited number of bottles available, they buy the whole allocation, and yes, you do have to fly first class if you want to try them. With handmade labels which Callie prints himself on an original Heidelberg letterpress - we got to see it in action - these wines are as low intervention as you're going to get. Callie brought out a few bottles for us to taste as we sat in the cool shade of the winery, which is little more than a tin shed with large cement tanks and concrete eggs where the wines are left to age. The website says that wine tastings are by appointment, but somehow I feel this one is a bit more difficult to visit as it's just a dude living on a mountain with his family and surf board, working all day in the scorching hot vineyard.
Wineries closer to Cape Town include Fairview in Paarl, owned by Charles Back, one of the pioneers of Swartland and as you pull up to the tasting room, you'll see the mesmerising spectacle of goats climbing the famous goats' tower. Fairview has the largest commercial herd of goats in South Africa and they have an impressive selection of artisanal cheeses which they serve with the wines in the tasting room. When I was there, I tried a few which Emirates serves on the South Africa sectors, and there is also a lovely restaurant if you're looking for lunch.
Wine tourism is a big thing in South Africa, and two of the other wineries I visited have restaurants. Ken Forrester, who is a restaurateur turned winemaker, has been on the Emirates wine list for the last 10 years. We drop into his eponymous vineyards, nestled at the foot of the Helderberg Mountains in Stellenbosch for a tasting, and head to his restaurant, 96 Winery Road, which is also a guest house with garden cottages. Known as Mr Chenin Blanc, his wines have won numerous awards, and his Chenin was served at Nelson Mandela's 85th birthday.
Also worth a visit are the biodynamic vineyards of Waterkloof, on the south-facing slopes of the Schapenberg, close to Cape Town and overlooking False Bay. Everything is done in accordance with nature and the lunar cycle, and huge Percheron draft horses, rather than machinery, are used to plough the land. Half the farm has been left wild, where native fynbos (the local heath and shrub plants) and fauna flourish, and the wild landscape contrasts with the modern winery building, which has a 10 metre high, glass-windowed restaurant jutting out, scooping in the whole vista. So if you're into fine dining on a grand scale, go for lunch when you can really take in the view.
Emirates operates two daily flights direct from Dublin to Dubai and onwards to over 150 destinations. Flights to Cape Town from €649 return inclusive of taxes and charges (see special promotional periods), emirates.ie Baggage allowance: 35kg economy, 40kg business class.
Ken Forrester, kenforresterwines.com
Ken Forrester Workhorse Chenin Blanc 2017
€13.30, 14pc from Marks and Spencer
Light, fresh and very drinkable, this Chenin Blanc from the South African master is full of ripe green apples with a touch of honey adding the characteristic varietal note.
The Chocolate Block 2017
€34.95, 14.5pc, from The Corkscrew, 64 Wine, Whelehan's, Blackrock Cellar, Donnybrook Fair, Mitchell's, Sweeney's, Martin's, Clontarf Wines, all Dublin; Wicklow Wine, La Touche, Wicklow; The Wine Well, Dunboyne; Morton's, Galway; Egan's Portlaoise; and Cashel Cellar, Cashel.
Ripe and spicy, this has generous layers of complex red and dark fruit, with a rich chocolatey quality.
Delheim Pinotage Rosé 2018
€13.95, 12.5pc from O'Briens and obrienswine.ie
As well as Chenin Blanc and some wonderful quality red wines, Nora Sperling-Thiel at Delheim, who was visiting Ireland recently, makes this delightfully fruity, slightly off-dry rosé, made from hand-harvested Pinotage grapes with a splash of Muscat de Frontignan.
Fairview Darling Chenin Blanc 2018
€19.99, 13.5pc, from Baggot Street Wines, Lilac Wines, Blackrock Cellar, Clontarf Wine and wineonline.ie
Grapes are hand-harvested from bush vines on hills at approximately 300 metres above sea level just outside Darling. Vibrant, with fruity flavours of pear, lime and a touch of melon, balanced with a mineral quality.