Wine and food are at the heart of French culture; their daily pacemaker and a pause at noon and sunset. It is said that a glass of red wine a day lowers cholesterol, vindicating this long-established tradition. This nation is recognised for its appreciation and knowledge of food and wine.
It is here and here alone that chefs fall into deep depression when demoted from three to two Michelin Stars. Despite international competition, and the fight for time, the French stop religiously between noon and 2pm for lunch. This usually comprises two to three course set menu with wine. French truck drivers devise their route according to the best plat du jour or daily dish on offer in each village.
The French palate recognised the importance of terroir – location, vineyards, vines and climate on the quality of the wine produced, classifying the Bordeaux vineyards in France as early as 1855. Wine lists reflect local wines and the regional sense of pride is such that at times it may seem the Bordelaise hardly recognise that Burgundian wines exist!
The French ambassador’s residence in South Africa is the holy grail of French civilization and culture. Under the South African ambassadorial system, Denis and Marla Pieton are blessed with two abodes – a Herbert Baker Cape Dutch style with sweeping gardens nestling beneath Table Mountain in Constantia, Cape Town, and a stylishly classical home with gardens that slip from the horizon to reveal the jacaranda trees growing at the residences of Arcadia in Pretoria below.
These expansive gardens in Pretoria have welcomed French President Nicolas Sarkozy, foreign dignitaries and distinguished guests. The long dining room has hosted receptions for French chefs and diplomats.
Typical of these occasions were the celebrations of Bastille Day on 14 July. There were displays of oysters, imported cheese and pate and Moet et Chandon, accompanied by the South African Regimental band playing both countries’ anthems.
The main reception room has the elegant composition of French architecture – refined dimensions, double volume high ceilings, parquet flooring, French-style doors leading to adjoining sitting rooms and dining salons and glass doors opening into the garden with views towards Johannesburg. The gracious proportions are enhanced by artwork of distinction.
Catalogue in hand, dignitaries from neighbouring countries, diplomats, French associated companies and captains of industry sniffed and savoured. The mélange of languages in this international gathering reflected the elegance and diversity of the national costumes.
The history of winemaking in the Cape was learned from the French Huguenots. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Vin de Constance wines of the Cape graced the tables of nobility, kings, queens and the courts of Europe. Today South Africa has a thriving international business with recognised and leading labels that are winning awards in stiff competitions.
There was the distinguished line up of Bouchard Finlayson, Glenelly, L’Avenir, Morgenhof, Morgenster, Marianne, Ingwe and Rupert and Rothschild recognisable labels at this sophisticated dégustation (tasting) with the finest of French associations.
On similar occasions, guests have waited for the tall French-style wooden doors to be cast open to reveal a long dining table displaying an array of tempting French fare on platters and tiered stands of every design and hue. On this occasion, the wine stole their complete attention from their growling hunger.
One tends to develop a palate from an early age depending on the cuisine and wine one is exposed to. An Old World palate displays a subtlety and time is needed for reflection. It highlights an era when people had time, respect, refinement and dignity. The flavours in a New World wine jump out of the glass and the palate suggests diversity, challenges and new ideas. They are bold, more obvious in aroma, accessible and accommodate varying palates with ease.
French wines echo the French taste in fashion. They are sophisticated, elegant, and revel in understated elegance. Their distinction reflects their great nation with its history, fine culture and tradition. They are subtle, integrated and understated and can be likened to the harmony found in music by Bizet. They flow over your palate tailoring each taste bud.
French reds invite you to be reverent in your assessment of their wines. You have to look harder, seek longer and appreciate more in order to relate to the aromas, tastes and flavours of these complex wines. The flavours of South African wines are more upfront and direct. They present themselves proudly with a trust that allows you to resonate with their uniqueness.
New world wines, of which South Africa stands proud, speak of the confidence of a developing country with bold colours, ripe flavours and defined tastes. The sun and warm weather translate into big, full-bodied wines. There is an excitement, a sexy nuance and a cheeky challenge in their structure, like the music of Chopin, displaying the open character of a rainbow nation.
French vignerons chaptalise (add sugar) to their wines to increase the alcohol levels, when the sugar is transferred into alcohol during the fermentation process. This is strictly forbidden locally as sunny South Africa has naturally high alcohol levels. Here the sugar develops fast in each berry, resulting in alcohol rather than elegance and flavour. What we require is a slower ripening period so that the flavours mature alongside the alcohol levels. French wines are around 12 degrees of alcohol, while ours soar to 14 to 15 degrees or more! A glass from South Africa will set you on your way far sooner than a French one.
The French flag was flying high on the evening of Bastille Day, with the room full of renowned personalities from the wine world. The Cape wines reveal the uniqueness of local turf, yet the best of both nations. The terroir of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Hermanus reflected stylishly on the palates of their esteemed producers.
French winemaking techniques and experience reflected in an elegant, refined, velvety texture in the wines. These wines showed less Port or jam characteristics than the local counterparts. The palates were more defined, and genteel with subtle oaking, cigar box aromas and lower alcohols.
The first partnership represented was the investment of Paul Bouchard from Bouchard Aîne in Beaune, Burgundy with Peter Finlayson to form Bouchard Finlayson in 1989. Peter had established a name for Pinot Noir having won the coveted Diners Club winemaker of the year award in 1989. This Hermanus winery continues to get international acclaim and awards for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines at one of the Cape’s leading wineries.
Rupert & Rothschild is the partnership between Rupert and Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, of Chateau Clarke in Bordeaux. International wine consultant Michel Roland advises on international trends and winemaking techniques. It is Schalk-Willem Joubert, ensconced as cellarmaster since the maiden vintage, who has personalised the evolution of this winery. The Cabernet-Merlot blend Baron Edmond and a Chardonnay Baroness Nadine shine with elegance and complexity.
Madame May-Elaine de Lencquesaing of Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de Lalande in Paullac purchased Glenelly in 2003 and established a boutique winery producing limited quantities under the Pichon team. The environment-friendly gravity-fed cellar under construction is sunk into the mountain. The French recognised the potential of the Cape’s terroir and invested wisely in a country with new flavours, different terroir and New World Market options.
At L’Avenir in Stellenbosch, South Africa is honoured to have had international vigneron Michel Laroche as owner since 2005. Laroche has a 150-year family heritage in Chablis and gained global status over 14 years in Southern France and seven in Chile. Cellarmaster Tinus Els benefits from the wisdom, knowledge and of wealth of experience gained from this guru. The winery specialises in Pinotage, Chenin and Cabernet.
Morgenhof Owner Anne Cointreau from the Cointreau and Gosset Champagne family was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honnneur, France’s highest civilian honour for the promotion of French wine culture, as well as her Relais & Chateaux lodges in the Waterberg. It is here that cellarmaster Jacques Cilliers produces a Bordeaux blend, Merlot, Chardonnay, Chenin and Brut Reserve on this 1692 Stellenbosch property.
Italian Giulio Bertrand acquired Morgenster from the famed glass blower Shirley Cloete a decade ago. Marius Lategan with consultant Pierre Lurton from Chateau Cheval Blanc specialise in understated, elegant yet complex Merlot-driven Cabernet blends on this Stellenbosch property - the flagship Morgenster and the Lourens River Valley.
Alain Mouiex, the proprietor of two Bordeaux properties, owns Ingwe in Stellenbosch. The world is now a global market with winemakers flying across the equator to make wine in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Leading wineries are buying vineyards in other countries or making labels with other nationalities. And it is winemaker PJ Geyer who is Ingwe’s flying winemaker, managing the harvest in both countries, and ensuring the refinement of the finest blends. They offer a Merlot-Cabernet blend called Ingwe and a sophisticated white Bordeaux blend of Sauvignon and Semillon called Amehlo.
The Dauriac family owns both Marianne in Paarl as well as other Bordeaux properties. Franck Malassigne is blessed with marketing a wide spectrum of labels locally and Bordeaux blends internationally.
The enthusiastic Alsace winemaker Julien Schall makes a Cabernet, a Cabernet-Shiraz blend and Chardonnay in the Hemel en Aarde Valley in Hermanus.
And in addition, even the Chef & Sommelier glasses on offer at this tasting were French, manufactured outside Paris. One in particular, the Open Up glass, is designed to enhance the flavour of young wines.
The local South African band welcomed this diverse crowd to the rainbow nation and our wines spoke proudly about what we do famously in this country – produce world-class wines.
Wine and food expert Juliet Cullinan is a consultant, journalist and festival organiser with decades of experience in the wine industry. Her premier Juliet Cullinan Standard Bank Wine Festival, which showcases the best wines South Africa has to offer, has been running for 17 years. She also holds the Juliet Cullinan Wine Connoisseur’s Awards, donates to the Cape Wine Master’s Bursary, and runs wine and food pairing evenings and wine tastings and dinners.
In May 2008 Cullinan organised a wine-tasting evening at the French ambassador’s residence, offering wines from South African wineries with French ownership or French association. To download the catalogue for the evening, click here.
Rupert & Rothschild