Laid out before us were Cape Town, the magnificent Table Bay and Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for so many years. “What a fantastic view,” said Fiendish Wine Quiz winner Liz Szwarc at we ascended more than 3,000ft in the cable car to the top of Table Mountain.
At the top of the ride, which rotates as you ascend so everyone gets the best views, we stepped out on to the flat rocky mountain top and clearly Liz and her partner Trevor’s thoughts were still close to home.
“It is a bit like Malham Cove,” she declared. With a keen wind blowing across the top of the mountain and clouds sweeping down its vertical sides, giving Table Mountain its characteristic white “tablecloth”, this was a breathtaking experience.
But the purpose of our 12-hour flight to South Africa was not just to see the sights. Invited by Accolade Wines, the fourth largest wine company in the world, we were there to find out about their South African operation.
We headed to Somerset West, to Flagstone Wines which was first established by one of South Africa’s top winemakers, Bruce Jack, in an old cold-store on the waterfront in Cape Town. With no vineyards, just lots of contacts and the willingness to buy the best grapes for his wines, Bruce developed a fine range with somewhat quirky names such as Writer’s Block, Dark Horse and Music Room. Soon his production outgrew the location and Bruce moved to an old dynamite factory in Somerset West. With thick walls and huge doors, this has proved to be an ideal location and all of Flagstone wines are made here. In time a larger company bought up Flagstone, leaving Bruce him free to concentrate on what he does best – source grapes and make wine. This is how Accolade, a big multinational wine company, that really should have a bright, shiny, purpose-built winery, is based in a historic 1901 dynamite factory originally built by Cecil Rhodes. And Bruce is still working with Accolade, his signature is on the labels and the grapes come from vineyards he has been working with for decades.
It was vintage time and the winery was busy with the business of fermenting when we visited. Taken round by winery manager Mia Boonzaier she explained how most of the winemaking was done by hand, not machines. Hand-sorting grapes, hand plunging the tanks, with a mobile bottling unit that comes and bottles the wines on site, It may be part of a big outfit but Flagstone has small company methods and attitudes.
From there it was a short drive over Sir Lowry’s Pass out to the Glen Fruin Farm in Elgin, one of the vineyards where grapes are sourced. Jack Swart has been growing Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes for Flagstone wines for several years. ‘We are really an apple and pear farm, but we planted some vines and as they matured, Flagstone decided that the quality was right for their wines. This is a cool site, so the grapes ripen slowly, and Flagstone want low yields to give more concentrated flavours,’ said Jack. Despite bright sunshine, there was a distinct breeze blowing through the vines, keeping the air moving which retains fresher flavours. Flagstone’s chief winemaker Gerhard Swart showed us around the vineyard, and we tasted the last of the Shiraz grapes soaking up the autumn sunshine. Sweet and full of flavour, they were scheduled to be picked the following day. We also stopped by a few rows of Sauvignon Blanc that had been left on the vines, after all the rest had been picked. Shrivelled by the sun and raisin-like, yet still with vibrant acidity, this was a slightly secret, experimental plot of vines for a sweet wine that doesn’t actually have a name yet.
By selecting particular sites for its grapes and working with the growers, Flagstone manages to pick the best characteristics for its wines. “We get our Pinotage from a single vineyard high in the Waaihoek Mountains, above the Breedekloof valley. The grapes there develop so much flavour that baboons come specially to eat them.
“We have to protect the vineyard with an electric fence to keep them out. Some Cabernet Sauvignon for Music Room also comes from this farm, but then they are blended with grapes from a block of old vines on a farm in Ashton called Wildepaardekloof, which means Wild Horse Valley.”
So instead of owning vast tracks of vineyards and lots of tractors, Flagstone has entered into long-term contracts with growers in different regions to get the grapes best suited for their wines.
The style of Flagstone is to have bold, ripe flavours with soft mature tannins,’ said Bruce, “and we do that by minimising the handling of the grapes. Tannins are like fridge magnets and they lock themselves together so that they taste smooth and round, but if you put the wine though a pump they break apart and taste harsh.”
To emphasise the point Bruce took us through a tasting of the complete range including Flagstone Dragon Tree 2012 (Tesco Wine by the Case, £75 for six bottles) a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinotage. Ripe and smooth, with wild berry fruit and layers of peppery spice this went magnificently with a medallion of venison.
The day ended with one of the iconic tourist trips of Cape Town. Heading down to the waterfront, we boarded a 50ft schooner, and sailed around Table Bay with a glass of Cap Classique sparkling wine in hand to toast Cape Town, South Africa and its wonderful wines.