The Good, the Bad, and the Mildly Inconvenient: Beverage Culture in the Western Cape

Posted by Byron Crowe II*

In the early afternoon of July 26th, I walked out of Stanza Dei Sigari, a cigar bar in the North End of Boston, and began my journey to South Africa by catching a cycle rickshaw to South Station. Two days later, after a smoke-scented train ride to NYC, an evening in the city, a 19 hour flight, and a 200 rand cab ride, I finally arrived in the Observatory neighborhood of Cape Town. Since then, life here has been nothing short of living the 3L dream. Because of my enthusiasm for the experiences I have had while here, I decided to enlighten the readers back home with some of the highlights—and low points—of beverage culture here in the Western Cape province of South Africa.

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The Good

By far, the highlight of my stay in the Rainbow Nation—outside of the penguins, baboons, and surfing—has been touring the vineyards of Stellenbosch. A short train ride from the city, Stellenbosch is host to over 140 wine farms that produce everything from unoaked Chardonnay to South Africa’s famed Pinotage.[1] While in the area, I had the pleasure of visiting a number of wine farms, including Beyerskloof, Simonsig, Delheim and Muratie.

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At Beyerskloof, I picked up a bottle of their 2012 Pinotage, which is pretty good.[2] The wine has a darker color with a brownish hue around the edges, and while there’s not much on the nose, it has a velvety texture and flavor with good balance and a medium-longer finish. Also, there is good red fruit with a hint of spice up front that feels like it wants to be darker, so it may get better with age.

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At Simonsig, which is notable for pioneering the champagne method of producing sparkling wine in South Africa, their Tiara Bordeaux blend was exceptional. In a style that needs to be served with a substantial meal,[3] Tiara has a very woody nose, a mild—yet perceptible—acidity, a higher tannin content, and a pleasant finish. The only thing the wine lacks is a heavier dose of dark fruit to make it more versatile at meal time.[4] They also serve an excellent ox tongue at their on-site restaurant, as you can see below.

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(ox tongue)

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Delheim, with its charming rustic tasting room, makes perhaps the best Sauvignon Blanc I’ve ever tasted. Their 2013 Heerenwijn Sauvignon Blanc—which only costs 50 rand ($5)—has the grape-fruity nose you expect and a delightfully bright flavor that is matched by a flawless balance and the lightest sweetness to round it out. Also, in a world of over-oaked Chardonnays, Delheim’s 2011 Chardonnay Sur Lie strikes a great balance. It has a light smokiness on the nose with a touch of (pleasant) must. On the mouth, its vanilla character overlays a medium-sized body that’s slightly lighter than many other oaked Chardonnays.

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(ancient cobwebs in the Delheim tasting room)

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By the time we arrived at Muratie, our group was admittedly feeling the glow from the juice. However, this did not keep me from picking out a winner. Muratie’s 2012 Laurens Campher white blend has a light, yet savory, flavor and a light sweetness that compliments the mild apple notes. They also offer a great port-style wine for post dinner libations.

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(one of our tasting compatriots, thoroughly enjoying himself)

On the whole, I was impressed by almost all of the wines I tasted during the tour. I found that the northern region of Stellenbosch is produces exceptional wines in a range of varieties and at a fraction of what you would spend for the equivalent in California. Wine drinkers in the States who are looking for value should be on notice: Stellenbosch isn’t kidding around. For those of you who are interested in learning more about the wines of South Africa—including some of the legal aspects—check out my previous article on the subject.

The Bad

Beyond my wine tasting exploits, I’ve also had the privilege of exploring a bit of the Cape Town nightlife. The college pubs of Rondebosch and the clubs downtown are great. However, these hospitable watering holes are missing one crucial element that puts Cape Town at a distinct disadvantage compared to, say, Boston: There’s no hoppy beer. With the exception of Hello Sailor in Observatory, the newly-opened Beer House on Long Street, and a few others, there are not many places that are serving hoppy pale ales or IPAs, both of which are (or should be) staples of any respectable beer drinker’s liquid diet. Instead, most places carry the same default lineup of mostly lager-style, South African beers, including Black Label, Castle, Castle Light, and Hansa Pilsner, along with the usual international suspects like Heineken, Corona, and Guiness. The only widely-distributed beer I have found to be exceptional—though still not hoppy—is Windhoek from Namibia. Fortunately, this situation is improving as the craft brewing movement continues to gain ground with the help of true believers like the Craft Beer Project. For now, however, those looking for floral bitterness may be disappointed.

The Mildly Inconvenient

Turning to the mildly inconvenient, a slightly frustrating feature of my stay in Cape Town has been the city’s restrictions on off-site beverage sales. Under the Western Cape Liquor Act, on-site retailers—like bars and clubs—may serve until 2 a.m.[6] However, off-site license holders—like bottle shops and grocery stores[7]—are only allowed to sell wine, beer or liquor between the hours of 9:00 and 18:00 (6 p.m.), unless the local municipality adopts an alternative time range, [8] which, as far as I can tell, most haven’t. This may not present a significant burden for your typical college student—for whom Castle on draught at the pub is an easy substitute for Castle in a can at home—however, it is particularly inconvenient for the spontaneous wine enthusiast. While there are ample restaurants with fabulous wine lists,[9] most pubs in Cape Town (similar to those in the States) have a notable deficit of decent bottles available for wine lovers. Plus, the markup for on-site wine sales—here like everywhere else—is notoriously high.[10] So if you don’t have the foresight to run and grab a bottle of your favorite red before six o’clock, you’ll have to pass on it unless you’re ready to dress up for a nice dinner and foot the bill.

Of course, this is not the worst problem to have (thus “mildly inconvenient” instead of “ugly”). In fact, pointing out that this has been one of the low points of the trip only reinforces what has been the broader take-away from my stay here in Cape Town: This place is incredible, and I would strongly recommend it for anyone considering studying abroad 3L year.

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* Byron is a J.D. candidate at Cornell Law School, currently studying at the University of Cape Town. He is the Wine Czar Emeritus of the Society of Wine and Jurisprudence and the Senior Online Editor of the Cornell International Law Journal Online.

[1] Pinotage is a varietal that is unique to South Africa. It’s a hybrid grape that’s the product of a combination of Pinot Noir and Cinsault (called Hermitage in South Africa).

[2] It’s worth noting that I grabbed their mid-level Pinotage and not the higher end, so there could be the potential for an even better experience in the next tier of their product line.

[3] Speaking of substantial meal, if you’re looking for the best lamb curry you’ll ever experience, check out the Gaslight Café in Muizenberg, next to Lifestyles Surf Shop. For around 50 rand ($5), it’s a move you won’t regret.

[4] In particular, it felt like the 2009 vintage could have used either a little more sunshine or a little more time on the vine to loosen is up and impart some more fruit. However, since I’m not familiar with the previous vintages, it could just be that they intended a drier, less fruity style.

[6] See Western Cape Liquor Act 4 of 2008 § 59(3)(b) (S. Afr.).

[7] Yes, unlike the state of New York, see Handbook for Retail Licenses, New York State Liquor Authority, http://www.sla.ny.gov/handbook-for-retail-licenses (accessed Sept. 19, 2013), you can buy wine in grocery stores. On this issue, the legislators of the Western Cape have taken a decidedly wise position.

[8] Western Cape Liquor Act 4 of 2008 § 59(3)(a) (S. Afr.).

[9] For a restaurant with great wines and a mind-blowing steak, check out the Hussar Grill on Main Road.

[10] See Doug Bailey, The Lowdown on Restaurant Markup of Wines, Boston Globe (Mar., 3, 1993) (noting that the average markup is over 300% wholesale cost).

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