Over Hill, Over Dale

By Celia Strong

“Over hill, over dale” is part of an old Army marching song called The Caisson Song. But, somehow, it’s the perfect drinking song for us this week. There have always been drinking songs, especially in European countries. I’ve never been sure why, though. It seems we can manage to drink quite happily without singing. And quite enough, too. But this is the perfect tune to complement our wine of the week.

For the first time, we’re going to South Africa, a country whose wine industry dates back to 1659. The Dutch East India Company, a huge trading company that also did a lot of exploring in the guise of finding new trade routes and new items to make profits trading on, set up a supply station in what is now Cape Town. A Dutch surgeon, Jan van Riebeeck, was the first manager of the station.  He planted the first vineyards and made wine to help the sailors coming through the station ward off scurvy. His first harvest and crush were in 1659.  A vineyard near Cape Town, Constantia, was once considered one of the greatest wines in the world.

Today, the vineyards are centered around Cape Town, with major wine production centers in Paarl, Stellenbosch and Worcester. There are 60 appellations in the South African Wine of Origin (WO) system — they are legal designations that were enacted in 1973, with a hierarchy of regions, districts and wards. WO wines must be made with 100 percent of the grape named on a wine label; single vineyard wines must come from a defined area that is smaller than five hectares (a hectare is just less than two and a half acres); an “estate wine” can use grapes from adjoining farms, as long as they are farmed together and the wine is made on site; and a “ward” is an area with a distinctive soil type and/or climate. The WO system is more concerned with label accuracy and does not regulate which grape varieties can grow where, how may vines are allowed per hectare, trellising or volume of crop yields.

Most of this country’s wine regions are located on the coast where the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean influence the weather. It is mostly a Mediterranean climate, with intense sunlight and a dry heat. Winters tend toward cold and wet, with some snowfall in higher elevations. Most of the wine regions have a warm growing season between November and April. (We have to remember the weather and seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are the reverse of ours. Cold in June, warm in December. Harvest in the spring instead of the fall. And their 2013 wines are six months older than any from  a  Northern Hemisphere source.) In many wine regions here, irrigation for wine grapes is necessary.

The major wine regions are still centered around Cape Town on the Cape Peninsula, but other regions are developing throughout the Western Cape and parts of the Northern Cape.  For this week’s wines, we ‘re going to look at the Stellenbosch region. This is the second oldest wine region in South Africa, after Constantia, located about 28 miles east of Cape Town.  It is responsible for about 14 percent of the country’s total wine production, the first grapes having been planted there in 1679. The region is surrounded by the Helderberg, Simonsberg and Stellenbosch Mountains. And, False Bay, nearby, tempers the climate of the region which is just a bit warmer than Bordeaux. The soil here is decomposed granite on the hillsides and sandy alluvial loam in the valleys near the rivers. There are seven wards in Stellenbosch that are well known for their red wines, made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage (a South African specialty) and Shiraz. White wines are mostly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, often blended together, and some Chenin Blanc from western parts of the region

All of which gets us to our winery for this week — Stellenzicht Vineyards and, in particular, their Hill and Dale label. (And, yes, you can start to sing now.) The Hill and Dale label was created by award-winning winemaker Guy Webber. Grapes for Hill and Dale are all from Stellenbosch.  Stellenzicht owns 128 hectares, 123 of which are planted with grapevines. These vineyards are between 100 and 400 meters above sea level, on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountain, between Stellenbosch and the Atlantic Ocean. Locally, this prime grape growing area is called “the Golden Triangle.”  Hill and Dale wines are made in a new world style, lots of fruit flavors, meant to be drunk young and fresh, and enjoyed by both new and experienced wine drinkers. Since 1996, Stellenzicht has been considered one of the top five farms in the Cape industry.

The choice of just one Hill and Dale wine for this week was entirely not going to work. So, we get to look at three.

First, we have the Hill and Dale Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is elegantly crisp with a mouth-filling load of tropical fruits (melons, mangos, starfruit) and hints of green grass. This combination of tropical and grass flavors makes for a really complex wine, sort a blend of Loire Valley, France, and Marlborough, New Zealand, that is great for just sipping and for food, as well. (Actually, this combination makes for a prime example of Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc.) Try it with salads, fried shrimp, sushi, goat cheese crostini, a ham sandwich even.

Next, we have the Hill and Dale Pinot Grigio. While this is not an unheard of grape in South Africa, it is certainly not as easy to find as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. But, Stellenzicht is responding to the current popularity of this variety. Also full of tropical flavors, although more lemon and lime with hints of honeysuckle, this Pinot Grigio is different from both Italian and American versions of the grape. Clean, crisp acidity mixed with these flavors may make this a new favorite for all of us.

And, third, we have our Hill and Dale Shiraz. Medium bodied with dark red berry and plum flavors mixed in with tobacco and cedar notes, this wine can be drunk now or aged for a couple of years. Aged almost a year in oak barrels, this wine also has hints of spicy vanilla and round tannins. As we go into our spring and summer, this is sure to be a great wine with all kinds of grilled foods — seafood, poultry and meats.

So, now we have three new South African wines. All without the discomfort of a full, long day of travel. And much less expensive. Besides not having to spend time traveling, we also can get each of these wines for under $10 dollars. Leaves us more money for when we do travel, over hill and over dale, but leaves us more money for second and third bottles. What else would we do with new favorites?  Enjoy.

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