It is a tradition among final-year oenology students of Elsenburg (B.Agric Cellar Technology) that they raise funds throughout the year to finance an international study tour in September/October before their final examination. They like to visit a country that has a history of producing wine, such as France or Portugal.
In Europe as a whole, a culture of wine appreciation is deeply rooted among the people. Even though a particular family may not play a pivotal role in the wine industry, they have lived with vines and wines for generation upon generation. Conversation – even food – revolves around the social interaction created by a wine produced in a certain region. And nowhere in Europe is this expressed more unequivocally and dramatically than in France, where each region produces wine styles from different cultivars that are known and respected round the world for their individuality.
Exposing a 21-year-old to the wine industry of France, which is utterly professional and held in high esteem internationally, is essential if we are to establish a culture of open-mindedness among South Africa’s future winemakers. Wine drinkers today are increasingly educated and when they order a Bordeaux blend, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, they know exactly what to expect. More importantly, the makers of these styles should have a comprehensive frame of reference to be able to produce such wines. With this in mind, a detailed programme was organised for the young final-year Elsenburgr students so that they could unravel the individuality of each of France’s most prestigious wine regions during harvest time.
After touch-down in Paris, the team headed south-east for the fresh-food market in Chablis. Baguettes, fromage and wine were offered in the vineyards of this small town dedicated to producing 100% Chardonnay, where the wines are famous for being unoaked and minerality-driven, with a high acidity. The following days were devoted to the red grape of Burgundy that has a temperamental attitude to adverse climatic conditions: Pinot Noir. The maddening desire and sophistication of this wine from Burgundy is summarised in the winemakers’ ability to create pleasure through elegance, to craft the texture of a gentle wine intertwined with the layered complexity of a heavier one. This is the oenological equivalent of a whisper in your ear that has the effect of a shout.
In their attempt to better understand Burgundy, the students swiftly realised that its wines cannot be explained without the frame of reference to ‘terroir’ – the ability of a wine to speak with a sense of place. They left deeply moved, understanding that it will require a lifetime of visits to grasp the true essence of this wine that is described as the ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’.
As the Elsenburg group travelled south along the steep banks of the River Rhône, it discovered a region devoted to the production of single varietal wines, most notably Viognier and Syrah (the spelling of ‘Syrah’ or ‘Shiraz’ reflects only the style and philosophy of the producer). Here two appellations speak with unparalleled authority for red wine production: Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. A mere 300km south, the Mediterranean influence is already evident in the hot, dry climate. Here the granitic soils on the hill of Hermitage produce rich, ripe, dense fruit with structured tannins, a sound investment for the future.
Wine has the ability to connect people across culture, language and background, and the hosts’ hospitality couldn’t have been more genuine. Relationships were built, networks were expanded and any differences became insignificant as the students offered their gratitude with a South African braai for the locals. That kindness was reciprocated when they were invited to help harvest the last grapes for the family on a terraced slope that overlooks the historic town of Tain-l’Hermitage.
The valley of the River Rhône widens to the south, where the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape takes most credit for the fleshy, raspberry flavours dominated by Grenache in the eponymous blend. The vast valley extends to the Dentelles de Montmiraille mountain range, which was conquered on foot to obtain a deeper understanding of the landscape. Accommodation at guest houses provided the perfect setting for appreciating French haute cuisine and indulging in local wine.
Elsenburg ‘s journey to Bordeaux, a 600km drive from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, is marked by a substantial difference in climate, with increased humidity suddenly dominating. Rot and rain are the biggest challenges confronting producers here, in their bid to create elegant, age-worthy wines. The region of Bordeaux is steeped in ancient history. On the right bank Merlot and Cabernet Franc are favoured in the blends of St-Émilion and Pomerol, while on the left bank, where the wine industry is younger than South Africa’s, Cabernet is king. The unmistakable influence of the Bordeaux region’s intelligent marketing left a lasting impression on the students.
Arguably the world’s most famous sweet wine is produced within the walls of Château d’Yquem in the region of Sauternes. Individual grapes within a cluster are picked, as only those affected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea are suitable for the production of the gold liquid that will cost roughly R5 000 per 375ml. Just as dessert wine is best enjoyed after a memorable meal, it seemed apt that the insightful fortnight spent in the wine regions of France should come to a conclusion here.
The grandeur of Bordeaux was best appreciated when the group received a personal invitation from Madame May-Eliane de Lencquesaing – president of Glenelly Estate here in Idas Valley – to conclude the visit to France with a glass of Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2007 at her home in Bordeaux. An age difference of 75 years notwithstanding, the students were fascinated by stories of Madame May’s experiences during the Second World War, which have been retold in the book Wine and War by Donald and Petie Kladstrup. For Bordeaux, age is but a number and the longest aftertaste is left by those with whom you share the fondest memories.