The sweet side of straw wine
Naturally dried grapes make superlative dessert wines, says Neil Pendock
First let's resolve ambiguities. The straw wines discussed here are not the stuff you drink through a bendy straw like Pommery Pop Champagne, best sipped wearing a straw hat in a convertible on the main drag in Camps Bay. Neither are they wines the colour of straw, although you do get some of that tawny colour. Nor are they made by fermenting straw. No, we're talking pudding wines made from grapes that have been dried on straw mats. They're often the last straw, as they're typically served at the end of a meal, before the snifter of Joseph Barry pot-still brandy appears.
The French, anoraks and the Platter guide call the style "vin de paille". But if you see that on a local label, run a mile, as the price will be extreme in the same way that shiraz is always a better deal than syrah for the same grape.
David Trafford at Mont Fleur at the top of the Helderberg was the local pioneer of the style when he persuaded the grey-shoed oompies at the Wine and Spirit Board to certify "wine from naturally dried grapes" back in 1997. When I first visited the farm and stayed with his mom, I thought she was running a side line in Panama hats, with the straw mats the raw material. Made from chenin blanc grapes, his De Trafford straw wine (the label bears a painting by his wife Rita) tastes of nutty apricots and is super sweet but not cloying.
Also made from chenin is La Beryl at Fairview in Agter Paarl. It is creamier, with a hint of gari or Japanese ginger, not to be confused with beni shoga, which is pickled in vinegar. Beryl, late mother of Fairview owner Chas Back, must have been a very special lady indeed - her son also named a cheese after her. Made in the style of Pont-l'Évêque, an iconic French stinker that dates back to the 12th century, Beryl won first prize at the 2011 National Dairy Championships.
Beryl is the kind of cheese celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson might shoplift from a branch of UK supermarket Tesco. Ant's arrest for trousering cheese recently comes as no surprise, as fromage is the most shoplifted food item in the world. The Guardian quotes criminologist Ron Clarke, who explains that cheese is a "craved" item - the acronym for concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable and disposable - although I would have thought the lack of a security tag a more likely motivation.
Anyhow, Tesco should set up a spy camera aimed at the straw wine shelf, as liquid La Beryl comes in half bottles, which are easily trousered. Beryl squared, cheese matched with straw wine, also works.
Waterkloof also makes a straw chenin blanc called Circumstance, although you'll have to go to the farm's restaurant - where it is available by the glass - to taste it. No hardship this, as the food is excellent and dining in a glass box hugging the side of the Schaapenberg Hill is heaven.
Chris and Andrea Mullineux make a straw chenin from old vines in the Swartland, as does Craig Hawkins at Lammershoek, who adds exotic hárslevelü from Hungary. Hárslevelü was all the rage in the 1980s, with Janie Muller in the vanguard at Lemberg in Tulbagh. David Sadie, her successor, now makes a magnificent desiccated sauvignon blanc, using pliers to nip the bunch stem and drying the grapes in situ on the vine rather than on straw mats.