Monday, December 20, 2010

Wining, Dining and Relaxing with the Chocolate/Coffee Pinotage at Diemersfontein Wine and Country Estate in Wellington, South Africa

Pictures: Francois Rhode, David Sonnenberg and Christian G.E.Schiller at Diemersfontein Wine and Country Estate

I went to the Diemersfontein Wine and Country Estate near the sleepy town of Wellington because I had heard of their famous Chocolate/Coffee Pinotage wine. What I found in Wellington was a working wine farm in the shadow of the majestic Hawekwa Mountains with a panoramic view of Du Toit's Kloof and Bains' Kloof and the excellent wines of Diemersfontein. And I found much more: A Country Estate with a restaurant – Seasons – that offers fine cuisine, very comfortable accommodation, a modern conference centre and a beautiful garden with a pool. The Diemersfontein Estate is a good base for exploring the rest of the Wellington wine route, with horse riding and mountain hiking nearby. In addition, Diemersfontein offers exclusive residential living.

Diemersfontein has two winemakers, Francois Roode and Brett Rightford. The former gave me a very interesting tour of the winery and introduced me to the Diemersfontein wines. I also had a chance to talk with David Sonnenberg, the owner.

The Diemersfontein Country Estate

The present owner, David Sonnenberg came here 10 years ago, after having spent 20 years in London as a psychologist. Diemersfontein has belonged to the Sonnenberg family since the early 1940s, when David's grandfather, Max, bought the 183 hectare farm. Max had moved to the Capelands at the end of the 1800s, from Kaiserlsautern in Germany.

Pictures: The 'Groot Huis'

Central to the Estate is the third-generation family manor house, known as the 'Groot Huis', overlooking magnificent gardens, which are reminiscent of an era when gracious living and tranquility were the order of the day. Designed by Cecilia Sonnenberg, the gardens offer an abundance of roses and azaleas and a secluded swimming pool and is a much sought after venue for weddings, important celebrations and a peaceful getaway destination for conferences. We stayed at the manor house. It was lovely. You feel like transferred to the 1940s, when the estate was bought.

Pictures: The Diemersfontein Wine and Country Estate

The Diemersfontein Wine Estate

Now in the 10th year of winemaking, Diemersfontein is clearly one of the cellars in Wellington that are making waves in the wine industry. Diemersfontein grows about 70% of the grapes on the estate; the remainder of the grapes comes from other Wellington vineyards.

The first vineyards were planted by David's father in the 1970s, and in 2000 David built his own cellar and started producing award-winning estate wines. Vineyard plantings include Shiraz, Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and also the "lesser known" varietals Viognier, Barbera, Roobernet and Mouvedre. Diemersfontein's maiden vintage (2001) won the Paul Sauer Trophy for their Coffee and Chocolate Pinotage at the SA Young Wine Show and from that first vintage, awards have continued to be received by the Estate for many of their wines.

The Coffee and Chocolate Pinotage

The Coffee and Chocolate Pinotage is a rich, powerful wine with strong and intense coffee and chocolate notes on the nose and the palate. It is a very unusual wine. David Sonnenberg says: “Our coffee and chocolate Pinotage is like Marmite, either you love it or you hate it.” It came out for the first time with the 2001vintage and immediately caught the attention of the market. It was created by Diemersfontain’s first winemaker, Bertus Fourie. He broke new grounds in terms of the oaking regime.

Pinotage is the signature grape of South Africa. In 1925, a South African researcher at the University of Stellenbosch crossed the Pinot Noir with the Hermitage (Cinsaut): This was the birth of Pinotage. It now accounts for more than 20 percent of South Africa’s red wine. It is made in a broad range of styles, from easy-drinking quaffing wine and rosé to barrel-aged wine intended for cellaring. It is also used for port-style wine and red sparkling wine. The majority of the world's plantings of Pinotage is found in South Africa, where it makes up just 6.7% of the vineyard area but is considered a symbol of the country's distinctive winemaking traditions.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Francois Rhode

Francois Rhode says: “About 70% of the grapes for the wine are now sourced from other vintners, because of the skyrocketing demand. Initially, 2000 case of this wine were produced; today the production has reached 50.000 cases. The wine is put in tanks to mature on oak staves for 5 to 6 months.” The style of the wine has changed over time a bit. “The new vintages tend to be fruitier and less coffee intense, more elegant” Francois says. Francois is the custodian of the Coffee/Chocolate Pinotage. He was born and grew up in Namibia. After studying in South Africa, he joined Diemersfontein in 2003.

The Wine Portfolio

The Diemersfontein wine portfolio comprises wines from three ranges: Thokozani (meaning ‘Celebration’) Diemersfontein, and the top range, Carpe Diem. Diemersfontein now produces 500.000 bottles annually. It has 60 hectares under vine and wants to go up to 80 hectares over the next couple of hyears . 20% of the production is exported, with Germany and the Netherlands the most important markets. The US is just starting.

In 2007, Diemersfontein assisted in establishing Thokozani as a black empowerment project to aid the access of education, training and experience to those previously without. Thokozani is partially owned by the employees (30%). The current wine portfolio of Thokozani comprises 3 cuvees ( a Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay/Viognier, a Pinotage/Shiraz/Mourvedre and a Shiraz/Mourvedre/Viognier) for Rand 39 to Rand 69. In addition, a sparkler is produced for Rand 99.

The Diemersfontein is the premium range, with the distinctive black and cream label. It was launched in 2001 with 4 varietal wines - a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Shiraz, a Merlot and a Pinotage. The 2003 vintage saw the launch of 2 blends. All Diemersfontein wines sell at around 70 Rand ex-winery.

The flagship range is known as Carpe Diem. “The Carpe Diem wines benefit from rigorous vineyard selection methods in the vineyard and longer maceration periods in the cellar. The wine is produced from mostly free-run juice. It is matured in new French and American oak barrels for a minimum period of 15 months” says Francois Rhode. They are in the Rand 89 to 110 range.

“ I feel like the parents of two teenage daughters – one is a classically trained violinist who dresses modestly and pulls the crowds in the exclusive concert halls; the other, a mini-skirted and occasionally provocative pop star who wows the younger generation but has fans of all ages” says David Sonnenberg, when commenting on the more classic Carpe Diem Pinotage and the Chocolate/Coffee Pinotage.

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  1. Dr. Schiller,

    I live in Arlington VA and stayed at Diemersfontein over Christmas 2010 to be with my in-laws (Brett Rightford). I shared many (many) bottles of wine with the family over my two-week stay and enjoyed your article. We brought several bottles home with us, but are as yet still unsure where to purchase this great juice on our shores. Allegedly, it is sold in DC and NY, but I'm having trouble with more detail than that. Do you have any insight?

    Brust Roethler

  2. Brust,

    here is the current East Coast list.

    > Trade Inquiries: Two Oceans Corp
    > 10940 Ravens Ridge Road Suite 106-B
    > Raleigh NC 27614
    > (919)696-4736
    > Wine 'n Things
    > 7436 Creedmoor Road
    > Raleigh, N.C. 27613
    > In the Stonehenge Market Shopping Center
    > Phone: (919) 847-4986; (877) 571-5953 (Toll-free)
    > Fax: (919) 847-4673
    > Email:
    > Savoy
    > 7713-39 Lead Mine Rd,
    > Raleigh, NC 27615
    > Phone: (919) 848-3535
    > Margaux's
    > 8111 Creedmoor Rd
    > Raleigh, NC
    > (919) 846-9846
    > Capital City Club
    > 411 Fayetteville St, #2100
    > Raleigh, NC
    > (919) 832-5526
    > Cellar 101
    > 101 S. Main St.,
    > Fuquay-Varina, NC, 27526
    > (919)285-3416
    > Uncorked
    > Falls River Town Center
    > 10511 Shadowlawn Dr
    > Raleigh, NC 27614
    > (919) 847-1530