Cape Town Graham Beck bubbly bar a great happy hour option

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Gorgeous by Graham Beck

Copper color lamps hung above the bar counter

We first patronized Gorgeous by Graham Beck soon after its opening during a stay at Steenberg hotel in Constantia in the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. Before dinner at Catharina’s, the hotel restaurant located in the same building as Gorgeous, we stopped by to see what all the fuss was about and sample for ourselves some of the tapas and Graham Beck bubbly on offer. When we arrived a handful of guests were scattered in the cozy corners of the Method Cap Classique bar with room for 25 guests. As bubbly aficionados we thoroughly enjoyed our flight and canape tasting and plan to return at the first opportunity.

Zelda Pretorius

Our server, Zelda Pretorius

Zelda Pretorius, our server, was welcoming and knowledgeable. She explained, with hard to conceal enthusiasm, the varieties of sparkling wine on offer, all from producer Graham Beck who owned the Steenberg Estate including Gorgeous. Options included vintage and non vintage wines by the glass (125 milliliters or 50 milliliters for tasting menu items) priced between 40 rand and 85 rand per person and by the bottle ranging between 200 rand and 500 rand for each bottle.

A tasting selection of Graham Beck sparkling wine

A tasting selection of Graham Beck sparkling wines

Aging in the rack of the pinot noir and chardonnay wines ranged between 18 months and 36 months except for the Cuvee Clive 2005, named for Graham Beck’s son and our favorite after a through tasting of seven wines, which had aged five years. The Blanc de Blanc was 100 percent chardonnay, Zelda explained. The Brut Zero was 85 percent chardonnay and 15 pinot noir. In terms of sweetness, there were marked differences between the wines. For example, there were 38 grams of sugar per liter in the Demi and only 2.4 grams of sugar in the Brut Zero; there were 12 grams in the Brut Rose 2009, 8 grams in the Blanc de Blanc and non vintage offerings.

The sparkling wine was expertly served

The sparkling wine was expertly served

Bubbly tasting options were by the glass or by the flight. The flight options offered three wines each for non vintage (Brut NV, Brut Rose NV, and Bliss NV) and vintage (Blanc de Blancs 2008, Brut Rose 2009, Brut Zero 2005), and two for rose (Brut Rose NV and Brut Rose 2009). We sampled two flights and a glass of Cuvee Clive 2005.

A selection of canapes rounded out the tasting

A selection of canapes rounded out the tasting

To accompany our tasting we sampled a platter of five canape appetizers from Catharina’s kitchen next door. It came with bite size morsels of mushroom and rice, salmon trout and salmon roe, quail egg, oyster and tiger prawn with avocado.

The Gorgeous bar

The Gorgeous bubbly bar

While we awaited the arrival of our order I glanced around curious to observe details of the built-in sections and bar seating that made up the bubbly bar. It was decorated in muted metallic colors with a refined yet youthful designer tone. The bar counter was made of marble by Green Way Interiors and the floor had marble mosaic tiles by Kenzan Tiles. Wallpapered walls, copper color lamps hanging above the bar counter and module division lent depth to the space. Gorgeous by Graham Beck, 10802 Steenberg Estate, Tokai Road, Tokai 7945, +27 21 713 7177, www.gorgeousbygrahambeck.com, info@gorgeousbygrahambeck.co.za

Singita Sabi Sand properties in South Africa offered gourmet features, raised climate change awareness

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox and Elena del Valle

The suite at Boulders featured a stunning view of the bush

The suite at Boulders featured a stunning view of the bush

We ended our visit to South Africa’s premier game viewing area earlier this year with three nights at the Singita properties in the Sabi Sand Reserve. We spent the first two nights at Singita Ebony and the last night, the first night they were open following a soft refurbishing closure, at Singita Boulders. Our experience was superb.

The bedroom and private pool at Singita Boulders

The master bedroom and private pool at Singita Boulders

The master bedroom at Boulders featured a wood burning fireplace

The master bedroom at Boulders featured a wood burning fireplace

At Ebony we enjoyed an informative and fun wine tasting with Francois Rautenbach, the company’s wine manager, in the lodge’s cozy cellar. During the hour long event, shared with four other guests, we heard about South Africa’s varied wine regions and the wines they produce, the evolution of the country’s wine industry and some of the salient wines that are garnering international recognition.

Francois Rautenbach, Singita's wine manager

Francois Rautenbach, Singita’s wine manager

During the tasting, we had a chance to sample four wines, selected by the staff, before our tasting menu dinner. We began with a 2008 Director’s Reserve White from Tokara in Simonsberg-Stellenbosch made of 85 percent sauvignon blanc and 15 percent semillon and a 2009 Aeternitas Wines Blanc from Voor-Paardeberg made of 90 chenin blanc, 5 percent viognier and 5 percent grenache blanc.

The Singita shop featured wine related merchandise

The Singita shop carried wine and related merchandise

Next we had two 2003 wines, a Sequillo Cellars blend of syrah, mourvedre and grenache from the West Coast and Paarl regions and a Rij’s Private Cellar Bravado blend of 21 percent cabernet, 7 percent cabernet franc, 12 percent merlot, 35 percent shiraz and 25 percent pinotage from the Tulbagh Valley.

Singita staff prepared an eco-friendly meal by lantern light

Singita staff prepared an eco-friendly meal by lantern light

At Boulders we joined fellow guests and the lodge staff, at the same time as guests and staff at Singita’s nine lodges in three countries, in an Earth Hour global event organized by the World Wide Fund for Nature on the last Saturday of March every year. The idea is to make it through one hour in the early evening without electricity to raise awareness about climate change.

The dining area on the main deck prepared for Earth Hour

The dining area on the main deck prepared for Earth Hour

The local staff regaled us with a singing and dance performance and the kitchen made sure our dinner, prepared on the deck and served by candlelight was splendid. A company executive and a local news media team were on hand to share the moment with viewers across the country. Visit the Simon & Baker Travel Review for more about Singita Boulders and our visit to the Sabi Sand Reserve and Singita Ebony.

South Africa luxury properties for wine, whales, fine dining and safari aficionados

By Elena del Valle, photos by Gary Cox


A white rhino at the Royal Malewane


A relaxing corner of our suite’s private outdoor deck at the Royal Malewane

When I mention South Africa to people who haven’t been there I get one of two reactions, fear or excitement. Fear because of the country’s reputation for crime and excitement because it sounds exotic and fun to visit. For those who know about game viewing Africa’s southernmost nation is synonymous with luxury safaris. Others still are aware of the country’s nascent wine industry and gourmet inclination. Game viewing and visits to the wine region, to a lesser extent, are some of the main reasons international travelers find their way to South Africa.

For those willing to overlook the hateful crime statistics and brave the long flights to reach the far corner of the African continent the rewards are plentiful and an excellent value for money. Visitors with the means and desire to travel in style will find there are many luxurious accommodations to choose from including five-star hotels, lodges, and tented camps. When planning a trip, selecting an area of topical or geographic interest is a good first step. For some a familiar name, such as a chain hotel, may be reassuring.

Another possibility for the more adventurous is a boutique property. For guests wishing to sample a less uniform and more local experience small properties like lodges, camps and boutique hotels can be a godsend.  Often these types of properties offer attentive customer centered service and many advantages over the larger hotels. Over time we’ve discovered several outstanding properties owned by the same company or family in various parts of the country offering excellent and distinctive luxury accommodations.

The inner courtyard with two pools at Birkenheadhouse

Views from the deck at Birkenheadhouse

An example of this is three properties that form The Royal Portfolio owned by Liz and Phil Biden. The couple successfully converted their vacation homes in different parts of South Africa into small luxury lodges. We have visited the three properties on two separate occasions. First, we were at the Royal Malewane and on our most recent trip we visited Birkenheadhouse and La Residence. Each is distinctive and has its own attractions.

We especially appreciated the outstanding service, comfort and luxury accommodations, attention to detail, superb whimsical décor, and strong foodie orientation they shared. They make an excellent circuit for those wishing to sample some of the best options South Africa has to offer for safari and whale watching destinations as well as for fine food and wine lovers.

A side view of the central courtyard at La Residence

The main building interior at La Residence

The romantic bathroom in the Hibiscus Suite

The Royal Malewane, an intimate luxury safari lodge with an on site spa near http://simonandbaker.com/kruger, has been host to international celebrities and politicos. Birkenheadhouse, a second property located in Hermanus on the coast east of Cape Town, is perched above the beach in a village known nationally for its seasonal whale watching opportunities. La Residence is our favorite for its over-the-top flair, beautiful setting within a farm estate and delicious meals. It is in the wine and gourmet town of Franschoek, a short drive from Cape Town.

Luxury Cape Winelands property striving for excellence

By Elena del Valle and photos by Gary Cox

A quiet corner at Asara near the reception

The Sansibar Cigar and Whiskey Lounge

We arrived at Asara Wine Estate and Hotel, a small luxury and gourmet oriented hotel and wine producing property just outside the college city of Stellenbosch in South Africa’s wine region, in early spring. Although there was a definite chill in the air the days were beautiful. There were just enough puffy clouds in the perfect blue sky to make it interesting and the view of the property from our rooms was lovely. It was hard to imagine that the quiet country setting was only 25 minutes away from the airport and not much further from bustling Cape Town.

A hearty seafood lunch dish at Asara

We like that Asara is friendly to the environment. The company practices eco-sensitive biodynamic wine production to reduce the environmental impact of its operations as well as other efforts to offset the estate’s carbon footprint. Solar panels are part of the wine production process. All wine bottles and glassware on the estate are recycled.

More than 400 indigenous pin oaks trees were planted to aid oxygen production. Plans are in place to remove all alien plants from the estate by 2011. At the same time, organic waste from the restaurants and cellar is used for organic compost and the four dams in the farm are used for irrigation. No harmful chemicals are used for pest control.

Perhaps these efforts are paying off with wildlife. Recently, two new litters of endangered caracal (a fast small to medium cat similar to the serval) were seen around the estate, along with the grysbokkies, duikers and guinea fowl that the farm their home.

As a visitor what first comes to mind when I think of the 37-room Relais and Chateaux property is the view of the vineyards, a pond and mountains in the background from our table at Raphael’s, the hotel’s gourmet restaurant. We enjoyed the comfortable and well appointed accommodations and facilities and food and wine opportunities and would gladly return. Click here to read about our visit to Asara.

La dolce vita, Tuscany style

Article and photos by Josette King

Altesino Estate

Altesino Estate in Tuscany

This was la dolce vita at its best. Not the Fellini kind with dark-of-night Vespa races through the streets of Rome and impromptu dips in Bernini fountains but a leisurely discovery of the famed cultural and natural wonders of Tuscany. Our recent journey into the sweet life began in Florence where we lingered for a week, taking in the flavor of the city and its lesser frequented artistic gems as well as the world-renowned guidebook “must” sites.

We then headed south to the province of Siena and our base for the second week of our Tuscan holiday at Le Capanne, a luxury villa near the ancient hamlet of Camporsevoli on the border with Umbria, the neighboring state. From there we motored along back roads of the Chianti and Val d’Orcia, our daily explorations taking us to famed medieval cities such as Siena, Montepulciano and Bagno Vignoni, feasting our eyes along the way on rolling hills covered with quilts of vineyards, meadows and olive groves.

While we could have planned a satisfying trip using the extensive material available to potential tourists, a truly memorable escapade required the assistance of a local whose help and suggestions ensured that we experienced not only the sites but the very essence of Tuscany. Valentina Grossi, founder and manager of One Step Closer, a customized luxury tour company in Florence, was our local contact. She focused on our special areas of interests to create memorable adventures.

Silvana Vivoli, scoops out a batch of Crema, the shop's most popular gelato

Silvana Vivoli, scoops out a batch of Crema, the shop's most popular gelato

Vivoli gelati have delighted customers for 80 years

Vivoli gelati have delighted customers for 80 years

When I confessed my addiction to gelato, the decadently rich semi-soft Italian ice cream, Valentina was not content to recommend a visit to Vivoli (considered for several decades one the best gelaterias in Florence). Rather she arranged a visit with Silvana Vivoli, the grand-daughter of founder Raffaello Vivoli and current owner. We met in her laboratory where I spent a blissful hour discussing with her the finer points of gelato-making and sampling the elegant flavors that emerged from her slow-churning stainless steel centrifuges.

The Altesino Estate produces the famed Brunello di Montalcino

The Altesino Estate produces the famed Brunello di Montalcino

A record of the best vintages is kept in the Altesino "library"

A record of the best vintages is kept in the Altesino library

Personal friendships dating back several generations between Valentina’s family and the owners of private art collections, landmark palazzi and exclusive wineries opened doors to experiences usually unknown to tourists. In Valentina’s company, we were welcomed by Maria Vittoria Corti Grazzi, current owner of Palazzo Peruzzi. The palace, located a few steps away from the Piazza Santa Croce, is the last privately owned palace of the Peruzzi family, a Florentine dynasty reaching back to the 14th century. In addition to a private viewing of her eclectic art collection ranging from Roman sarcophagi and Byzantine icons to a number of Florentine 17th century paintings, Maria Vittoria graciously led us on a tour of the beautifully decorated reception rooms of her palazzo.

The following week, aware of my keen interest in enology, Valentina arranged a private visit of Altesino, an esteemed boutique winery in Montalcino, where Managing Director Guido Orzalesi guided us through the entire production cycle of their superb Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino wines before treating us to a sumptuous luncheon and tasting of Altesino’s prized vintages. Even in Italy, life doesn’t get any sweeter! Click here for more about my visit to Tuscany and stay at Le Capanne at Camporsevoli.

What we liked about biodynamic Alsatians

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Lee Fuller

In our family, the inspiration behind a wine tasting usually comes from our very own wine expert, my son Lee Fuller. This latest tasting on a recent afternoon, focused on biodynamic wines of Alsace, was no exception.

When it comes to his food supply, Lee is uncompromisingly green. He is also of one mind with Henry David Thoreau (“What is the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”); although the conversation that led to this tasting was more along the lines of: “what is the use of a fine wine, if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to drink it on?” This naturally led us to consider the dedication of a number of Alsatian vintners who have been producing biodynamic wines for the past two decades, long before it became fashionable.

What is biodynamics? An ultra-organic wine-making method that focuses not only on producing naturally fermented wines from organic grapes but also on healing the vineyard. The biodynamic vintner sees his vineyard: the vines, the soil in which they grow and the surrounding fauna and flora as an interdependent ecological whole. Where biodynamics goes beyond other methods of organic or sustainable agriculture is in its understanding that farming should be aligned with the spiritual forces of the universe. It is a return to agricultural methods that prevailed on the planet from time immemorial until the development of industrial farming in the past sixty years. In the biodynamic vineyard sowing and harvesting are again timed to the rhythm of the sun, the moon and the planets. Soil and crop treatment are homeopathic, using natural fertilizers such as composted animal manure, cultivating the soil and planting ground cover rather than using chemical herbicides. Plants other than vines are encouraged to grow around the vineyard to promote biodiversity by attracting beneficial insects.

There is no doubt that the biodynamic process is beneficial to the planet; and to the wine drinker who is no longer at risk of ingesting chemical residues that can end up in the wine. But… is the resulting wine any good?

That is the question we set out to address, in part, with a tasting of four biodynamic Alsatian wines.

Biodynamic practices are very labor intensive and require a huge long-term commitment on the part of the grower. Therefore we selected for our tasting an assortment of wines from four wineries that have been at the forefront of biodynamic viticulture for decades. This was our line up:

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Domaine Barmes-Buecher, Crémant d’Alsace 2006 (sparkling)
Approximate retail price: $19.99

Since we often drink brut sparkling wines as an apéritif, we started with a Crémant d’Alsace Brut 2006, from Domaine Barmès-Buecher (crémant is the official appellation that designates French sparkling wines produced outside the Champagne region). It was very pale in color with gentle effervescence in the glass that developed in the mouth. We found it unusually mild for a brut. Made from a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, its aroma was fruity with a hint of berries. On the palate, nectarine dominated. This was a lovely, refreshing sparkler that stood best on its own. A good choice for relaxed sipping on a warm summer’s afternoon, or by the fire on a winter’s evening.

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Albert Mann, Pinot Blanc 2005
Approximate retail price: $15.99

This was a delightful classic Alsace Pinot Blanc! Made from 100 percent Pinot Blanc grapes, it was very pale with a lime-colored hue and a fresh floral and herbal nose that hinted at lemon basil. It evolved to an Anjou pear palate with undertones of ripe citrus. The pear taste lingered through the finish. Overall a dry, well balanced wine that we enjoyed on its own and with light hors-d’oeuvres. It also held its own remarkably well with a pungent cheese and nuts. I intend to serve it soon with grilled fish.

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Domaine Ostertag, Sylvaner “Vielle Vignes” 2006
Approximate retail price: $19.99

Made of 100 percent Sylvaner grapes coming from 50 to 70 year-old vines, this wine was a treat.  A little paler than the usual Sylvaner, it intrigued us immediately with an unusual nose reminiscent of freshly baked brioche. It became pleasantly fruity in the mouth, predominantly apple.  The finish was subdued, slightly mineral, with well-balanced acidity. We enjoyed it with mild cheeses and cold ham.  It also did very well later on with a seafood salad. A versatile pleaser that I will keep on hand for varied occasions.

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Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Riesling “Turckheim” 2004
Approximate retail price: $39.99

This was an opulent wine with lots of personality. Its very aromatic fruity nose mellowed after a while to a light citrus scent with hints of caramel. It evolved from pleasant sharpness on the tongue to a vibrant palate of peaches and tropical fruits laced with mineral accents. It had a long, mouthwatering finish that worked well with our goat cheese, and also with smoked salmon. Made of 100 percent Riesling grapes, this was a powerful wine that I look forward to serving this winter with a convivial platter of choucroute garnie.

We declared our experiment successful. The biodynamic Alsatian wines we sampled were delicious, loaded with personality, and competitively priced against their conventional counterparts.  We will definitely seek them out from now on; and enjoy the knowledge that our libations are helping the planet.

Photos and article by Josette King, in cooperation with Lee Fuller, oenophile and wine collector.