Cape Town - It’s so beautiful, lush and misted in French countryside ambience, that it takes your breath away.
That’s the Devon Valley outside Stellenbosch, with its centrepiece, the JC le Roux house of sparkling wines, set in rampant, flowing gardens leading up to the main entrance, just a stone’s throw from where the original homestead stood.
The history romping around these delightful vine-filled valleys is just so captivating.
The House of JC le Roux, for example, can be traced back to a French Huguenot named Jean le Roux, a viticulturist who left his home in Normandy to settle in 1704 in the heart of the Stellenbosch area, where he planted 8 000 vines.
For generations his descendants have continued the sparkling wine tradition. The first launched by JC le Roux was the sauvignon blanc in 1983, followed by pinot noir (1985), Le Domaine (1986), chardonnay (1988), La Chanson (1989) and La Vallée (1999).
If we venture a bit on the snobby side, JC le Roux, with its distinctive red V-shaped ribbon peeping out of the gold foil, is not usually associated with the aristocratic sector of sparkling wines, although it is hugely popular as a festive drink.
But don’t let that put you off one of their special “nougat and marshmallow” tastings that for a light-hearted fun interlude can’t be beat.
Pink, golden and silvery white sparkling wines are lined up and each paired with a complimentary sweetmeat that the winemakers believe enhances the bubbly experience.
We start off with the dry bruts and go on to the sweeter tastes. Pinot noir and nougat in dark chocolate – wow. The sharpness of the pinot noir is supposed to bring out the richness of almond and honey in the nougat, but I would say some poetic licence comes in here.
Next was the rose water Turkish delight with the pinot noir rosé. I got this one. The rose water brought out the red berries and floral element as suggested by our guide. The La Vallée and mango nacadamia nougat were a nice touch for those who don’t mind sweet or dry bubbles.
La Fleurette paired with cranberry macadamia nougat was a win for the red berry lovers, while the white chocolate nougat seemed to have a happy coupling with wedding favourite Le Domaine.
It might not be what the traditional vintners had in mind, but it’s a lovely idea. What is even more attractive for a family outing is that the children can get to taste a range of sparkling non-alcohol versions with marshmallows to match the vibe.
While the marketing team of JC le Roux have gone for the frothy, Barbie pink, velvet and glittering silver look for their tasting halls, there is a serious side to all the fizzy stuff.
What I found illuminating was the range of JC le Roux sparkling wines that don’t fall in the V-ribbon category. These are the real aristocrats, like award-winners JC Le Roux Scintilla and the pinot noir rosé.
But don’t be too hopeful of finding them at your bottle store. We learn that they are available only at selected outlets and a lot more pricey than the others (R150 for the scintilla and R110 for the pinot noir rosé).
“Well-developed maturation characters complemented by subtle tones of biscuits, nuts and yellow raisins,” is how cellarmaster Elunda Basson describes his winning rosé with its full, round palate and lingering aftertaste of red berries and raisins.
Visitors get a close-up glimpse of what making sparkling wine is all about. While it can’t be officially called champagne, the process is exactly the same.
It was the Franciscan monk Dom Perignon who first made champagne and so delighted was he that he cried out exuberantly: “Today I tasted the stars!”
But we learn that it was the ingenious Widow Clicquot (of Veuve Clicquot fame) who in the early 1800s devised a way to eliminate the cloudiness and large bubbles that had detracted from the champagne taste we love today. She had her servants drill holes in her dining room table and placed the bottles of champagne in these, at an angle. The bottles were turned a little each day so that, after a period, the sediment collected in the necks and could be removed. The champagne was as clear as crystal.
Although cellar craft and techniques have become sophisticated, this simple and somewhat primitive method, devised by the capable widow, still forms the basis of the renowned Méthode Champenoise, or Méthode Cap Classique, as it is known in South Africa.
A fascinating interactive tour of JC le Roux brings the three centuries-old process a lot closer. We see how, with the same old French process of fermenting the wine in the bottle, the bottles are slowly turned and angled so all the sediment sinks into the neck. The tops of the bottles are frozen and when the bottles are uncapped, the frozen plug of sediment comes out, the bottles are topped up and recorked.
Don’t forget to visit the pink bubbly room, which looks just like a Barbie hangout, and the Pongrácz Room in memory of Desiderius Pongrácz, the maverick Hungarian expatriate who played such a significant role in introducing noble wine varieties to South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.
If nougat and marshmallows are not enough to keep you going, the nearby restaurant, Flavours, is a good bet and not too badly priced. On a warm day there’s nothing nicer that lunching in the shade of an enormous oak tree.
The restaurant’s menu offers fresh classical fare with a contemporary Cape twist. - Liz Clarke, Sunday Tribune
If You Go...
Take the N2 from Cape Town. Take the Stellenbosch R310 off-ramp. At the stop street on the bridge, turn left to Stellenbosch. Travel 12.5km on the R310 to the M12 T-junction and turn right.
On entering the Stellenbosch 60km/h zone, turn left at the second road into Devon Valley Road and travel 6km to The House of JC Le Roux.