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Spier wine estate lays the table for its monthly Winemaker’s Dinners

Spier wine estate lays the table for its monthly Winemaker’s Dinners
Chef Hennie Nel in his historic farm kitchen at Spier. (Photo: Georgina Crouth)

The Stellenbosch wine estate’s intimate dinners in the Manor House are a showcase of the property’s very best offerings and Spier’s raft of recent awards. Sadly, the first kicked off in April with the news that Eagle Encounters has closed permanently.

A sensational meal, an intimate setting, fabulous award-winning wines and convivial company define what has become an annual treat at Spier wine farm in Stellenbosch.

Held each month from April to September, the Spier Winemaker’s Dinners showcase the very best offered by the estate, from food, to wine, to people, hosted by cellarmaster Johan Jordaan, chef Hennie Nel, and Georgio Meletiou, their resident sommelier.

The historic estate, which is currently revamping and upgrading its hotel, is set to relaunch Spier Hotel as a luxury property in 2025. For now, the hotel is closed, but the other attractions — picnics, Vadas Smokehouse & Bakery, the wine tastings, spa, Bubbles & Braai events, and Segway vineyard tours are still available. 

Sadly, the immensely popular Eagle Encounters experience closed to the public on 2 April 2024, apparently for personal reasons. Explaining the closure on its website, Spier said it has “always been committed to sustainability and the regeneration of land and community through meaningful partnerships and collaborations”. 

“Eagle Encounters was a tenant and friend of Spier for more than two decades and played a significant role in wildlife rehabilitation in the Western Cape. We wish to thank the Chalmers family and staff of Eagle Encounters for their dedication and we wish them well in their next chapter.” 

Without any government or corporate funding, the wildlife refuge — which has done phenomenal work in rescuing almost 6,000 birds and animals, and successfully released almost 4,000 back into the wild, was a sanctuary for unreleasable birds and animals. It has educated tens of thousands of visitors, and was a haven for many junior volunteers. 

Setting out their reasons for shutting the facility, the Chalmers family said they had faithfully dedicated over two decades to serving wildlife and the community, been on call day and night, working weekends and public holidays, but have “after lengthy deliberation, reached the decision that it is time for a new season, where we prioritise spending more family time together”. 

For more on the closure, read here.

Over the next few months, as Eagle Encounters wraps up operations, it will continue with its release programme, while those birds and animals that cannot be reintegrated back into the wild will be sent to homes vetted by them, with the assistance of CapeNature. 

Wines showing their mettle

Left, Wim Botha’s Mieliepap Pietá, a mirror image of Michelangelo’s Pietà, which holds a special place in the Spier Manor House. Right, Spier’s award-winning wines. (Photos: Georgina Crouth)

Turning to more upbeat matters, Spier has won 21 major awards across just about all price points, including 11 Gold and two Double Gold medals, three 4.5-star Platter-rated wines, and two South African Top 10 wines.

The 332-year-old farm was presented with an Ethical Award from the leading European drinks trade publication Drinks Business, and as Best South African Producer 1993-2023 at Mundus Vini Spring. 

Spier’s top-drawer Frans K. Smit Collection has achieved 4.5-star ratings in Platter’s 2024 guide, for its Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blend and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend. 

The solid 21 Gables range of single-varietal wines celebrating the farm’s architectural heritage, earned accolades for the 2021 Chenin Blanc, including Best of Show South African White in Retail Markets at the Mundus Vini Spring 2023; a Gold from both the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles and Decanter World Wine Awards for the 2019 21 Gables Cabernet Sauvignon; and a Top 10 position for the 2018 Pinotage in the Absa competition.

Spier’s Creative Block series, inspired by the Spier Arts Trust’s initiative, is the estate’s most awarded range, winning Gold at the Veritas and Mundus Vini Spring Tasting for the 2022 Creative Block 2 and the Creative Block 3, and a Double Gold at Veritas for the Bordeaux-style Creative Block 5.

The Seaward collection’s 2023 Sauvignon Blanc — a fabulous expression of pure fruit and a saline minerality — was recognised in the FNB Top 10 in SA, while the 2022 Chardonnay won Gold at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the 2021 Cabernet Sauvignon a Gold at Veritas, while the 2021 Shiraz also claimed Gold at the Global Fine Wine Challenge.

There are others, including gold wins for the Good Natured Organic range and Woolworths’ Private Collection, while Spier’s accessible Signature wines, a single-varietal and blended range priced around R80 per bottle, won Gold for the 2022 Sauvignon Blanc at the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon, and Double Gold and Gold for the 2022 Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, respectively, at the Ultra Value Wine Challenge. 

Dinner at a long table 

Attending the Winemaker’s Dinners is always a treat. Held in the Spier Manor House, which was built in 1822, the dinners are intimate gatherings for a maximum of 22 guests, seated along one — very long — table.

The first dinner of 2024 put the spotlight on Cape Classics, with a paired menu featuring Chef Hennie’s purist rendition of Cape heritage cuisine. Pinotage, our proudly local cultivar, and Chenin Blanc, which was the first planted variety on Spier during the 1700s, featured prominently among the selection of award-winning wines from the 21 Gables, Creative Block and Seaward ranges.

Salmon gravadlax, by chef Hennie Nel. (Photo: Georgina Crouth)

The evening opened with a starter of salmon gravadlax, cured with salt, sugar, dill and a touch of beetroot, served with lime cream cheese, paired with the Seaward Sauvignon Blanc.

A small cup of potato and leek velouté followed, topped with nutmeg espuma, and served with the 21 Gables Chenin Blanc.

Chef Hennie Nel’s potato velouté. (Photo: Georgina Crouth)

Some don’t like Sauvignon Blanc for its astringency, but this wine cries for acidic food, which brings out its stunning fruit flavours. If you have any doubt about how much of a companion Sauvignon Blanc is to food, Meletiou suggests taking a bite of lemon — like you would have with tequila — and then taking a sip of wine: “See what happens. You’ll be blown away. It’s insane what happens on your palate.”

The same could be said for heavy tannins: Pinotage is notoriously tannic, which can be softened with a lick of salt. “It’s for this reason that Pinotage can be enjoyed with snoek, ceviche and crayfish. Salt balances bitterness. Acid — not sugar — balances acid. With wine, salt is always there,” explains Jordaan.

A selection of Farmer Angus’ charcuterie and focaccia was paired with the Creative Block 3 (a 94% Shiraz / 4% Mourvèdre / 2% Viognier blend, of grapes sourced from Groenekloof and Stellenbosch). 

Springbok with risotto.
(Photo:Georgina Crouth)

Hennie’s deft at heritage cuisine, which is why we were looking so forward to the springbok course: this rare and juicy bokkie loin was braaied, paired with 21 Gables Pinotage, and served with a wild forest mushroom risotto.

Portions are generous so prepare for a very hearty feast because there was more to come, with another meaty course of roast Karoo lamb with green beans and caponata (a herby side dish of aubergines, olives, and onions) served with the 21 Gables Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Karoo lamb matches

Karoo lamb is much like game: already very herbaceous, only calling for salt, pepper and a touch of coriander. While springbok calls for full-bodied Pinotage, lamb needs a more medium-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. “Pinotage has an abundance of fruit flavours — for loganberries, blackberries, blueberries, blueberries, black plums. Pinotage is a strong wine, so you need strong food flavours,” Jordaan says. “You could also have it with bobotie, or lamb rogan josh, or braaied chicken. Pinotage is made for South African food — but it’s also great with American barbeques (so long as they’re salty, not sweet) and German-style pork knuckle.”

Meletiou agrees that Pinotage has been very misunderstood: “I think the winemakers didn’t know how to handle the variety and they threw so much wood at it. But over the past nine years or so, Pinotage has become so much more approachable. South Africa is producing some outstanding pinotages and they are really well-priced.

“I always say to people that it’s so easy to take R1,000 to buy a good bottle of wine, but you’re not going to just want to open that with lunch. Unfortunately people still associate expensive with good and it’s not always the case.”

Dessert was apple crumble and a lemon gelato, alongside the 2016 Prestige Cuvee Cap Classique, a fresh and complex small-batch cuvée. 

Jourdaan jokes that if you don’t like wine, you just haven’t tasted enough of it. And if you can’t smell wine, just talking about it helps. “Everyone smells wine differently. My grandma’s kitchen smelled differently from your grandma’s kitchen, as did your cupboards, beach house, or the roses in your garden.” DM

The next Winemaker’s Dinner takes place on 10 May. This will be a Cap Classique evening, with a menu featuring risotto Milanese, Farmer Angus roast chicken, and a cheese finale. Booking is through Dineplan.

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