"So how does it feel to be a winemaker … and given special attention because of your sex? Or because of color …" I asked Ntsiki Biyela: South Africa Woman Winemaker of the Year. As I tasted through her wines, very impressed at the complexity of flavor and well balanced structure, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was appreciative of the extra attention (that came along with awards and global media appearances, including CNN hours ago).
If I understood Ms. Biyela correctly, it was all part of the territory.
Ms.Biyela is here to promote her Stellekaya winery, whose wines are featured in select wine shops and South African wine bars here in New York, and also take part in the S. African wine tasting Tuesday. The name “STELLEKAYA” is a fusion of Latin and African words and means “Home of the Stars”. The owners have chosen to link the branding to astronomy and more specifically some of the 48 original constellations charted by Ptolemy.
Tonight’s tasting was held at Sojourn, a trendy S. African restaurant here in New York. I had quickly skimmed reviews before zipping off, and most reviewers spoke of the incredible S. African wine list, great food, and "sexy ambiance." I didn’t know quite what that meant but perhaps the red partition after the door had something to do with it. Or the candlelight. Or the fun "open seating" environment that set the stage for Ms. Biyela’s wine dinner — her wines would be accompanying a set menu created by SoJourn proprieter Stanton Du Toit.
Very cleverly, the three first wines were brought out on a wooden device, with little business sized cards propped up before each glass to explain the name and the composition. Blends are big with Ms. Biyela … Hercules 06 was first, a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. In Tuscany this would be called a ‘super Tuscan’ and not sure if it has a name in S. Africa, yet it was delicious, quite full bodied and complex. The middle wine was a single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon 05, ripe and succulent with notes of black current. Then on the extreme right was a Cape Cross 04, a very unique wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinotage (the cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault). This was one of the evening favorites until the main course wine of Orion, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. It was delicious and complex with bright notes of red fruit and deeper undertones. It was ready to drink now, yet seemed as if it could age ten more years.
Cuisine at Sojourn is fabulous — and the wines from S. Africa are extremely well crafted. Perhaps the challenge for S. Africa is that fine winemakers are producing quality wines, yet awareness of these wines needs to be created.
Stellekaya vineyards are situated on well drained slopes of decomposing sandstone and rich clays. Many of these
vineyards overlook False Bay with important sea breezes to lower to temperature. Production is made using the traditional “pigeage” /punch down method in open fermenters – punching down produces less aggressive tannins than pumping over. The fruit is cooled on arrival and a cold maceration is applied to ensure that the fruit
flavours are captured prior to fermentation taking place. The wines are pressed using a wooden basket press following by 100% maturation in French Oak Barriques specially chosen and designed to reduce the sense of aggressive tannins.
Indeed during dinner I remarked on how ready to drink these wines were, even though they were balanced enough to age for ten years. This quality might be responsible for the somewhat high mid-30’s price — French oak barriques and the care that is needed for good selection is quite expensive. Yet the wines are doing very well in Manhattan wine bars and wine shops. And according to the owners, Stellekaya is about producing a “hand made” wine in limited
quantity that will be appreciated by a small audience of discerning consumers who favour quality and character over price.