The Portuguese are an indelible part of the Cape’s rich tapestry of history, having paved the way for the Dutch seafarers and the Cape’s first settlement by European explorers more than 500 years ago. So, while Verdehlo, Tinta Barocca, Souzã, and Touriga Nacional might not sound like they belong here in South Africa, there is something about Boplaas’ range of Portuguese wines that feels like a return to the roots for us.
The question asked by many, though, is why? Why Portuguese wine? Well, that comes down to a fortuitous, yet quite accidental turn of events…
The Portuguese connection
After a visit to the Swartland in the late 1970’s Boplaas patriarch Oupa Danie Nel returned with a desire to plant Shiraz in Calitzdorp, so he promptly ordered vines from a nursery, only to discover several years later that what he had planted was, in fact, Tinta Barocca. What could have been viewed as a disastrous accident set the Nel family on a course that would forever change their farm, bringing to South Africa a range of grape varietals that are actually very much suited to our hot and dry climate, particularly that of the Klein Karoo.
Today, Boplaas Family Vineyards produce, in addition to several other table wines, award-winning Cape Vintage Ports, and spirits, a “Portuguese Collection”. This is a range of single varietal and blended wines that really showcase the quality and diversity of wines produced from traditional Portuguese varieties as interpreted by South African soil.
On a more practical level, Boplaas’ introduction of Portuguese varietals constitutes an important move towards a more sustainable future for South Africa’s wine industry. Through conditioning, these vines tend to be hardy, well-adjusted to heat, and comfortable with drought, making them an excellent fit for parts of the country that were previously not considered suitable to viticulture, such as Calitzdorp in the Little Karoo, which is where Boplaas is located; and potentially a better fit overall considering our drought crisis.
Portuguese wine has a deep connection with the Cape’s past (early Portuguese explorers) and a very valid connection with our present and future (it’s suitability to our climate and ability to withstand drought).
But is it any good?
We gathered at Jonkershuis Restaurant in Groot Constantia to find out because, at 370 km distance from Cape Town, a trip to the town of Calitzdorp would have been a bit too far, even for a good lunch!
A tasting of Boplaas’ Portuguese Collection
We commenced our tasting with a flight of four wines and two vintages of the Boplaas Cape Vintage Reserve Port. The first wine was the Boplaas Cape Portuguese White Blend 2018, a refreshing and easy-drinking blend of 50% Verdehlo (Portuguese varietal), 25% Chardonnay, and 25% Sauvignon Blanc. This light white wine has a fragrant nose of tropical fruits, pineapple, citrus, and yellow pair with a crisp acidity, making it easy drinking and, at only R70 per bottle online*, incredibly good value for money.
*All prices quoted have been sourced online at www.boplaas.co.za/shop/
Next up was the Boplaas Gamka Branca 2017 (R177), the estate’s flagship white, a Chardonnay-based blend featuring an alchemy of five other wine varietals, including Chenin, Rousanne, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Verdehlo (Portuguese varietal). This barrel fermented and matured white blend displays a satisfying mélange of citrus blossom, lime marmalade, creamy lemon, and subtle spice, supported by grippy tannins.
We then tried the Boplaas Tinta Barocca 2017 (R89), an aromatic, medium bodied red wine with a gorgeous earthy and red fruit perfume of ripe plums, raspberry jam, and lively spices and velvety soft tannins. It was the accidental planting of this grape varietal that pretty much kicked off Nel family’s affinity for Portuguese wines. Today, a paltry 221 hectares of this tenacious, quality Portuguese grape varietal grow throughout the Cape, which accounts for only 0.2% of the total vineyard area in the country.
Our final wine before the two ports was the Boplaas Gamka 2015 (R259), a seductively smooth, full bodied red blend (the estate’s flagship) of old vine Touriga Nacional and Tinta Barocca from the Boplaas farm, and Shiraz from Stellenbosch. This Portuguese varietal-driven blend is matured in new French oak for 12 months and boasts dark, plummy fruits, lovely spice, strong tannins, and a long, languorous finish. My favourite thus far!
A charming bit of trivia: The name for both the white and red flagship wines comes from the Gamka River, which flows through Calitzdorp, and from which the farm receives its irrigation. The Gamka River was named after the Xhosa word for lion because of the roaring sound it makes when swollen with rainwater.
Boplaas Cape Vintage Ports
Boplaas also pays homage to Portugal through its Cape Vintage Reserve Ports, of which we tasted the 2006 and 2016 vintages. Port – or Cape port, lest I get into trouble – ages exceptionally well; so well that our host Carel Nel kept referring to the 2006 vintage as “still a baby”. In that case, the 2016 must be positively prenatal, although it tasted beautifully lush, fruity, and moreish to my uneducated palate.
Carel then related a most interesting anecdote about a blind port tasting he participated in, which involved “real” port from the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal and Boplaas’ very own Cape Vintage Reserve Port. With Boplaas’ Cape port declared the best, Carel had the pleasure of revealing its provenance, and I’m sure there were more than just a few red faces around the room that day.
Lunch and (even more) wine
With the tasting concluded, it was now time to test the wines’ mettle against food. Lunch was catered for by the farm-style, yet elegantly dressed Jonkershuis Restaurant at Groot Constantia and was a three-course affair starting with creamy mussels and freshly baked bread paired with the Boplaas Bobbejaanberg Sauvignon Blanc 2018 (R116). This wine is made from single vineyard grapes high up in the Outeniqua Mountains of the Upper Langkloof ward. Owing to its cool climate origin, it delivers a rich vegetal bouquet of capsicum and green asparagus, flavours of lime leaf, white peach, and calciferous minerality, and a lush fynbos finish.
Mains was slow-roasted lamb with rosemary reduction, crispy potatoes, new broccoli, and carrots, which beautifully paired with the Boplaas Touriga Nacional 2017 (R92), a varietal aptly known as “the king of Portuguese vines.” This powerfully elegant wine featured fulsome tannins, a nose of ripe black plum, vibrant rich spice, and fynbos, and notes of cocoa with a savoury undercurrent.
Finally, dessert was a vanilla pod panna cotta with a seasonal berry compote and fresh strawberries, which was paired with the honey sweet Ouma Cloete Straw Wine 2015 (R154), named after Carel Nel’s great grandmother who originally moved from the Constantia valley in the late 1800’s to settle in Calitzdorp. It was then that we all recognised the significance of hosting the Boplaas tasting at Groot Constantia, aside from saving us the monstrous drive to Calitzdorp. The Cloetes used to live here!
In the spirit of things
In addition to their numerous wine ranges, ports, and gorgeous sweet dessert wines, Boplaas also has a distillery, and it’s here that Daniel Nel is the boss. The event kicked off with Boplaas gin and tonics beneath Groot Constantia’s ancient oaks and concluded with a tasting of their six-year single grain whiskey, aged in a port cask, and their famous potstill reserve brandy. It’s a miracle I walked out of there with my dignity intact.
A part of the story of the Cape
531 Years ago, Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Dias became the very first European to explore the southern coastline of South Africa. His mission was to plot a trade route to the Far East via the “Cabo das Tormentas” – the Cape of Storms. Nine years later, Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama completed the trip, landing in India a whole 14 months after departing Lisbon. In a way, the Nel family of the Boplaas Family Vineyards are as intrepid explorers as these early Portuguese seafarers, which, to me, tells a wonderful tale of innovation, unquenchable curiosity, and bravery.
Groot Constantia is open seven days a week. For bookings and enquiries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 021 794 5128. For more information, check out the website at www.grootconstantia.co.za.