Chris Williams, Meerlust Cellarmaster, began his career as one of the youngest wine-makers in the world. He was in Nairobi recently with vineyard owner and wine-maker Hannes Myburg, whose family has run the Meerlust wine estate in Cape Town since 1756.
1. How did you get into the wine business?
Actually my background had nothing to do with wine. I enrolled for Law and while at the university, I joined the campus wine club. I enjoyed learning about wine and tasting different wines and took a holiday job at a winery in Cape Town. After that I decided to study winemaking for three years at Stellenbosch in South Africa. I worked in France for a while, and then Hannes Myburg hired me at Meerlust.
2. It has been said that there are certain wines to be drank at certain times or with certain dishes, for example red wine with beef and white with fish. How important are these guidelines?
The number one rule is to always drink what you enjoy. Never be intimidated or told how to drink your wine. Trust your tastes. Often people like to start with sweeter wines because they like the taste but with time you learn that dry wines (wines with no sugar) go much better with food, because they are fresher and have a higher acidity. Of course grilled fish goes down well with a nice Chardonnay, and a juicy steak is awesome with Pinot Noir, so there is some truth to these recommendations. Ultimately it is best for you to experiment and drink what you personally enjoy.
3. What is the difference between the major types of wine?
The most common categories are red and white wine. Wines tend to be named after the grapes used to make them, or the region where those grapes are grown. For example, Chardonnay is a white wine and Pinot Noir is a classic red wine, both named after the grapes used to make it. Champagne is the name given to sparkling wine grown specifically from the region of Champagne in France. No other wine in the world can be called by that name. Burgundy is also named after a French region. Rose wine is often a blend of red and white wines. Sherry is fortified wine (the wine-maker has added alcohol to the wine to improve age-ability and other qualities of the wine).
4. Why is it that In Africa, wine is mostly produced in South Africa and not in other countries?
This is mainly due to the climate. Throughout the world, wine is grown in temperate belts of the earth. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the Mediterranean, California, and some parts of South America. The best climate for wine growing involves wet winters and dry summers. In equatorial regions it rains in the summer so the grapes would actually rot. At the Cape, the African sunshine is great for concentrating the flavours in the grapes, and the Atlantic sea breeze acts as a natural air conditioner keeping the grapes cool. Our region also has poor, well-drained soil with a bit of clay to maintain optimal moisture, which is perfect for wine growing.
5. What about the protocols as regards to glasses? does one really need to use taller and thinner glasses for white wine and more rounded goblets for red?
Generally speaking, there are no hard and fast rules so long as you use a clean, wine glass with a stem. Tulip-shaped glasses that go inwards towards the top are best because they retain the bouquet or aroma of the wine for much longer. Glasses that go outwards like Martini glasses are inadequate because the bouquet evaporates too quickly. Thinner glasses are actually better than the traditional heavy crystal goblets. It is important to make sure your glass is clean and has no other odour, like that of soap or anything else.
6. What is the alcohol content of most wines?