But perhaps even more fascinating than the wine itself is Warwick's owner and marketing director Mike Ratcliffe, who is largely responsible for Warwick's positioning as a leader in the South African wine industry and its success overseas. I was eager to pick Mike's brain during my stay in SA, so when he invited me to the winery I couldn't pass up a visit.
Warwick's marketing genius extends to the tasting experience: in a region that prides itself on an atmosphere and climate conducive to outdoor tasting, Warwick kicks it up a notch with a remarkable picnic setup. You order your picnic before, after or during your tasting, fetch it at lunchtime, and select a spot - either on the lawn where children can play on the elaborate swingset while you relax under an umbrella, out on the patio next to the exquisite tasting room, or in one of the lovely picnic "pods" which are more secluded. And if you hear "picnic" and think of a wrapped egg salad sandwich, think again: biltong pate, peppadew hummus, crusty warm baguette, camembert, and fudgy dark chocolate brownies make for an absolutely gourmet lunch. I had the pleasure of eating with Mike, and and I think he was as enthusiastic about the food as I was! Wrapped in a cute basket with a complimentary glass of wine, it's an absolutely ideal way to spend an afternoon.
I was thrilled when Mike introduced me to winemaker Jozua Joubert and suggested that the three of us spend some time tasting in the cellar. I got to taste two tanks of 2010 sauvignon blanc which showed wonderful mineral characteristics and bright natural acidity; when I asked Jozua which varietal he most enjoyed experimenting with, he answered that sauvignon blanc was most fun because he could experience the results quickly enough to get a sense of what works and what doesn't. Anyone who's tried Warwick's sauv blanc knows that it's an incredibly smooth, luscious white that shows refreshingly delicate fruit flavors - definitely a unique take on a style that's often bitingly tart in this area.
Jozua gave me some phenomenal barrel samples including cab franc (of course), pinotage (in my opinion one of the best examples in Stellenbosch, with clean fruit, nice grip and well-integrated oak) and one of his experiments, a shiraz "Amarone" that tasted like a really sexy, chocolatey monastrell. Delicious wines all around convinced me that Warwick hasn't just perfected the outdoor tasting -- they make some pretty outstanding wine as well. Pinotage in particular is a point of pride for Warwick; while many local wine farms are ambivalent about South Africa's signature grape, some shying away from its use while others using it only in Cape blends, Warwick produces an outstanding single-varietal pinotage in addition to blending it. And if all pinotage were like this one - elegant, layered, muscular, with no irritating flavors of stewiness, burnt rubber or banana flavoring, I'd say more wine farms should follow suit. I would absolutely recommend Warwick's pinotage to someone trying this finicky cultivar for the first time.
Those interested in Warwick must also check out the Vilafonte line, their collaboration with American winemaker Zelma Long. I purchased both the accessible "series m" for consumption with my friends at Blaauwklippen and the ageworthy, intense "series c" intending to bring it home to New York...but at my farewell braai bottles had a way of magically getting opened and the "m" went the way of the rest of my wine collection. Guess I'll have to make one more trip to Warwick before I leave!