If ever there was an illustration of wine and food bringing people together across cultures, it was a long table in the Jonkershoek Valley above Stellenbosch last week, where German, Japanese, Cuban, American and South African gathered for a celebration with the title of “Chopsticks and Cabernet”.
The occasion was the presentation of a Commendation from the Foreign Affairs Minister of Japan to Hans-Peter Schröder, the German-South African co-owner of StarkCondé wines.
He was recognised for his contribution to promoting mutual understanding between Japan and South Africa.
Presenting the Commendation, Japanese Ambassador to South Africa, His Excellency Shigeyuki Hiroki, highlighted Schröder’s decades-long role “fostering friendship through interactions and exchanges between the people of the two countries”, promoting South African wine in Japan, and welcoming many Japanese visitors to Stark-Condé.
Schröder was the only South African recipient of the award this year, and the first-ever from the Cape, and his family made sure the handover was a special occasion – presenting a vertical tasting of all 11 vintages of Stark-Condé Cabernet Sauvignon for the first time, followed by a family-style Japanese sushi lunch.
The story begins with the young Schröder leaving his hometown of Stellenbosch to join the merchant marine and see the world.
Fascinated by Japan, he returned there to study, where he met fellow student Midori Maruyama and they married in 1966.
The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act at the time made the newlyweds unwelcome in South Africa so they made their home in Japan, where Hans succeeded in business and the couple had three daughters.
With the repeal of apartheid legislation and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, Schröder brought his family back to Stellenbosch, purchasing Oude Nektar farm in the lush Jonkershoek hills.
The tale continues with Cuban-American son-in-law José Condé making a few barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon in a shed on the farm in 1998, which earned five Platter stars and prompted him to ditch his career in graphic design.
Stark-Condé’s Three Pines Cabernet has gone on to win local and international trophies galore, including Platter’s five stars five times and two Six Nations Wine Challenge trophies as the best of the best from new world wine-making countries Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.
The event started at the Stark-Condé tasting room – a wooden tea-house draped in weeping willows, reached by a bridge over the lake that forms the picturesque heart of this impossibly scenic spot. Fresh from victory as the best white blend at the Six Nations Wine Challenge, the Stark-Condé Field Blend 2015 made a crisp and deliciously different partner to platters of deep-fried, crumbed oysters with Japanese-style mayo, shot glasses of chawanmushi savoury egg custard with prawn and shimeji mushrooms and soba noodles in broth – all very Japanese style in their simplicity and deep savoury “umami” flavours.
The wine is really interesting – a blend of Roussanne, Chenin Blanc, Viognier and Verdelho grown together in a block of the farm that contains 11 different soil types and a variety of grapes grown, harvested, pressed and fermented together.
The barrel cellar played host to the day’s highlight, something the winemaker himself had never done before, a journey through time from the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon to the latest release, the 2014.
Condé said he had elected to present the oldest first, so that by the time we got to the younger wines with their tighter structure and more prominent tannins, we would be able to see “where they will go over time”.
With the wines all coming from the same vineyard, and the same minimal intervention wine-making process used every year, it was fascinating to see the differences between the vintages, the result mostly of that year’s weather, and then the work of time.
The beauty of a vertical tasting is being able to understand the winery’s style that runs through the vintages despite their differences – in Stark-Condé’s case a golden thread of modern, elegant style with a focus on fruit purity, floral fragrances and subtle, silky subtle tannins.
Sixteen years on, the 2000 was still incredibly fresh, with elegant fruit, an inky darkness and some earthiness. The 2001 had juicy strawberry notes, while the 2003 was big, bold and meaty, and on we went through the years, stopping to particularly adore the multi-accoladed 2011 (winner of one of those Six Nations trophies) which Condé reckoned best reflected his particular style.
The combination of German and Japanese might suggest a severe level of precision and formality but, as Schröder’s daughter Marie Condé put it, “we’re casual to the point of being rude”, although the Japanese aesthetic runs subtly through the whole property with its wild-but-formal gardens, and simple, clean design in everything from the buildings to the wine labels.
Another long table, decorated with proteas and laden with platters of raw fish, precision-sliced veggies, nori and individual bowls of sticky rice, wasabi and soya sauce, brought the event to a close, with guests invited to create and roll their own sushi in the way a typical Japanese family would.