A vineyard on the verandah
Stoep-tasting is not really an extreme sport, although those of us who call the Karoo home find that it gives us far more of a workout than that Jane Fonda nonsense.
We feel the burn in our elbows when we raise glass to lip, and when you’ve done 50 of these, your biceps are coming along very nicely and your jaw is beautifully toned.
There was a lot of stoep-tasting going on in Graaff-Reinet over the last weekend of May. This town has more stoeps than most towns have residents. So guesthouse owner Rose Wright’s idea to organise an annual Stoep-Tasting Weekend last year was bound to take off. From 45 visitors last year, this year’s event saw 120 increasingly inebriated people traipsing from stoep to stoep to taste the stuff wine producers had brought from farms as far-flung as Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Elgin and Calitzdorp.
Wright has been pleasantly surprised at how eagerly the idea has been taken up. "It’s lovely to see how many people are prepared to come to the Karoo. I had guests who flew to Port Elizabeth from Johannesburg and hired a car. It will always be the last weekend of May. That’s me sticking my neck out because there are other big wine events at that time and we want the wine farmer or the winemaker here, so that people can talk to them — then the passion comes out."
Last year, five wine estates took over five stoeps, this year, eight wine estates and one micro-brewery settled for two days on eight stoeps. Wright expects more next year.
The event is centred on Rose and Gordon Wright’s restaurant, Gordon’s, but the winemakers and their products are placed at a variety of guesthouses in the town’s "horseshoe" of old streets. This means punters never have to stagger far to find another stoep to sit on.
Like a teenager at a nightclub, you’re given a temporary tattoo on your hand to prove you’ve paid, so there is no further forking out unless you want to buy cases of the stuff to take home. This in any event is reserved for the extreme stoep-taster who has no problem lugging great boxes of wine to his car boot before heading off for another round of exertions.
There are some unspoken stoep-tasting rules. It would be frowned upon to become drunk and unruly and pick fights with the other stoep-tasters. Or to be so in your cups that one of the organisers has to take you to his house and force you to eat cold pizza and drink five cups of coffee to sober you up before you insist on driving the 90km to your plaas in the mountains. Not that this necessarily happened to whoever it was that it might or might not have happened to. My pinotage-stained lips are sealed.
It also would not do to just go to one stoep and spend the entire day there, or the whole weekend, drinking endless tastes of the same wine because you’re too lazy to get up and go to the next stoep. It is, in effect, as much of a road-trotting weekend as it is a stoep-sitting one. The sight of clutches of stoep-tasters with bags hung round their necks containing their mobile-tasting glass was common. You could also tell by the grace (or otherwise) of their gait whether they were newbies or had several hours of arduous stoep-sitting behind them.
It does make sense, though, at some point to make your choices. You can’t just keep walking from stoep to stoep when at least half of the point is to sit on a verandah and "kuier". So, after Gordon Wright had led us through an intense round of the entire circuit — starting with the wines of Excelsior (on his own stoep) and moving through a host of others — we arrived exhausted at the Coldstream Restaurant stoep. There, after Peter Bayly made us drink white port and other sweet delights, we whittled our stoeps down to a manageable number. (Peter Bayly Wines is a small boutique winery situated at the foot of the Swartberg Mountains).
The chosen stoeps were those inhabited by The Fledge & Company, Paul Wallace, the Drostdy Hotel and, of course, Gordon’s. The ethos of The Fledge is to make wines in what winemaker Leon Coetzee calls the "old skool" way. It was on his stoep that we were to have our most vigorous workout, other than the hour we had spent in the courtyard at the hotel, regrouping before the final assault course.
But after all your stoep-tasting exertions you really need a drink, so we poured into Gordon’s where he served us a three-course dinner, the reward for all the intense physical effort.
What happens is that all the winemakers collect their leftover opened bottles of wine. They are brought over to Gordon’s for the now undeniably inebriated punters to enjoy with chef Gordon’s food, made famous in his award-winning Veld to Fork cookbook.
I was sober enough to discern that you’re not going to find a better tomato tart anywhere, and his rosemary-scented springbok was slow-cooked to a point where the meat was soft, sensuous and full of flavour.
The only workout you were good for by now was one involving fluffy pillows, a duvet and much heavy snoring.