While a simple wine tasting will give you a snapshot of a vintage, blending and vertical tastings are two ways that provide insight into the nitty gritty of grape farming and wine-making.
Wine blending generally highlights the heart of the winemaker's skill in the creation of a wine of a specific style. Vertical tasting – so-called because it refers to sampling different vintages of the same wine as opposed to the more common tasting-room offer of the same vintage across a portfolio - reveals amongst others the effect of variables like climate and maturation on a wine from year to year.
Explore the vagaries of vintages
Before you set out, it's important to know that vertical tastings are not widely offered and generally not advertised when they are. The biggest reason is that there's simply fewer older wines available, as wine is sold off. Storing wines for long periods also requires space and climate-controlled conditions, which is expensive and less feasible for most smaller producers with limited budgets. The incentive for a winery to present older wines however, is to display how well their wines show in the glass when kept in optimal conditions for longer periods – an achievement that can command a higher price.
If you're keen to learn more about wine, it's certainly worth enquiring from a producer whether they offer a vertical tasting because they're also often presented by senior wine staff or the winemakers themselves.
Remember that tasting older wines is a privilege considering they become rarer as vintages are depleted, so be sure to return the favour by buying wine when the opportunity arises.
Vertical Wine Tasting
Amongst wineries that do advertise vertical tastings by prior arrangement are Neil Ellis Wines, Esona boutique winery and Creation Wines in the Walker Bay region.
1. Neil Ellis, Stellenbosch Wine Route
Neil Ellis has a vinotéque (wine library) from which it draws wine for vertical tastings. This is supplementary to its cheese and charcuterie platters compiled to pair with its wines. The tasting room is open Monday to Friday, 10h00 to 16h30; and, Saturdays and public holidays, 10h00 to 17h00.
2. Creation, Hemel-en-Aarde Wine Route
Creation Wines does vertical tastings on request. Its other experiences focus on various categories such as its Reserve white wines, "the art of Chardonnay" and "the art of Pinot Noir". Rates for each are advertised on its website. Situated near Hermanus, the winery's tasting room is open daily, from 10h00 to 17h00.
3. Esona, Robertson Wine Route
Esona's vertical wine tasting offer is small, but allows you to compare two vintages of its single vineyard limited release wines - Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Shiraz. There's also the chance to see what difference the type of glass you use makes on the aromas of wine. Open hours are Monday to Friday, 09h00 to 17h00; and, Saturdays and public holidays, 10h00 to 16h00. Bookings are a pre-requisite.
Come up to the lab
Blending experiences are slightly more widespread than vertical tastings and offer an alternative activity that's especially fun for small groups. In most cases however, bookings are also required.
1. Slanghoek Cellar, Breedekloof Wine Route
Near Worcester, Slanghoek Cellar hosts scheduled Blend & Blottle events. "The winemakers at Slanghoek, recognizing that people have individual tastes, have decided to give visitors the opportunity to attempt the delicate art of wine blending," says the web introduction to the Saturday events, which require pre-booking. One was held on May 12 and two more are planned for August 11 and November 3 this year.
"Visitors are invited to create their own unique style using a combination of three red cultivars in a variety of proportions, to blend a bottle of wine … and bottle under a personalized label," says the winery.
"Meet our winemakers and discover more about the intricacies of making and blending fine wines- this is guaranteed to be a fun and informative experience for all."
The cost is R70 per person (pp). Each event generally starts at 10h00 and takes up to 90 minutes. The experience is offered by special arrangement to corporate and private groups on Monday to Friday mornings.
2. Durbanville Hills, Durbanville Wine Route
Minutes from Cape Town CBD, Durbanville Hills hosts its blend-your-own every Thursday between May and November, at 14h00. The event begins with a glass of bubbly then sees guests provided with five different wine varieties to create their own signature Cape Blend.
"The wine blending experience includes an expert winemaker or ambassador guiding guests through the blending process, teaching them about the characteristics of the varietals and explaining how and why certain varieties harmonise better than others," says the winery's marketing material.
According to red-wine maker Wilhelm Coetzee, the event is an opportunity for people to "play winemaker" for the day and create a blend with a group of friends or co-workers, or simply "to concoct a little something for a special event to impress their friends".
The experience includes cheese and meats platters.
Charged at R475 pp, it only goes ahead for booked groups between 8 and 24 people.
3. Grande Provence, Franschhoek Wine Route
Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate presents a hands-on blending experience in its cellar and guided by Grande Provence wine ambassadors. Participants in the hour-long blending session create their own blends from three different wine varieties.
Blends are then sealed and can be taken home as a memento. Grande Provence promotes it as "perfect for friends and family" as well as "an excellent team building exercise".
The experience costs R400 pp for the blending alone, R800 including lunch or R610 including a gourmet picnic. A more intense coaching in the art of blending is also offered by Grande Provence’s winemaker, at R1 350 pp and includes lunch.
4. Rickety Bridge, Franschhoek Wine Route
Rickety Bridge Winery offers a variety of experiences to visitors – from wine tasting, cellar tours and custom blending to label personalization to interactive sessions, and much more. Their interactive blending experience offer something to both wine novices and enthusiasts.
They will provide everything you need and coach you in the process of making wine. In their wine blending sessions you can experience a crucial part of the wine making process, and you can leave with a bottle of wine to drink! Work on the perfect blend with a group of friends or co-workers, or simply concoct a little something for a special event to impress your friends. The experience cost R250 per person or R200 per person for groups of 10 or more. Book on firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. Zandvliet, Robertson Wine Route
Zandvliet wine estate will let you bottle and blend your own wine straight from the barrel.
Each event is preceded by a tasting of the components – currently Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Shiraz 2016 and Mourvèdre 2017 – followed by the opportunity to mix and match to get to your own preferred blend. These are then bottled, and you'll be able to create your own personalised label.
Larger groups can arrange to have their own special labels pre-printed for the occasion.
Bookings are taken for whenever the tasting room is open, Monday to Friday, 09h00 to 17h00; and, Saturday and public holidays, 10h00 to 17h00. The cost is R150 pp.
6. Excelsior, Robertson Wine Route
Excelsior Estate lets you blend, bottle and label your own unique wine creation at its tasting room overlooking the farm dam. This is one of the few wineries where no booking is required, except if you're part of a group of 10 or more.
Participants are given three wines to taste – a Merlot, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon – and guided to blend their own.
The cost is R72 pp. The experience is available at the farm from Monday to Friday 10h00 to 16h00; and, Saturdays, 10h00 to 15h00.
7. Vergenoegd Löw, Stellenbosch Wine Route
The Helderberg region of Stellenbosch includes the opportunity to learn about blending at Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate.
"Educational, sensory and unhurried, a wine blending experience at Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate focuses on the marriage of ingredients – threading together history, technical skill, sensory response and sheer enjoyment to give visitors a snapshot of something original – something they have created themselves," says the Vergenoegd website.
"At the end of the experience, each person’s unique blend will be packaged and personalized for them – to take home – and even to re-order in the future, as every custom blend is stored into our library."
The personalised wine blending experience – offered by reservation only - takes up to one hour to complete and includes a guided demonstration.
Charged at R300 pp, they are presented at 12h30 and 16h00 every day the tasting room is open: seven days a week from 09h00 to 17h00.
8. Middelvlei, Stellenbosch Wine Route
On the periphery of Stellenbosch, wine blending at Middelvlei offers you three blending components to create your own bottle with a personalised label. The program includes an optional cellar tour; a short introduction into how wine is made; tasting; and, wine blending.
Each blending session generally takes some 90 minutes and is concluded with a light snack of freshly baked potbrood (pot bread) served with home-made snoek pâté.
The cost is R150 pp and additional bottles can be made up with personalised labels and delivered at an extra charge. The experience is available every day of the week between 11h00 and 15h00 although alternative times can be negotiated for groups of 10 or more. Booking here too, is a requirement.