The Other Side of Wine
This blog piece has been transcribed from the Food & Home December 2018 issue: The Other Side of Wine: by Malu Lambert.
“Every wine wants to become vinegar,” laughs Rozendal vinaigrier, Nathalie Ammann, as we’re walking along the curve of a dirt road leading to the vinegar cellar. Shod in boots with her auburn hair tied back, Nathalie looks every bit the Stellenbosch farmer.
It all started with a passion for wine. “My dad always dreamed of making wine; so, in the early 80’s, my parents sold their restaurant in Joburg and moved to Stellenbosch where they bought this farm and planted six hectares of vineyards, ” Nathalie shares. The farm was then, as it is now called, Rozendal. “It means something like ‘horses in the valley’ in Dutch. We used to have a lot of horses, now we only have five. We also have two alpacas, 20 chickens, two cows, one pig and two dogs,” Nathalie says as she takes me to meet the pig, Truffles. The alpacas flick their ears in the distance, grazing in the sun.
Nathalie’s father, Kurt Ammann, made his first vintage in 1983 – a Bordeaux blend (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc). The path to vinegar occurred as naturally as anything does on this biodynamic farm: in 1988, Kurt discovered the vintage of that year had too much volatile acidity – a wine flaw that creates acetic acid, which is also the starting point of making vinegar.
Another serendipitous moment sealed the farm’s vinegar-making fate. “In 1995, a Swiss gentleman came to visit my dad at the farm,” Nathalie explains. “He was looking for red wine made without sulphur. He started talking to my dad about the healing potential of certain vinegars and taught him to make vinegar with the flawed 1988 vintage.”
And, since much of the equipment is the same, it wasn’t difficult at all to transition from winemaking to vinegar making. The only challenge was the change in mentality. “We made our last wine in 2005 and then converted our cellar. The decision to go from wine to vinegar required a huge mind shift; but you can’t have both, right?” Nathalie says with a smile.
“Nobody in South Africa makes vinegar like we do. We use the traditional French technique called the Orleans method, and simply allow the wine to slowly turn into vinegar. During fermentation, oak barrel-matured red wines are cultured by our “mother bacteria” – which we still use from the original vinegar – then we infuse the vinegar with different botanicals,” Nathalie explains.
We’ve come to a small herb garden – which Nathalie calls the Vinegar Garden – where they harvest some of the botanicals used for the infusions. She points out certain plants, pert in the morning sunshine: “Wild olive, rosemary, carob, elderflower…”.
Nathalie has something of a green thumb: after completing her BSc Agric Agronomy and Entomology degree at Stellenbosch University, she spent a year in California where she grew and curated seasonal produce boxes. When she returned home, Nathalie continued in this vein, cultivating a vegetable garden on the farm, which she has now maintained for the last 13 years. Although, no longer a commercial project for her, the vegetables find their way onto guests’ plates at Rozendal’s on-site guesthouse, Auberge Rozendal.
Back in the herb garden, Nathalie tells me how they grow much of what they use to infuse the vinegars, only buying specialty ingredients like green tea and kelp. In the range, there are four botanical vinegars (Fynbos, Hibiscus, Green Tea and Lavender), as well as a premium aged vinegar called Essentia.
Neatly contained in a converted shed, the entrance to the Vinegar Bar and Cellar plays host to curiosities: along the one wall, vintage ice skates, salvaged farm equipment, newspaper clippings and the like can be seen, while on the opposite side, natural objects found on the farm – from dry snakeskins to bushels of botanicals – are displayed. From here, a long wooden table faces the bar area. “We created the bar from materials found on the farm. Up-cycling and reusing is a big part of our ethos,” Nathalie says as she leads me to the barrel cellar in the background, which is framed by glass.
The barrel cellar is just like a wine cellar except for the sharp herbaceous scent of vinegar pervading the room. Stacked French oak barrels are scrawled with chalk, denoting the different infusions.
With consumers inundated with marketing information, I ask her what features make a good vinegar. “it’s the norm for vinegars to be produced quite quickly,” Nathalie tells me. “other producers can make vinegar in about 8 hours, but ours is made very slowly in oak, like well-matured wine.” On that note, she tells me their vinegars are made from local organic wines. “We use a flow form to transport the wines into barrels, ” Nathalie adds, showing me a piece of equipment that looks like a series of small pools flowing into one another from different heights.
A part of the Biodynamic culture here, flow forms – inspired by mountain streams – make use of a figure-eight flow pattern called a lemniscate, which folds oxygen into the moving liquid. It’s said to energise and purify it.
The barrels themselves are matured over a 12-year solera system (the ageing of wine, brandy and vinegar by blending small fractions of the contents from different aged barrels in such a way that the finished product is a mixture of ages). “These barrels have been going for years and are never empty. In every barrel, there are still minute portions of the very first vinegar my dad made,” Nathalie says. The botanical infusions take place in the barrel for a couple of months before being bottled with a gravity flow system – a very similar practice to biodynamic winemaking. “Because of the acidity in the vinegar, we don’t need to pasteurise or add preservatives to it,” Nathalie adds.
Now it’s time to taste. It’s a strange facsimile of a wine tasting, as Nathalie heads behind the bar to pour tasting portions. The labels are beautiful, having recently been redesigned, and they retain the original motif: a hand entwined by herbs – a drawing done by Nathalie herself.
“We make balsamic-style vinegar- its balance of sweetness and acidity makes for vinegar you can actually drink,” Nathalie muses.
“We serve vinegar as an aperitif at the guesthouse; it gets your salivary glands going and primes your body for the meal. We sometimes also make a farmer’s punch for our guests: hibiscus tea with ginger, spiked with vinegar.”
The green tea variant was the first botanical infusion they made, and Nathalie says is the most underrated of the range. “It’s super-healthy and was actually inspired by kombucha,” she smiles before pouring me a taste. “Take a big sip and swirl it around your mouth,” she instructs.”The vinegar will react with your body in tune with how you’re feeling – raw, naturally fermented vinegar helps to restore the body’s pH balance by reducing excess acid. The more you drink the vinegar, the smoother it becomes,” Nathalie explains. Instead of a hit of the expected green tea flavour, it hums as a more of a background note. “Vinegars have personality more than flavour,” she quips. We try the lavender next – made with organic lavender grown on the farm – which she says makes for a beautiful reduction served with lamb. “Next up is my favourite, the fynbos” Nathalie announces. Imbued with buchu, honeybush, rose geranium, wild olive and wild rosemary, the vinegar indeed gets smoother as I sip it, and I feel warmth creeping up my cheeks as I do.
“When drinking vinegar, your body heats up and it emanates through your body. Your face relaxes and you get that glow. The Germans have a saying: ‘Sour makes happy,’ Nathalie grins.
“The root of the word ‘balsamic’ is actually ‘balsam’, which means healing. My dad hikes the Grand Canyon with vinegar in his bottle to prevent lactic acid from building up; you don’t get stiff muscles,” she shares.
The last botanical infusion we try is the most popular of the range, the hibiscus vinegar – a rendition of hibiscus, rosehip, elderflower and vanilla bean.
It’s been awarded twice in the prestigious SOFI (specialty outstanding food innovation) Awards in New York, as both Outstanding New Product in 2010 and Outstanding Vinegar in 2011. “this vinegar is beautiful as a dressing for summer fruits and salsas,” Nathalie says.
Finally, we try the inky flagship: Essentia. Limited to just three barrels, this vinegar is made from the very accidental batch Nathalie’s father made in 1988. It is deep and luscious, balanced on a tightrope of acidity and sweetness. “It’s delicious over homemade vanilla ice cream or when you macerate strawberries in it and serve it with black pepper,” Nathalie enthuses.
As we talk, she shares some exciting news: they’re currently working on a new Rooibos-infused vinegar. Just imagine that!
Before long, I bid Nathalie goodbye, feeling that warm, happy glow I often have after enjoying a glass of wine, with one exception: I’m allowed to drive!