Tim James discovers the tale behind winemaker Giorgio dalla Cia's wines and grappas.
According to winemaker Giorgio dalla Cia, tiramisu – that sweetly soft staple of ristorante and trattoria – originated as a sort of Red Bull for sex workers.
The origin is disputed, but Dalla Cia's passion for food and wine is obvious from the merest glance, so I'll go with his story. He relates that when an Italian regiment was stationed at Treviso (near Venice, and the home of Benetton – and an unusually dull art gallery), the local prostitutes were getting so exhausted that they asked a restaurateur to come up with a tasty energy-booster for them. He concocted tiramisu ("pick-me-up" in Italian), with its coffee, egg, mascarpone, etcetera.
This story came when I was eating the version made by Dalla Cia's daughter-in-law, Elena, at Pane e Vino, her delightful food and wine bar on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, alongside the Dalla Cia distillery.
Along with grappa, it fittingly concluded a lunch that was simple but fresh and excellent in the best Italian tradition. And, happily, accompanied by Dalla Cia's wines. A proper Italian, he'd wanted to show them to me in their proper context: with food.
It had been an enlightening visit altogether. I'd never seen a still expressly designed for producing grappa (correctly known in South Africa as "husk brandy", the spirit made from the skins and pulp left over from winemaking).
Dalla Cia had brought a grappa still from Italy when he was cellarmaster at Meerlust; he moved it here when he set up shop with his son, George. He is now the distiller, and it was he (with interjections from Papa) who explained the workings, and spoke of the vital need for the grapeskins to be watered and distilled while fresh.
And of much else, some of which I've remembered. The grappas that George makes are among the best of South Africa's handful – and the 2014 10th anniversary of Dalla Cia Wines will see the release of something unique and good (I'm banned from saying more).
Dalla Cia's two white wines I like very much – there's a fresh elegance and balance to both the ripe and unaggressive but not overly fruity Sauvignon Blanc (R75) and the scarcely oaked Chardonnay (R98), which has charm and delicacy.
The reds are more ambitious – and pricey, though the Classico Cabernet Sauvignon is reasonable value at R130, ripe and sweet-fruited and pretty ready for drinking.
The others will benefit from a few years, preferably five-plus, in the bottle; perhaps time will integrate the evidence of toasty oak barrels that to my palate is a touch excessive (some will enjoy that taste).
But they are all beautifully structured – Dalla Cia has a knack of building his reds with very firm but soft and unabrasive tannins; there's nothing harsh or raw, even in youth.
There's been just one vintage so far of a serious, stern but convincing Pinot Noir. The cabernet-based blend called Giorgio (R235) is long the flagship; packed with berry flavours, it's as opulent as the straight cab, but more refined and firm, with a good dry finish.
The latest addition to the list is a blend of cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties with the Tuscan sangiovese. Also beautifully made, it is bigger, bolder, riper than the others, and something of a blockbuster – in the showy, impressive style of Italian so-called "SuperTuscans". Its price of R790 is in the same immodest tradition.