Fri 23 Oct 2015

South Africa: Keeping Up With The Joneses

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Janet Wynne Evans finds pots of pure gold at the end of the Rainbow Nation tasting…

Some of the delicacies prepared by Roger Jones.

Some of the delicacies prepared by Roger Jones.

Last week, I attended an extraordinary wine tasting at South Africa House. I fully expected to taste great wines. What I didn’t expect was to have one of my founding food-and-wine matching principles shaken to the core.

As with all big, generic tastings, I had plotted my agenda, which was Western Cape blends. These innovative combinations – chenin, chardonnay, roussanne, grenache, viognier and semillon for whites and syrah, touriga nacional, grenache, mourvèdre for the reds – are godsends for a food obsessive. The whites, in particular, quite simply go with everything I throw at them, from garlicky to Gujarati. What I can’t throw, having neither the skill nor the imagination, not to mention the training, are the gastronomic and the gourmet.

With sustaining solids provided by my compatriot, Michelin-starred chef Roger Jones, what better opportunity to complete the set?

Lest fellow members deplore the kind of lifestyle we appear to enjoy in the wine trade, may I also point out that this event was also open to retail consumers in the evening? The 800-plus canapés Roger had painstakingly prepared were testament to that.

The wine list at Roger’s destination Wiltshire restaurant, The Harrow in Little Bedwyn, is famous in the business for championing the new world. It’s also famous for ungreedy mark-ups. An example I’d cite is Australia’s iconic Giaconda Chardonnay – a me-too Montrachet if ever there was one – which is offered at not much more than you’d pay at a top-end retailer. The bottom end would never have heard of it.

At the ‘South African Flavour’ matching seminar that concluded my visit to the tasting, the first of many surprises for me was that no blends were included. Lined up before us were six monovarietals of the kind the Rainbow Nation does best, selected to complement Roger’s inspirations by Fiona Beckett of The Guardian and matchingfoodandwine.com. Sadly, Fiona couldn’t be with us as planned, to present the workshop and to join Roger for a well-deserved bow, because it was a revelation.

Crab mousse in caviar macaroon, tinted with squid ink and seasoned with caviar salt. Photo credit: The Harrow, Little Bedwyn.

Crab mousse in caviar macaroon, tinted with squid ink and seasoned with caviar salt. Photo credit: The Harrow, Little Bedwyn.

Firstly, Stellenbosch sauvignon blanc with citrus-cured wild salmon, coaxed into succulence after a 24-hour stint with clementine, lime and salt, and topped with a smoked sun-dried tomato. The rapport was a complete success, illustrating Roger’s comment that southern hemisphere sauvignon blanc has completed the transition from ‘bar-fly’ to high table, thanks to this poised, piquant rather than trenchant style. No surprises here, other than how such an exquisitely complex mouthful of food could be created from so few ingredients.

Next up was chenin blanc, also from Stellenbosch, with a crab mousse sandwiched in a darkly stylish caviar macaroon, tinted with a whisper of squid ink and seasoned with caviar salt to temper the sweetness. The fullness of the chenin carried both sugar and salt beautifully. Again, all was as it should be, but this was the lull before the bombshell.

That was elegantly dropped in the form of a curried lobster dumpling, lively with a jam of subcontinental spices, along with the startling advice that when it comes to matching wine and food, you should not serve like with like. I would have instinctively reached for an equally spicy gewurztraminer, but I found myself sipping a very elegant, discreetly oaked, almost Burgundian chardonnay from Hemel-en-Aarde in Hermanus. It was perfect, the richness of the lobster lifted beautifully by the citrus notes in the wine. Note to self.

Next was a Stellenbosch petit verdot rosé and more spice, this time Moroccan, pepping up a carpaccio of tuna and packing one or two agents provocateurs in the form of mint, yoghurt and mushy peas. Such a line-up demands a bit of sweetness for me, and that means grenache. Nevertheless, the uplifting, freesia-like bouquet of the wine primed the palate for the spices, while the dry, clean finish closed them off.

Carpaccio of seared venison, foie gras toffee, truffle and mushroom. Photo credit: The Harrow, Little Bedwyn.

Carpaccio of seared venison, foie gras toffee, truffle and mushroom. Photo credit: The Harrow, Little Bedwyn.

For me, Cape pinot noir feels like work in progress, though a cool Walker Bay bottling shone here with an outrageous combination of seared venison, foie gras toffee, truffle and mushroom. Anyone planning to uncork a similarly luxurious mature Burgundy with the gamey, sous-bois flavours here should take note of the second demonstration of the like-with-like fallacy. Young and juicy (and cheaper) does it much better.

As if to rub it in, the last combination of Stellenbosch syrah with a sublime grouse bon-bon, enriched with black pudding and belly pork and finished with a smear of lime pickle, perfectly complimented the bird’s rich gaminess.

Conspicuous by its absence was pinotage, that polariser of palates, so a spot of heckling was in order. Again, I instinctively think of something similarly smoky and brooding to match this grape but the immediate answer was lamb, and not just because Roger is a Welshman. Hearty breeds like Karoo, which graze on wild herbs and basically marinate themselves, or our own Herdwicks come to mind. The scales fell from my eyes, as they are increasingly doing with pinotage these days.

Before I eat it, I’ll first take my hat off to Wines of South Africa, and any other generic wine body that resopnds so imaginatively to the challenge of engaging already pampered wine-drinkers in this way. The CIVB did it for Sauternes and savoury food (and I don’t just mean Roquefort and foie gras), and the inspirations of some very upmarket Bordeaux caterers will be posted shortly on our website. Prepare to be amazed!

Yes, it’s been an eye-opening autumn for accepted wisdom. All of which goes to show that if you think you know it all about food and wine matching, that’s all you know.

Janet Wynne Evans
Fine Wine Editor

Our new Liberator ‘Midnight Bakkie’ (£9.95) is a fine example of a white Western Cape blend. Try also Fable Mountain Jackal Bird (£20). A very small parcel of Giaconda Chardonnay 2010 will be released for sale in our Christmas Fine Wine List, coming to our website and to members’ doormats very soon.

Categories : South Africa

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