A wine safari keeps you on your toes, although you might be unsteady on your feet at the end of it. It has nothing to do with being in the bush on the back of a game vehicle, sipping wine while being shaken about and trying to focus on the leopard or caracal peering at you from behind a haak-en-steek bos.
This is a far more refined affair in the confines of one of four long tables at Bosmans restaurant at the Grande Roche hotel in Paarl, which has now had 20 years of hosting its mainly German guests.
It was a “safari” because there were four young winemakers, each of whom had brought along a wine to show off, tell us about and share with us, all the while being matched to a particular dish by executive chef Roland Gorgosilich and his highly skilled team. In effect, we all stayed put at our tables, while four winemakers moved from table to table with each course.
This seemed like a terrific idea until I worked out that the wine I was drinking at no point matched the winemaker who was sitting next to me at the time. And they’re plying you with wine, a steward’s generous hand almost incessantly at your elbow. It becomes increasingly difficult to stay on track, the winemaker who had made this wine since having moved on to the table behind me, and the winemaker from the table to my left shortly to be replacing the one now sitting next to me, by which time the wine then in my glass will be that of the winemaker who will join our table in two courses time. Still with me?
They were all affable okes who could probably change the tyre on a bakkie with one hand while swirling wine in the other, and each could sprout off scientific stuff about their wines as if born to terms like Balling and lees, malolactic and degrees of who-knows-what.
Give a winemaker a podium, and they generally talk as if they’re addressing industry people. It’s Balling this and malolactic that and most of it is meaningless to everyone outside of the cellar. I’m not without wine knowledge, have done my basic courses and have been following wine for years. But other than having some interest in knowing what varietal it is, or what the blend is, whether it’s been barrel-aged and the vintage, talk of Balling and malolactic fermentation is no more interesting than explaining the precise measurement of the circumference of Mars or how many times a bakkie’s wheel turns driving at 160kph from Cape Town to Paarl. We want to know what it tastes like, smells like, what food it goes with and maybe some amusing anecdotes about wine farming or harvest time.
When the first wine sprite sat down next to me I thought he must be the winemaker’s teenage son. Johan Meyer, a very youthful 28, is already making two wines under his own label, JH Meyer Signature Wines, a simply beautiful pinot noir and a chardonnay which I haven’t tasted. He produced just 1002 bottles, he says, not including an unstated amount which went into magnums “for personal consumption”. Yes, so would I.
This was matched with the second course of pickled duck breast with confit praline, mushroom tortellini, a wild mushroom velouté flavoured with truffle, and mushroom salad. This delicious dish was about earthy flavours and a clever match for pinot noir. But I almost laughed when I saw the size of the ‘pickled duck’ and had to conclude that the chef was a trifle pickled when he decided how much to serve. Just a few tiny slivers of duck so paperthin that you could see through it. The duck was an afterthought – good, but with a portion like that it seemed hardly worth the effort. And it’s not as if this was a seven- or eight-course gastronomic adventure; just four modest courses.
Preceding this had been a pleasant enough starter billed as “prawn carpaccio” yet was in fact tempura prawns. Delicious, plump, moist, and the accompanying citrussy flavours were good. This was served with a strikingly fresh, perky Howard Booysen Riesling 2011, taking my palate back to the Seventies when riesling was commonplace. It’s making a bit of a resurgence, and this was a great example of why that is good news, even though Booysen himself could not make it and had sent along his mate JP Winshaw of Usana, the Stellenbosch winery he owns with his brother, and who was to appear on my left three courses later, with the dessert.
Earlier, Johan Meyer, of second course/duck fame, had described the riesling’s “lamp olie” character to which I had added, “and citrus zest”.
But we’re on course three now, which means we’re drinking the wine of Jurgen Gouws, whose own Intellego label was present with a stupendous syrah-mourvedre blend. Later, he would go up to the podium and bark into the microphone, “Achtung!”, which might or might not have gown down very well with the many German tourists in the room. Glancing about furtively I concluded that a bandaged Basil Fawlty was not lurking nearby ready to break into a goose step.
World War III was averted by the quality of his wine. Intellego Red — 80 percent syrah and 20 percent mourvedre — was an indulgent mouthful which I relished with the best dish of the evening, red wine-poached Chalmar beef fillet and braised oxtail. So tender you could have sliced through it with that blunt knife at the back of the kitchen drawer, it had an intensity of flavour you seldom find in beef fillet, yet the portion suggested Scrooge hadn’t yet finished his stint in the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Craig Hawkins was now seated on my left while I gamely tried to rehash who I was and what I do, for the third or fourth time that night, while also trying to absorb who he was and which of the wines he was responsible for.
Hawkins, winemaker at Lammershoek in the Swartland, makes a delectable straw wine under the Cellar Foot label which was paired with the dessert, billed as an Amarula tart with lemon-orange cream, gooseberry jelly and straw wine-flavoured nougat ice-cream. The ice cream almost won the day – “almost” only because the actual straw wine won this round – whereas the tart was the tiniest little wedges so that you were deprived of having a proper mouthful to roll your palate around. And sundry little blobs of the aforementioned jellies and whatnot in that annoying way that is frustratingly all the rage. Death to blobs and foams! … although with relief I can add that there were no foams present on this occasion. These are things without which great chefs will be even greater.
So let’s have an end to this fad for itty-bitty presentation. We’re not birds with pecky little beaks. We’re Africans with robust palates which, while we do appreciate the finer textures and nuances of flavour of this undeniably top-level chef, nevertheless want something to get stuck into, if indeed we can find it at all on the plate set before us. But a toast to Chef Gorgosilich and to four young winemakers and their future and a safari in which their wines were undoubtedly the Big Four of the night.
First published in Weekend Argus November 2012