Hot whites

I don’t think I’ve ever been compelled to start reviewing an event by extolling the food rather than the wine. But compelled I am by Franck Dangereux’s ingenious and intuitively matched array of amuses bouche and ‘ideas on a plate’, that he and his team served to accompany the top three wines in RisCura’s White Hot Awards.

The ‘White Hot’ refers to South Africa’s Bordeaux-style white blends, a category that is strong in numbers and, according to the awards’ judges, also in quality, yet as is so often the case, not really understood by the most important sector, wine drinkers.

I reckon with a room full of wine drinkers, Franck’s dishes and the three winning wines – Steenberg Magna Carta 2011, Tokara Director’s Reserve 2011 and Celestina 2012 – there would have been enough lightbulb moments to put the national grid under severe pressure!

I’m not one who is overly-prescriptive about wine and food matching – many wines will happily accompany many foods without causing either amazement or awfulness – but on those occasions when the partnership does make a perfect marriage, it’s worth celebrating.

Franck had joined the three judges, Christian Eedes, James Pietersen and Roland Peens and tasted the 41 entries with them; this gave him an excellent perspective of what the category is about. And it’s only when you start tasting around that it becomes clear how diverse the white blends composed of sauvignon and semillon are. Such diversity stems from a number of factors; which of the two form the major partner, either statistically or organoleptically; whether oak is involved; stylistically, has the wine been made as an everyday tipple or in more serious vein, for ageing and where the grapes come from.

RisCura White Hot top three: Tokara, Celestina, Steenberg
RisCura White Hot top three: Tokara, Celestina, Steenberg

The happy result of these awards is that the main three wine growing regions associated with such blends – Constantia (Steenberg), Stellenbosch (Tokara) and Cape Agulhas (Celestina) –  were represented in the top three. They duly produced three very different wines.

The Tokara was poured first. Factually, it’s an oak-aged blend of 71% sauvignon, 29% semillon. It presents itself as big, tangy and modern, where the sauvignon is prominent. Side-tracking briefly, the fact that so many of these blends have a strong sauvignon profile when young could well mean winelovers view them rather more as a straight sauvignon than a complex blend and therefore don’t warrant further exploration. When partnered with Franck’s truffle soup with the truffle stick and the kelp and aged parmesan risotto, the semillon revealed itself, suggesting that with age, which this wine will benefit from, it will take on a more influential, fleshing out role. By contrast, the salmon sushi enriched the sauvignon, while the dish in the photo seemed to link both. Fascinating. Pretty good value at R185 per bottle.

WhiteHotdish1

The one bad taste left in the mouth was that no one from Tokara came to receive their award. I gather Miles Mossop the winemaker was about to leave for Europe, but surely someone else from the farm could have shown the respect due to receiving this award? Does it have anything to do with no entry free being charged? Whatever, that’s really bad form.

Franck’s admission that he could come up with only one dish for the Celestina sounded almost apologetic. Of course, it was quite unnecessary: his Atlantic oyster, scallop petals, salmon caviar, acquatic mesclun and grapefruit oil composition was again a perfect match for a wine full of flavours echoing the sea.

Furrowed brows were seen everywhere trying to work out who could be behind this unknown name. The not-so-little known Caroline Rillema, of Caroline’s Fine Wines, and her partner, Ray Kilian are the names behind it; their small vineyard is in quaintly named Baardskeerdersbos, near Elim. While Ray looks after the viticulture, Dirk Human of Black Oystercatcher in Elim, makes the wine.

Celestina, named after the Rillema/Kilian home, is a 60/40 sauvignon/semillon blend, all larger and used oak fermented and matured. That pure lemon grass, peachy/tangerine note I associate with the area is there, but subtle rather than the in-your-face versions of some. There’s gentleness in the rounded mouthfeel but also a lovely integrated freshness. It’s a pleasureable – and at R95, affordable! – wine for drinking now and over the next couple of years.

After the gentle Celestina, Steenberg’s Magna Carta 2011, due for release March 2014 for the small sum of R495 per bottle, definitely lands in the heavyweight division – in richness, density rather than alcohol, which is a moderate (for today) 13.5%. But I hasten to add there’s also elegance and refinement. It’s the same blend as Celestina, but vinified differently. Only the semillon was barrel fermented in larger oak, a portion new but after the tank-fermented sauvignon was blended in, the partners were integrated with a further seven months in barrel. This regime, introduced a few vintages ago, has led to much better fruit/oak integration and, in my humble opinion, will allow for much longer and more interesting development over at least seven or eight years. Given how different the other vintages are since the maiden 2007 (there was no 2008), a vertical in years to come will not be short of interest.

WhiteHotdish2

Quail (as in the photo), marron tails presented on piping hot salt blocks, seared tuna and smoked pork loin give some idea of what this really grand wine can cope with.

No sweet wine, but no problem; Franck finished us off – yes, really! – with macaroons with peach and rose petal flavoured fillings, little almond cakes and cinnamon flavoured pastry sticks, doubtless not the proper names of these delicacies.

As I suggested would happen in the piece I wrote prior to the results, some of the giants didn’t make the top; Vergelegen and Cape Point Vineyards are but two cases in point. This isn’t through lack of quality, rather their closed state at present – just read Christian’s tasting notes for them – something that will resolve with a few years’ ageing and it’s worth the wait. There are others well-rated where waiting isn’t necessary, such is the diversity of the white Bordeaux-style blends.

The good news is that RisCura – read more about them here – are keen to make this an annual event; please can they tie in Franck Dangereux to this agreement?

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