For the past few years, early January has offered two occasions on which South African wines feature alongside their international counterparts. Both are partnerships between Michelin-star chef, Roger Jones of The Harrow in the UK and The Vineyard Hotel, headed by GM Roy Davies with his Food & Beverage team.
What is dubbed the Trinations dinner features pairs of wines (one South African, one foreign – to date, Australian, New Zealand and The World) served blind with complementary dishes (six or seven) prepared by Jones, guests themselves voting for their preferred wine. The event’s (and mostly South Africa’s!) success has seen Jones repeating it at his own restaurant and in New Zealand. Last year, California joined the party, the dinner being held at The Vineyard near Newbury, a hotel which boasts one of the most comprehensive lists of Californian wines. If the Californians thought they would walk it, they were sadly wrong; South Africa comprehensively trounced them. Equally sadly, South Africans weren’t given the chance of discovering what they thought of Californian wines; a change of mind saw California as a group pulling from this year’s Cape Town leg at the last minute (just one producer represented). Shame on you, California: a fun evening with top-class dishes, just six or seven wines and a small group of a hundred or so guests – is losing really going to dent your reputation? Methinks it’s just your ego that’s dented. But wouldn’t losing be less damaging than pulling out – late too, leaving a Rest of the World hurriedly taking your place.
There were some intriguing pairings and comparisons in that RoW line up; stylistically, the most marked contrast lay between the white blends. Biblia Chora Ovilos 2016 blends traditional Greek variety, assyrtiko with semillon. Offering bright fruit purity and a rich silkiness, it’s a wine easy to enjoy. A little assyrtiko has been introduced here in the hope it’ll perform well and counteract climate change; it’ll be one to watch. The Greek wine proved the guests’ favourite by a difference of just 10 votes, a narrower margin than I guessed, against Thorne and Daughters Tin Soldier 2016; this semillon gris/semillon blanc partnership is skin-fermented, the focus being on structure and texture rather than fruit. For most South African palates it’s still a strange and not necessarily enjoyable style, even with food, an indispensable partner.
Sizzling freshness and generous fruit were also what I imagined would see the local Paul Cluver Close Encounter 2016 Riesling easily home over the less demonstrative (for now) Schaal Sommerberg Grand Cru 2016 from Alsace. I was correct but not about the ‘easily’; a mere 8 votes separating the two wines. Schaal is well-known for his South African wines; his Alsace Grand Crus are equally thoughtfully interpreted, though need time to blossom.
If I remain a little confused by the narrowness of these two wins (South African did go on to win overall 4 – 2), what remains a constant is South Africans’ love of fruit.
Elgin is a largely untapped source of really good riesling, whether bone dry, fruitily thrilling or sweetly spiced with botrytis. If the variety is unlikely to ever become a major player in Elgin, at least it adds a counterpoint to chardonnay in the region.
Méthode Cap Classique is also an important vehicle for chardonnay; many of our best MCCs are dominated by or made exclusively from chardonnay, as the international line up of bubblies at that other occasion illustrated. Silverthorn Green Man, Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2013, Villiera Brut Nature Chardonnay, Colmant Blanc de Blancs and Charles Fox Blanc de Blancs 2013 all have a freshness and tension providing a greater sense of driness, at whatever stage of development each has reached. Blended with pinot but no dosage, the Graham Beck Brut Zero 2012 shows a little more roundness but is also satisfyingly dry.
Does pinot get too ripe and when dosage is added, make some of the blends and many Rosés overly sweet and simplistic?
The most sought-after wines of the tasting, unsurprisingly, were the Prestige Cuvées, where Steenberg Lady R 2012 (a deserved Platter 5*), Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2012 and Charles Fox Cipher RM 2012 (what a classy wine! Such a delightful surprise after the disappointing, for me, maiden 2011) held their own against Arras 2005 (Australia), Janz 2005 (New Zealand) and one of the best English sparkling wines I’ve yet tried, Dermot Sugrue’s Dr Brendan O’Regan, which should be pretty smart for its £150 price tag! After the past two years of tasting English bubblies on this event and not being that impressed, the small contingent this year (Blanc de Blancs from Hattingley 2011 and Gusbourne 2013 – available at Wine Cellar) provided a more positive perspective. Krug 1996 was a rich, different and incomparable bubble game, just delicious!
South African MCCs can and do compare with traditionally made bubblies from the rest of the world, but our image fails through lack of consistency, something specialists such as Graham Beck, Silverthorn, Le Lude et al are busy remedying.