Wine bars in Cape Town are scarcer than a gold hen’s tooth. And when you do find one, you realise it’s not a hen’s tooth at all, just a shitty piece of yellow dirt. Caveau? hah. Harold’s? Please. Oblivion? Pull the other one. ‘Wine-bar’ in Cape Town is something to add to the title of your restaurant to make it sound better. It is an empty, hollow phrase. As long as I have a few glasses and a couple of boxes of Overmeer, I can happily change my name from “Harry’s Bistro” to “Harry’s Bistro and Wine Bar”. Continue reading “Publik Wine Bar”
Yup, this guy.
Some of you may have noticed that I have not been writing recently. This happens every time I start to believe my own bullshit. When I start taking wine too seriously I get fed up with the whole shebang. This is a terrible attitude for a wine writer.
I have, however, been spurred into action by David Clarke’s recent guest blog on Tim James’ site, where he lists some of his first impressions about the local wine scene. I agree with all of them, but I think they come with added weight, because they are written from an outsider’s POV. We need more stuff like this. Continue reading “The Aussie Made Me Do It”
I have been saying this for a little while, and now the eminent MW Tim Atkin has agreed: now is the most exciting time to be involved in the South African wine scene.
If you are into new and sparkly things, however, the local craft beer scene may be even more exciting. It is burgeoning. Nowadays it feels like you can’t open a garage door in Cape Town without finding some bearded, skinny-jeaned chap messing about with barley, hops and water.
The one producer who for me is leading the charge in scale, quality, and intent is Devil’s Peak Brewery. I first head about them when I tasted my first Indian Pale Ale, the King’s Blockhouse IPA. It’s a super hoppy, fruit bomb of a beer. On that day I woke up to a different beer drinking life. The insipid, fizzy, flavourless larger scales fell from my eyes. No longer was I a Black Label sipping Saul, but an IPA guzzling Paul. Continue reading “Beer is Good, Wine is Excellent, What About Wine in Beer?”
One of the most fascinating and complex wine institutions in South Africa is the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging or KWV. OK, I know they are no longer a cooperative, but that name, in Dutch, is retro-awesome. That last sentence should be read with the required amount of irony by the way. Anyhoo.
Over the New Year I received a calling from God.
More accurately I received a phone call from Bacchus. You know, the God of Wine?
I expect when other God’s call it’s quite dramatic, burning bushes, bright shafts of light, possibly even a sacrifice to get the whole thing going. But with Bacchus it was more like being on the receiving end of a drunk-dial.
It went something like this
“For fucks sake, really? No no no shit shit shit…”
“…no bloody way did I order a white Russian. Have you recently been discharged from a mental institute? You haven’t? Well. I would seriously consider checking yourself in. Or, maybe you should just have a drink. Here. Take this white Russian. “
“Better service in Hades I swear. Hello. Harry?”
“Err, Yes, who this.
“Do you have nothing better to say?”
“Don’t you like White Russians?”
“Of course not. Unless that’s all there is. Listen, Harry.
“It’s Bacchus here. God of wine. I need to have a chat with you. Meet me on top of the Bottlery Hills on Saturday afternoon. Four o clock should be fine.”
“Who is this?”
“Don’t be clichéd. None of your friends are funny enough to pull a prank like this. For once I would like to call someone up at three in the morning and for them to be all “Hey, Bacchus my man. Which Hills? Sure, see you then.” But no, it’s always “Who is this? What are you playing at?” It’s tiring. I’ll see on you Saturday. Don’t ask, and don’t worry it’s all been ordained.”
And then he hung up.
It was three in the morning. I checked to see if I was drunk. I wasn’t. I racked my memory for any hallucinatory drugs that I might have taken in the hours before this phone call. There were none. I decided that I was dreaming within a dream or some sort of inception-like nonsense, and went back to sleep.
When Saturday arrived I duly headed out to the bottlery hills. Because even if it wasn’t the god of wine waiting for me, I had to find out who was posing as him.
I took along a bottle of wine, because it seemed like the thing to do. Choosing was tough. I went for one of those skin contact Chenins Craig Hawkins is making, because, shit, Bacchus would definitely be into that.
There is more than one Bottlery hill. I chose the biggest looking one, and made my way up. I got to the top and immediately felt like an idiot.
Then he appeared.
I don’t want you to think that he APPEARED. There was no light, smoke, or angelic choir, and there was definitely no averting of the eyes. He just sort of staggered into frame. As if, seconds before, he was leaning against a bar and had just pushed himself off.
He looked drunk. Not paralytic, just a bit wobbly. Wobbly, but well attired. Almost like Tim Burton had dreamed up an alcoholic and got Johnny Depp to play the role. Top hat, waistcoat, and what looked like ethnic jewelry.
I knew straight away that this was the God of wine. I can’t say how. But when you meet a god you just know. There was a quality about him that I cannot describe, except that its effect was to make someone who looked human, not quite human at all.
The rest of that afternoon, evening, and early morning are a blur. We drank heavily, that’s for certain. Drugs were involved. Even though, interestingly Bacchus told me that drugs have no effect on gods, some just like the ritual.
He is certainly – and obviously I guess – into wine and had brought a rather daunting selection in a large, vintage-looking ice chest which was in the back of a Ford Cortina. Bachhus is nothing if not eccentric.
We finished all the wine. Spoke of many things, 90% of which I am sure I have forgotten, some were commandments which will make there way into a column somewhere, and some I’ll write here. I am only sure this all occurred because I because I woke up in my car with a ¼ full bottle of 1999 Jean Louis Chave Hermitage.
I sipped on this wine, miraculously still at the right temperature, through the Sunday morning trying to piece together the night before.
As I mentioned he gave out a few commandments. Although, looking back, I think he gave them out because he was trying to fit into an idea of what a god is supposed to do. He mumbled and slurred his way through them like a kid in morning assembly mumbling through the Lord’s Prayer.
The one thing I do remember, and the reason I am writing this, is because he kept going on about how we’ve got wine all wrong. How we are “missing the point of the grape, the bottle and the ecstasy.” That’s what he said, word for word.
When I opened the bottle of Hawkin’s Cortez, he smiled and said he knew it and liked it a lot, but was more into that “Batshit crazy El Bandito.” Typical. I asked him how we had missed the plot, and told me a story.
A devious little question.
A question that sits around a corner with its foot held out hoping you trip. It’s a question however, that I am bound to try and answer.
Before I explain what makes for a good wine, I think we need to get a few things straight. Clean the ring before the fight begins. Go to the pond, fetch the ducks, and make them all stand to attention.
Let’s begin with one of my favourite xkcd comics.
It’s brilliant because it’s so silly, so true, and relates to some of what I do so accurately.
You see, the depths of a conversation about what a wine is, and how its quality is judged depends very much on your level of interest and understanding. I know that today, a number of years since I started taking a real interest in wine, my level of knowledge has increased and so has my ability to judge wines. However infinitesimally.
My favourite analogy here is with literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a brilliant novel, perhaps one of the finest ever written. Yet it can be maddeningly difficult. It takes time, study and patience for the brilliance to be revealed. That hard work pays off when seemingly haphazard structure, associations and stream of consciousness are slowly pulled into focus forming a picture of Dublin, man and life so intricate and tightly woven that you can only sit back and marvel at Joyce’s genius.
So let me try and help a bit, while offering an insight as to how I judge wines, and what type of wines I believe are best.
To be a great wine every aspect – its acidity, tannin, flavor, intensity, sweetness etc – must be in balance. Each part supports the other, and imagining the wine without one of them is to imagine a poorer wine.
Of everything I list here balance is the most important. When tasting wines that are not to your preference, balance is – I think – the best guideline to decide whether it is good or not. Big, very ripe, very oaky, massive red wines are not to my taste. However, if I taste one and find that it is in balance, then I need to frame my criticism or description of it in a manner that shows this.
Complexity is simply how many flavours, textures, aromas, you find in a glass. In a quest for describing complexity some American wine writers have taken to writing out long lists of descriptors. They resemble a most pretentious witch’s recipe book, and in my opinion do sweet bugger all for helping us understand wine. You know a wine is complex when after every sniff and sip a new level of flavor is discovered. Complexity makes a wine intriguing, difficult to put into words, and forces you to come back again and again.
As with all things vinous it’s not entirely straightforward. I have loved wines – and thought some excellent – which were not complex. They were beautiful in their simplicity.
How long the flavor of the wine stays in your mouth. The longer the better. Ideally, you want a wine to remain in your mouth revealing its complexity long after the liquid has gone. I will have a negative opinion of a wine whose flavour starts with such promise as it passes my lips, but absconds as soon as I have swallowed.
I am by no means fooled into believing price has no bearing in this conversation. In terms of absolute quality, I agree, that price has no effect. However, when I have to spend my hard-earned on a bottle, and it turns out to be a less than satisfying example, my rage increases in direct proportion to every rand I have spent.
Now we come to a more difficult part of this conversation, because we are sliding into the nebulous arena of personal preference.
I started hanging out with wine-geeks as I took the long road – I’ve merely set out – to become one, and found that so many of the wines they poured fascinated me.
How was it that they continued to open bottle after bottle of very good wines? The answer is simple. They knew their shit. They knew which producers and vintages made excellent wines, and they had gone through the long, liquid process of discovery themselves.
The wines I shared with them have shaped how I taste and view wines today. So these other aspects about what I think makes good wines (and the lack of which makes poorer ones) is personal, but it has developed from drinking many more bottles of much better wine than I ever would have if I’d left wine obsession alone.
Bite into a perfectly ripe apple or orange, and you understand freshness. That burst of clean, juicy fruit – your mouth in a Timotei advert taking a shower under a remote jungle’s waterfall – is freshness. It’s the acidity at work of course, but freshness is more than simple acidity. For me, it shows a wine that is full of life. Alive. Kicking. A fresh wine, logically, leaves you feeling refreshed. It cleanses rather than coats, it’s a song of praise rather than a dirge. Freshness means the wine begs you to take another sip.
I told you we were getting personal. What may be of interest to me may be of little interest to you; although, I am using it in a little more focused manner here. A wine that is interesting stands apart from the mountains of dross that line our supermarket shelves. Jamie Goode wrote recently:
About many wines there is little to be said. They are just wine . . . 90% of all wine is crap. We know that. We just need to be more honest about it, with ourselves and our readers.
Here’s a man I can get on with! Maybe “crap” was not the best choice of word, but the point is that too much time is spent discussing dull or average wines. I think this is Jamie’s point, that all the extra words given to run-of-the-mill wines – and I am as much at fault as anyone – make these wines into something they are not.
Phew. Slight tangent. With this in mind though, I think exceptional wines are interesting by virtue of their limited number. However, wines that are simply different are not necessarily good. We need to take interest (new variety, area, winemaking techniques etc) along with all the other ways we judge wine (balance, complexity etc). Interest alone does not make a wine good, but a good wine that is interesting elevates it to something special.
The Elephant Doing Ballet:
I love wines with forceful elegance, that have a weightless intensity, wines which are paradoxes in a glass. Intensity is another aspect of wine that you can judge. Intensity of flavour is generally a good thing, but not always. A wine that is intensely flavoured, but lightly textured and full of freshness, is a wine for me. It’s a wine, to personify, like an elephant dancing elegantly.
This intensity without weight is a signal for me that a wine is very very good. It is hard to communicate – which is why, perhaps, I invoke the elephant in a tutu – but I hope you grasp my meaning.
Now I will not deign to think I can tell you what is delicious or not, but let me try and describe it as an aspect of a wine.
Deliciousness in a wine is its ability to demand you drink more of it. It holds you at gunpoint, on the edge of the plank, shouting at you to take another sip. Each time you do you are transported – either on a magic carpet of complexity, or in a deluge of sheer pleasure – to a place that you must always return to sip, after sip, after sip.
Too esoteric? Maybe. I prefer wines with lower alcohols, that have not been made with lots of new oak, and are leaner in style; I seem to prefer wines made with less intervention – wild yeasts, no added acid, no fining or filtration. I love wines from the Mosel in Germany, and the Northern Rhone in France. I know there are amazing wines from nearly every place on the globe that plants vines, and I am trying to taste them. My personal tastes will change and develop, but all of the aspects I have described above will always be part of how I determine if a wine is good or not.
I was thinking about the relative prices of things yesterday, obviously in relation to wine – it’s just how my brain works these days. Don’t worry I’m not going to rant around wine prices. There is no point. Wine is expensive. It is. You can get bargains, but on the whole, wine at the better end of the spectrum is a luxury product.
I generally buy wines at around the R75-150 mark. I pay more sometimes, I pay less at others, but generally that’s what I pay.
For that same amount of money I can by a book. Not just any book, but a work of genius. A book whose arrangement of letters is quite near perfection. This for me, is crazy. Books have to be the cheapest works of art ever. What is equally crazy is for the same price you can buy a book whose letter arrangement is closer to a regurgitation of alphabet soup.
You don’t pay more for a better book and less for a shit one. Good for the consumer I guess. It means we can all have the literary equivalent of a Picasso on the wall, a poetic cellar full of first-growths for less than the cost of the paint, or a 5l box of wine. As I said, crazy.
Paging through this month’s GQ I saw that Christian Eedes has written a little column thingy about pairing wine and music. This reminded me of a study that played three types of music to groups of people drinking a glass of wine; depending on what music was played, people responded differently to the wines, showing how “music shifted the perception of the wine in the direction of the mood expressed by the music”. See here for details.
This is slightly worrying when one thinks of all the music Tim Atkins plays as he judges. What happens if, by some horrible judgment, Tim lets Nickleback into his playlist? The wines he is tasting will surely be judged as faulty.
Interesting, sure, but I am instead, going to offer you some wine and life pairings. The best wines to imbibe as you go about your short, and on the whole, meaningless life.
Let’s start with sex – you did.
Well it’s obvious. Champagne. Champagne tastes better when you are all sweaty and sticky. It’s true, ask any sommelier (said in a silly French accent: If zir is aving ze coitus, zen zee bottle of Krug is obligatory. And for Madam, I recommend zee Pol Roger. Your name is Paul, no?)
Champagne is the sexiest of wines, the most sensual and the most stimulating. Before, after and during, Champagne is the perfect pairing for sex. Whether you are having some late night secret lascivious meeting in a dingy hotel, copulating wildly on silk sheets in a Parisian penthouse, or rolling around under the sun and in the hay al fresco style, Champagne is the only drink to have with you, in you, all over you.
I will concede that something outrageously rare and expensive could be shared in bed. But I would suggest this be a post-coital drink. “Darling that was just extraordinary. Now pass me that bottle of ‘45 Romanée-Conti, I need to get my strength back.”
Let’s start with novels. Good novels. Literature, as opposed to that stuff mythically found in airport terminals. The trick is to find a wine with the appropriate weight and bearing. A simple wine does not offer the hours of work the novelist has put in enough respect; yet a very serious and complex wine will detract from the novel itself.
I have found Port a good companion to novels, it demands sipping and occupies your tastebuds long enough for you to finish a page without having to reach out for another swig. No need to splash out on something fancy, just a simple port will do. Remember, it is about the book, not the wine.
Poems. Poems are different, and first thoughts are toward a more ascetic approach. Alone, no distractions, maybe a dim lamp and a comfortable chair are all that should be at hand when reading poetry (again, we’re talking about good poetry; not something your boyfriend wrote you, confessing how his never-ending love is a draft tap with an infinite keg). However, we must find a wine for poetry.
A dry sherry is most suitable. Fino is probably best. With its salty/nutty character a good fino offers the deliciousness of wine without letting the drinker forget that they are not simply drinking, they are edifying their souls by reading poetry. No more than one sip per stanza.
There is one exception. For poems written in sprung rhythm a brandy is called for.
Other writing. OK OK, I forgot plays. File them under novels. Glossy magazines, give them an oaky chardonnay in a big glass. Newspapers should be drunk with bubbly to prevent the reader from slipping into too deep a depression. Short stories should also be accompanied by port. Trashy novels, if not burnt, should be drunk with something quaffable: Sauvignon Blanc or South African Chenin suit this purpose well. If you need a red then Merlot is best.
All wines are good to drink with despair. The bigger the glass the better you will feel.
For films of substance something earthy from the Rhone has always suited me. The more foreign the film the stranger the wine. Romantic comedies are best paired with Chablis and Xanex. Horrors need a solid Cabernet Sauvignon (although Bordeaux blends will do the job). Sports movies require Pinotage, and movies including someone disabled overcoming enormous obstacles are best watched with something that offers a bitter finish, because at the end of the film, they are still disabled.
TV series when watched from first episode to last in quick succession are generally being used to blot out the horrible world you find yourself in. It is recommended that you read a book instead, or just finish a few bottles of anything you have lying around.
This one is tricky as it depends very much on the context. Say, for example, you are having phone sex with an author? Port or Bubbly? In these sorts of situations it is always advisable to go with the sparkling wine. Make it your maxim: When irresolute open some Krug.
But in general something that requires little thinking is fine for long chats on the telephone. White is generally better. Pinot Grigio is the obvious choice.
When in love Champagne is desired, but all wine will taste better. Especially when poured by your lover.
The Dinner Party
Most foodies (those annoying people who can go on for hours about an organic turnip, for them you need something strong, like a crossbow) will say a dinner party is all about food and wine pairing. This is without question, codswallop. A dinner party is about good conversation, good food, good wine, cigarettes, more wine, better food, less intelligible but undoubtedly better conversation, more wine, more cigarettes, shouting about existential angst in Winnie the Pooh, more wine, someone is insulted and leaves, more wine, dessert, cigarettes, port, a suggestion of spin the bottle which is poo-pooed by everyone much to everyone’s disappointment, brandy, cigarettes, more wine, wondering where your childhood went, rage because there is no more wine, joy because you find some, an aborted attempt at pictionary (someone is racist, and there is a fight), more wine, people sleep, some confess secrets, the hangers on share a bottle of Riesling as the sun rises.
Wine is best avoided at work, but obviously if there is an expense account use it well. Do not spend a thousand bucks on something over-oaked and nasty.
After finding myself a little out of breath the other day after struggling to get particularly resistant cork out of a bottle of Cote Rotie I decided I should go for a run. After two attempts I found myself injured. Nothing in particular, just my body, ego, pride, and being. I found a bottle of Riesling from the Mosel the best way to remedy the situation.
The best wine is to have with your significant other is one they like. As obvious as this may sound, not adhering to this rule has seen the end of many a relationship. Once, I was bought a bottle of some chocolate flavoured nonsense Pinotage. I said, “Bitch, please” and that was the end of that.
Sweet wines are best to accompany a cigarette. A good port and a smoke is a piece of heaven. Brandy drinkers prefer cigars. There is much to be said for a cigarette and a Noble Late Harvest though.
I have quite a bit to blog about right now. The Constantia Fresh Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon tasting where I experienced some ridiculous wines. Top top end Bordeaux white blends alongside some brilliant South African examples. But it is late, and that takes time. I would of done it yesterday but I was too busy dealing with Google. (more to write about that I won’t go into now).
But what I do want to briefly mention, is this wine.
Shirley from Vino Pronto said she had a few bottles of this and asked if she should keep me one because she thought I may enjoy it. “Of course” I exclaimed. Well, I would of, but I had to settle for: “Of Course!!!!!” as it was over an email.
I am a big fan of Adi’s wines, especially his top end red and white blends. I love the tension between freshness and rich ripe fruit flavours.
And this little beauty, with no vintage, no description or indication as to which varieties are used excited me tremendously. I reckon there may be a bit of Chenin in there along with, perhaps, some Grenache Blanc and probably a bunch of other stuff. I’m not sure.
But too be honest it really isn’t that important to me right now. What is imortant is that it is a wine got that my wahoo flowing, it made me smile, it made me quickly pour another glass, and best of all (this for me is a really important aspect of wine) it made me want another bottle. Quickly.
Alas, I only had the one.
It is a white wine made very oxidatively, that is, it has been exposed to a chunk of oxygen in its production. I also am guessing some old oak was used here.
It is rich, with apricots, spice and a brandy like aroma. But there is no goupy feel here, no flabbiness; the richness is one of precision. It is a richness that doesn’t feel showy or overstated, because this oxidative mouthful is tempered, invigorated even, by some dazzilingly bright acidity; and the tension created by these two textures: the weight of wine, the rich, flowing almost creamy side, set against the flirty saxophone parp of acidity made me immensly happy.
I can see this not being a wine that many people will like as much as me, but I couldn’t care less. It doesn’t just float my boat, it takes it and does this to it.
Harry’s boat before Adi’s Wine
Harry’s boat after Adi’s wine
It may not be, at this point in its life, complex of flavour, but it is cleverly and artfully textured. Layers of texture. Layers of awesome.
It is oxidative without question, and you know you don’t like that kind of thing I wouldn’t drink this wine. But if you are looking to experiment a little; to try something new, then I would definitely give it a ago . It is just so damn delicious.
I think Vino Pronto (021 424 5587) in Orange may have one or two left, otherwise you can try the http://www.aabadenhorst.com/