The ever-hospitable Reshma Punj, who's married into a prominent industrial family of Delhi , has a passion for wine and a table that is forever brimming over with surprises. In the city's hyper-hierarchical society, Reshma made her debut in the society pages (now, thanks to a hit film, infamously known as Page 3) as the iconoclastic fashion designer Rohit Bal's baby niece. She found her niche eventually - the wine business - and she's definitely not in it for the quick buck. She has enrolled for an online wine appreciation course being offered by Cornell University and is all set to get into the wine business seriously. That's fantastic news for a nation where wine importers can be counted on one's fingertips. Not very long ago, Reshma's vast apartment was the scene of a South African wine tasting conducted by Andre Morgenthal of Wines of South Africa. Morgenthal had brought with him wines from family-owned estates and, as we found out, they paired seamlessly with Reshma's North Indian spread, especially mutton seekh kebab s and achari (pickled) chicken. It didn't come as a surprise to us because the South African palate, thanks to the traditional African fare and more than 150 years of Malayan and Indian influences, is no stranger to the subtleties of pepper and other spices. Our opening wine, a young but harmoniously balanced Chenin Blanc 2005 from Ken Forrester of Helderberg, Stellenbosch, which came as a revelation after our experience with those sherbet-like offerings from Nashik's grape growers. It matched beautifully with the succulent seekh kebab s. The fruit-acid balance and pronounced honey and apricot tones seemed to have been created in heaven for North Indian kebabs.
It was a little distressing, therefore, to find that in the wonderfully illustrated recipe book, Celebrating Cape Cuisine , which Morgenthal passed around, Gewurtztraminer figured as the wine of choice for a fusion dish with a touch of North Indian spices. That was Chef Edgar Osojnik's Tandoori Kingclip (a white fish) with Fish Biryani Samosas (unusual stuffing for a samosa , but the recipe is mouth-watering) and Langoustine Bisque. Instinctively, I felt that it'll go with the Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc (especially the 2002) and the other white, the Whalehaven Viognier Chardonnay 2005, which I'll discuss later. Ken Forrester also co-owns the 96 Winery Road restaurant, where Natasha Harris dishes up country food, including such inviting delicacies as the Warthog Loin and Crocodile Kebab (no relation to ours!) with Porcini Mushrooms and Truffle Mayonnaise.
It sounded as delectable as the next wine tasted - an unusual combination, Viognier and Chardonnay (vintage 2005), from Whalehaven, a winery that derives its intriguing name from the spot that is acknowledged as the world's best land-based whale watching site. The wine was unputdownable, as was the red, Bord de Mer 2003, also from Whalehaven. It was a fresh and easy-drinking wine, with hints of chocolate and truffle, which, to quote Morgenthal, "can be a great wine by the glass."
I agree with him. Hotels and restaurants must take their wines by the glass seriously, instead of opting for the cheapest fare available. After the South African evening, I believe many of the wines from this region, which we still know very little about, can make great additions to wine lists. I see a great reluctance among F&B decision-makers, though, to try to understand wines that aren't pushed aggressively by importers. That may be because wine buying is still too purchase manager-driven in the leading hotels and there are just a couple of restaurateurs who are truly passionate about wine. Morgenthal, in fact, made an important point to a couple of restaurant managers who were present at the tasting. "Why can't you ask the importers to get you the wines that you'd want to serve?" he asked. For individual restaurateurs, that may be difficult, but from the Taj Palace experience (which we discuss elsewhere in this e-magazine), it is evident that hotel chains can "squeeze importers" (to use Thomas Abraham's famous words) to get the wine they desire and not what importers wish to sell. Importers have their profit-driven logic, but hotels (and some restaurants) have masses of data to show how eclectic wine lists actually push sales up.
As the evening progressed, we were treated to more memorable but young, easy drinking and reasonably priced wines. The one that really stuck in one's tastebuds, though, was The Work of Time 2001, produced by a brother-sister duo in Robertson , South Africa 's "valley of vines and roses." The wine owes its intriguing name to the long time (a year, actually) the siblings took to come up with a label. The brother and sister don't seem to agree on anything yet they are able to produce wines that show much promise.
Ken Forrester's Shiraz Grenache 2003 from Stellenbosch paired surprisingly well with the achari chicken, which, one would have thought, was impossible to marry with any red wine. Interestingly, the Grenache (not a very popular variety in South Africa ) is from 85-year-old vines, the second-oldest in South Africa , and it makes an interesting mate for the spicy Shiraz .
Another marriage-worthy wine was Kaapzicht Pinotage 2002. Pinotage is the result of cross-pollination between Pinot Noir, which is fickle, and Hermitage (Cinsaut), which grows in very difficult conditions, and what I really like about a decent Pinotage is the combination of elegance and ruggedness. The Kaapzicht sizzled with seekh kebab and achari chicken. In the wine world, such matches are waiting to be discovered.
I'm reminded here of those legendary lines of Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: "A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine." In France , sunshine, sadly, is a craving more than a reality. South Africa has plenty of it, and it benefits from the ocean's influence as well. The wines speak volumes for the salutary influences of both.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT THE SOUTH AFRICAN WINE INDUSTRY
- South African wine exports grew by a phenomenal 1,100% between 1994 and 2004. The wine industry, concentrated in the Cape region, employs more than 300,000 people - directly and indirectly - and their working conditions are governed by a unique Ethical Trading Initiative.
- Wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes in 1659. The industry got a push forward when Huguenot refugees escaping religious persecution in France settled in the Cape from 1688 onwards.
- The Cape first attracted the attention of European connoisseurs with the luscious dessert wines of Constantia, the site of Simon van der Stel's seventeenth-century wine farm. Napoleon took them with him to St Helena to ease the pain of exile. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens wrote about them. Jane Austen recommended Constantia for its "healing power on a disappointed heart." South Africa , though technically in the New World , isn't that new to the world of wine.
- The Cape must rank as the world's prettiest wine region. One of the world's six plant kingdoms and one of 25 recognised biodiversity hot spots, the Cape Floral Kingdom is home to over 9,600 plant species - more than in the entire Northern Hemisphere - and 70% of them aren't found anywhere else in the world.
- Over the past decade, South Africa 's red wine variety plantings have increased dramatically, shifting the vine profile from predominantly white to red. Chenin Blanc is the most planted white, edging out Semillon. It's equal among reds is Cabernet Sauvignon, which has edged out Pinotage, a uniquely South African born in 1925 when a viticulturist crossed Pinot Noir with Hermitage (Cinsaut).
- Red wine varieties now constitute 45% of the national vineyard with white wine varieties accounting for 55%. The South African vineyard landscape comprises mainly young vineyards, with a large percentage under 10 years of age.
- Acting under a legislation introduced in 1973, South Africa 's Wine and Spirit Board, appointed by the Department of Agriculture, certifies all wines destined for export. The Board's distinctive seal on the neck of the bottle confirms the origins, quality and claims made on the label of the wine.
- Around 100,200 hectares are under vines producing wine grapes in South Africa . The country's winelands extend across 800 km in length and is home to some 4,400 primary producers and more than 560 wineries.
- Under the Wine of Origin Scheme, production zones in the Cape winelands are divided into officially demarcated regions, districts and wards. The Cape today is a checkerboard of four regions - Breede River Valley , Coastal, Little Karoo and Olifants River - encompassing 18 diverse districts and some 52 smaller wards, including exciting new ones like Elim, Philadelphia and Prince Albert Valley .
- The Cape 's 18 wine districts are: Cape Point; Constantia; Darling; Durbanville; Little Kardo, Lower Orange ; Olifants River ; Overberg; Paarl; Robertson; Stellenbosch; Swartland; Tulbagh; Walker Bay ; Worcester .