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A week in the life of a wine writer

Graham Howe
Food, wine and travel columnist
South Africa

It was a week from hell. Five wine tastings in a row, three hot new restaurants, lunch with the most controversial restaurateur in the Cape and deadlines like picking twelve rosé wines for a Valentine's Day column. Graham Howe survives the opening salvos of the season.
If it's Tuesday, this must be my weekly cookery class. I'm learning how to make divine gnocchi, risotto and sushi from scratch in a fabulous cookery course at Sense of Taste, a professional catering and cookery school in Cape Town run by maestro chef Peter Ayub. Our mixed class of twenty foodies makes the perfect consumer focus group - and tonight Wallie du Toit of Napier, a boutique winery in Wellington, leads the weekly intimate tasting around a homely kitchen table (

Wallie's wise opening shot across the bows is, "I hope there are no experts here. Try to identify what you really like in a wine - not what a wine writer or wine guide tell you is in the wine. South African wine drinkers talk dry but they drink sweet. Apart from the top end, stylistically South Africa doesn't make white wine to last longer than two to three years. Our next red blend will also taste of coffee!" Meeting potential consumers face-to-face is an effective form of direct wine marketing - and a price-list for direct orders from the cellar promptly arrives in our in-box the next day.

If it's Wednesday, it's the most glamorous event of the week with Cuvées Classiques at Portofino. The synergy of luxury product and luxury cars at one of the Cape's hot new restaurants draws two dozen of the town's top food and wine writers. John and Jane Newton are importers of Drappier, Jacquesson, Lallier, Duval-Leroy - and Chateau de Sours Rosé, "the greatest rosé in the world" according to the late Auberon Waugh, wine correspondent for The Spectator. Cuvées Classiques represent small, prestigious, family champagne houses - and claim to offer "fantastic quality to value" - as "you're not simply paying for the name and marketing budgets of the big brands".

"The brand managers for the big champagne brands are useless," adds Cormac Keane who serves Lallier Grand Reserve at around R300 per bottle. The infamous restaurateur adds, "We don't do fine dining here. We don't want any of that nonsense. We do bake our own bread - but no, we don't make it from our own **** field of wheat." In his spare time, he markets his restaurant directly in hit-and run raids on blocks of apartments where he drops his menu under doors. "Very effective!"

The tasting is an opportunity to meet Cormac Keane, the new enfant terrible of the restaurant scene in the Cape, who opened this chic Italian restaurant on the luxury car showroom premises put on the map by former chef Bruce Robertson. The savvy Irish restaurateur who bans customers who cancel at short notice is as controversial in the flesh as his column, "Don't come again!" ( His four most annoying customers are "the tight freebie" ("the lowest form of restaurant life who never leave a tip"), "the drunk who tells you how to run your own restaurant", the whinging customer who is never satisfied, and the "2 for 1 bottle store fan who brings the cheapest plonk. If you're that cheap, stay at home. Corkage is for a special bottle."

If it's Thursday, it's the big launch of the week of the new cellar and tasting room in situ at Journey's End near Sir Lowry's Pass Village. Finding it is a treasure hunt - via a series of detours worthy of the minotaur labyrinth created by the local road works. A who's who in the wine zoo turns out for the mega-launch of the boutique Helderberg winery acquired in 1995 by the Gabb family, co-founders of Western Wines who developed Kumala into South Africa's largest export brand before selling to Constellation Wines. Patriarch Roger Gabb, a director of Bibendum, says Kumala played a key part in the renaissance of South African wine in the post-apartheid era."

Going from a high-volume export brand like Kumala with a peak market share of over five million cases to a high-value brand like Journey's End means starting all over again in the niche fine wine market. Roger Gabb, who certainly has the gift of the gab, says they are building Journey's End as a top-end brand in the UK, Scandinavia and Asian export markets. He says "It's more fun selling wine by the case than the million. There's no reason why South Africa can't aspire to the top-end of the wine market. This is no shotgun approach. The domestic market is terribly important to us."

The highlight of the tasting is the "icon wines" the cellar hopes will create a halo in the Helderberg - Cape Doctor Shiraz 2005 (which blows like a fresh new breeze across False Bay), Destination Chardonnay 2006 and Journey's End Chardonnay.

If it's Friday, it's an intimate winemaker's table with Alleé Bleue at Salt at The Ambassador Hotel. What a setting for lunch. Watching the waves crash on the rocks of Bantry Bay far below, the blue inspired wine label matches the turquoise waters. Van Zyl du Toit, the new winemaker at Alleé Bleue who spent twelve years in the cellar at Simonsig, has one eye on the harvest (with Chenin Blanc and Viognier on its way to his cellar) - and the other on the lifestyle mag editors around his table. It's almost the weekend when Van Zyl has "a hot date with a punch down of Pinotage."

The man who made Kaapse Vonkel for a dozen harvests at Simonsig is looking forward to the launch of Alleé Bleue's maiden Rosé MCC made from Pinotage and Chenin Blanc in late 2010 - and a maiden Chardonnay/Pinot Noir in 2011. "I'm all for natural winemaking," declares van Zyl over a tasting that ends with a rustic foot-pressed Pinotage Natural Sweet and Cape Ruby style port made from Pinotage, a variety which has raised the profile of the cellar - along with a superb Shiraz 2007.

The surprise of the tasting is the news that Jacques de Jager took over as head chef at Salt in late January. He's changing the menu in March - but in the meantime the chef who won a coveted place for Grande Provence in the Franschhoek Valley in Eat Out Top 10 2009 Awards is already proving he's worth his salt. The dishes paired with Allee Bleue wines are the highlight of my week's big eat - a truffled cream of cauliflower soup, ballottine of salmon in a coriander crust with squid ink caviar and lobster - and fresh line fish with risotto Nero and scallops.

What a week that was. Big bashes, small affairs, winemaker tables, launches at hot restaurants or at the winery, There are so many ways of targeting wine journos and the trade. This week I'm making deadlines as well as my own sushi at cookery school - after dining on Monday on an A-Z of sushi at Nobu's Silk Road, a restaurant aboard The Crystal Serenity, a luxury liner rounding the Cape on a world cruise. I spotted Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc at US$ 38 (R280), the only South African wine on the liner's iconic global wine-list. Now that's an impressive showcase for one of the Cape's finest whites.

The food and wine beat is a tough life as you can see. I think I might go back to hard news.

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