Maybe it was just the wine talking, but after merrily trekking across South Africa’s Western Cape, sniffing, swirling and sipping a cellar’s worth of vintage reds and classic whites, I was confident my well-oiled taste buds were up to the challenge of a dinner party hosted by the country’s hardest-nosed wine critic.
After all, I’d just spent a whirlwind week touring the jewels of South Africa’s winelands. I’d clinked glasses with the country’s finest wine makers and made a lifelong friend in Pinotage, the only wine variety unique to the region.
But I was about to discover that when it comes to giving a primitive palate delusions of grandeur, the Cape certainly fits. Like a lamb to the slaughter, I strolled to my seat in a stately oak-panelled dining room at Nederburg wine estate in Paarl – one of seven guests at a food and wine pairing party hosted by Katinka van Niekerk, a nononsensenational treasure for whom the term ‘grapes of wrath’ could have been invented. Eight glasses of wine were carefully set in front of us as our hostess prepped her pupils. ‘Darrrlings,’ she began, rolling her Rs in perfect Empire English.
‘We could have a much easier evening, sipping wine in front of the fire. But we must endure a little pain to truly become one with the flavourrrs.’
Our first challenge: suck a slice of sour lemon, then select the wine that best softens the bitter taste. I stared glumly at my forest of glasses and arbitrarily pointed to the Riesling. Katinka glared at me.
It went downhill fast from there. Katinka effortlessly flitted from food to food and glass to glass – a cube of salty feta defused by a mouthful of chilled Chardonnay, a nibble of sweet apple balanced by Chenin Blanc, a leaf of bitter rocket pacified by Pinotage.
As I watched her expertly swirl her glass in a circle and slowly rest it beneath her nose, the sobering truth finally dawned. Where Katinka smelled strawberry jam with hints of asparagus, I still just smelled wine. My grape expectations had been cruelly squashed.
Seven days earlier, an eager wine novice had staggered off a flight from Heathrow into South Africa’s late-spring sunshine with one simple goal in mind: scrape together enough local knowledge to avoid ever again having to use the words ‘house’ and ‘wine’ in the same sentence.
Some 200 vineyards lie within two hours’ drive of the airport. Many of the oldest, established around 300 years ago, proudly retain their original Cape Dutch and Georgian architecture. Others have branched out into fully-fledged resorts with hotels and restaurants, health spas, golf courses, live music and theatre.
Lourensford Wine Estate runs one of the largest wine manufacturing processes in the southern hemisphere. Its size has helped it become a prime mover in biodiversity and sustainable development, making it as green as it is red and white.
Neighbouring Vergelegen has been crowned Wine magazine’s top South African winery for the past three years – 70 per cent of its exports end up on UK supermarket shelves, most notably the popular Sauvignon Blanc.
An hour’s drive north lies the chocolate-box town of Darling. Known as the flower of the west coast, its cottage-industry vineyards export many of Britain’s favourite tipples – among them Tesco’s Finest Darling Sauvignon.
Drive 120 miles south and you arrive at Africa’s southern tip, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans converge. This is home to one of the world’s best located luxury hotels. Grootbos Nature Reserve in Gansbaai is built into a forest overlooking the ocean. Guests follow their own private jungle pathway to reach their sumptuous wooden cabin – cosy, spacious sanctuaries replete with roaring fires, king-size beds and secluded terraces overlooking miles of local ‘fynbos’, the rich natural terrain of wild flowers.
The reserve is so remote that only days before I checked in to room 24, a maid disturbed a pair of baboons relaxing on the patio. Between December and June, during spawning season, you can see also gracious 60-ton bottlenose whales close up if you are willing to board a boat at dawn. Mind you, our captain’s early cry of ‘bottle’ simply meant that a Coca-Cola bottle needed fishing from the water. But it wasn’t long before we spotted the real thing – a Southern Right whale flipping its tail high above the waves barely yards away. Penguins and seals shot past us like little torpedoes as a second whale crept even closer and playfully balanced a piece of kelp on its nose like a dog with a bone.
After two hours at sea I could have eaten a whale. As luck would have it, our next stop was Franschhoek, South Africa’s cuisine capital. Where better to embark on an ambitious lunch safari?
We whet our palates at the restaurant on the Grande Provence wine estate, where Sunday Times chef of the year Peter Tempelhoff dished up the same divine appetisers he served Prince Andrew: salmon tartare and smoked ocean trout with creme fraiche cucumber.
A two-minute stroll then took us to Bouillabaisse, where the chef and his team toiled away in full view, conjuring up tempura oysters on caramelised spring onions, crayfish soup with salmon, prawns, and a saffron potato and seared veal fillet medallion with truffle-infused lentils. They clearly hadn’t grasped the concept of a lunch safari at Reuben’s, our final port of call for dessert, as the chef dished up yet another main course. It would have been rude not to have found room for his ostrich steak with polenta and red wine.
However, the day’s dining was far from over, with Africa’s ultimate eating experience booked for the evening. The Tasting Room at the five-star Le Quartier Francais hotel has been crowned the continent’s finest restaurant for the past three years.
An eye-watering array of eight exquisite courses, each served with the perfect wine arrived at our table during a three-hour marathon, including poached quail’s egg, springbok and pork fillet with warthog roulade.
The following week, after signing up for classes at my local gym, I popped into Waitrose to find the perfect bottle to stir my memories of South Africa.
I carefully selected the 2004 Nederburg Shiraz/Pinotage, only for disaster to strike when I arrived home. I didn’t have a suitable food to pair it with. Without a cube of salty feta or a petal of peppery nasturtium in sight, I made do with the only dish available – a wholly incompatible frozen cheese and tomato pizza.
Whatever you do, please don’t tell Katinka.
• First published in the Daily Mail.