25. Aug, 2015

Wine Pairing: taking your meal from good to great

When I was growing up on the Transvaal platteland, wine pairing was easy. Christmas and New Year’s lunches were accompanied by Vin Doux (sweet) sparkling wine. With other important meals, like a Sunday Roast or a Braai the grown-ups would have dry red wine. With everything else they drank a (white and sweet) Stein or Late Harvest. As an adult, I pretty much continued in the same vein until I went to Chile in 1995. For the life of me I couldn’t find semi-sweet white wine anywhere! This, combined with the abundant sea food available to us, soon turned Jakki and me into dry white wine aficionados. We returned to South Africa with much wider horizons, and as I morphed into a full-on foodie the subject of wine pairing became ever closer to my heart. Food and wine are, after all, joined at the hip, and to neglect the one will inevitably harm the other as well. Appropriate pairing achieves synergy, with the two elements both being enhanced, while a mismatch can lead to an unpleasant dining experience – even if both food and wine are excellent on their own. This post will hopefully help readers make better informed pairing decisions involving South African wines.    

Before we begin...

Remember, we live in a free country. Drink what you like, even if other people find your choice odd. You know your palate better than anyone else, so combine things that please you.

Start by thinking about the dish or meal as a whole; including the side dishes. What are its dominant characteristics?

  • Is it mild or flavourful?
  • Fatty or lean?
  • Rich or acidic?

Rules of engagement

  • Remember to “fight fire with fire”. Match mild foods with mild wines. Match big, strong-flavoured foods with big, powerful wines – e.g. pair a Pepper Steak with a spicy, bold Shiraz.
  • If you're eating a relatively fatty dish and thinking about drinking a red wine (when you eat a beef steak, for example) you probably want a wine with prominent tannins in it to help cleanse the palate.
  • If you're eating a fatty or oily dish and thinking about drinking a white wine (when you eat fried chicken, for example) you probably want to contrast the meal with a refreshingly crisp acidic wine such as a Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Similarly you generally want to match the richness of the food and the richness of the wine. (For example, pair a rich Chicken in Cream Sauce with a rich, buttery Chardonnay.)
  • If you're eating a dish with a strong acidic content (such as Shrimp with Lemon or Pasta with Tomato Sauce) pair it with an acidic wine that can keep up with the acids in the food.
  • Rich cream sauces will usually clash with an acidic wine like a Sauvignon Blanc. No wonder - if you squeezed lemon juice into a cup of milk, would it taste good?
  • Strong spices, such as hot chilli peppers in some Chinese or Indian food, can clash and destroy the flavours in a wine. In most cases, wine is not the ideal thing to drink. However, if wine is what you must have, consider something spicy and sweet itself such as an off-dry Gewürtztraminer or Riesling.

A few more tips before we start:

  • Remember that foods generally go best with the wines they grew up with. So if you're eating Italian food, think about having an Italian wine. This isn't a requirement, but often helps simplify the decision.
  • Most dry sparkling wines, such as Brut Champagne and Spanish cava, actually have a faint touch of sweetness. That makes them extra-refreshing when served with salty foods.
  • Some cheeses go better with white wine, some with red; yet almost all pair well with dry rosé, which has the acidity of white wine and the fruit character of red.
  • Old World wines and Old World dishes are intrinsically good together. The flavours of foods and wines that have grown up together over the centuries—Tuscan recipes and Tuscan wines, for instance—are almost always a natural fit.
  • Egg yolk coats the tongue and blunts the palate. The riposte? Bubbles. White or pink, a sparkling wine will refresh your palate and is tasty with egg dishes.
  • Oily fish like mackerel, elf/shad and sardines come into their own accompanied by super-dry whites like Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon or Cape (dry) Riesling.
  • Raw tomatoes respond well to Cape Riesling (remember like-for-like?). Cooked tomato dishes can better withstand fruit-forward reds. Sangiovese and Tinta Barroca spring to mind.
  • Asparagus may be delicious, but – let’s face it - the asparagusic acid they contain makes your urine smell weird. Full-bodied reds and oaked whites are a bad call with asparagus. Rather drink something white, cool-climate and unwooded, like a Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling.
  • A compound called cynarin causes anything you eat once you’ve bitten into an artichoke to taste unnaturally sweet, including wine. My solution is to opt for a dry white that oozes lemon; typically unwooded Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Pairing guidelines for blended wines are well-nigh impossible to formulate, as blends can vary substantially from vintage to vintage. I will therefore confine myself to varietal or cultivar wines.

Time to meet the team...

Red cultivars

Cabernet Sauvignon is the cornerstone of the famous Bordeaux blend (augmented by Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot), and has long been grown in almost all the regions of the Cape, but most extensively in Paarl and Stellenbosch. This noble grape has become the most widely planted red variety, accounting for over a quarter of the hectares planted to red wine grapes. The flavours and aromas of Cabernet Sauvignon wines include vanilla, currants, and even green bell pepper if made from underripe grapes. Other characteristics include high alcohol levels and strong tannins. These strong tannins make it easier to age Cabernet Sauvignon in cellars for many decades. Cabernet Sauvignon is fabulous with juicy red meat like steaks or chops: Their firm tannins refresh the palate after each bite of meat. Ripe tannins strip the fats from one’s tongue and thereby cleanse the palate. Other foods that respond well to Cabernet Sauvignon include duck, pork, meat-and-pasta combinations, and cheeses like Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Cheddar and aged Gouda.

My favourite pairing: Cederberg Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 with Roast Breast of Duck

Cinsaut (known as Hermitage in the Rhone Valley) is ideally suited to the terroir of its home range, as it thrives in the hot, windy weather. Cinsaut is at the heart of the famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines, and is also used as a blending grape, as it pairs well with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. The dark-skinned grape ripens early and often delivers prolific yields. When growers work with the variety and reduce yields, Cinsaut delivers floral and ripe strawberry notes. The late ripening grape, due to its natural, low level of tannin and acidity, coupled with strong aromatic quality is often used in the production of Rosé in Provence. Cinsaut is also quite popular in Gigondas, Tavel, Côtes du Rhone, Cotes du Ventoux and the Cotes du Luberon appellations. In wine and food pairing it is often combined with garlic snails. It also works quite well paired with stews, braised and roasted meat dishes like beef, lamb, goat, beef, duck, chicken and pork.

My favourite pairing: Landskroon Cinsaut 2012 with Waterblommetjiebredie.

Malbec is a red grape of French origin, traditionally used in the official Bordeaux blend, and appreciated the world over in its single varietal state. Although it began life as a French wine - in Europe at least - it is cultivated less and less. In recent years, it has been most successfully grown in Argentina, particularly at high altitudes. Due to the huge success of this venture, many other South Hemisphere countries have become interested in growing the variety, and South Africa is no exception. Malbec grapes are noted for their large amounts of tannin, and the deep purple colour of the juice, making the wine ideal for blending with other reds. Drinkers can expect flavours and tastes tastes such as plum, raspberry and dark cherry. This wine is a carnivore’s dream: it fits barbecued beef, lamb, kid goat, pork and sausages like a glove.

My favourite pairing: La Couronne Malbec 2012 with Beef Prime Rib.

Merlot was first planted in South Africa in 1910. Traditionally blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, it is increasingly bottled as a single varietal with succulent, fruity flavours. This variety is found in Stellenbosch, Paarl and Worcester as well as in the drier regions along the West Coast. It is a thin-skinned red wine grape that originated in the Bordeaux region of France. The tannin structure in Merlot leans a little softer and is one reason why this particular grape makes a terrific blending partner with the tighter tannic lines of Cabernet Sauvignon. On its own, Merlot typically produces a soft, medium-bodied red wine with juicy dark fruit flavours. Classic Merlot offers the nose cherry, cocoa, vanilla and cloves along with earthy undertones. It is fairly versatile when it comes to food pairing options, especially when centered around a medley of meat. Combine it with poultry, beef, game or pork, along with dishes that feature heavy meat-loads in the recipe mix, or strongly flavoured cheese like Stilton, Cheddar, and Camembert.

My favourite pairing: La Petit Ferme Merlot 2013 with Gemsbok Schnitzel.

Pinotage was born in 1925 when South African viticulturist Professor Perold crossed Pinot Noir with Hermitage (Cinsaut). This variety is unique to South Africa and is celebrated worldwide for the distinctively rich and spicy wines it produces. More than a fifth of our red wine vineyards are under Pinotage. It is a love it/hate it variety, as even in a blend it can be dominant. Its main characteristics are a bright cherry/garnet red colour, a medium- to full bodied mouth feel and flavours like cherry, raspberry, hints of banana, and savoury notes of spice, tobacco and leather. Young, medium-bodied Pinotage pairs particularly well with a freshly-caught game fish (do try it with Tuna!) or a hearty winter bean soup. It combines equally well with sashimi and sushi. Bobotie, ratatouille and curry also taste better with a glass of Pinotage next to the plate. Full-bodied Pinotage is better suited to venison, spare ribs with a rich barbecue sauce, oxtail or Osso Buco. A well-wooded Pinotage often has chocolate flavours associated with it, and – in my humble opinion, unfortunately – several wine makers are now producing Pinotage that is fermented warm and matured in casks containing chunks of oak to make the chocolate flavour more pronounced. Call me old fashioned, but to me this is little more than tart fuel for snobbish tarts.

My favourite pairing: Rijk’s Private Cellar Pinotage 2012 with Pan-seared Yellowfin Tuna.

Pinot Noir is the grape behind the complex, unpredictable yet highly sought-after red wines of Burgundy. It tends to show a ruby color in the glass, provide mouthwatering acidity, and exude graceful, tea-like tannins supported by a silky mouth-feel. On the nose, Pinot Noir shows notes of black cherry, tart cranberry, potpourri, tobacco, black tea or cloves. Pinot Noir wine is produced from red grapes but it is much lighter in colour than most other red wines. Other characteristics include high acidity and low tannins. The wine’s flavour depends heavily on where it is grown and how the wine maker treats it, so a good winery can produce exceptional wines. However, Pinot Noir is finicky and can produce poor wines even when the wine maker does things right. Pinot Noir is a perfectly suited wine to pair with a wide variety of food because of its bright acidity, complexity, and rich fruit character. It is one of the few varietals that pairs well with either a delicate, poached salmon or a rich, braised duck breast. Fundis rate the following combinations particularly highly: duck breast, roast pork, salmon and fried wild mushrooms. Good cheese partnerships include Lancashire, Edam, Cheshire and Gouda.

My favourite pairing: Perdeberg Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 with Boeuf Bourguignon.

Sangiovesederives its name from the Latin Sanguis Jovis, "the blood of Jupiter". It is most famous as the main component of Chianti and Montepulciano. Young Sangiovese has fresh fruity flavours of strawberry and a little spiciness, but it readily takes on oaky, even tarry, flavours when aged in barrels. While not as aromatic as other red wine varieties, Sangiovese often has a flavour profile of sour red cherries with earthy aromas and tea leaf notes. Sangiovese's high acidity and moderate alcohol makes it a very food-friendly wine when it comes to pairings. One of the classic pairings in Italian cuisine is tomato-based pasta and pizza sauces with a Sangiovese-based Chianti. Varietal Sangiovese can accentuate the flavours of relatively bland dishes like meat loaf and roast chicken. Herb seasoning such as sweet basil, sage and thyme play off the herbal notes of the grapes. Sangiovese that has been subject to more aggressive oak treatment pairs well with grilled and smoked food.

My favourite pairing: Terra del Capo Sangiovese 2013 with Veal Saltimbocca.

Shiraz (known as Syrah in the Old World) produces full-bodied, long-lived, fruity wines. The cultivar originated in France's Rhone valley and their use in wines can be traced back to the Romans and Greeks. Syrah is usually bottled alone as a varietal wine but can be blended with other grapes like Cabernet and Grenache. Syrah wines have some of the strongest, most distinctive flavours and aromas of any red wine. It is well suited to the Cape’s warmer terroirs, and intense smoky and spicy wines are being produced. Plantings have increased significantly, particularly in warmer areas. Typical Shiraz flavours and aromas include peppers, berries, currants, tobacco, cloves and even chocolate. It complements highly spiced dishes – Spanish, Tex-Mex and Indian in particular – really well. Venison and boerewors taste at their best with a glass of Shiraz, as do mature Cheddar, Dutch Komijnekaas and Edam. When a meat is heavily seasoned, look for a red wine with lots of spicy notes. Shiraz from the Breede River Valley (our “Côtes du Rhone”) is always a good choice.

My favourite pairing: De Trafford Blueprint Syrah 2012 with Roast Suckling Pig.

Tinta Barroca(sometimes erroneously called Tinta Barocca) is a Portuguese red grape that is grown primarily in the Douro region, with some plantings in South Africa's Swartland and Klein Karoo regions. It is used most often to make Port, an application to which it is particularly well suited, as the grapes' naturally high sugar levels (and correspondingly high alcohol) make them extremely useful for fortified wine production. In South Africa – along with the other noble Port cultivar, Touriga Naçional - it is also made into a dry cultivar wine. An unfortunate (and potentially costly) characteristic of Tinta Barroca berries is their tendency to shrivel up during particularly hot weather. To mitigate this, they are most often planted on cooler, higher slopes and north-facing (in the Northern Hemisphere) or south-facing in the Southern, where they are protected from intense afternoon sunshine. There is just a handful of single-variety Tinta Barroca wines produced in the world, all of them in South Africa. Intense, super-ripe, high-alcohol Tinta Barroca has evolved into something of a trademark style for some vineyards of the Cape. It pairs well with Bobotie, curried tripe, braaied snoek and strong-flavoured cheeses like Stilton, Gorgonzola or Camembert.

My favourite pairing: Allesverloren Tinta Barocca 2012 with Bobotie.

Rosé

Whether it's Rosé (France), Rosado (Spain), Rosato (Italy) or "blush" (Commonwealth countries) - these terms all refer to pink wine. This pink shade can range from a soft, subtle hue to a vibrant, hot pink, depending on the grape used and how long the grape skins were in contact with the juice. Rosés can be made in a sweet, off-dry or bone dry style, with most European rosés being decidedly dry. The varietals most often used in making a rosé wine include: Pinot Noir, Grenache, Malbec, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon. These varietals may be either used solo or in a blend. Rosé varietals are often country dependent, so a Rosado from Spain will often be largely derived from the Tempranillo and Garnacha (Grenache) grapes, while Italy may utilise more Sangiovese for their Rosatos and US winemakers would tend to lean towards Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.

Traditionally, the skins of a red grape are allowed to have brief contact with the grape juice. The shorter the contact time with the skins, the lighter the wine's colour will be. Extended contact yields some amazing, eye-catching colour variations. These range from vibrant orange/pink through salmon pink to a vivid hot pink. Sparkling rosés are traditionally made with a blend of red and white grapes, which is a time-honoured method in Champagne. The same cannot be said of traditional rosé methodology. Obtaining a pink colour by mixing red and white wines is anathema to rosé makers in Gascony, the Languedoc and Provence. The classic method entails the use of noble red varieties and nothing else.

The flavour and taste of rosé wine tends to be more subtle versions of their red wine varietal counterparts. The fruit expectations lean towards strawberry, cherry, and raspberry with some citrus and watermelon presenting on a regular basis. Rosés are perfect for spring and summer, as they are served chilled and can be a refreshing accompaniment to a variety of warm weather fare. Rosé wines also top the charts for food-friendly versatility. So, if you are opting for "surf 'n turf" rest assured that a rosé can handle both the seafood and the steak in one fell sip. It's also a great picnic wine, as it tends to have both a lighter body and more delicate flavours on the palate, presenting a great wine partner for a ham, chicken or roast beef sandwich, along with a fruit, potato or egg salad and can even handle a variety of chips and dips. Rosé is also a welcome guest at a Braai, holding its own against chops, wors and sosaties.

My favourite pairing: Kanonkop Kadette Pinotage Rosé 2013 with Quiche Lorraine.

White varietals

Cape Riesling (Crouchen Blanc) is a relatively obscure white grape that originated in the Languedoc region of southern France, but is today only produced commercially in South Africa and Australia. Crouchen is not often produced as a cultivar wine due to its neutral character, and is more frequently blended with noble varieties such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. This can result in light and fruity wines that are often semi-sweet. The variety has long suffered an identity crisis. In 1850 a shipment of Crouchen arrived in Australia, presumably from France. The Australians mistook the variety for Riesling at the time. It was not until 1976 that the variety was identified as Crouchen. In South Africa, the acidic Crouchen is called "Cape Riesling" and the fruitier true Riesling "Rhine Riesling" or “Weisser Riesling”. Paarl and Tulbagh are Crouchen's two South African strongholds, where the variety's vigorous vines produce light-bodied wines of little distinctive character. The best examples show hints of green melon and honeydew flavours. It is often paired with Paella, smoorsnoek and Chinese pork and fish dishes.

My favourite pairing: Theuniskraal Riesling 2013 with Sweet and Sour Prawns.

Chardonnay was only introduced to South Africa in 1982. Many new vineyards of this popular noble variety have been planted in recent years and, whether oak-fermented and matured or left unwooded, Cape Chardonnay generally makes elegant wines full of fruit flavours. Chardonnay is the world’s most popular and important grape for producing white wine, as well as Champagne, sparkling wine and dessert wine. Recent DNA research concluded Chardonnay is the result of a cross between Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Gouais Blanc. It is very likely that the Romans planted Gouais Blanc on French soils in areas where Pinot Noir was planted as well. Chardonnay is light green in color and gracefully adapts to a variety of terroirs. While France is the grape’s spiritual home, especially in the various Burgundy appellations, it also produces high quality wine in America, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Italy and numerous other countries. Chardonnay is an easy wine for wine and food pairings. Because it comes in a wide variety of styles, with different textures, levels of sweetness and acidity, there is an equally diverse array of wine and food pairings that work with Chardonnay. All types of seafood from shell fish, to grilled fish is the perfect place to start. Chardonnay can be perfectly paired with a myriad of raw seafood dishes. Seafood simply cooked, braised or buttered, sushi, sashimi are all great with Chardonnay. The richness of Chardonnay copes well with lobster, crab and other fatty fishes. Chicken, veal, pork are all good pairings with Chardonnay. Due to the natural acidity in Chardonnay, it makes a perfect pairing with a wide variety of hard and soft, or even creamy cheeses as well.

My favourite pairing: De Wetshof Bateleur 2013 with Thai Crab Cakes.

Chenin Blanc (Steen) is the most widely planted grape variety in South Africa. It used to end up as brandy of cheap bulk wines. The demise of the KWV quota system and the demands of today’s discerning wine drinkers have caused a sea change. The variety now produces fresh, fruity and easy-drinking wines. It originated in the Loire Valley of France, where it is the only grape used to make the well-known Vouvray and Mont Louis. Flavours and aromas of Chenin Blanc wines include fruit, honey, quince, and grasses. Other characteristics of wines made from Chenin Blanc grapes include an oily texture, high acidity, and a deep gold colouring. Chenin Blanc grapes can be used to produce so many different wines because they so readily take on different characteristics depending on where they are grown, how they are aged, and how the wine maker uses them. As a consequence, even nominally similar wines made with Chenin Blanc grapes can taste very different if they come from different regions or are produced by different wineries. At the risk of over-generalisation, Chenin pairs best with sushi, poultry, seafoos, spicy food and rich cheeses like Camembert.                                     

My favourite pairing: Earthbound Chenin Blanc 2013 with Pan-seared Scallops.

Colombard used to be produced almost exclusively for the making of brandy and dessert wines in South Africa. In France it was traditionally grown in the Charentes and Gascony regions for distillation into Cognac and Armagnac respectively. Like Chenin Blanc, it has shaken of its “ugly duckling” tag and wineries like Bon Courage now make crisp, dry and fruity wines. Colombard is also often blended with Chenin Blanc or with Chardonnay. Due to its natural acidity, it is used in California to provide “backbone” and maturation potential to white blends. A common characteristic of South African Colombard is its subtle Guava flavour. It pairs very well with a wide range of cheese, fish and vegetables. These include goat’s cheese, shellfish, fish and asparagus. My family has a long-standing tradition: when holidaying in Struisbaai, our first meal has to be fish and chips at Pelican’s in the harbour, accompanied by a few bottles of Bon Courage Colombard!

My favourite pairing: Bon Courage André’s Fame 2013 with Fish, Chips and Mushy Peas.

Gewürztraminer Gewürztraminer’s homeland lies in the foothills of the Alps. It’s a pink grape, just like Pinot Gris/Grigio, that also thrives in cooler climates. The grape originated in the Rhineland of Germany, but over the past few centuries it has spread all around the Alps to Italy, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, France and Slovenia. The wine made from it is like the grown-up version of Moscato. While Gewürztraminer wine has many similarities to Moscato it also has higher alcohol, more striking aromatics and lower acidity. The first aroma you’ll come across in a glass of Gewürztraminer is its tell-tale litchi aroma. If you’re drinking high quality Gewürztraminer you’ll find a great many complex aromatics including, rose petal, ruby grapefruit, ginger and a smoky aroma similar to burnt incense. As with other aromatic grapes like Moscato, Riesling and Torrontés, its relatively prominent aromatics, high alcohol and lower acidity, Gewürztraminer generally taste sweeter than they actually are. Its best pairings fall outside of traditional French cuisine, which tends to be savoury. Middle Eastern and Moroccan cuisine, both utilizing nuts and dried fruits with roasted meats, are great examples of the types of cuisine that pair superbly with Gewürztraminer. When pairing Gewürztraminer with food, think about how the wine’s floral aromas and notes of ginger will bring out actual ginger and rose water used in a dish. Try it with duck, chicken, pork, bacon, prawn and crab dishes with fruity, tangy or caramel finishes. It works a treat with fruit preserves (figs being my favourite) and delicately flavored soft cow’s milk cheese. Side dishes that come into their own with Gewürztraminer are vegetables with natural sweetness like red onion, bell pepper, brinjal, squash and carrots. You can also enjoy it with artichokes, which are one of the more challenging wine pairing foods.

My favourite pairing: Paul Cluver Gewürztraminer 2013 with Duck à l’Orange.

Pinot Gris (known in many countries by its Italian name, Pinot Grigio, or Grauburgunder in Central Europe) is one of the so-called noble varieties of Alsace, along with Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat. The cool climate of Alsace and warm volcanic soils are particularly well suited for Pinot Gris, with its dry autumns allowing plenty of time for the grapes to hang on the vines, often resulting in wines of very powerful flavours. The grape grows best in cool climates, and matures relatively early with high sugar levels. This can lead to either a sweeter wine, or, if fermented to dryness, a wine high in alcohol. The primary fruit flavors in Pinot Grigio are lime, lemon, pear, white nectarine and apple. Depending on where the grapes are grown, the wine can take on faint honeyed notes; floral aromas like honeysuckle; and/or a flinty mineral character. Pinot Gris with its zesty and refreshing acidity pairs really well with fresh vegetables, raw fish and lighter meals. Fish and shellfish are classic pairing partners. Try ceviche, sushi, moules-frites, or even light flaky tilapia with Mornay sauce. White meats like chicken and turkey and cheeses like Gruyere, Muenster, and Grana Padano love it too

My favourite pairing: Stormy Cape Pinot Gris 2013 with Prawn Jambalaya.

Rhine Riesling grapes, which originate in Germany's Rhine region, have sweet fruity flavours and aromas of flowers and fruits. Other characteristics of wines made from Riesling grapes include high acidity and “petrol” notes if aged. Many people associate Riesling wines with semi-sweet or sweet wines, and it's true that many Rieslings can be quite sweet. Rieslings are, however, much more complex than that. Because Rieslings grow best in rocky ground, especially soil dominated by slate and flint, the wines are generally characterized by minerally aromas and flavours. In fact, you can often tell you're drinking a Riesling as opposed to some other wine because of the mineral characteristics. Typical Riesling aromas include apple, pear, roses and minerals. Another important characteristic of Riesling wines — both dry and sweet — is their high acidity. This acidity increases saliva production in the mouth which, in turn, makes you want to eat more. This helps Riesling pair very well with a wide variety of foods, most notably fish, pork and Chinese and Indian food. Good cheese pairings are Colby, Edam, Gouda, Emmenthal and Sprienz.

My favourite pairing: Bergsig Weisser Riesling 2013 with Tandoori Chicken.

Sauvignon Blancwas widely planted in South Africa during the 18th century. South African Sauvignon Blanc strikes a balance between the flinty, mineral qualities of classic French styles and the herbaceous, grassy character typical of the New World. South African wines made from this variety are turning heads internationally. Sauvignon Blanc first gained fame in 18th Century France, where it was widely planted in the Loire Valley and some Bordeaux wine vineyards. While Sauvignon Blanc is a white wine, its crossing with Cabernet Franc created the noble grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc vines develop buds late and interestingly, it also ripens early. The grape develops best in temperate climates found in numerous wine regions all over the world, and keeps growing in popularity. In fact, Sauvignon Blanc is now the world’s 8th most widely planted grape. Among white wines, only Chardonnay is more popular. Sauvignon Blanc was made to pair with fresh seafood. Oysters on the half shell and Sauvignon Blanc is perfection to many. Many other seafood dishes combine well with Sauvignon Blanc, especially shellfish and crustaceans. The wine also makes a great match with a variety of cheeses, vegetables and salads.

My favourite pairing: Saronsberg Sauvignon Blanc 2014 with Kingklip Ceviche.

Sémillon, once the Cape's most dominant variety, today represents a tiny percentage of South Africa's total vineyard area. It is however currently regaining popularity and wines of great intensity and flavour are being made with it. Its major fault is, interestingly, its best-loved virtue. Sémillon is especially susceptible to botrytis, also known as noble rot. Once Semillon becomes infested with botrytis, its skin leaks liquid, and this results in the juice becoming syrupy and the flavour concentrated.  Semillon, with its thin skin, low acid fruit and rich, oily profile is perfect for Sauternes, the king of noble late harvest wines. In Bordeaux, the Semillon grape is blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat for, while Semillon has body, depth and concentration, it is low in acidity. The addition of Sauvignon Blanc adds the freshness and lift that really makes the wine sing. In South Africa, the cultivar’s revival started when Nederburg and Simonsig pioneered the Noble Late Harvest concept locally in the 1970s. Since then some intrepid winemakers have produced magnificent off-dry white varietal wines from it with undertones of sweet fruit, roasted nuts, honey and tropical fruit. Semillon helps produce one of the best food and wine pairings on the planet according to some wine and food experts. Semillon and spicy food or Asian cuisine is a brilliant wine and food match. It also works well with seafood - especially shellfish – as well as pork, veal, chicken and game birds. Cheese, hard and soft is another great pairing for Sauternes or other sweet wines, especially “blue” cheeses.

My favourite pairing: Constantia Uitsig Semillon 2013 with Fresh Luderitz Oysters.

Viognier is a close relative to the Alpine Freisa grape, which also comes from the Piedmont (“Foot of the Mountain”) region in Italy. Viognier is at its best in the Northern Rhone Valley. When blended with the red wines of the Upper Rhone, Viognier grapes add floral, peach and spicy notes to the backbone of the red varieties. Viognier can be used to produce both dry and semi-sweet white wines, as well as noble late harvest wine from grapes with botrytis. Viognier is a food-friendly white wine that pairs well with a wide variety of foods and cuisines, most notably spicy Asian food due to the natural sweetness in Viognier. It also works in tandem with a wide variety of seafood and shellfish, roasted or grilled chicken, veal, and pork. Viognier is also delicious with select vegetable and salad courses and of course hard or soft cheese.

My favourite pairing: Alvi’s Drift Signature 2014 with Prawn Korma.

Sparkling wine

“Come quickly, I am tasting stars,” is what Dom Perignon reportedly said after his first taste of Champagne, and a fairly apt description of what a good Champagne or sparkling wine experience should offer. Champagne and other sparkling wines are a category of wine made from a blend of grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. If the wine is the traditional mixture of white and red, no reference is made to its colour. If, however, it is made from 100% red (but skinless) grapes it is referred to as Blanc de Noir (White from Black). Pure white wine is therefore, logically, Blanc de Blancs. The Champagne we know and love comes exclusively from the Champagne region of France, and claims the honour of being the most famous of the sparkling wines. Technically, it is the only sparkling wine that may be referred to as "Champagne." Bubbly from all other regions in the world are simply referred to as "sparkling wine," though regional specialties abound. Spain's sparkler is called Cava, Italy's bubbles come in Prosecco and Moscato d'Asti, and French sparkling wines from everywhere outside of Champagne are referred to as Cremant. Quality sparkling wine can be reminiscent of fresh apple mousse, spiced apple, ripe pear and “freshly baked bread” smells, compliments of the yeast that's added during the second fermentation. However, if there is more ripe tree fruit on the palate, then it is likely one of the New World sparkling wines, while subtle creamy, yeast and nut-like flavours are more common in Old World Champagne.

The bubbles of sparkling wines are formed during a second fermentation process. For the second fermentation the winemaker takes still wine and adds a few grams of sugar and a few grams of yeast. This yeast and sugar convert to carbon dioxide (bubbles) and, of course alcohol. This conversion makes for millions of bubbles trapped in a very small space, sending the pressure soaring to about 80 psi in the typical bottle of sparkling wine. This second fermentation typically occurs in the actual bottle (referred to as the traditional Champagne Method), but can also take place in the fermentation tank (called the Chatmat method), it's up to the winemaker. Sparkling wines and Champagnes are categorized as Extra Brut (bone dry), Brut (very dry), Sec (dry), Demi-Sec (off-dry) or  Doux (sweet) depending on their sugar levels. Brut Champagne/sparkling wine is the most common style of bubbly, offering a typically crisp, dry palate appeal. Champagne and sparkling wines are also categorized as "vintage" or "non-vintage" (NV on the label) meaning they either come from a single year or are a blend of several different years. The "vintage" Champagnes are typically pricier, as the non-vintage Champagne and sparkling wines make up the majority of the market.  

My favourite pairing: Twee Jongegezellen Krone Borealis Brut 2013 with Pan-seared Foie Gras.                    

A votre santé!