Through a Glass Darkly
Winemakers are not only epicurean artists but also seeking to sell something. So, why do the words used to describe their beverage so often confuse and alienate audiences?
Those who write tasting notes (telling us what flavours and aromas we can expect) and food-pairing suggestions on wine websites and/or the back of bottles presumably hope to help drinkers derive maximum understanding and enjoyment from the product therein. But their bons mots frequently have the opposite effect.
In essence all such writing exists as both science and a romance-laden literary genre. The former relies on the applied chemistry of how phenols and polyphenols in wine work with human biology. Allowing for an element of personal preference, most of it is about how the five basic tastes (salty, sweet, sour, bitter and savoury) and certain spices can be combined to create relatively standard sensations for most people, most of the time. The latter is culturally complex. What is in the bottle is always fermented grape juice but whether a sweet-sour flavour is described in terms of South African msobo/nastergal berries, Scandinavian cloudberries or French redcurrants reflects the writer’s life experiences and flights of fancy.
In South Africa tasting notes frequently allude to international, predominantly northern European, ingredients. These can be confusing but ours is a society that has relatively high levels of familiarity with foreign flavours so often the problem with overseas comparisons is not lack of knowledge but rather a lack of emotional attachment. Smell and taste sensations involve the parts of the brain that are linked to non-verbal, memory-filled feelings. While tasting notes that reference elderberries can take English wine drinkers on nostalgic journeys to cordials past, it seldom hits the same sensory spot in South Africans.
I am not arguing for the removal of international examples but rather the addition of local edible illustrations. English schoolkids pick blackberries on the way home from school but in Mzansi this fruit is relatively rare. If the same foraging-led feeling of freedom and tart tastes are described in terms of amatungulu/grootnoemnoem, KZN communities can access similar sentiments. All sorts of international wild mushrooms are cited to describe earthy, savoury, forest-floor tones but amakhowe dried and fresh (found all over the Eastern Cape and KZN) offer similar qualities. As do many of Limpopo’s dried leaf morogos and mopane “worms” (actually caterpillars but that is a discussion for another day). The sourness of rhubarb is often less emotionally accessible than a reference to tamarind sweeties sold at Bo Kaap corner cafes. Or suuring and spekboom leaves. The bouquet of brioche may work for some but why not add in references to Karoo roosterkoek, the Highlands North Friday-morning kitke queues and freshly fried vetkoek to describe yeasty, slightly sweet notes emanating from our wonderful wines?
There have been recent attempts to root the ways we talk about wine in our terroir. The South African Chenin Blanc Association (CBA), in collaboration with sommelier turned winemaker Tinashe Nyamudoka, recently created southern African-specific wine taste and aroma wheels in Shona, Zulu and Xhosa. Nyamudoka has taken the process one step further with his wine brand, Kumusha (the Shona word for “your home” or “your origin”). Kumusha’s Cabernet Sauvignon website tasting notes reference fruit flavours in terms of Zimbabwean tsvubvu berries of which the winemaker says: “The idea is to take an audience from ‘wine is not for me’ transformed into: ‘I feel seen, acknowledged as a consumer and therefore wine is for me.’”
So far, so good, but once the label, website or wheel has been read and the bottle bought, what then? The food and wine pairing proposals found on many South African wines do not adequately acknowledge regional recipes. Where local dishes are cited, they tend to focus on the whiter variations of the Cape Creole food genre. Don’t get me wrong – there are some very fine flavours in boerekos and Cape Dutch cuisine and they absolutely deserve to stay in the mix. I am talking about adding, not subtracting.
Even those at the forefront of cross-cultural flavour wheels are not advancing the debate as much as one might hope. In the case of Kumusha, the winemaker (who is also a sommelier) is celebrated for his care and skill pairing South African ingredients in a restaurant setting. Obviously, it is easier to describe matches verbally as part of a silver service experience. There is much more space to explain in a conversation than on the back of a bottle, but written tasting notes are not so short that they couldn’t be clearer. The Kumusha website describes their Sondagskloof Sauvignon Blanc at length with reference to blackjack morogo and buchu but then curtly suggests that the wine “compliments seafood, sushi, pasta, chicken and veal dishes”. In fairness I have seen a suggestion on other websites to pair this Sauvignon Blanc with a “Kariba bream fish stew”, but even this is quite vague. The reference to veal is even less helpful than broad-stroke recommendations of pasta and stew in that while not illegal, veal is ethically complex and thankfully almost entirely unavailable in South Africa. The nearest most local butchers can offer is meat from dairy herd male calves reared on grass pastures and slaughtered at six months – so not true veal as they are older and weaned thus having a completely different texture to true veal. As a cook, I am not sure quite what mouthfeel and flavour the writer is recommending I pair with the wine. The same brand’s website describes their Flame Lily white blend in terms of the Zimbabwean fruit matunduru but goes on to advise that it has a “beautifully textured mouthfeel complementing rich white meat and Asian-inspired dishes”. I am not saying that this wonderful wine doesn’t make magic with the aforementioned meals, just that it can do the same with southern African recipes too.
Some sommeliers in restaurants are doing a better job than the back of bottles. I can still taste a 2022 visit to Salsify in Camps Bay where Victor Okolo paired smoked springbok, porcini, goat’s cheese mousse and puffed sorghum with Marras The Trickster Cinsault. He described all the reasons this match is magnificent with grace and skill. But such posh-nosh, special-occasion outings are not where the majority of wine buying and drinking happens. What most of us need are tips for everyday eating at home, not guidance for porcini and mousse matching. Since every day is far more frequent than special occasions, failing to do so has commercial consequences.
Events such as Heritage Day tend to be where the bigger brands pay lip service to what all sorts of South Africans eat in their daily lives. Items from food genres beyond boerekos are occasionally offered as potential matches but the copy is frequently flawed. Often insufficient care has gone into understanding the flavours, ingredients and cooks involved. The term “Cape Malay” is frequently used in such a broad way that it becomes disrespectfully meaningless. Not everything made by brown people in the Cape is Malay. The failure to properly recognise Khoi flavour and ingredient contribution is a story for another day. Words such as “hardbody” or “umleqwa” are occasionally used by wine brands, but those writing the copy are often apparently unfamiliar with the tastes and textures of the ingredients involved. On its website, Groot Constantia’s Heritage Day suggestions say: “If you are planning on popping some chicken on the fire – perhaps a spatchcock, sosaties or umleqwa (free range chicken) – then a Sauvignon Blanc is the ideal wine-pairing option.” Sosatie is a sensible suggestion but to translate “umleqwa” as free range is to, at least partially, miss the point.
Umleqwa is a Xhosa word literally meaning a chicken that runs about/that you chase. The word holds within it an acknowledgement of a bird that is older, leaner and tougher than supermarket “free-range” fowl. These are birds that must be stewed, not braaied. The meat is gamey, so long, slow simmering with little more than water, salt and an onion result in rich, reduced gravy-like jus amid the superb simple abundance of meaty flavour. Because such birds have so little fat, they are suited to the restrained yet flavoursome, lighter, low-tannin Pinot Noirs of the Hemel en Aarde Valley. Groot Constantia’s ripe fruit, fresh acidity Sauvignon Blanc suggestion would be better suited to a braaied supermarket chicken with lots of fat and tender young flesh. Should anyone be seeking to pair a stewed hardbody bird, I find that Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak pinot noir, 2022 has the requisite delicacy and richness. As does the cool climate, elegant yet intense ungrafted bush vine Piekenierskloof, Cinsault, 2021.
Food and wine pairing is not something that can be thumb-sucked. For better and worse, putting food and wine together reveals unseen elements in both. Especially, if working with foods that have previously not been paired with wine. Which is why I called in Sommelier Moses Magwaza. Magwaza’s exceptional ability to match wine with food was first recognised at Restaurant Mosaic at the über-posh Orient Hotel in the Francolin Conservancy, outside Pretoria. He has since been inundated with honours, including the 2017 and 2018 Eat Out Wine Service Award and the 2020 Sommelier Luxe Award. He is currently the sommelier and restaurant manager at Prosopa, Pretoria where he has recently developed a passion for pairing African ingredients with wine. He was senior sommelier at the recent Harvesting Heritage Culinary Competition, Pretoria and says that: “Most of our restaurants pair wines with foreign food genres but our local palates were formed by what we grew up eating. The smells and tastes of indigenous ingredients are delicious and central to who we are as South Africans… The pairings that sommeliers have traditionally suggested are often linked to European cuisines. I am committed to creating food and wine combinations that relate to our indigenous ingredients and traditional recipes.”
We decided to start our epicurean Odyssey into pairing wine with recipes that South Africans eat at home when we are not trying to be fancy foodies with a semi-blind tasting of South African wines paired with kgodu ya lerotse. See recipe below. I say semi-blind because while neither Moses nor I saw the bottle before assessing the match, he knows what wines he has in his restaurant. His staff were instructed to bring a random selection of stock on hand, pre-poured so we didn’t see labels. This was not a “real” tasting but rather two friends, a big pot of porridge and a lot of wine. One friend is a wine expert and the other (me) is absolutely not, but in the absence of more formal pairings I hope our findings add to the current body of knowledge.
Lerotse is the Sepedi term for Citrullus lanatus, a southern African indigenous gourd with pale yellow, light, mild flesh with tastes that overlap with melon, pumpkin and cucumber.
It has a striped outer rind reminiscent of a watermelon and many teardrop-shaped russet or ruby-red seeds – which when dry roasted make a delicious snack. The perfume is similarly refined and light yet distinct with fruity and floral undertones. When cooked it releases lots of liquid so requires little to no additional water, even when, as it is with kgodu ya lerotse, it is combined with maize or sorghum meal. Sometimes peanut butter, pounded marula nuts or its own roasted, ground seeds are mixed into this dish, but mostly the combination of gently sweet, subtly fragrant gourd and soft, slightly sweet freshly ground maize or sorghum meal is eaten unadorned, seasoned only with salt.
Sommelier Magwaza and I ate our way through oceans of maize meal-based kgodu. We paired our pumpkin pap with a selection of wines. While many of the wines involved were relatively recognisable, we only confirmed our guesses after eating.
The wine that worked best was Nederburg’s Anchorman Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2020. Its floral, herbaceous qualities partnered beautifully with the lerotse. The sweetish, smoky quality of the maize meal porridge (especially at bottom of pot) brought a pleasant depth to the crisp, fruity, aromatic wine. When we added nuts, tannins didn’t overwhelm the wine (as it did with some of the lighter whites) – in fact, the creamy texture made magic with the smooth mouthfeel. I subsequently saw that the Nederburg website suggests a smoked snoek pie pairing which may well be wonderful, but they would be wise to add kgodu ya lerotse immediately as an additional option. Full disclosure: while all other wines involved had been purchased, Nederburg had been part of the Harvesting Heritage Competition the previous week and as such, both sommelier Magwaza and I had been given several bottles with which to experiment in advance of the contest.
Terra del Capo, Anthonij Rupert 2021 is a lovely light, off dry, relatively low-acidity pinot grigio. Unpaired, we both tasted full cling peach flavours. Once the kgodu joined the party, the wine’s fruity sweetness was enhanced but so too were the citrus and yeasty notes which create hitherto unseen complexity. The pumpkin brought floral, green yet gently sweet elements that brought out tropical almost pawpaw like tastes in the wine. The wine deepened existing flavours in the food. Earthy, smoky, yeasty tastes and smells from the pap pot were accentuated. As was the creamy smooth texture. The intensity of flavour and weight of mouthfeel matched beautifully so that the wine, the pap and the lerotse lingered pleasantly. So far, so fabulous but when we added toasted nuts, the pairing fell apart and the poor pinot grigio was utterly overwhelmed. All we could taste were nuts and oil.
When in doubt, say sparkling. The high acidity and bubbles of L’ormarins Cap Classique brut supported and enhanced the smoky, yeasty tastes and creamy texture of the kgodu. The sweetness in the lerotse liberated the subtle honeyed quality of the wine. We were having such fun that we forgot to add nuts…
There were several wines that did not care for kgodu. Fountain of Youth Sauvignon Blanc, 2021, Oak Valley, totally overwhelmed the poor porridge. It is a delicious wine but once sipped all food flavours disappeared. No interaction, just domination. Upon addition of nuts the clash was actively unpleasant. Similarly, the assertive aromas of De Krans Premium Moscato 2022 suffocated the subtle floral smells of the lerotse. The wine’s sweetness obliterated the gentle sweetness of the gourd. Pairings are intended to enhance the oenological experience. This didn’t.
Obviously not all the above pairings worked, but those that did were wonderful. If large parts of our heritage and/or indigenous ingredient and recipe repertoire are not at the table, the message delivered to local and international eaters is that certain sorts of South African cuisine are not pairable with wine. Which, as our kgodu session shows, is wrong. So, let’s stop doing that. Life is hard enough without reducing easily available avenues for pleasure.
Recipe kgodu ya lerotse (serves 4)
500g lerotse (skinned and deseeded) – if not available other pumpkins and/or butternuts will do.
250ml vegetable stock or water
100g mealie meal
- Put the lerotse into a medium pot with a well-fitting lid. Cook over a low heat. The gourd will start to release liquid after about 10 minutes;
- Add the water/stock and simmer until soft. About 10 minutes. Add the butter and blend smooth;
- Pour the maize meal into the pumpkin blend and whisk continuously until a smooth porridge has formed. Cook until the maize is cooked through and thick (about 15 minutes);
- You can garnish with a dollop of peanut butter, marula nut butter or toasted lerotse seeds if you like. DM