A night of drinking with a Master of Wine - here's what it looks like

Four years, in an act of grand deception, I got talked into joining adventurer Ron Rutland for the final stage of his charity cycle through every country in Africa, and on through Europe to get to Brighton in time for South Africa’s opening game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. (That was the Springboks versus Japan; we really don’t need to talk about what happened.) 

I’d been promised by Ron that we’d cycling 20 kilometres a day for two days to cover the journey from Paris to Brighton; turned out it was 120 kilometres each day, involved me getting hopelessly lost in the French countryside, and enduring a storm on the coast of England straight out of the Old Testament.

Remarkably, the trip didn’t kill me, which was particularly surprising, given that the longest ride I’d ever done up to that point was nine kilometres, twice. In retrospect, those two rides probably saved me, short as they were: some basics on bicycle management, a little fitness, and some guidance from one of South Africa’s finest amateur cyclists, a guy by the name of David Higgs. Who also happens to be a fairly decent chef.

David and I first met on the Absa Cape Epic, a race he’s conquered several times in between conjuring up culinary magic in the role for which he’s more celebrated. But since then we’ve spent far more time over food and wine, at our respective homes, and at the two temples to good living he’s gifted the city of Johannesburg with: Saint, his modernist tribute to Italian indulgence that’s a triumph of design as much as it is food; and Marble, this week’s place I like to drink wine.

dan nicholl and friends

Marble came to life slowly, after much work, stress and emotional investment, details of which David passed on over our Paris training rides. Having opted not to extend an award-winning stay at The Saxon, the former Eat Out S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna Chef of The Year was creating a new vision on his own terms. It finally opened in a blur of chaos and excitement, a live fire theatre of food that had the fine dining set chattering away…

…and three years later, or thereabouts, they still are, usually while queuing to get into a restaurant that’s full most nights (and well in advance). A fabulous bar spilling onto a deck that takes in one of Johannesburg’s finest sunsets, the giant grill imported from New York as the centrepiece of an open kitchen, a wine cellar I’ve tried (and failed) to lock myself into on many occasions, all contribute to the allure of Marble. But it’s David’s menu that’s a delight in chief: fine dining made accessible, from the city’s best octopus dish, dressed up with a little chorizo, to perfectly cooked sea bass, and an array of red meat tumbling off the grill with wood-fired perfection.

I’ve lost count of my visits to Marble, but it’s the last one that demands particular attention. 

South African Greg Sherwood was in town, the Master of Wine based in London, who does sterling work spreading the gospel of South African wine across Europe, and might be our best export to the United Kingdom since Kevin Pietersen. And so Greg and I joined Derek Kilpin, the roguish wine importer who brings France’s finest vintages into South Africa, for a night of exceptional sampling.

I’ll try to be brief. 

Greg’s opening gambit was a 1989 Lanson champagne, age adding layers of delight to a French classic. Derek countered with a Louis-Benjamin Dangeneu Pouilly-Fumé, a deep, luscious white. Back to Greg, and giddying 1979 Chateau Talbot you’d sell a kidney for, and an equal rock star Chateau Haut-Brion 1997, two red gems that had lasted incredibly. A Domaine Douhin Pinot Noir from Oregon hadn’t lasted as well, sadly, but Derek came back strongly with a 2010 Gevrey-Chambertin, a lovely light Burgundy, and then threw out some old Stellenzicht and Klein Constantia to complete an unforgettable night of wine.

french wine

It wasn’t just three of us sampling the wine – Marble’s acclaimed sommelier Wikus Human, a man who can name a winemaker just by sniffing a cork, added his approval, along with the Marble sommelier team on duty, and David himself snuck over through the evening to see how the duel between his food and the wine was going. The result? In footballing parlance, a high-scoring draw: exceptional wine, brilliant food, brought together in the food and wine stadium that is Marble – a quite wonderful place to drink wine.

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What I’m drinking this week: I saw the same three scoundrels last weekend for some more food and wine, and more splendid bottles, with one of the best arriving very late in the day. A good South African red is usually optimal at 10 years or thereabouts, but there are certainly some with even greater potential; cue the 2003 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon, which had grown into something majestic by the time it was opened, drinking richer and stronger, but without being overpowering, and opened at exactly the right time. Master of Wine Greg picked up late autumnal winds with a nose of repressed socialism, and a hint of Gilbert and Sullivan; David, Derek and I just thought it was very nice.

Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine