Chenin Blanc - the versatile wine that pairs with anything from a pork belly to a stale cheese and tomato toastie
Parktown North’s La Boqueria – taking up the space formerly inhabited by Wombles, which has moved to Bryanston – offers up a range of what might off-handedly be termed tapas, but which are so, so much more than that. Tapas has become a throwaway term for all manner of small plates littered with unwanted offcuts and lonely mouthfuls, but La Boqueria gives back meaning to the shared approach to eating that Spain has inspired the world over.
Named after one of Spain’s most celebrated markets, the restaurant itself is a fashionable space, always ready in case Jo-Ann Strauss arrives unannounced with a Top Billing crew. But you lose sight of the décor – and pretty much everything else – once the food touches down. With gluttonous glee, we demolished a plate of raw tuna glistening in ginger, orange and just enough sesame oil. Pulled pork tacos – marinated in rum to dark, alluring effect – and crisp deep-fried chicken tacos vanished in moments. Chunks of deep-fried pork belly, the richness offset by mango and apple, almost caused the table to come to blows. And two large lamb empanadas were all but inhaled.
But as devastatingly good as the food was (I’ve already made my next reservation), it’s the wine list that’s of consequence here – and one single glass in particular. This Saturday should have been inscribed in your diaries for months, for it’s a massive date: International Chenin Blanc Day, and a celebration of the grape that is increasingly leading the South African wine charge around the world. Some late-night experimentation in Stellenbosch years ago might have given us Pinotage as South Africa’s home-grown varietal, but it’s Chenin – a varietal we make far more of than anyone else, and increasingly well – that deserves as much acclaim.
For while it used to be associated with cheap prices and four-day hangovers, but it’s now grown into a beacon of South African winemaking. I recently ate at the new London outpost of Aquavit, following on from the Michelin-starred original in New York, and found a bottle of Ken Forrester’s FMC on the wine list. It cost a cool £75 per bottle, and the sommelier assured me that it flies out of the cellar on a daily basis.
But Ken’s flagship is hardly an isolated example. If you come across Beaumont’s Hope Marguerite, buy every bottle you can lay your hands on – it’s a deep, luscious, creamy triumph of a wine. Pretty much any Chenin from the Breedekloof Valley will charm you instantly (I’m particularly partial to the Merwida Family Reserve); Thistle and Weed’s Duwweltjie is a work of art; Stellenrust’s 53 celebrates vines older than most; Avondale’s Qvevri brings Georgian inspiration to local vines… and so the list goes on. And I haven’t even mentioned Bruwer Raats.
But the point is not so much the list, or the individuals, as it is the grape itself; a grape that’s transformed from a brandy base and cheap source of unremarkable white to a platform for expression and creativity; for unfettered delight. And it’s a splendid wine with food, as the glass of Waterkloof’s Circumstance Chenin showed at La Boqueria, cutting beautifully through rich pork belly, and standing up to chilli and spice. And so this Saturday, wherever you are, find a bottle of Chenin Blanc and celebrate this fabulous grape. While the Spanish have given the world tapas; South Africa is giving it Chenin Blanc, and doing so magnificently.
What I’m drinking this week: Drinking wine at one o’clock in the morning isn’t something I’d normally admit to (my mother reads this column), but when you’re in an airline lounge waiting for a 2am flight to Nairobi (what were you thinking, Kenya Airways?), it’s more than justified. Especially when the lounge in question has Jordan’s Inspector Peringuey Chenin Blanc. Named after the Inspector General of the Cape Vineyards in the 19th century, Louis Peringuey, it’s a crisp, elegantly styled Chenin with a little oak and some lovely white fruit to it. And it pairs remarkably well with a slightly stale cheese-and-tomato sandwich at 1am…
Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine!