What wine do you pair with food at a Mad Hatter's party?

There’s a toadstool sitting on the plate in front of me – a bright red cartoon toadstool that suggests instant death if you’re foolish enough to eat it. Except I am going to eat it because it’s not a toadstool but rather the garish pièce de résistance to a night of culinary sleight of hand. The large strawberry several courses earlier was actually a tomato, the soil in the rose bush on arrival was edible, and at one point a chessboard emerged from the kitchen. It’s a wondrously bizarre night out…

One of the most enjoyable extensions of hosting a wine show is hosting wine evenings – selecting rare, unusual, interesting wine and having fun with the ensuing discoveries and discussions, usually over accompanying food. Once a client has given an idea of preferences, volumes and budget, an appropriate haul of wine is secured, and it’s onto the event, which in this case was particularly memorable. The client in question was a beaming, beardless Pavarotti of a man named Selwyn, with a practised palate and many hours spent in restaurants around the world. The theme of the night was Mad Hatter, which gave free rein to the star attraction of the gathering: one Neill Anthony.

neill anthony food

If you somehow haven’t heard of Neill, here’s a biographical snapshot: he’s the man behind the television series ‘Private Chef’, he’s trained under Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing (amongst others), and he now travels the world as a sought-after private chef. He’d just come back from dazzling a client in Los Angeles and switched effortlessly to a night of frivolity in Bantry Bay, with a menu that paid colourful tribute to the psychedelic fantasy of Lewis Carroll.

And so along with the toadstool dessert, edible pot plants and the tomato masquerading as a strawberry, there were eggshells filled with tuna scallops and offset with white chocolate, as well as linefish with vanishing noodles. It was mad, creative, fantastic and ridiculous – and very, very hard to pair with wine.

But the wine for the evening represented some of South Africa’s best, and I reckon it did a fair job of sparring with Neill’s cooking. A pair of recent chardonnays from Hamilton Russell and Dewetshof took on the scallops and white chocolate. Some Anthonij Rupert cabernet franc, a recent Platter 5 Star winner, gave the tuna tartare robust company. A 10-year-old Ingenuity white from Nederburg showed both the value of ageing white wine and an ability to deal with spicy linefish. A 2011 Kevin Arnold shiraz found an acquaintance in Neill’s toadstool creation. And both Ken Forrester’s FMC chenin (from 2013) and Vilafonte’s M Series (2012) found themselves in the unusual position of being rock stars forced to share top billing with equally impressive food.

south african wine

There was also the rare but wonderful 2011 Anthonij Rupert blend, some 2006 Nederburg Private Bin shiraz, Creation’s smooth but vibrant sauvignon blanc/semillon blend, and an unusual sauvignon blanc noble late harvest from Paul Wallace, a lighter take on dessert wine. But for me, the most fun was the two mystery wines for the night: decanted and tasted for guests to have a stab at vintage, region and grape.

Guesses were varied, but what was delightful was that most people put both wines at three or four years old, when in fact the Haut Espoir chardonnay was a 2009 and the second wine, a Meerendal shiraz, went all the way back to 1989. 30-year-old wines tasting young and fresh, and happily pulling the wool over people’s palates? Just about right for a night out with private chef Neill Anthony and a mad hatter called Selwyn.

WHAT I’M DRINKING THIS WEEK: Years ago, when I provided sports commentary and occasional comic relief on Cape Talk for John Maytham (who remains one of South Africa’s finest radio presenters and sharpest minds), he named the Boekenhoutskloof syrah as Franschhoek’s finest wine at the time. I’ve always looked out for it as a result, although it’s considerably rarer than the Chocolate Block and Wolftrap offspring. This week I found a bottle of 2016 in Belfast, along with the 2015 cabernet sauvignon sibling, which I tried. And it’ll definitely give the syrah stiff competition: rich, juicy and regal, it’s everything you’d want in a great cabernet sauvignon. My family in Northern Ireland loved it; I suspect Mr Maytham would approve as well.

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