High Timber: we found a lekker South African welcome in the city of London
It’s coming up towards lunchtime on a warm, sunny Wednesday as a silver-haired man named Pieter chats quietly in Afrikaans to a tall man named Morné. We’re in a cellar crammed with assorted vintages from familiar South African estates – Hartenberg, Mullineux, Tokara, Ken Forrester, and dozens more – and on the table a bottle of Cap Classique sits beside a Stellenbosch Chardonnay.
A blazered gentleman named Greg is discussing South African wine with a guy called Dean, the peppering of “ja” and “lekker” confirming their shared heritage, and in the corner of the cellar sits a cricket bat signed by some old heroes: Rhodes, Donald, McMillan, Symcox, Klusener. So where are we on this warm, sunny Wednesday? London, naturally…
The Pieter in question is Pieter Ferreira, known across the wine industry as Bubbles, a well-earned tribute to a man who’s spent years at Graham Beck, making Cap Classique that’s the envy of the Champagne region. Morné Morkel is the second guest, the tall fast bowler now living in London and playing for Surrey – and, to the chagrin of South African cricket fans, watching the World Cup as a spectator.
The other two in the cellar are South African-born, London-residing wine savant Greg Sherwood, who can sniff a cork and tell you what day of the week the grapes were picked; and Dean Elgar, the Proteas Test opener who’s also playing for Surrey. And the cellar? It’s one of my favourite discoveries in London: hidden away at the bottom of a staircase, it’s a temple to the Cape Winelands that sits within the South African culinary high commission to London.
High Timber is run by Neleen Strauss, in partnership with Gary and Kathy Jordan, the team behind the excellent estate of the same name in Stellenbosch. The menu centres on red meat and South African wine; biltong and boerewors are on the menu (along with a rooibos smoked salmon starter), and Jordan naturally headlines an extensive South African offering that runs from Holden Manz and Paul Cluver to Lismore and Restless River.
It’s thus the perfect place for some midweek distraction: Morné and Dean getting a break from training, Greg adding Master of Wine gravitas to the occasion, and Pieter introducing us to some of his new releases. And much anticipated those releases are: this is the man who provided the sparkle to the Obama inauguration, and who is now focusing solely on Cap Classique, following the decision at Graham Beck to bring the range of still wines to a close. I was a fan of the now-defunct range, although former winemaker Erika Obermayer has revived several old favourites with her eponymous range (she provides eerily similar tributes to The Joshua and The Pheasant’s Run).
But bubbles have always been the Graham Beck hallmark, and there’s an alchemy to what Pieter does, bringing the range to life with panache, and creating a global fan base as a result. And amongst those fans are Morné and Dean, who cheerfully proclaimed the Cap Classique as a step up from the gallons of champagne they’d poured in celebration of Surrey winning the County Championship the year before.
Pieter’s new Blanc de Blancs in particular is a delight, with Greg giving it considerable acclaim – and pointing to an appreciable upswing in Cap Classique interest in the UK market, which prompted further toasts. The Nine Yards Chardonnay that followed underscored the calibre of wine coming out of Jordan. Made in limited amounts as a flagship release, it’s a smooth, rich wine that almost hints at butterscotch, with just the right amount of oak.
Neither bottle lasted long, and lunch vanished with similar speed: generous slabs of rib-eye washed down with more Jordan, and assorted wine and cricketing anecdotes (which cross over more than you might imagine). For the Londoners, it made for a happy throwback to South Africa, and a welcome distraction from the Cricket World Cup; for Pieter and myself, a home away from home on the banks of the Thames, full of good food, Neleen’s warm hospitality, and lashings of wonderfully familiar wine. Forget Wimbledon, Putney and Fulham: High Timber is the South African heart of London.
What I’m drinking this week: It was my birthday a week ago, as I eased gently from 40 to 41; in celebration, I opened up a bottle of wine from the year of my birth; a small collection of 1978 bottles I’ve managed to acquire over time. And, as always, it was opened with trepidation: would it have survived another spin around the sun? The answer: mostly yes.
A Groot Constantia cabernet sauvignon, it wasn’t quite at its best, having lost a little richness and lustre, but was still comfortably drinkable, and did have a certain musky allure after four decades. And to drink a wine that old, with the history it invokes, is always a joy – and a reminder that, when stored well, the best South African wine has great aging potential.