Thursday, December 13, 2007

Montepulciano's Revenge

The Woods family has been laid low for much of the last fortnight by various bugs that have caused problems at both ends of our personal plumbing systems. While I haven't had it as bad as Alex (aged 6), to be honest the thought of tasting the dozens of wines building up on the samples rack holds about as much appeal as a nail pie (when my mother used to catch me biting my nails, she'd say, 'If you like them so much, I'll make you a nail pie.' It used to - it still does - conjure up images of something akin to a miniature cheese and onion pie, and it soon put paid to my chomping).

But my experiences in the bathroom in recent times reminded me of an episode a few years ago in South Africa when...well you'll have to read on to find out more. This piece was never published - the editor of one wine magazine rejected it for being 'too scatological'. I could write that Pinot Noir smelt of horseshit, or Sauvignon Blanc of cat pee, but human bodily products were for some reason out of bounds. Anyway...


The number of rules by which I run my life has recently increased by one. To 'Never eat at anywhere called Mom's' and 'Never play cards with anyone called Doc', I have added 'Never believe it when a South African says, "Just a light meal" '.

Trips abroad are probably the best part of a wine writer's life. No amount of books read or wines tasted can compare with actually visiting a region and seeing winemakers on their own turf. Tasting from dawn till dusk can be tiring, but the most tiring bit is all the eating. As well as working lunches, dinners and occasionally breakfasts, wine folk adhere to the Pooh Bear school of catering, in that there is invariably 'a little something' lurking behind the spittoon. It may just be a few crackers, or it may be a platter groaning under the weight of cooked meats and home-made Speck. But wine writers never learn. 'Just say "No" to cheese' should be our motto, but we are incapable of following this rule.

So anyway, South Africa. I was invited to be part of the South African Airways panel to pick the wines that would go on SAA flights for 2002, and I thought I might as well tack on a few days of winery visits before the tasting began. The task of organising these fell to the very efficient Andre Morgenthal of WOSA - Wines of South Africa. Andre's programme ran like clockwork but the writing was on the wall from the start. Straight from the airport on the Tuesday morning, Andre drove me down to Constantia where after 'freshening up' (shit, shave, shower, in other words), I went to the first meeting - in a restaurant.

The next few days are something of a blur of wines, meals and more meals, none of them small. I have in front of me the menu from an evening at the delightful Pontac Manor in Paarl (heated floors in the bathrooms - say hello to Stanley from me) with a group of Paarl Vintners. After a tasting of around 25 wines, we sat down for dinner - all six courses of it, including Truffelled Risotto and Lemon Grass-speared Springbok. Mercifully, the portions were actually of a sensible size, and when I'd finished my Baked Almond Crusted Chevin [a goat's cheese] served with Thyme Honey and Grilled Fruit, I didn't feel as Dumbo-like as on other occasions.

Things really got out of hand with The Michael Fridjhon Wine Experience. No, it's not a '60's soul review, but a two-day gastrofest organised by the eponymous Fridj and his sparky wife Janice. Ah, the silky Cheval Blanc 1985, ah, the supremely elegant 1986 Drouhin Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet, ah, the heady 1953 KWV Muscadel Jerepigo. But oh, the rich meals, and in particular aargh, the vast Sunday Brunch of literally dozens of different dishes washed down with nine different Champagnes.

It was after the 'Experience' that my digestive system joined my trousers in mutters of complaint, and these mutterings grew louder as we set into the SAA tasting. Strangely, the wines (150 on Day 1, 130 on Day 2) presented little problem, but as soon as food entered the equation, my digestive system said to any solid matter introduced - 'Reject.' I lost count of the number of times I sat there doing my Neville Chamberlain impersonation ('I have in my hand, a piece of paper etc.'). 'Same thing happened to me last year,' someone said to me at dinner one night. 'Took me a week before I could cough with confidence. Before that, well, every time, it was like a thousand angry sparrows fleeing the nest.' It was at that point that I turned dinner napkin-white and left, with directions of where I could find the strongest medicine in the Cape.

And thankfully it worked, so well in fact that I didn't have need of 'the facilities' until I returned to England three days later. But now I know what Andre and Co. were up too, and I'm being extra vigilant. Christmas is coming and I live in fear of waking up to see a hoard of South Africans descending on me with a large cleaver and an over-sized roll of Bacofoil...

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