If you’re on the side of Lake Como where George Clooney has his house (stay with me on this), you’ll hear the gentle sound of an organ carrying across the water. The music comes from a water feature that’s centuries old, with the movement of the water generating the soft, soothing sound that adds to the fairytale feel of the place. I know this, not because I’ve been there but because Jenny Crwys-Williams, national radio treasure and sparkling raconteur, regaled of this wonderfully obscure piece of information over the most expensive bottle of South African wine I’m likely to drink this year.
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The Four Seasons in Johannesburg at The Westcliff, for the old school amongst you – is consistently one of my favourite places to drink wine in the city. Sprawling views over Johannesburg’s urban canopy fall away from a hotel that’s been given a considerable upgrade in recent years. The service is polished, the atmosphere somehow manages to feel exclusive and inviting at the same time, and the food has always been excellent – although it generally has to take a secondary role behind the wine I’m inevitably at the Four Seasons for. And the case of this particular visit, both Jenny and I were part of a long lunch introducing the latest vintage of De Toren’s Book XVII.
There is much to discuss with the Book XVII. The name, firstly, which is inspired by Pliny the Elder, the ancient Roman philosopher (who was a guest on one of Jenny’s earliest shows…) who wrote about wine in his 17th book. Then there’s the packaging, which extends beyond just bottle and label: it’s encased in a locked wooden frame, which adds both an impressive aesthetic, and a barrier to getting the bottle open when you’ve had a few too many and think it’s a good idea. And there’s the wine itself, which I’ll get to in a moment. But the biggest talking point for De Toren’s showpiece is the price: a cool R2 750 a bottle at the cellar door.
Whatever currency you convert that into, it’s an awful lot of money for a single bottle of wine – not Bordeaux first growth expensive, certainly, but still a considerable investment. It’s a wine very few South Africans would be able to afford, and fewer still would actually buy, given you’re paying about a grand a glass if your glasses are large enough. So what on earth could possibly justify the price of the Book XVII?
Well, a few things. Firstly, De Toren hardly makes any of the stuff: about 1 400 bottles or thereabouts, individually numbered and then locked up. The vineyard is scanned from the air with the sort of infrared technology you’d expect Bond to use if Blofeld was hiding out in a field of Malbec, establishing the best grapes for the job. (I have no idea how this works, but Martin the assistant winemaker assured us this was the case, and he looks an honest sort.) They only use four bunches of grapes from each vine chosen, and the grapes then get the sort of personal treatment you’d normally expect at a high-end spa.
And the resultant wine? Utterly glorious. That’s not entirely surprising, given that these are the same guys who’ve brought us the Fusion V and the Z, two consistently splendid red blends. But the Book XVII is another level of loveliness, a swirling celebration of dark red fruit and silk and strong, Bordeaux brilliance. Is it ten times better than a R2 750 bottle? No. But it is an exceptional, meticulously created bottle of Stellenbosch red wine, and if money is no object – or at least not much of one – I’d highly recommend getting hold of one of the few remaining bottles. And pair it with some gentle organ music while sitting in George Clooney’s villa with Jenny Crwys-Williams – which you can probably arrange if you’re able to afford De Toren’s Book XVII.
What I’m drinking this week: Darielle Robertson, the force of nature who pulls together the Cape Wine Auction each year, was up north last weekend to give us the Johannesburg Cap Classique and Champagne Festival. A global eruption of bubbles, it brought together Italian Prosecco, some of the big French Champagne houses (including Bollinger and Nicolas Feuillatte), and some of South Africa’s finest sparkling. Graham Beck, L’Ormarins, Bon Courage’s Jacques Bruere, Raymond Ndlovu’s Black Elephant all delighted – as did Silverthorn’s, and their Jewel Box. A specialist MCC producer from Robertson, the tasting came with a geology lesson and some history, and a then beautifully rich, layered mouthful. Which, together with the rest I sampled, reaffirmed my firm belief that South Africa bubbles can compete comfortably and proudly with the very best the French can make.
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