Epicurean: four friends, four grape varieties, one wine

Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa is the only person with sufficient gravitas to treat Alan Pick’s Butcher’s Shop & Grill as a BYO restaurant. But then Alan, “the Moyo of Meat” (as BMW communications director Richard Carter memorably dubbed him) was in Israel visiting his daughter. And restaurant manager Patrick is too much of a gent to ever disclose the secrets of his diners.

shil Epicurean: four friends, four grape varieties, one wine

At least Mbhazima was bringing decent stuff: a Bordeaux blend made by four friends called Epicurean. And it was a special occasion – the launch of the fabulous 2005 vintage, third wine in a series which kicked off in 2006 with the intense and austere 2003. Matching up the varieties to the friends is easy to do.

Retired JP Morgan Chase SA supremo Ron T Gault is as elegant as the finest Cabernet Franc. Born in Chicago, he was in fine spirits after the US presidential nominee performance of his senator Barack Obama the day before. “I gave him a bottle of the 2003” jokes Ron “which could explain his success to date. But Hilary is also a friend and she’d also make an excellent president” he continued diplomatically.

Safika Holdings chairman and former economic advisor to president Thabo Mbeki, Moss Ngoasheng, will get Petit Verdot as this variety ripens much later than the other varieties in Bordeaux. Moss was the most recent convert to Bacchus, having been a political prisoner on Robben Island and then Diepkloof prison, emerging only in the mid-eighties. “I will take you to my village” he continues “and you’ll see how alien wine culture is to my own.” He may have been a late starter, but he’s determined to make up, with a Michelin 3 star dinner accompanied by a bottle of 1926 Château Lafite enjoyed with his wife, among his most cherished memories. True to its tardy nature, Petit Verdot will only feature in Epicurean from the 2006 vintage going forwards.

Vantage Capital’s Mutle Mogase is a perfect fit for Merlot. For starters, there are all those M’s in his initials. A civilizing and softening influence on Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc and Petit Verdot with which it is so often blended, perfectly describes Mutle’s role in the quartet – spokesman, facilitator and explicator. Mbhazima laughingly refers to him as “my PR.”

Which leaves Mbhazima, Cabernet Sauvignon, matching vinous with political royalty. The brand name comes from the ancient Greek philosopher of luxury, Epicurus, and not the name of the 1995 vintage cigars from Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure #2 Mbhazima was puffing contentedly on at the end of the meal. The four friends are all keen cigar aficionados and came up with the name while on holiday in the Maldives, that Indian Ocean island archipelago about to become a 21st century Atlantis, as rising seas fueled by global warming threaten radical land use changes ahead.

It was Epicurus who noted “we should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf.” Something the four had taken on board when they invited the great and well fed of the Gauteng eaterati and spitterati establishment to a lunch at the Butcher’s Shop & Grill to celebrate the release of their wine.

Restaurant proprietors Fortunato Mazzone from Ritrovo Ristorante in Tshwane, Saul Mervis from the Grillhouse in Rosebank, Mark Heuer from Linger Longer, Carrie Adams from Norman Goodfellows, the liquor merchants, and Carolyn Barton all pitched up. The usual Cape contingent will have to wait until next week to sample the new release at Jonathan Steyn’s Belthazar wine bar cum steakhouse on the Waterfront.

Patrick laid on quite a feast – the largest and most succulent oysters of the year from Luderitz accompanies by Ruinart Blanc de Blanc Champagne as curtain raisers. Then diners were treated like adults and allowed to order their own starters and mains – prawns in a creamy garlic sauce and prime rib, medium rare, in my case which worked like a charm with the Epicurean. When the maiden vintage was launched, it was memorably described by Carrie as “the kind of wine that will take off its clothes for you.” More sober and collected, she describes the new release as “getting better and better every year. Just wait until you taste the 2006” currently in barrel.

With a 10 barrel production, Epicurean boxes way above its weight in the SA wine industry that retains a lily-white hue in spite of several efforts to make wine drinkers reflect the national demographic. SA wine must be hoping that Epicurean is the first swallow that heralds a wine drinking summer. With 14% alcohol, the 2005 vintage is no shrinking violet but is more abstemious than preceding vintages – “elegance over power” as Mbhazima puts it.

Nor is it over wooded, a common fault with boutique wines. Presented in a standard bottle with a plain matt white label, with no trace of the names of the four personalities involved, the intention that the wine should sell on its merits and not just PR-hype, is a real one.

While the volumes produced will make no dent in the SA red wine lake, the new brand is an important milestone. For starters, at least some of the bottles will be drunk by vinous neophytes, sophisticated consumers who might otherwise have ordered a Jack Daniel’s or Southern Comfort. Secondly, it emphatically confirms that enjoyment of fine wine is no exclusive preserve of any particular demographic group in SA; that making an SA wine is an aspirational trophy for political and business elites in SA and finally, after two millennia of “progress”, the ideas of Epicurus still find resonance in the New South Africa.

Mutle calls it “a vineyard wine” and notes it was made in the classical, understated style preferred by the four partners. 2006 will be the first vintage to feature four of the five classic Bordeaux varieties but the increased complexity in the 2005 from Cabernet Franc is already evident. A home farm is the next item on the agenda, as expressing a sense of place is an important long-term requirement for the project.

So what prompted these four Masters of the Gauteng Political and Business Universe to take off their Armani jackets and Sulka ties, roll up those Thomas Pink sleeves and put their egos and taste buds on the line? “Friendship” was the motivator for Mbhazima. “Epicurean symbolizes friendship. We made this wine to honour Epicurus and discerning friendship. I’m used to ruling by decree – consensus is not part of my capacity – but when it comes to friends, there’s merit in democracy.”

Gavin Dittmar, MD of distributor Meridian, confirms the selling price remains R260/bottle – only R10 more than the cost of the maiden vintage in 2006, although this wine is hardly a shelf sitter. As Mbhazima says “if no one else is willing to buy it, we have enough friends“.

Perhaps the best place for wine lovers to taste it will be at up-market restaurants like Ritrovo, the Grillhouse, Linger Longer and the Butcher’s Shop & Grill. At less than half the price of celebrity cuvées from Ernie Els, Waterford and Vergelegen, this is one aspirational luxury that remains affordable.