The Battle of Belthazar

Tasting Cheval Blanc is like waiting for a #1 bus on Oxford Road: nothing for ages and then along come two right behind each other. On Thursday, dinner at Platine in the Cape Town City Bowl with Dominic Hébrard who’s dad used to make the stuff until 2000 when Pierre Lurton took over, including the mythical 1947 that some rate as the best red wine ever made.

Followed by a vertical tasting from 2001 to 2005 on Saturday. At R2500 a ticket, a pricey affair but a reasonable one as the last vintage now changes hands for R15 000 a bottle. The vertical Chevals were one half of a celebrity death match against SA Cabernet Franc fanatic Bruwer Raats. Organized by the dapper Roland Peens from the Wine Cellar, the fight went down at Jonathan Steyn’s Belthazar restaurant on the Waterfront. The prawns were succulent, the steaks great and the result a close one. The horse won on points, but a commendable performance from the local boy for all that, who would certainly have triumphed if price was a handicap, as is usually the case.

b4 The Battle of Belthazar

At Platine, dinner included a 1978 matched against the same vintage of Lafite. The former was a Kate Bush beverage, all ethereal and fey while the latter was more Amy Winehouse, earth and power. But then Dominic hauled out a 1979 Cheval and the Lafite was put back firmly in its box by a right bank tour de force.

At Belthazar we were posed four questions: 1) does Franc work better on its own (Raats) or in a blend (Cheval); 2) has global warming affected styles of these wines; 3) is the ’05 Cheval worth 15K and 4) do SA wines match up to the best of France? I would have added a fifth: why is Franc such a hard sell in SA with the saga of Chris Keet and his wonderful Cordoba Crescendos of fond memory, a sobering example.

As for the competition, certainly the 2005 Cheval was wine of the evening, a decision Raats was happy to concede. The 2001 vintages were tied with the Cheval perhaps too extracted and the tannins too coarse. Given that the Raats 01 was well under R200 while the Cheval was R4150, my own preference was a no-brainer.

The 02s were both disappointing. The 03 Cheval was still very primary and oaky and hard to reconcile with 96 Parker points while the Raats 03 was pure concentrated Stellenbosch/Durbanville fruit. The Cheval snatched the 04 decision by a short head thanks to a wonderfully complex nose.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Battle of Belthazar was the group of twenty tasters the wines attracted. Dominated by twenty and early thirty-somethings, the popularity of Cheval Blanc among bright young things is a good omen for fine wine appreciation on the SA scene.