ZA: Pizza and Chenin for the people

Perhaps the best autopsy for the recent Cape Wine 2012 jamboree was penned by Dr. Liz Thach MW on Liz makes the point that the SA should “lead with Chenin Blanc. New Zealand took the world by storm with its unique style of Sauvignon Blanc. South Africa should consider leading with its Chenin Blancs, which are some of the most beautiful I have ever tasted. Furthermore, except for the Loire Valley, no other region is focusing on Chenin Blanc to the extent of South Africa.

South Africa has a wide variety of Chenin Blanc styles that should appeal to multiple consumer segments. My favorites are the bone-dry Chenins with a peach nose, mineral palate, and clean high acid finish — wonderful food wines. At the same time, I also tasted some exquisite semi-sweet Chenins with aromatic peach and honey notes that make a great sipping wine. Then there are the fuller-bodied and more serious oaked Chenins with complex flavours that have been developed through oak fermentation, battonage, and malolactic fermentation. These wines give Chardonnay a run for its money.”

ZA, a pop-up Chenin Pizzeria at Food|Wine|Design next month, anticipates Liz, as I reported in the Sunday Times Food Weekly on Sunday. Teaming up with Gianni Mariano of Mastrantonio fame, one of the first people we invited was Charles Banks who loves za so much, he lured Paul Gouveia (below) away from the Temptations of Tulbagh to Mulderbosch, were he now does the business.

IMG 4151 300x225 ZA: Pizza and Chenin for the people

Last month’s Nederburg Auction confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis. Europe has lost its taste for SA wine. Or at least the stuff sold in bottles as European buyers stayed away in droves and those present sat on their hands. The export wheel has turned full circle from the days when Dutch settlers at the Cape sent home barrels of fortified wines and brandy to the Netherlands.

Today 24,000 litre flexitanks – giant plastic bags in container boxes – have superseded 300 litre barrels, so there is no longer a pressing need for supermarket buyers to fly south like swallows to buy the product in something as old fashioned and expensive to transport as a glass bottle. No matter how much the One&Only discounts its suites and how many oysters Nederburg shucks for the supermarket elite. SAA cancelling direct flights from London to Cape Town did not help.

The rules of the game have changed, confirmed on a smaller scale by the abrupt collapse in Auction prices for dessert and fortified wines. Given the new found drink drive vigilance of PC van der Plod, digestives and dessert tipples are disappearing from restaurant wine lists faster than Moody’s downgrades European credit ratings. If Nederburg wants to market its dessert jewels like Edelkeur – the whole raison d’être for staring the auction 38 years ago – it would be better off setting up a restaurant taxi service in Johannesburg. Or thinking of a new route to market.

Mike Veseth, a US wine economist, opened the Auction with advice on how to win the wine wars. Mike arrived in SA on national braai day so perhaps not too surprisingly, one suggestion was SA producers convince Americans to embrace the braai. Which sounds like an invitation for more bulk wine exports.

At the moment 15 of the 16 bottles on sale in Mike’s Seattle supermarket are critter wines – bottles with animals on the label – which are moderately popular as consumers think they’re Australian.

But Wosa wonga and the smoky charms of the barbeque notwithstanding, pizza is as American as apple pie. Always in a hurry, Americans abbreviate them to “za.” Which is the name Gianni Mariano has chosen for his pop up pizzeria at next month’s Food|Wine|Design festival on the roof of the Hyde Park shopping centre.

In the same way that pizza is the people’s food, in SA at least, Chenin Blanc is the people’s wine as it’s the most planted cultivar in the national vineyard and is made in a bewildering variety of styles. The Chenin Blanc Producers’ Association recently hosted a Chenin and sushi pairing at Nobu (pronounced “knob-you”) at the One&Only to showcase “fresh and fruity” and “rich and ripe” styles alongside exotic secrets of the sea. Although at R650 for an omakase (chef’s) selection, quite how much traction this will have among ordinary South Africans remains to be seen.

Pizza is a far more democratic and economic bet and effective marketing vehicle. Even if Neil Grant’s truffle and pancetta pizzas at Burrata lack the Nero-esque charms of Nobu where the waiters shout deafening Japanese greetings at each other in a most alarming way.

But pizza is for plutocrats too, as those unctuous Edelkeur elixirs are sublime with a foie gras pizza. Chenin with serious wood calls for Parma ham or salami at a push while perlemoen pizza and an elegantly Elgin Chenin, picked up on the way to a connection in Hawston, will have Chinese tourists in eighth heaven.

As diverse as Chenin styles are, so too are the people who make them. Like that pioneer of Californian cult Cabernets, Charles Banks, whose Mulderbosch Small Change Chenin is so iconic, Tom Waits wrote a song about it. Chas loves pizza so much he built a pizza oven at his Mulderbosch tasting room and hired Tulbagh pizza chef Paul Gouvea who has come up with a special pizza for ZA.

Wendy Appelbaum semigrated from Johannesburg down to the Stellenboschkloof five years ago to show locals how to make and market Chenin. A move which succeeded spectacularly as her De Morgenzon 2009 was the only SA wine on last year’s US Wine Spectator annual Top 100 list.

Diamantaire Laurence Graff will showcase his Delaire Chenin at ZA and Nederburg cellarmaster Razvan Macici will bring along his 56Hundred. But the most popular combination is likely to be rugby Springbok Schalk Burger matching brother Tiaan’s Meerkat Chenin with a rugby pizza of his own devising.

Christopher Bates, general manager at the Hotel Fauchère in Milford Pennsylvania (90 minutes away from Manhattan) beat off eleven other sommeliers last month at the Mount Nelson to win the title of Best Young Sommelier in the World. His advice to SA wine is simple: “Forget about Sauvignon Blanc and concentrate on Chenin – you have 60% of the world’s Chenin vines already. SA can do for Chenin what New Zealand did for Sauvignon Blanc.” Matched with that classic pizza invented by the UK’s Mr. Wine, Hugh Johnson: gorgonzola and pear.

ZA Chenin Pizzeria will pop up at Food|Wine|Design; Hyde Park Shopping Centre on
Thursday November 22 18:00-22:00
Friday 12:00-22:00
Saturday 10:00-22:00
Sunday 10:00-16:00