I was recently in Johannesburg for a few days on family business (I’m happily now returned). That included Celebration Number One. Quite apart from anything else the visit usefully reminded me of how much I prefer Cape Town – though if I’d returned to this evening’s windy winter nastiness, instead of Sunday’s sunny warm loveliness, I might have felt a bit less benignly loyal towards my adopted hometown.
Johannesburg family celebratory dinners out are usually held in a Sandton restaurant called La Campagnola. Nice Italianesque place, which I used to think of as being moderately priced – but the prices seem to have jumped a bit. There were 18 of us on Saturday night (three generations) which meant a not inconsiderable bill. I believe.
The winelist has always been good at La Campagnola – it tends to get glittery awards from those rather boring organisations that hand out such things despite my refusal to believe that anyone actually notices. Despite the good list, and my longing looks at the more interesting stuff, unfortunately, when I’m choosing family wines (and one brother only drinks beer, I confess, and just a few of the younger generation are genuinely-ish interested), I feel obliged to go for cheaper stuff, especially as I’m happily not paying the bill.
I was pretty shocked to find on this visit that La Campagnola’s wine list has abandoned giving vintages! Appalling! I hope that this change – presumably to savee them a bit of money and bother – will result in some severe downgradings in their awards.
On behalf of our two large tables, I ordered the Secateurs Chenin Blanc – always brilliant value whatever the vintage (and the Campagnola markup is pretty modest), and (because I reckoned on a thing or two) the Morgenster Lourens River Valley. The latter turned out to be, as I’d expected from previous experience, the 2003, still drinking very nicely indeed. But no uninformed diner have realised this mature bargain from the mute winelist.
Why do Johannesburg diners-out accept this degraded winelist, I wonder? No I don’t really, unfortunately.
I had a brilliant main course at la Campagnola, probably the best plateful I’ve ever had there – a perfectly cooked, very rare piece of salmon, with perfectly calculated (and perfectly undercooked) snap peas. The tiramisu to follow was delicious but a bit too soft – but I believe that anyone who orders tiramisu has no right to complain about anything (perhaps like anyone who orders merlot to drink?).
By the way, the other totally contemptible thing at La Campagnola is the presence of a large video screen in a corner advertising the glittery jewellery that is apparently available from the restaurant. How crass can you get?
My second recent celebration was more solitary (blissfully so, I confess!). Celebration Number Two marked the end of my Platter tastings (apart from the five star shootout in early September). All done! (Well, almost, I learnt today of one more wine coming in tomorrow – but I rather look forward to that one.) I counted my notes, and I tasted about 350 wines this year – more than previously, but less than I was expecting to have thrust upon me. A dozen or more wineries had no new vintages to offer, and many others didn’t offer their full complement. Times are hard for most wineries, and they’re far from selling out in a year.
I repeat that the Platter experience is a marvellous, though sometimes arduous one. New owners of the guide, Diners Club, cut their payment rates this year, which is a predictable but rather contemptible pity (it lost them at least one good taster) – but I confess that the possibility of tasting all those wines in the comparative leisure and luxury of my own time and space outweighed the idea of just reward. I’ve had some truly excellent and wonderful wines this year, one or two of which have brought tears to my eyes, as well as some utterly dreadful stuff which brought contempt to my heart. And a whole lot of good, indifferent and bad stuff inbetween, of course.
The celebration of finishing is at least partly that now I can return to my customary evenings of drinking the wines I choose, rather than feeling either too vinously exhausted to open something else, or too guilty at the sight of all those open bottles, or feeling morally and professionally obliged to try that raw young shiraz – or even sauvignon blanc! – once more. Older or foreigner stuff had to wait for rare special occasions.
I had, of course, to move far from the Cape for my celebration wine, and settled on a bottle of increasingly rare old-fashioned Rioja. (Most modern Rioja tastes like most modern red wine from just about anywhere, which is, I suppose, why it sells better.) Vina Tondonia Reserva 2001 was as wonderful and unique as I knew it would be. I drank it from a burgundy glass, for some reason. Don’t know why – it just seemed to be part of the celebration, and it worked just fine.