South Africa has 12 public holidays, which theoretically means we have an extra day off every month of the year. However, it doesn’t quite work out that way, because of a concentration of holidays around March and April. We’re also really good at watching the calendar, so when a holiday falls on a Thursday it’s an open invitation to take Friday off work and turn the whole thing into a bonus long weekend. When holidays fall on Sundays we get the Monday off.
If the country – and by that I mean our economy – is really unlucky the March-April period will have several holidays falling midweek. Then newspapers carry stories about how much this productivity interruption is costing the country. I can’t say I entirely understand how one calculates this in an environment where unemployment is as high as it is here. If the economy were running at full capacity (which it isn’t) there would be a cost as a result of lost production or overtime pay.
I’m sure South Africans aren’t very different to the nationals of any other country around the world, in that few people pay much attention to the issue or person being commemorated. Whether one calls them public holidays or bank holidays the nett effect is the same – they’re a perfect excuse to have a long lunch with friends.
We didn’t – in all honesty – expect our friends to stay quite as late as midnight when we invited them around for lunch on 9 August 1995, the first instalment of National Women’s Day (commemorating the 1956 march by 20 000 women on the Union Buildings). It was an epic day that involved numerous plates of food, much laughter and very much more wine – so much, in fact, that one of our number tried (and failed) several times to get to work the next day. When he did finally make it he was incapable of doing anything other than lie under his desk with his tie over his eyes while his boss brought him tea and dry toast. Another guest was the producer in charge of a multi-million rand film shoot, but was unable to budge from the minibus. Except for the year when I did a passable impersonation of a first year university student, by depositing the contents of my stomach on the streets of Grahamstown, those heights (or should I say depths) have not been reached again.
The principle of the Annual National Women’s Day Lunch is fairly simple. The lunch rotates between four hosting couples. The hosts invite four guests, bringing the total to 12. Each guest brings at least one bottle of wine, conforming to the credo “only Grand Cru will do”. Initially this was read to mean Grand Cru Burgundy, but is now taken to include Cru Classé from Bordeaux, as well as wine from any other region in the world which can be regarded as being similarly iconic. Everybody brings reserve bottles, and the host may well supplement from his own stocks during the course of the day as the need arises.
Sunday was the 15th instalment of the ANWDL. Eleven guests (one had to pull out at the last minute) made their way through a fantastic line-up of wines. I’m not going to list, nor comment on each wine, but there were a few notable moments.
Before I get to those, I need to add that no-one has advance knowledge of the menu. Everyone pitches up with these amazing wines; there’s a short discussion over serving order, and then we get on with it. Tasting all those wines is much like the excitement of opening presents on Christmas Day.
The second course was rehydrated salt cod in a rich sauce of red wine and black olives. Some people had held back their La Doriane (a Condrieu from Guigal), which proved that white wine and fish are not necessarily a felicitous match. On the other hand, the 2004 Syrah from Du Mol (Russian River) was fantastic with the fish, largely due to its savoury character that was almost olive-like in its minerality. Poured at the same time was the very fine Jim Barry McCrae Wood Shiraz 2001, which didn’t work as well with the food perhaps due to it being more fruity than savoury.
Food could not be blamed, though, for the disappointing performance of the 2006 Corton-Bressandes from Domaine Jacques Prieur. In my view this wine was Grand Cru only in name; the finish was short and the overall impression of the wine rather dilute. Seeing this bottle the host then reached into his own stocks and produced a bottle of the 1996 vintage of the same wine. This was an entirely different creature, a worthy representative of the appellation.
Another highlight was a half-litre of Solera 1928 Maury, a sweet, fortified, sherry-style red wine. There is not sufficient space here to go into the detail of its manufacture, which in any case is told so well by Jancis Robinson (read it here ). This wine blew me away. Sure, I wouldn’t (couldn’t) drink more than a glass at a time, but its deliciousness was a joy. And to think that were it not for a wine merchant poking his nose around where most people wouldn’t bother, the world would never have experienced this delight.
Considering the length of time it has taken to make the Solera Maury – and how delicious it is – it could justifiably be sold for very much more money. Furthermore, it is unlikely that anyone would ever embark on a commercial exercise to make such wines ever again, so it makes sense to stock up now.
The first little bit of wine I tasted, when I was about three or four years old, was a muscadel jerepigo made by my grandmother, Margaret de Wet (née Farrington). While I then had no idea of the significance of a woman running a large-scale farming operation in the late 1960s, fortified wines have pressed a special button for me ever since.
My grandmother was an amazing woman. When my grandfather died unexpectedly she had the responsibility of four children, of which my mother – then 15 years old – was the oldest. She politely declined the offers made by neighbours to farm on her behalf, choosing instead to take on the challenge herself.
In the early 1960s that was not the kind of thing that women did, but she pulled it off. Despite thumbing her nose at convention she didn’t want to stifle her sons, nor to subject them to the indignity of working under their mother. As soon as they’d finished studying she moved off the farm, leaving them (in their early twenties) to get on with making an even greater success of the operation.
I’ve often thought how selfless an act this was. When she moved off the farm she was in her early fifties – from a career perspective in the prime of her life.
This bottle of Maury came from a barrel that was first filled when my grandmother was a child, and topped up solera-style in the decades since then. While it was unquestionably coincidental that someone elected to bring this bottle it gave me cause to toast a remarkable woman.
Even in our reverie there was reverence. The broader essence of the day was not lost.