I haven’t been to Catharina’s restaurant on Steenberg estate for a number of years, and an e-mail notification of a food and wine evening at the restaurant, pairing a 5-course meal with three Graham Beck and two Steenberg wines, and presenting a meal prepared by the two chefs of the Steenberg estate, attracted my attention. It was an interesting evening, and reflected a number of marriages.
In speaking to Steenberg winemaker JD Pretorius on arrival, he shared a number of interesting changes with me. The most significant is that the two wine-producing wine estates Graham Beck Wines and Steenberg Vineyards, both of which were owned by the late Mr Graham Beck, merged on 1 July, to become Graham Beck Enterprises (Pty) Limited, with its hospitality portfolio of the Steenberg Hotel, the two restaurants Bistro Sixteen82 and Catharina’s, two stud farms in Robertson, and two wine farms in Stellenbosch, all incorporated into the new company. JD also told me that Gary Baumgarten, who had headed up the overall wine production of both estates, will be leaving at the end of October, and that John Loubser will be taking over the leadership. Graham Beck winemaker Erika Obermeyer, based at the Franschhoek estate currently, will move to Steenberg Vineyards, where she will be making Graham Beck wines, given the sale of the Franschhoek Graham Beck property to neighbouring Antonij Rupert Wines, which becomes effective mid-2012. Even more exciting is that Graham Beck will create the ‘Gorgeous’ Bubbly Bar at what is currently a separate function room just outside the main restaurant at Catharina’s, with its own menu, along similar lines to the Raw Bar of Bistro Sixteen82, and paired with a flight of the five Graham Beck MCC’s, Steenberg Hospitality GM Gabi Gramm told me from the table next door. The Gorgeous Bubbly Bar is expected to open in December.
To get back to the food and wine pairing evening at Catharina’s: I asked consultant sommelier Higgo Jacobs why the Top 100 SA Wines 2100 logo was so prominent on the menu. He explained that all five the wines selected for the evening had appeared on the prestigious list of 100 finest South African wines, a competition that wine estates with better wines had voluntary chosen to enter. Higgo is involved in the organisation of the competition, having previously been the full-time sommelier at Catharina’s. He is now involved as a Sommelier consultant to the restaurant, assisting with the compilation of the winelist, and the training of its staff. He also serves on the Board of the recently formed Sommelier Association of South Africa. He trained as a sommelier in the United Kingdom, having left South Africa to broaden his experience, having worked in wine retail, as well as in wine sales and marketing, and having made his own wine . Higgo introduced the evening, and requested each of the two wine estates’ winemakers to introduce each individual wine per course, talking to the pairing with the food as well. JD has worked at Steenberg for three years, while Erika has been at Graham Beck Wines for six years.
Catharina’s is a large T-shaped restaurant, that can be closed off into smaller sections with thick wooden doors. Wood is the decor theme, with wooden tables, logs stacked on each side of the large fireplace playing a decorative as well as a functional role, and a wooden lino cut by Cecil Skotness fitting in with this theme. The historic origin of the building comes through in the windows, but glass doors leading outside are modern. The marriage of old and new is visible on the table too, with a wooden holder on which a glass candle holder, a vase with beautiful red roses, and two small beautifully designed modern stainless steel salt holders, one each containing Himalayan rock salt and the other Maldon organic salt. The tables have overlays in a grey colour, which match the colour of the comfortable upholstered chairs. The ceramic Willowcreek olive oil and balsamic vinegar containers did not match the table décor. Good quality serviettes are folded whenever one leaves the table, and cutlery is attractive German WMF Hotel. The very modern bathroom, with lost of stainless steel too, has mirror frames made from oval-shaped vats, adding the same decor marriage. The ceiling has reeds, with discreet downlighters. Music was a lot of Michael Bublé. Staff wear black pants, white shirts, and grey aprons.
It was interesting to hear that the two chefs on the estate had never collaborated or worked in the same kitchen before, and after the dinner they said that they had enjoyed the experience. Chef Brad Ball has been at Bistro Sixteen82 since it opened two years ago, while Chef Garth Almazan of Catharina’s has worked at the hotel for the past twelve years, clearly loving his job. The first course was prepared by Chef Brad, being a Leek velouté served with a Franschhoek trout brandade (a purée of salt cod, olive oil, and milk) and a tomato crisp.
To this starter JD had paired his Steenberg Vineyards HMS Rattlesnake Sauvignon Blanc 2010, which was made with grapes from Darling, Durbanville and Steenberg, and named in honour of the ship used in the Battle of Muizenberg in False Bay close by. Chef Gareth prepared an Asparagus and goat’s feta risotto served with ciabatta crumbs and shemeji mushrooms. Erika had paired the Graham Beck ‘Pheasants Run’ Sauvignon Blanc 2010 with the second starter, and it was interesting how different the two Sauvignon Blancs were. The grapes come from the Durbanville Fisantekraal wine estate as well as from Darling, picking up the closeness to the ocean, and hence the name given to the wine.
Chef Brad prepared the Roast Cape Whiting, served with a crab beignet, sweetcorn purèe, pommes Duchesse, and harisssa (made from chillies, garlic and coriander) oil, and I was impressed that this dish came with a fish knife, not being common in restaurants serving fish. To this dish JD had paired his Steenberg Vineyards Semillon 2010, and he explained how this grape variety had been the most prominent variety planted originally, but that it only makes up a small proportion of grapes in South Africa. Herman Hanekom, ex-GM of Steenberg VIneyards, had ‘smuggled’ some Semillon from Bordeaux into the country, and it was planted at Steenberg, Boschendal and Vergelegen, all initially properties that were owned by Rhodes Fruit Farms. It is a niche wine for Steenberg, and is also used in the making of its Sauvignon Blanc. The Semillon is matured for nine months, and is a good wine to pair with food.
I was impressed that all food came out of the kitchen on piping-hot plates, the photography and Tweeting time not cooling down the food greatly. Chef Garth prepared an excellent rare Chalmar Beef fillet on cauliflower purée, served with crumbed veal sweetbread, pomme Maxim, and a red wine jus, which came with an excellent steak knife.
Erika paired the steak with Graham Beck ‘The Ridge’ Syrah 2006, and asked Mr Baumgarten to talk about the challenge he set himself to make an excellent Syrah wine from Robertson grapes, when sceptics said it could not be done. Mr Baumgarten and Graham Beck cellarmaster Pieter Ferreira visited Australia, to study their red wine-making. They have not made The Ridge every year since the first bottling in 2006, having skipped 2009 and 2010, due to climatic conditions.
It was interesting to change back to a white wine for dessert, being the Graham Beck ‘Bowed Head’ Chenin Blanc 2009, made from a block of 45 year old vines, that can withstand the heat well. It comes from Agter-Paarl, the grapes having had a little botrytis, is matured in barrel for nine months, and has honeysuckle and citrus notes. The Spring Berry and Mascarpone Soufflé, served with a chenin and berry jelly, was the highlight of the evening, Chef Garth not making it easy for himself in his choice of dessert in baking sixty soufflés. The LavAzza cappuccino, which I ordered with the dessert, was a surprise charge of R15, and was not mentioned by the waiter when ordered, something one would have expected to be part of the R390 price tag.
I will certainly be back to try Gorgeous when it opens in December. The Steenberg Estate is beautiful, an interesting marriage of history and modernity, and decorated with excellent local art. The marriage of Graham Beck Wines and Steenberg Vineyards is one of two outstanding wine brands.
Catharina’s, Steenberg Hotel, Constantia. Tel (021) 713-2222. www.steenberghotel.com. Monday – Sunday, Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage