The Mount Nelson Hotel has been running a series of monthly ‘Wine and Dine’ dinner and wine pairing evenings for years already, and I attended one such dinner a few years ago.  On Friday evening I attended the dinner paired with Neil Ellis Wines, giving my Huguenot High School classmate Neil some moral support.  It was a lovely evening, good value at R395 for six courses, and a generous supply of six Neil Ellis wines served.

The dinner was held in the Garden Room, in what appears to be the last bastion of history and tradition at the Mount Nelson, the room having inherited the mural that was previously in the Cape Colony restaurant, which is now called The Planet restaurant.  It has an impressive central chandelier, and the chairs come from the Union Castle, I was told by Mount Nelson Hotel Concierge Osnat Gropper, who shared the table with me.  She also told me that the room was used as the location for Nelson Mandela’s office and the place where Mandela dances with Graca Machel, in the movie ‘Invictus’. 

We started the evening with a welcome drink of Neil Ellis Groenkloof Sauvignon Blanc,  in the modern Planet Bar, served with interesting canapés.   It was a good way to meet some of the forty or so fellow diners, and included the very bubbly Melissa Nelsen, maker of Genevieve MCC, which is listed at the Mount Nelson, and her partner Leon.  It was also a chance for a catch-up with Neil, whom I had last seen at our 40th matric anniversary in November.  Executive Chef Rudi Liebenberg talked though his menu, and was followed by Neil, explaining each of his wines.   Neil impresses with his humble presence, and he told us that he learnt that the best way to winemaking is the ‘long road’, or the scenic route’.  There are no short-cuts, he said, in making a good wine. Neil Ellis Wines processes about 700 – 800 tons of grapes per year, coming from Darling, Stellenbosch, Elgin and Piekenierskloof.   Neil was the first winemaker to make a certified Elgin wine in 1990.   He told us that he loves ‘femininity’ in a wine, and that is how he makes them.   His first job in 1974 was as winemaker at the KWV, after finishing at Elsenburg, and it was in the ‘Eighties that he followed his dream of making his own wines.  He also told us that he tries to do a Wineless Monday, having bottles of wine on his dining table every other day, some being his own and some other brands, some local, and some international.   His son Warren is a winemaker and viticulturist in his dad’s business, and his daughter is representing the brand on the Garden Route.

The first course was a trio of duck, served with apple gel and parsnip purée, and was tiny portions of lightly smoked duck, duck rillette and duck liver parfait.   Although the bread basket had a selection of breads, no toasted brioche was served with the starter.  The seed roll did not suit the excellent parfait.  This course was served with Neil Ellis Vineyard Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2006, which was highly praised by the white wine drinkers.  Neil described it as being ‘open, unobtrusive, with minerality’, and he felt the wine to be a good match with the duck.

An odd pairing was the rather salty kabeljou with seaweed crust, served with a white mussel and prawn chipolata and buttered endive,  with Neil Ellis Vineyard Selection Pinotage 2009.  We laughed when Neil read a quote by someone else about Pinotage: a strong purposeful wine, with a lion’s heart and a woman’s tongue, which will help one fight the devil for ever!  An unreleased Neil Ellis Muscat Chardonnay 2010 was served with an unusual spiced coconut and coriander soup, containing coconut slices, and hints of garlic and ginger.  It was served with spinach tempura, one leaf placed in the bowl.  The wine was made from Elgin grapes, and Neil described it as accessible and young, with hints of Turkish delight, and not having an oak influence. 

Prior to the serving of the main course, the tasting was interrupted with an unusual glassful of orange and spice tea, perhaps intended as an appetite cleanser.  The small portion of grilled springbok loin main course was good, served with an unusual black pudding, turnips, potatoes and brussel sprouts, and was a good pairing with the treat of a Neil Ellis Vineyard Selection Cabernet 2005, the best wine that they make, Neil said.  It is made from grapes that come from a single vineyard block in Jonkershoek.  It has elegance, with notes of cassis, dark fruit, and mint. 

The most unusual dish of all was the ‘Cheese in a cup’, which was a melted mix of Farmhouse Cheddar and Cumin Boerenkaas, and served with the breadbasket again, one dunking the bread into the cheese liquid.   I really liked the Neil Ellis Aenigma 2007 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, which was served with the cheese course.  Speaking to Chef Rudi later in the evening, he said that he likes to challenge his staff to come up with something unusual on the cheese courses, as this course sees so little creativity.   The dessert was banana and chocolate ‘stuff’, as Chef Rudi described his dessert at the recent Multiple Sclerosis charity lunch at Grande Provence.   The dessert wine that Neil had chosen was Laborie’s Pineau de Laborie 2011, a potstill spirit uniquely made from pinotage, Neil said.   A pretty collection of friandise was served with the coffee, which we shared with Melissa and Leon, and Neil came to chat too, the highlight of the evening.

The more I thought about the dinner on the way home, the more I felt that the Dine side of the evening was a let-down, compared to the stature of the Neil Ellis wines, the Kabeljou being unacceptably salty, the dessert being a messy mix of chocolate items, and the soup being unspectacular.  The Cheese course was the highlight, in being so unusual.  Unacceptable for a five-star hotel was the stretching of the waiter to place the fork, when he could have walked around to place it on the left.   The Mount Nelson Wine and Dine evenings are an excellent way in which to get to meet and chat to the winemaker, and to get an idea of his/her personality.  It was commendable that Chef Rudi did the rounds amongst the guests, when he had finished the food preparation.  He and Neil have a similar more reserved and unflashy way about them, just getting on with what needs to be done.  I enjoyed chatting to Osnat, and getting to know more about her, the Mount Nelson Hotel, and the Orient Express group that the hotel belongs to.

Mount Nelson Hotel, Upper Orange Street,  Gardens.   Tel (021) 483-1000  www.mountnelson.co.za

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  twitter:@WhaleCottage