Holden Manz has introduced an unusual series of Winemakers’ Dinners, showcasing its own wines against some of the best per variety, each winemaker’s wine paired with a special dish created by new Executive Chef Cheyne Morrisby.  Last night was a magical evening, not only with Merlot being the focus, but also because it was a catch-up Mother’s Day dinner with my hospitality son, who spoilt other moms on Sunday.

Kicking off on a very high note was the 2008 Meerlust Merlot, which was introduced by its winemaker Chris Williams.  He described the wine estate as ‘one of the most iconic‘, awarded in the 1690′s to its first German owner Henning Huysen. He named it Meerlust, meaning ‘love of the sea’, given its close location to False Bay, which impacts on the way that the Meerlust wines are made.  The wine cellar was built in 1694.  The Myburgh family took over the farm in 1756, and its current owner Hannes Myburgh is the eighth generation of the family living on the wine estate, ‘the longest run family business in South Africa‘.    For the first time Meerlust has used grapes from a new vineyard with 25 year old vines next door for its Merlot, with 10% Cabernet Franc added for structure and its ageing ability. He said the result is a wine that is ‘unashamedly classic’, giving a sense of place, developing with age, and pairs well with foods without overpowering them. I loved the old style smokiness of it, and it was my favourite of all the wines we tasted. Chef Cheyne paired this gorgeous wine with a Shiitake mushroom and coconut cream risotto, an excellent combination, which can be ordered in R50/R90 portion sizes on the new Winter menu.

The second wine was made by highly regarded Rianie Strydom, the General Manager and winemaker at Haskell Vineyards, making both Haskell and Dombeya wines at the highest point on the Annandale Road outside Stellenbosch.  Preston Haskell bought the property in 2002, and she joined the farm in 2005, located in what she called the ‘jewel part of Stellenbosch‘.  Dombeya wines were made from 2005 onwards, and Haskell wines from 2007.  The first vines were planted in 1990. She praised the terroir of the farm.  She has created a unique character for each of the two wine brands, Dombeya being an introduction to wine, being for old and young, a lifestyle wine.  It can be drunk now, but can also be aged for six years.  The Haskell wines have her own stamp, are more single vineyard driven, and have lots of tannin, she said.  Her taste for Merlot was developed when she worked with winemaker Jean Daneel at Morgenhof. She said that Merlot is a difficult wine to make, it being a challenge to create a good one.  There are no shortcuts in making it.  It ‘needs love and passion’.  It is fruit-driven, gentle, has elegance, femininity, and structure. She said that not everyone in South Africa likes Merlot, mainly because locals are drinking it too young. Chef Cheyne paired the 2008 Dombeya Merlot with Beef tataki, mustard and mirrin to which sugar had been added, white and black sesame seeds, and micro herbs, a delicious starter which costs R60.

Winemaker Rudi Schulz introduced his 2009 Thelema Merlot Reserve, made from grapes grown on what was previously a fruit farm. The Merlot was first planted in 1988, and a sorting system was brought in, due to the uneven ripening of the Merlot grapes. They have used aerial photography combined with software to identify the perfect areas for picking, going back into a block six times. This means that they cancel out the ‘averaging effect’ in making the wine, and that they can pinpoint ‘pockets of excellence‘.  The 2009 vintage came from a 1,5 hectare block, and they limit the production to ’12 barrel bottling’ for the Merlot Reserve. Holden Manz Sales and Marketing Manager Karl Lambour added that 2009 was one of the best vintages ever. Chef Cheyne paired seared crispy duck breast, a sweet potato and miso pureé, star anise syrup, and watermelon jelly (R155) with this special Merlot.

The 2008 Holden Manz Merlot was paired with Karoo lamb, French trimmed, served with kimchi (a fermented Korean dish made from vegetables and seasoning, according to Wikipedia), and potato dauphinoise (R160 on the menu). The wine was introduced by winemaker Schalk Opperman, who came from Rust en Vrede earlier this year, saying that their Merlot is in ‘showing mould’ already, and that the farm has great potential for Merlot. Schalk and farm manager Thys use technology to pick the best grapes, with aerial photography, but nothing beats ‘walking the fields’ to find the best grapes. The Merlot is well structured, and has good berry fruit.

For the dessert Holden Manz served its new port 2009 Good Sport, which is made 100% from Shiraz.  Schalk used the oldest barrels, and it was aged for 18 – 24 months.  Jeanre-Tine van Zyl also attended the dinner, and it was said that an announcement will be made about the port on 30 May – could it relate to the recent Old Mutual Trophy judging?  The dessert was a deconstructed 70% Belgian chocolate pot, served with pistachio nuts, salted caramel, and honeycomb, having a Christmas look and feel to it. On the new Winter menu it costs R48.

What made the dinner special too was that the owners Gerard Holden (having flown in especially from a meeting in India) and Migo Manz were present, and took a lot of time to network with the diners.  Mr Holden is larger than life, with a very sharp eye, and has been described by Mining Weekly as ‘one of Africa mining’s best-known bankers’. He is an avid Twitter reader, and is well-informed about its political dramas! The politics in Franschhoek do not phase him at all. He was recently invited by wine writer Neil Pendock to join the local Commanderie de Bordeaux, and he proudly wore his lapel pin. No surprise then is that the next Holden Manz Winemakers’ Dinner in July will focus on Bordeaux Blends.

We have written previously about the impact that Chef Cheyne has made in his six weeks at Holden Manz, based on his Sunday tapas menu.  Last night’s Winemakers’ Dinner was an opportunity to try a larger selection of his dishes, with flavours of the Orient and a Pacific Rim twist, all on his new Winter Menu.  Chef Cheyne is a strong character, on the edge, creating some of the best cuisine in Franschhoek now.  The Winemakers’ Dinner offered excellent value last night, with five courses and five wines costing R300.

Franschhoek Kitchen, Holden Manz, Franschhoek.  Tel (021) 876-2729.  www.holdenmanz.com Twitter: @HoldenManz  Tuesday – Sunday lunch, Tuesday – Saturday dinner.

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