High Timber is a South African restaurant delicately perched on the north side of the Millennium Bridge, close enough to one of London’s landmark river crossings for diners to enjoy a delightful walk from the South Bank without the need to negotiate traffic, yet far enough away for it to be all-but impossible to actually find. I went on the night of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, which had been conducted round the corner at St Paul’s Cathedral earlier, and feared the place would be full of FW de Klerk and his chums, coming down from the emotional fireworks of the service in the company of some steaks and the occasional boerewors. Instead it was at best half-full; perhaps they’d got lost.
It was a night not just for eating South African, but drinking South African. A handful of wine merchants were there too, and had brought some of their favourite themed offerings, and we sat along the length of a generously-proportioned table and helped ourselves. The food was OK, and not enormous. The wine was excellent, and extremely plentiful. This left all present in a dangerous predicament, and I didn’t handle it well. I’ll cut a long story short: reader, I got drunk.
The cheapest wine on the table cost £10.75 a bottle, more than twice the average price of a bottle of South African wine sold in the UK (which was £4.68 the last time I looked, though there’s been another tax hike since). The most expensive costs a shade under £60 (the thrillingly good Mullineux Schist syrah). We got, in short, the good stuff. Most of the whites were blends taking chenin blanc as a given and then throwing in anything else that was handy at the time – sauvignon blanc, viognier, clairette blanche, chardonnay, rousanne and semillon all made an appearance in supporting roles. Some of these whites were very good indeed. The reds were fairly evenly divided between Bordeaux-style blends and syrah-dominated blends, with just one example of South Africa’s signature grape, pinotage.
(The pinotage was produced under the label Elemental Bob, the side project of Spookfontein winemaker Craig Sheard, who puts crystals in his wine barrels to improve their energy, or somesuch. It’s made in tiny quantities – just 400 bottles – and has a good story but I fear is one of those wines which is immeasurably improved by meeting its maker, and otherwise seems a bit expensive at £25.)
Wines of the night, then: I liked the Cape Point Isleidh white blend, a sauvignon/semillon that costs £31.99 from SAWinesOnline.co.uk; Cartology, a chenin/semillon blend that is refined, mineral, complex and very good value if you can find it at around £22-£23, and Mullineux white blend, a chenin/clairette/viognier (the latter, though just 9% of the blend, seemed to the fore) also very good value at £13. Of the reds, MR de Compostella, a blend of equal parts merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, with merlot and petit verdot sharing the last quarter of the blend, struck a fine balance between fruit and structure (£39, Handford wines), that expensive Mullineux syrah (their basic syrah is also excellent, for a similar price as the white), and the one I kept coming back to, BLANKbottle black, mostly syrah with a bit of other stuff, a soft, welcoming and all-round excellent wine from the fashionable Swartland (£25, or £23.75 by the case, Stone, Vine & Sun). The label, unsurprisingly given the wine’s name, is almost entirely black. The venue, I’m afraid, was almost entirely dark. This picture is the best I could do. If you’re unimpressed I do recommend that you buy some yourself and take your own photographs, it really is phenomenally drinkable.