*Fuzzy Photos & Unreliable Tasting Notes
A few years ago, while cycling in a roughly Northerly direction from Chagny into the Côte-d'Or, I conceded to myself that I was in pursuit of the Holy Grail. This was a journey that had commenced more than 40 years previously.
The starting point had been subtropical Durban on the East Coast of South Africa.
The sunlit perfection of the Burgundian afternoon, combined with birdsong and the traffic-free roads of Montrachet, gave pause for thought. The clarity of commitment to reaching this milestone began to dawn.
So I like wine, OK? And Shan and I occasionally allow ourselves the luxury of a very special bottle of it. Not too frequently, mind. My dearly beloved has often to content herself with Chardonnay d'Collapso from Tesco's Aussie cellar. Philosophically, we convince ourselves that an ascetic life for most of the time makes the pleasure of a truly scrumptious bottle all the greater once we have assembled enough in the piggy bank for a fine Meursault or Montrachet.
At this point I should pause to salute our friend Joanna who confessed recently that, as a young person on a French holiday with her parents, she had saved her entire per diem allowance for the whole duration so she could buy herself one bottle of Montrachet. You have to know Joanna.
This is leading somewhere. There was one person in particular who fired the starting pistol, sending a couple of naïve Durbanites on their journey. Her name was Solange Raffray and she mentored us through our early strategy of famine and feast. Ascètes for a month in order to become Sybarites for a day.
Actually, thanks to Solange we didn't suffer too much for our ascetic ways.
I'll explain after I get to Le Montrachet.
Such was the allure of this fabled piece of terroir, set by Solange more than 4 decades previously, I had to get there under my own steam in 2017 and return with a fuzzy photo for Shan to improve immeasurably with her Fauvist interpretation above. And, no, they are not lavender fields. Fauvism allows some latitude with colour choices. I feel Solange would have understood.
Returning to our narrative: Shan's and mine started with a courtship that involved a lot of wine. We were young and I doubt we misbehaved any more than most of our contemporaries. A year or so after we married we managed to buy a small house with a small verandah facing the general direction of the Indian Ocean.
Add some hand-me-down patio furniture, a bottle of wine and, depending on the mood, Telemann or Talking Heads on the turntable, and we would talk the night away.
I think Solange might have lived a stone's throw from us but we intersected one Saturday morning just down the hill from our respective homes where a superstore had been erected and dedicated to Bacchus.
Shan and I dropped in to investigate, as you do when you're new in the neighbourhood. Being a sunny Durban morning, I'm pretty sure we were scruffily attired in t-shirts, rugby shorts and slops. It would have been the Summer of 1983/4.
The store was vast with its shiny shelves and fluorescent lighting under which shoppers scurried about, loading their trolleys with trays of Castle Lager, bottles of cane spirit and cases of mixers. It took us a moment before we became aware of a cosy nook complete with more subdued lighting and ambience. There was a woman sitting quietly at a desk. We glanced in her direction and she smiled back.
We were drawn to this haven surrounded by wine that seemed to increase in quality and gravitas as we approached the desk. Before we got there its occupant had arisen and come to greet us. She was immaculate, our scruffiness a foil for her presence.
"May I help you?" her voice was inviting; husky with a beguiling trace of a French accent.
"Actually, we just came in for a look," I replied.
"We've recently moved in to our new house 3 minutes up the road," Shan added and turned to me suggesting, "maybe a bottle of wine for this evening?"
At no point did we feel under pressure or rushed. In fact out new acquaintance seemed to be enjoying the company of the two vagabonds in front of her. After quite a while we were starting to feel embarrassed, taking up so much of her time, but she reassured us. It became obvious that she had already understood a fair bit about our requirements without even a suggestion that we should buy this or that wine.
We did eventually leave with a bottle of white wine to consume that evening. Nothing special but it hit the right spot. By this stage Solange had introduced herself. It was clear she knew more about her subject than anyone I'd encountered previously.
"I'm Shelley-ann and this is Mark," Shan volunteered.
"Enchantée," Solange nodded, "Shelleée and Marque."
Sadly we have never had any of our own pictures of encounters such as these but Solange's family came to the rescue with this one and some others. More about that in Part 2 of this blog. We didn't go home with the Champagne that day, but ...
Hobo Harrisons foraging for their veranda and Solange was not phased one little bit ... a well-trodden path developed between Montana and Montpelier Rd.
Solange did more than sell us the odd bottle of wine, she adopted us.
Saturday mornings became our oasis, something to relish after a week of work and study. I was finally completing my education under my own steam; IT job by day, Varsity in the evenings. It was a lonely life for Shan a lot of the time. She worked during the day but was a study widow by night.
It got to the stage where we'd pop in to Montana in the late morning, peer into the nook and be greeted with "Shelleée, Marque ..." and stories of the latest deliveries. Whenever there was another customer, usually with a lot more to spend than we did, we'd be greeted with the refrain: "Don't go, I'll help this customer first but I was thinking about you this week and I have a wine ..."
We'd wait, happily basking, and before long we'd leave with the latest "find" that our budget could accommodate. Maybe a Rooiberg Grand Cru for R0.99 a bottle. Or we'd push the boat out for something like a Weltevrede Privé for R1.49 ... skande!. My dear wife being solely a white-wine drinker, it didn't often extend to a red but I was occasionally rewarded with something like a Backsberg Dry Red for about R1.55. We seldom bought in bulk. There was no point, it was part of our pleasurable social discourse.
Solange was patient with us and we were learning. We must have crossed the Rubicon (sadly not Meerlust, that was still to come) after a few months. Solange took Sheleée aside and suggested we might like to join Durban's great and good (in wine terms, anyway) for a relatively informal mid-week evening wine tasting at Montana. The perspicacity of the woman was that she'd worked out (maybe with Shan's help) that I wouldn't have to trudge up to Varsity on that particular evening.
Well, it also meant my first outing to a wine gig where I was actually dressed properly. We duly arrived with me wearing my favourite tie. We stood in the aisles of this megastore while our host introduced us to doctors, directors, accountants and lawyers with one thing in common: a love of wine and plenty of spondulix to spend on it ...
Most of those guys knew what they were doing so Solange was our wine-tasting coach for the evening.
So there I was, letting a sip roll around my tongue. It all seemed to make sense. I communicated this with a nod to our hostess.
"But Marque, now you must let it move to the front of your mouth and get some air through it," Solange instructed, "purse your lips and imagine you are whistling backwards."
I think my brain understood the concept but forgot to communicate this to my lips. A fine stream of Backsberg Cabernet Sauvignon squirted out of my mouth and cascaded neatly all the way down my silk tie.
Red-wined and red-faced, I wanted crawl behind the closest row of shelves.
Sheleée and Solange weren't helping, either, now doubled over with giggles.
But Solange was always the consummate professional, constantly solicitous of her clientele as depicted in this delightful photo from a Royal Hotel wine function:
Solange is determined not to spill a drop of what looks like bubbly while she dances across the floor to the table in the foreground. Seated from l to r are Mystery Guest, Megan de Beyer, Gavin Jack and Peter Hoyer. A gold star for the reader who can name the mystery guest.
Our new strategy
Evidently I didn't disgrace myself terminally with the wine-streaked-tie incident. In fact it may even have hastened our progress into the inner circle. The final glass of the evening was a soupçon of Meursault. Shelleée's eyes glazed over. It was the first step in her journey to becoming renowned in concentric circles as "Chardonnay Shan".
Clearly we weren't going to be able to drink the Côte-d'Or's finest every day. Solange nodded, understanding. "This is where I come in. I will help you with a strategy," she winked.
When starting out with FP&UTN it was intended to describe a journey in which the notes became a little more reliable as time wore on. Initially a bit of random awareness had rubbed off from parental consumption during my late teens and early 20s but it was only when Solange came into our lives that we were introduced to the art of appreciating wine.
Our verandah played host (with occasional guests) to a classic blend; fine-upstanding budget (mostly white) wines for 27 days with something special on the last Saturday of a four week cycle. Solange was always careful to suggest, with accurate descriptions, rather than choose the list. Every two or three months our Saturday tipple would be something totally splendid, more often than not Chardonnay from the sainted vines of the Grand Cru plots of Burgundy.
As I mentioned at the outset of this tribute to Durban's doyenne of wine, we have more or less maintained this strategy over the intervening years and the result has been that fabulous wine remains a treat with which to celebrate occasions and milestones.
The names of individual wines from that time have been blurred by the decades but I do remember Solange introducing us to a delicious Colombard and to Allesveloren Tinta Barocca at the budget end of the spectrum. These were grape varieties much vilified during the intervening period but have achieved a Phoenix-like trendiness in the last few years with the new wave of South African winemakers. Our guide had vision.
There were a few of the slightly more affordable monthly-treat wines that spring to mind, viz. Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon, Meerlust Rubicon, L'Ormarins Blanc Fumé and, of course, Backsberg that were particular favourites. A little bit of irony because my dearly beloved "hates" Sauvignon Blanc these days.
The strategy survives in 2017. Evening sunshine with a "lowly" Bourgogne near Beaune and an anniversary Meursault later in the year. Solange would probably not have approved of the glasses and the Meursault was not a Grand Cru but these are the realities of living in a motorhome, especially in one's driveway while renovations are taking place.
We left Durban for the UK in 1987. One the last things we did was to bid farewell to Solange. We had already stashed a case of Meerlust Rubicon in our container, along with a car and all our furniture.
Our mentor was a little subdued at our parting although she was full of enthusiasm for the opportunities it would afford us to visit her beloved France. We said all those things about staying in touch but we were young and I don't think she altogether believed us.
What with the loss of my brother in Cape Town in 1988 and the birth of our cherished daughter in 1989, it was Christmas 1992 before I managed to get back to Durban. The three of us were staying with my parents in Mooi River and Shan and I used the excuse to go foraging for some decent wine.
"Do you know if Solange Raffray is still at Montana?" I asked my Mum.
"I don't think so," she replied. "I believe she has a new place in the Workshop. It's the old railway building that's been done up and all rather swish."
"Sheleée, Marque," Solange cried out as we walked into the Cellar, I thought you were in England now and Woodee lives in Mooi River?"
Solange had found her niche. The Cellar was truly befitting the gracious doyenne of the Durban wine scene.
"What are you doing in Durban?" she continued
"We couldn't possibly have come back to Natal without visiting our wine guru!" we exclaimed.
"You came down from Mooi River to see me?" there was a catch in her husky voice.
"Of course," we nodded, at which point her eyes welled up.
That was the last time we saw Solange. We chose a dozen of the best wines the Cape had to offer before wending our way back up to the KZN Midlands.
"I'm sure Woodee will enjoy those," our mentor waved us goodbye.
Woody did, but not as much as some of the Christmas guests.
"We didn't know you had such good taste in wine," one of the guests exclaimed to my Dad.
Dad accepted the compliment and then glanced at me and added: "Mark went to Durban to get them from Solange Raffray."
The guest nodded, knowingly. "Of course, Solange, where else?"
She had become a KZN institution.
To be continued ...
If there had been one person, other than Shan, I would have wanted to share my successful WSET formal qualification with, it would have been Solange. My original intention was to say a bit more about that in rounding off but recent research has encouraged me to continue into more of a biographical sequel (see below).
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