I walk into a cellar-like room stacked with wine bottles on the walls. There is an intimate, long banquet table centre-decorated with roses.
It has cutlery and two wine glasses for each of the eight diners. A celebrated sommelier sits on one side, an executive chef occasionally pops in to explain the intricately plated foods as waiters remove, add cutlery and glasses after every course.
In a new world of catering for privacy-conscious families or to those that would not want to mingle with other diners in a pandemic, especially during holidays, or groups that want to master the art of wine-pairing, the private dining market is evolving fast.
At Hemingways Nairobi, laughter fills this small private room looking like a dining room at home.
It is a private wine-pairing lunch at the Chef’s Table where a sommelier is teaching how to appreciate top-ranking South African wine with a five-course meal.
“First, hold the glass by the stem, move it away from you, tilt to the level of your bosom. Then stick your nose in the glass to pick the first aroma, because what you smell is what you will taste on your palate,” says Victoria Muli-Munywoki, a sommelier who made a name in Kenya’s wine industry and does private tasting in restaurants and homes.
“Swirl the glass. Sip the wine and swirl it in the mouth like mouthwash so that you fully taste its flavour. Don’t just swallow the wine immediately it hits your palate. If it dribbles it’s fine you are among friends,” she continues.
This is how you know if the wine is worth buying.
After learning why a Chenin Blanc from South Africa is perfect for pairing soups and light-starter meals, Hemingways Executive Chef Archie Athanasius steps into the room to explain what is on the plate in front of us.
We are starting with a lobster espresso, served in a dainty glass and has a piece of edible blingy paper-like gold. It is paired with Creation Chenin Blanc, a young wine, about a year old. I take a sip of the lobster espresso, it tastes like seafood. And the edible gold, well, I cannot explain the taste. The wine is amazing.
The second course is an artistically plated beef steak tartare and carpaccio, a rare combination because these raw meats are mostly served separately in fine-dining hotels. The tartare, a raw version of steak ground into fine pieces, has no raw egg on the top, luckily. It comes seated on the carpaccio with Parmesan cheese shavings and an edible purple dragon flower.
I love the meats when I mix them in my mouth with the Glen Carlou Pinot Noir, following Victoria’s wine and food appreciation tips keenly. The South African wine complements the flavours in the mouth.
“This is the first time we’ve combined the Italian (beef carpaccio) and French (beef tartare) meats. The Chef’s Table allows me to work with gourmet ingredients. I get to show off my culinary skills,” says Chef Archie.
Richard Kimenyi, the general manager of Hemingways, adds that Kenyans nowadays want unique experiences, making private dining popular.
Kenyans want an opportunity to interact with the chef’s talent, learning about inspiration for each course, and getting to know the face behind the food.
They want a chef to present the food together with in-depth stories about each dish, an expert sommelier to describe the wine as they participate in the conversation. And in private dining rooms, no one will complain if you laugh a little too loudly.
The conversation shifts back to the sommelier. It is red wine this time, a Glen Carlou Pinot Noir, served with the second course.
“Before we start, swirl the wine in your mouth to taste the tannins. Feel the sensation in your gums. Is it dry? Pinot Noir is the most elegant red grape variety. It does not obscure the flavours of food. It is also the most finicky, growing it is extremely difficult and most vineyards have a small yield. Select a wine that has low tannins but high in fruit to enhance the red meats,” says Victoria. Tannins have age-defying components and help in digestion.
“We all know meat takes long to digest. Red wine and meat are great because it accelerates digestion,” says the former investment banker, who is now a wine consultant.
This red wine is light and requires chilling before serving, adds Rosa Ali, a wine lover and an importer of South African wines, under Wine Routes company.
“This is a young wine. We have others that are oaky, barrel-fermented, chocolatey. A Glen Carlou Pinot Noir is a wine you can easily drink like white wine and enjoy any time,” she adds.
For the longest time, Rosa says she did not understand Pinot Noir. She felt like it was a complex wine until she found the right one. There are very few Pinot Noirs in the Kenyan market that show off well.
We enjoy the elegantly flavoured tartare while talking about how to open wine bottles while twisting the lid from down, why Africa does not sell and buy more from Africa winemakers, how Morocco sells its wine to France, and it is re-bottled and sold in Kenya, to how one Kenyan orders boxes and boxes of Glen Carlou Pinot Noirs from South Africa.
A majority of Kenyans drink South African wine, followed by wine Argentina and Chile. Kenya ranks as the fourth export market for South African wines, according to a Quantec 2021 report.
“Some of the most expensive wines in the world are Pinot Noirs and they last decades. It is a worthy buy,” Victoria adds.
The waiters bring more glasses, pour Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc, and place the third course meal in front of us. Diemersdal is one of the most popular Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa.
The chef’s creativity is on a new high. A greyish-blackish-triangular piece of food is served with asparagus and dragon fruit sorbet. In Nairobi, the dragon fruit is rare and expensive, he says. I cut through the triangular dish, revealing cheese, coated with Panko, a Japanese-style breadcrumbs, mixed with burnt French beans charcoal. This meal is delicious.
“Asparagus is one of the most difficult food to pair with wine. The best pairing is with Sauvignon Blanc which is the most acidic white wine varietal but for those watching their waistlines, it has the least amount of calories. Highest acidity but fewer calories so you have to choose what gives. The acidity in this wine cuts through the Camembert cheese,” Victoria says, adding, “If looking for wines to pair with something fatty, go for acidic ones to help cut through the fatty taste, speed up digestion, and cleanse the palate. Remember pairing has a lot with choosing wines that leave your mouth feeling clean.”
We are on our fifth glass, generous pours by the way, and this time a Tokara Rose, but we are hardly tipsy or have the headaches that sometimes sneak in while drinking some wines. Tokara vineyards are owned by one of the wealthiest families in South Africa. It has the bestseller wines; the vineyards in the Stellenbosch Mountains are worth adding to your travel list.
“Kenyans frequent Tokara a lot,” says Rosa.
“Drinking wine while eating is an experience. You rarely get drunk unless you drink on an empty stomach. Good-quality wine is like the intellectual part of the meal,” she adds.
The best Rose is the pale one, with an onionskin colour. Rose is also best for drinkers who are not sure whether they love red or white wines. “In Kenya, Rose is drunk mostly by men,” Victoria says.
The fourth course, which is the main course, arrives. It is filet wrapped in bacon, served with scallops, salmon caviar which is orangish in colour, blackish risotto which got its colour from squid ink. There is also butternut squash fondant. This meal is paired with two wines: a Meerlust Merlot and Meerlust Rubicon Red.
“This is truffles and mushrooms mixed, cooked with squid ink and olive oil. The beef is wrapped in bacon, a little bit of cream and butter, and salmon caviar on the top of scallops. Enjoy,” Chef Archie says.
Meerlust Rubicon Red is made using three grape varieties, making it uniquely flavourful. It has a long finish, meaning that it is top quality.
“If you drink wine and the flavours linger, then that is a long finish, an indication of quality wine,” Victoria says.
The last course, a chocolate sherbet dessert, is paired with a Meerlust Chardonnay.
Having tasted lots of wine, what is Victoria’s favourite?
“A Shiraz, the cooler the area it is grown, the better. No two Shiraz are the same. They go well with food. For whites, I love Riesling,” she says.
For Rosa, it is a Viognier, a white wine grape variety.
After five hours and 51 minutes, having drunk wine from eight glasses, eaten with seven spoons, forks and knives, the wine pairing lunch is over.
How do you know what you like in wine and how to pair it with a Christmas lunch?
“Close your eyes, swirl the wine to aerate it, releasing more of its aromas, take a sip and pick a taste that tantalises your palate. Make sure no wines overpower the flavour of the food,” Victoria says.