Rockford Stone Wall Table
Those who know me know there are two things I value in life above most everything else – good grub and good booze. It stands to reason then, that a seat at the Rockford Stone Wall Table is for me, what rolling around in excrement must have been like for the black pig we later ate. The Rockford Stone Wall Table, for those living under a rock, is considered by many to be the crowning jewel of culinary experience in the Barossa, nay, South Australia, nay, the whole of Australia – and rightly so, it is bloody excellent! Sure it’s a bit elitist (but don’t we all know someone with a Stone Wall membership?), it’s a bit pricey (well, it is for some – the guests’ combined income today would have been in excess of the GNP of some small nations…like Britain, so they were fine) and it’s a bit wanky (despite Robert O’Callaghan’s insistence that there be no wine-wank at the table…c’mon…this whole set up is a wank-fest) but we love it. My first Stone Wall Table experience was with esteemed chefs and “Krondorf Garden” caretakers, Michael Voumard and Ali Cribb at the helm. The meal was the best dining experience I have ever had by a wine-country mile. It was like a natural crescendo of waves rolling in and breaking on the beach as a storm is brewing, or watching a flower open in the morning sun as dew drips from it’s petals, or like sitting on a bean bag with your eyes closed inhaling Pink Floyd. The entire experience had such a natural progression to it. Nothing tried too hard, or was too much like this, or not enough like that. It just was. And it was perfect. It may well have been the greatest day of my life (sorry kids!). Michael and Ali have since departed to New Zealand and in doing so left some awfully big artichokes to stuff. Enter Sandor Palmai and Lauren Remkes, the new guys – with resumes that include 1918, Neil Perry’s Blue Water Grill, Mona Lisa’s, The Landhaus, Barr-Vinum, Sebel Playford and Georges, they are of an exceptional pedigree. With my previous experience being so ridiculously amazing, the mouth-watering anticipation leading up to this one perhaps doomed it from the start. Don’t get me wrong, this time round was still fantastic….but it did fall a little short. We started, as is the norm, in the Stone Wall tasting room with Rockford Black Shiraz in glasses designed especially for this drink by SA glass artist Nick Mount. Red wine soaked grissini was provided as nibbles as we all began to gather in the small room by the open fire. Such is the combination of a hot, roaring fire and slightly chilled, delicious bubbles that 16 strangers became well acquainted within a few minutes. The Rockford Black Shiraz is a standout wine in Australia – arguably the best red bubbles we produce. I am a massive fan of this wine and always feel I am involved in something really special when it hits my lips. Velvety, black currant and dark chocolatey goodness.  It’s not for everyone however, and whenever I pour my old man a glass he wishes I would shake it up a bit first to piss off those annoying bubbles that ruin an otherwise perfectly good shiraz. Each to their own. After sneaking another glass or two (thank you Sarah Chipman) we were ushered out the tasting room, under the, some call charming, rusted iron gazebo (just because it has not been maintained well doesn’t mean it has rustic charm – it’s a bloody health hazard – what if it stabbed me in the throat? When was the last time you had a tetanus shot?), to the dining room where we were welcomed by our host, Christian Watkins.  Hi everybody. Hi Christian. First up was Ribollita; a beautifully delicate soup made with fresh veg and legumes. They had also thickened it up with some bread. Thank goodness, cause there is nothing I hate more than having to use a nice thick slice of freshly baked crusty bread to mop up my soup. Accompanying the soup was the 2006 Local Growers Semillon. This is a sensational wine, nice citrus with almost nutty overtones – best white of the day. Next up was a Baccala Gratinata with a Fennel Salad and a Lemon Zabaglione. This is a traditional Italian fish bake usually using salted cod soaked numerous times to remove excess saltiness – today the fish was flathead. While the flesh melted in your mouth and the creamy potato and crusty top were amazing, the saltiness got to me. Baccala Gratinata is salty by nature, and the Italian girls on table said that this one was less salty than what they remembered as kids….but it was too much for me. The fennel salad was lovely – fresh and zesty but it did little in context. The Lemon Zabaglione further confused the course for me – too much tang, not enough sweetness to balance out the flavours on the plate. The 2003 Eden Valley Riesling accompanied this course. This is a classic, well-structured dry Riesling.; apple-blossom and citrus with underlying mineral flavours. As such, it probably didn’t pair that well with the saltiness. After the minor disappointment of the previous course my excitement for the next course began to rise. After all, I was reliving the best day of my life – surely there was heaven on a plate coming my way. It was a Confit Duck Salad with Beets, Radicchio and Red Onion. There was a lot going on in this dish and I’m not convinced it all worked. The duck, while flavoursome, was a little tough, the greens teetered on the edge of too bitter (and I do like bitter greens), the beets were a little bland and the pear was almost too sweet and strong in contrast. Having said that, the accompanying 2002 Rifle Range Cabernet Sauvignon was the standout wine of the day.  On it’s own it’s a cracker – with black and red berries, fine-tannins and excellent mouth-feel, but the way it balanced out that sweet pear in the salad was something else. An absolute winner of a pairing. Enter the super-hero of the day – Braised Berkshire Pork with Fennel Seed and Chilli Soft Polenta. This was exceptionally exceptional. The pork was succulent, melt-in-your-mouthy-goody-yum-yum with little flecks of borderline gelatinous fat fringing each perfect morsel. The sauce in which it was braised was rich and indulgent without being thick and gluggy. Absolutely stunning. With the pork being the super-hero of the dish it needed a Robin sidekick. What it got was an Iron-Man. The polenta was overly rich and over-the-top (and I’m pretty sure the actor playing the part of the polenta had a massive drug problem in the 80s). The pork and accompanying sauce was rich enough all by it’s little piggy self. I’ve since fantasised of how a simple fennel seed rice would have celebrated the pork in a more fitting manner and provided us with a nice starchy something-something to soak up that beautiful sauce. The 1997 Basket Press Shiraz was served up with the pork. It worked well – the Rockford’s Basket Press Shiraz is consistently exemplary – a classic Barossa Shiraz. width=300 Dessert was a Persimmon and Walnut Tart with White Chocolate and Lime Ice Cream. I’m not a big dessert guy but this dish was the perfect finish to the meal. It wasn’t too sweet, it wasn’t too rich, and it grounded the palate beautifully after the dance-party it had careened through earlier. The 2004 Cordon Cut Semillon provided the sweetness for those that needed it. It was lovely but after all the richness of the day I didn’t enjoy it as much as in the past. width=150 After finishing our desserts and coffees/teas/stickies, we trundled back up to the Stone Wall tasting room for a wee nip of Rockford’s VP and some more treats. I was keen to check out the 2006 Moppa Springs and the 2003 Hoffman.  Both are drinking well. The Moppa Springs really is your perfect all-purpose everyday wine – medium-bodied, earthy and honest. The 2003 Hoffman is perhaps the most ridiculous wine I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. It is the Lady GaGa of Barossa Shiraz. It is MASSIVE. You don’t so much taste this as it smashes you in the face with a cricket bat. Velvety, blackberry and currants, even a bit of leather and liquorice if you’re into that sort of thing. Smooth, amazing mouth-feel and thicker than two planks. Absolutely sensational. And then it was over. Whilst some of the food didn’t quite live up to my expectations, I have to say that this entire experience is of bucket-list proportions. You’re not just getting a feed, you’re getting history, tradition, enthusiasm, passion and a soul-nourishing good time; you’re getting a story to tell. It is an homage to kicking it old-school, Barossa style. Robert and his staff must be congratulated for persisting with this iconic dining experience. With the departure of Michael and Ali it could have died, but in Sandor Palmai and Lauren Remkes, along with a new garden team, they found a new generation to carry them into the future. To coin a phrase of another Australian icon, do yourself a flavour.