Speed Dating for Wine Hunters
An Exploration of Cape Town’s Wine Bars (Originally published on JancisRobinson.com on 12 August 2019)
In a world of Tinder and Twitter, we seem to have done away with the art of deliberation. Attentions span the breadth of a tweet, and decisions take no longer than the act of swiping right. In this context, winelovers travelling to the Cape often ask me for recommendations on must-visit estates, expecting – at most – a brief Buzzfeed-esque bucket list summarising every last drop of wine “bestness”.This causes me enormous anxiety, as I really don’t want to be that guy, who sends eager-but-underdressed travellers into the misty forests of chilly Elgin, when they were, in fact, lusting after a desert adventure in the Piekenierskloof.
There are about 900 wine estates producing roughly 9000 wines in the Cape Winelands. It’s tough to pick a best bunch even when you know why a visitor wants to visit an estate. Often you don’t. The answer isn’t always just to taste wine. Are they looking for a family-friendly outing or an exclusive cellar tour? A quiet picnic spot, or a biltong and Pinotage pairing? Natural wines? Or wines with rooibos infusions? I seldom have what it takes to find an answer before their eyes start glazing over. Which is why I’ve adjusted my strategy.
Given that the taste of wine delivers sensory revelation far more succinctly than someone talking about wine, I’ve begun to let the wine do the talking. “A good wine should tell you a story,” says many a wine lover when feeling philosophical. And there’s no better place to hear these stories than in a spot where wines literally line up, waiting for their turn to talk (not literally).
So, if you’re on the hunt for your next wine adventure, don’t ask the talky humans for advice. Instead, get to a wine bar, and let the wines open up to you. Perhaps, then, they’ll invite you home to see where they grew up.
Here’s my (ice) bucket list of Cape Town’s best:
Permanently closed – COVID CASUALTY.
The current wine fashion police have tried hard to assert that “bigger is seldom better”. That said, it’s hard to argue against the notion that the largest by-the-glass wine list in the world is a good place to start when seeking an overview of the region. Based at the V&A Waterfront, Balthazar boasts more than 600 wines, and employs a giant nitrogen-based system of pipes and capsules to keep each wine oxygen-free while in service. If you can look past the eerie neon lighting – and the sense that you’re staring at the lovechild born of a night of passion between a Coravin and the human battery factory from the Matrix – then you’re in for a treat.
Top tip: pick a single grape variety, and pit each region’s version against each other (EG order a shiraz from Stellenbosch, Swartland, Elgin, and Contantia). The enormous range here means that you can do this more comprehensively than anywhere else. It’s a great opportunity to test slogans like “Stellenbosch is Cab Country” or “If it’s Syrah, it better be Swartland.”
Permanently closed – COVID CASUALTY.
More introverted wine hunters might prefer a quiet booth at Wijnhuis restaurant, in the southern suburb of Newlands. Their wine list boasts more than 500 wines by the bottle, a revolving range of at least 20 wines by the glass, and a generous spread of older vintages from some of South Africa’s vinifera stalwarts. Old World fans (who may be skeptical of us New World upstarts and our paltry 360 years of winemaking) should try the “WijnSkrum” tasting, which pits local wines against their European counterparts of the same variety.
Publik Wine Bar
Address: 11D Kloof Nek Rd, Gardens
Tel: They’re too cool to have a phone number.
Publik aims to “focus on unusual and interesting wines… made with minimal intervention… so that you can taste the land and not a winemaker’s recipe”.
Now, if you can get past the veritable minefield of viticultural, chemical and philosophical assumptions in that sentence, then you’re well on your way to a great night out. The bar is poky, but well worth the squeeze. Founded by winemaker David Cope, his abundant charisma has enabled him to gather bar staff that manage to embody both technical knowledge, and some level of EQ. It’s not uncommon for your Publik barman to have their WSET3 certification, and will almost always teach you something new, while pouring you something novel. You may not find a single label that you recognise (and you definitely won’t find any medal stickers), but Publik is the premier venue for those seeking to walk the wine route less trodden. While Publik makes no explicit mention of a “natural wine scene”, this place is as close as you’re going to get to it in Cape Town.
Culture Wine Bar
Address: 2nd floor, 103 Bree Street
Tel: 087 898 2206
Situated in Cape Town’s increasingly cool Heritage Square cluster of bagel bars, beer gardens, and artisanal bakeries, Culture is as good a spot as any to start (or end) a night out in Cape Town. While you have to wind up a narrow staircase to reach the bar, everything else about Culture is rather open. The seating area is generous, and the bar staff possess a rather endearing extroversion that makes the learning process far less intimidating for the earnestly inquisitive wine newbie.
Adding to the charm, the Frogitt range of cheese & wine platters and wine & charcuterie boards make it easy to taste a broad range of cured meats, cheeses, and breads from the specialist establishments in the neighbourhood. They also offer a range of new-world and old-world imported wines.
Address: 72 Wale St
Tel: 021 422 0800
Open Wine is relaxed about décor but very serious about wine-making culture. You’d be hard pressed to find a South African wine producer of local or international acclaim that isn’t represented by the glass, by the bottle, or in person (they regularly host winemaker-led tastings). Whether it’s the most esoteric, barefooted, sack-cloth toting minimal-interventionist, dropping off an unmarked crate of something special, or Bruwer Raats himself (Platter’s 2018 Winery of the Year), Open Wine is a welcoming space for a diverse range of South African wine-making styles, and often shines the spotlight on the people behind the wines they showcase.
Cape Winelands Calendar events worth planning your trip around:
- Elgin Cool Wine & Country Food Festival
This multi-venue affair (with shuttles between venues) gives producers free rein to craft their own unique sensory experience. Includes contributions from Richard Kershaw, Paul Cluver, Paul Wallace, Iona, Luddite & Almenkerk. Usually in March/April.
- Publik Wine Fair
Last year saw over 100 wines from more than 30 producers. Like Publik wine bar, the focus is on “minimal intervention” and “natural” winemaking styles. Pencilled in for June 2020.
- Caroline Fine Wine Cellars Red Wine Review
A prestigious affair that features roughly 60 of South Africa’s most revered producers. Each estate showcases their flagship wine, which is always presented by the winemaker themselves. Book in advance to avoid missing out. Usually scheduled for July each year.
- Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show public tastings
The OMTWS is a benchmark showcase for SA wine, founded and run by Michael and Janice Fridjohn. Michael is arguably South Africa’s most experienced international wine judge. The tastings feature every wine to achieve bronze, silver, gold and trophy awards in that year.
- Cape Winemakers Guild Showcase
The guild is home to South Africa’s most exciting winemakers. This showcase is the chance to taste all the weird, wonderful and innovative wines that shape much of the thinking in the South African wine scene at large. Wine groupies, prepare to be starstruck. Usually in August.
- Noble Vice Fest
South Africa’s finest chefs and winemakers come together to deliver an incredible array of wine pairings and taste experiences. Slated for September 2020.
- The Swartland Heritage Festival
Usually held in November, this two-day festival is one of the most sought after tickets of the year. It’s a little more cerebral than other events, with masterclasses, talking corners, and tasting seminars. Catch Mullineux, Sadie, Badenhorst, Porseleinberg, David & Nadia, Rall and Testalonga in action.