Artist’s Palate: the story of a natural-born sommelier and winemaker15th Oct 2017
Most people who drink wine can tell if it tastes of vinegar or paint stripper, and most can also recognise when it’s rather special, when it dances on your tongue, making all your synapses sing in harmony. But we usually can’t say why.
And that’s okay, because we can enjoy good wine without analysing the pants off it. But we do tend to get stuck in a rut – you find something you like and just keep on buying it. Nothing wrong with that either, but you are missing out on one of life’s great adventures. So to find out more about the magic of wine, and the sheer miracle of actually being able to identify the different nuances, I chatted to multitalented wine lover and sommelier extraordinaire Joseph Dhafana.
Joseph was born in Zimbabwe, and fully intended to stay there – until drought, politics and sheer economic desperation drove him to South Africa. Soon after arriving, he found work as a gardener at a restaurant in the pretty little Swartland town of Riebeek-Kasteel. And that’s the last time he’s ever asked for a job. It wasn’t long before he was washing dishes in the restaurant, and then working as a waiter and at the bar.
Basically, every time he was asked to fill in or do something different, he smiled and jumped right in. It was while working in the restaurant that he noticed something interesting about how, when and why people drink wine. Somehow people who drink wine as opposed to other drinks always seemed happier, more social. Wine, he surmised, was about friends and family. So he decided to find out more – by drinking wine for the first time at the age of 28.
He didn’t really enjoy his first glass but, still believing it was something special, he persevered. “When people are drinking wine they are interacting, they are happy. Wine is a language that people from all corners of the world can speak,” he says. He moved to Cape Town, enrolled at the Cape Wine Academy and started working at Aubergine Restaurant as a barman. He made full use of his time there, taking every opportunity to learn from chef Harold Bresselschmidt and sommelier Howard Booysen.
Joseph then went back to Riebeek-Kasteel and worked at the Royal Hotel as manager and sommelier. He decided that, to really understand wine, he needed to know how it’s made. So he spent some time with Chris Mullineux of Mullineux Family Wines. Joseph helped him with the harvest and watched him while he was making the wine. The following year, 2014, he bought half a ton of shiraz grapes and, using some cellar space at the Antebellum wine estate, he made a batch of Syrah, which he called Mosi after the Tonga name for Victoria Falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya.
Tunya. The same year he partnered with Antebellum’s owner, Herman Redelinghuys, to make a Chenin Blanc called Fraternity. He was still working at the Royal Hotel when he was offered the sommelier job at La Colombe in Constantia, an offer he just couldn’t refuse.
One of Cape Town’s top restaurants, La Colombe offers huge challenges and opportunities for a young sommelier. One of the first things Joseph did – together with general manager Jennifer Hugé – was to pare down the wine list. It was a difficult job, as there were no bad wines in the list – it was just too big.
The year 2015 was disappointing for Joseph as, due to the drought, he couldn’t buy grapes to make wine. But he was invited to be an associate judge for the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Challenge, which inspired him to enter the South African wine tasting championships and put his palate to the test. He made it into the top ten in the Western Cape, went on to compete in the nationals in September, and came third countrywide, securing himself a place in the national team.
Wine tasting competitions are an extraordinary test of the sensitivity of palate, memory and possibly also imagination. For example, Joseph explains how he can recognise a wine from the Swartland by the minerality – he can taste the decomposed granite and shale. Now if that all sounds like science fiction to you, you’re not alone. But these top wine tasters can tell extraordinary things from the taste of a wine.
For the national competition, they had to taste 12 wines from eight countries in two hours – and identify the country, the region (origin), the year (vintage), the varietal (e.g. syrah, cabernet) and the producer (the farm or winemaker). And the wines could be from Italy, Chile, New Zealand, California, South Africa, Australia, Spain – eish. Almost anywhere that good wine is grown.
So, in October last year, Joseph went to France with team members Veronica Plaatjies from Mosaic Restaurant and Anita Streicher-Nel from Morgenhof, with manager Ralph Reynolds (sommelier at Karibu) and coach Jean-Vincent Riddon, the owner of Signal Hill winery in Cape Town. It’s the third year South Africa has competed in the World Blind Tasting Challenge, and they did us proud.
With 140 points, Spain was the outright winner by a good margin. Scoring 105, Belgium, Sweden, Andorra and France came in next. And then, not far behind with 98 points, was South Africa, along with Russia, the UK, Poland, Portugal, Quebec and Finland. European countries dominate the tasting championships, which is not surprising as sommeliers in these countries have access to a particularly wide range of wines.
The wines tasted were:
• Pinot Noir, France, Champagne, Bollinger Grande, année 2005
• Pinot Noir, France, Champagne, Bollinger Grande, année 2005
• Sauvignon, New Zealand, Hawke’s Bay, Te Mata, 2013
• Riesling, Germany, Pfalz, Friedrich Becker Sonnenberg, 2011
• Malvasia, Croatia, Istria, Kabola, Unica Réserve, 2009
• Assyrtiko, Greece, Santorini, Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment, 2014
• Sangiovese, Italy, Chianti Classico, Felsina Berardenga, 2012
• Mourvedre, France, Bandol, Château Vannières , 1998
• Pinotage, South Africa, Franschhoek Valley, Chamonix, 2012
• Grenache, France, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2007
• Tempranillo, Spain, Castilla y León, Quinta Sandoria, 2006
• Sémillon, France, Sauternes, Château Climens, 2008
• Grenache, France, Maury,Mas Amiel, 2006
How many of those do you think you would have guessed? Probably not many, because we in South Africa don’t get exposed to as many imported wines – and there’s a good reason for that. The price differential is enormous. When you can buy a good South African wine for R100 or less, and a fabulous one for three or four times that, why would you spend hundreds or even thousands of rand on an imported wine that may turn out to be no better? “A decent bottle of wine in South Africa is as good as a decent bottle of wine in France,” he says, adding that “there there may be a difference in the premium wines”. But then you are talking serious money!
asked Joseph what his plans are for the immediate future. He said he wanted to stay in South Africa – at least until he felt it worth returning to Zimbabwe, pointing out that there are no sommeliers in Zimbabwe and that guests at the very upmarket Victoria Falls hotels just have to choose their own wines.
Does he envisage becoming a winemaker? He said that making wine was not something he had considered as a profession. He does it because he likes it – and because he can. He will continue to make Mosi if he can source some grapes, and he will carry on making Fraternity – it’s selling well and is even on the La Colombe wine list. And now he’s making another Chenin Blanc in Paarl along with two colleagues from La Colombe, both waiters who have never seen grapes harvested, and have no experience in winemaking. They’re going to call it Affinity. But it will be hard. It’s been a tough year with the drought, and extracting wine from this year’s crop, he says, “is like being forced to run a marathon with a terrible hangover and a baby on your back”. I smiled at that, and realised how much it illustrated Joseph’s feelings about wine. “Wine,” he says, “is not made just to be consumed. It’s also a way to convey a message. Wine has a story to tell. There is a story in each and every bottle of wine.” And that’s why he enjoys designing his own labels – they’re part of the story.
So, while he could probably make a living as a winemaker (and even as a graphic artist translating the story on the taste buds into images on the wine label), he is happy and fulfilled as a sommelier. It’s an underrated profession, he says. You need to study, you need to know every single wine in the cellar, understand its moods and know what food it will get on well with. And you have to think on your feet. But he loves the challenge and he loves the interaction with guests.
He also feels proud that he is, in essence, representing the winemakers to the consumer. Wrapping up our chat, he gives credit to the winemakers and farmers, but even more so, to the unsung heroes, the farm workers who tirelessly nurture the vines through heat and cold and drought. “Vines,” he says, “are like human beings – they need to be looked after very well. If you don’t feed your children with good food, they will die. Same as what happened this year with the drought.” So he ends by saluting the farm workers who prune the vines, feed them and probably stop just short of singing them a lullaby every night.
There are so many great South African wines it’s hard to choose, so we asked Joseph to give us a selection of his personal favourites – not in any particular order. And, of these, he suggested that the best to buy as investments would be the Sadie Columella and the Warwick Trilogy.
Mullineux & Leeu Iron Syrah 2012 (Swartland)
Warwick Trilogy 2009 (Stellenbosch)
Sadie family Columella 2007 (Swartland)
Eenzaamheid Shiraz Mourvedre Cinsault 2011 (Paarl)
Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2012 (Franschhoek)
Spioenkop Riesling 2012 (Elgin)
Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 2009 (Hemel-en-Aarde)
Tierhoek Grenache Noir 2011 (Piekenierskloof)
Eisen & Viljoen Normandie 2011 (Francshhoek)
Arendsig Chardonnay (Robertson)