Stunning wine menu at Marble Restaurant
01 January 1970
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Jenny Crwys–Williams : I’m sitting in a beautiful but not terribly private, private room because it looks straight into the restaurant of the newly opened Marble in Johannesburg. It’s night time, it just looks like a diamond necklace outside, it really is absolutely gorgeous. People are pouring in, it’s obviously going to be a busy night. Sitting opposite me is the sommelier. I’m surprised you don’t have a team of sommeliers and that is Wikus Human. It’s only three weeks old, but you’ve been here –
Wikus Human: Basically from the first of April.
JCW: Putting together a wine list and all I can see out here are fires burning and meat being cooked on the fires and fish being cooked on the fires. But the menu has changed and you must have worked, to a certain extent, in the dark. How did you put this list together?
Putting Marble’s wine list together
WH: We started off with a whole selection process of this list. Putting together a wine list seems like something easy to do when you have a blank page. But if you look from the start, selecting whites, selecting reds, looking at the big hitters, we try to focus on wines that come from certain areas. We look at our cooler climates, we look at the hotter climates, our elevation levels down in the Cape. That’s how we basically made the selection for the wine list.
Onto the white side, I think we focused on a bit more cooler climates. We looked at regions like Elgin, we looked at Hemel en Aarde for the Chardonnays. On the red side we focused a bit more on Paarl and Stellenbosch.
It comes down to, you have so many whites that you want to select. We also did a lot of tasting. In the tasting, I think if we tasted about five years ago, out of 10 wines, you might have liked three. But currently, nowadays, all the guys from the Swartland and the people from Elgin are just coming up with such beautiful wines. That if you taste 10 wines, there’s definitely nine you’re going to enjoy.
Throwing one or two off, or throwing five off is quite a difficult decision to make. We did a lot of tasting, myself, David and Ronnie. A lot of late afternoons, lots of spitting. What we came down to is a wine list which we think is a sustainable wine list.
There’s some nice big hitters on there, but we’ve also got some weird and wonderful things on it that people don’t know about. What I try to do as a sommelier, I don’t want to let the guests think that they have to spend a lot of money to enjoy good wine. I think you can get great value for money wine at a very affordable price and even have two bottles at the table.
I think on the wine list, it’s an ongoing thing, we’re going to change it every three months. I want the guests to walk in and say: I haven’t seen this on the list last time, let’s give it a go. Just to keep it fresh and inspiring. We’ve got vintages on, we’ve got some older vintage Sauvignon Blanc’s. It’s 15 years on a white wine and people like to inquire about when we opened it. It’s just such a joy opening such an old wine and the appreciation that you see for these wines are absolutely amazing.
Some varietals that are unique
Onto the reds, we’ve got some very cool stuff from Adie, we’ve got some Barbarossa on the list, he’s the only grower in the southern hemisphere of Barbarossa which is quite interesting. If we look, we’ve got some stuff from Fledge & Co, which is from Riebeek West.
JCW: That’s almost like a cult wine, those wines are cult wines aren’t they?
WH: Basically and it’s such interesting things that come from that area. Leon Coetzee and them doing stuff from that area. Onto other things, we’ve got the big hitters on, we’ve got some Waterford, The Jem, Kanonkop, Paul Sauer, Shiraz, you’ve got to have these big things on.
But then there’s smaller guys like de Trafford that not a lot of people know about, the CSE Syrah, which comes from three different locations. Some from the Malgas location, which is quite cool. Which people don’t know about and these wines.
In the opening, people ask, I’ve never tried it before, but they absolutely enjoy the wine. That’s why I’m there as a sommelier, to take the wines to the table and say: Good evening ladies and gentleman, did you order it because you know it or are you trying something new. About 90% of the time people say: We don’t know about this wine, but we’ve ordered it. That’s where the story comes and you tell the people about the wine. The wine is just so much more appreciated and learnt about.
JCW: Is there a discernible trend about people either trying off their own volition or being led by say a Somm, to trying some of the more unusual varietals in South Africa. That up until now have probably been used for blending. I’m thinking of some of the Portuguese varietals, some of the Spanish, the Italian, the south of France varietals, is that making a mark at all?
People are eager to try new varietals
WH: I think the varietals, that I saw as quite consistent, is Pinot Noir is shooting up quite a lot. But people are also tending to go for Cinsault, which is basically up and coming and now trending. As well as Riesling and Viognier.
People are going a bit away from the Sauvignon Blanc side, more to the Chenin, Riesling and Viognier side. It’s just to tell them, you’re having some fatty meat, you can have a Riesling with pork belly, it’s the acidity in the wine is going to cut through the fattiness. They are really not scared to try these wines.
As long as you know the wine and know the story behind the wine. That’s where all the tasting happened behind the scenes. We’ve got a story to tell about each wine. This is how you can basically invite the people to enjoy an unfamiliar wine easily and put them at ease when ordering the wine.
JCW: There is a trend, not just in South Africa, but internationally, to drink lighter red wines. Our summers or certainly our summer both in Cape Town and Johannesburg last year, the temperatures were just insane and I was drinking red wine throughout. But I chilled it because the wines were lighter. I’m a great fan of Paul Cluver’s Pinot Noir. That I just served chilled and it was wonderful. Is that happening as well do you think?
WH: Definitely. If you think about ‘by the glass’, we put a little bit on chill, the Pinot Noir that we do by the glass. We also do put a little bit on chill and the guests are absolutely enjoying it. With the white wines I’ve actually asked the guys, because it’s a fire restaurant, just turn the temperature a little bit down. So that when the wine leaves the cellar, by the time it gets to the table, it’s not room temperature, it is a bit chilled.
But it will open up once the course is served. Starting off with a bit of chilled wine and people are actually enjoying it, it’s hiding a bit of the alcohol and the tannin. But red wine can be enjoyed cool, I 100% agree. Especially if you’re eating fish as well. At Marble we’ve got everything, vegetables, fish, meat. I 100% agree with you.
A well constructed and easy to follow wine list
JCW: Essentially it’s a very simple menu though isn’t it?
WH: It’s very simplistic, we don’t want to go over the top with the menu. I think when you open a menu and you’ve got too many choices, it doesn’t put you at ease what to order. You’re a little bit too scared. Same with the wine list. We stuck to 50 white and 50 red, excluding the champagnes and the international wines. But just to narrow it down, it’s easier.There’s about three Merlot, you’ve got a choice, you don’t feel over-pressured. There’s seven Merlot, what do I select?
When I get to the table, the guests have already basically made up their mind. But there’s always a chance of telling me, you’re familiar with this wine for instance, but have a go at this one. It’s running at this vintage, this is where it’s from. It’s the same with the wine list and the food menu. It’s just making it a bit more simplistic and putting the customers at ease, to feel comfortable when they come into the restaurant.
JCW: Having said that, I’m just looking at the red wines and I can’t count them. I don’t know how many there are per page, let’s say there are 20 per page –
JCW: I would say 45 going on 50, there are. Because you’ve chosen 50 for each. That’s a lot of red wines to work your way through, especially if you’re not familiar with them.
WH: I think, as I said, on the red wines, we’ve got the Merlot, we’ve got the Cabernet, we’ve broken it down quite easily on the wine list. It reads nicely underneath each other. So there is quite a bit of red wine to work through.
But that’s why, when a customer looks at the wine list, he sees Merlot and that’s where we come in as sommeliers. Basically recommend something or come and put the customer at ease and help them out with their selection.
JCW: If you had to choose a wine from your wine list that is not particularly common and you particularly like, what would it be, give me a red and a white.
My unfamiliar suggestions
WH: On the whites, I’ll do the Thorne & Daughters, the Rocking Horse, that’s a beautiful Ruson blend, a bit unfamiliar. Especially to the guests and it’s one of the top sellers at the moment. The people say they’re looking for a white blend and just mentioning the word Ruson, what’s that? It’s an amazing blend, it’s got a bit of weight to the palate, it pairs up beautifully with fish and a starter.
Then onto the reds, it’s basically allocation wine from Duncan Savage called Follow the Line. It’s a Cinsault blend and beautiful telephone line on the front label. The name is on the back of the wine, so people just stand at the bar and it’s actually in the window and people look across and they see this white label and the first thing is they call the sommelier, who knows the wine. Just explain to us what this white label is.
That’s been flying off the racks at the moment and I’m trying to hold some back because it is allocation wine but it’s absolutely amazing wine. Once again, a softer red wine, not over the top. But it has that tannin to hold up with the meat or a little bit to go with fish as well.
JCW: There’s something, I think you can say, for everybody on this list, plus some international wines I see?
WH: Definitely. We didn’t start off with a big international selection. I think SA makes superb wine, on the champagnes we’ve got a good, I think it’s about 12 champagnes on the list. We didn’t want to go over the top with the champagnes.
We’ve got one Rosé on and the rest is all different brutes, sweets, Demi-Sec. Just not to go over the top with the champagnes. Then onto the internationals, focus on key areas. We’ve got a big hitter like a Chateau Palmer on, but not all five of the first grapes. We’re taking it slow for now and rather focus on what we do in South Africa.
I think the winemakers really put a lot of effort into their wines these days and really try to experiment a little bit and the young guns coming up. Giving them chance to let the people in SA taste our wine in SA and not just hit with the international market.
JCW: I’m just looking at two things because I’m also interested in prices, I guess everybody is. I’m just looking here at a South African Pinotage, it’s Kanonkop, it’s the Black Label Pinotage from Stellenbosch, R3 800. Half of Johannesburg have fallen out of their cars because they’re so horrified. Because they didn’t ever think that a South African wine would reach R3 800, but that’s just beginning. Then I look at another one which is an international Pinot Noir and that’s R4 650. We’re pairing, when you reach a certain level of grand cru wines, shall we say, they are running alongside each other in terms of price.
WH: I 100% agree. I think in SA we don’t have an allocation system, or a premier cru or grand cru system but I don’t think it’s needed. If we can compete with these international wines and even if you look at the wines that’s on some of the wine competitions these days. The SA wines are pairing up great against the international wines on Chenin Blanc level, sparkling wine level. We are just matching it up in the ball field at the moment.
I think the South African wine industry has grown in the last 10 years immensely. It’s changed so much. As I said in the tasting, if you would have tasted 10 years back 10 wines, you would have selected one or two you liked. Taste now, you’ll like nine or 10 of the wines, or all of the wines, you wouldn’t dislike one.
I think the wine industry has grown a lot and moving forward, this is just the beginning. I think if we can compete with the international wines now, further down the line, we’ll maybe have our own grand cru system and premier cru system, maybe have some first groves in SA, you never know.
JCW: I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, thank you very much indeed. Of course I want to drink my way through it, not all at once. But lovingly, over a period of time. But that’s not really going to happen because you’re changing it. Is it ever season you’re going to change, or tweak?
WH: We’re just going to tweak it. The stuff that moves will of course stay on and the big hitters, but every 2.5 months we have added vintages onto the wine list. Which is quite a daring stunt to do cause it changes quite often and you never get informed about a change, so that’s quite difficult.
You want to keep it fresh, every 2.5 months, we want to give other farms a chance as well. With the opening list I am very happy, but I think when the next list comes out, there’s going to be a few very rare things on. It keeps it interesting for me as well as for the consumers. If you want to work your way through, come a lot, come often.
JCW: Wikus Human, thank you very much indeed and good luck.
WH: Thank you so much, thank you for the opportunity.