Cape Town is a veritable hotbed of restaurants of all sizes, cuisines and vibes. The food might be the main attraction of any eating house, but there are several other important factors that go into creating a restaurant that’ll bring people in and make sure they keep coming back. Besides décor, ambience, value for money and service, the wine list is a deciding factor in how you feel about the establishment in question – if you’re the kind of bona fide wine freak who spends more time scouring the wine menu than the food menu, that is.
So what makes a great wine list? It’s not just a case of adorning the list with big names and even bigger prices. Like most things in life, the key is balance. A wine list should be as interesting to peruse as it is delicious to work through. Here are some rough guidelines:
This list is by no means exhaustive and, like everything that pertains to wine consumption, is entirely subjective.
Variety is the spice of wine (lists)
A good variety of producers and varietals is a must on a wine list – but it shouldn’t contain every producer and varietal in the Western Cape. There should also be a decent offering of wines by the glass. Not just a solitary entry-level red, white and rose, but a good selection that includes some pricier wines. Being able to drink great wine without having to indulge in a whole bottle is a big win. A wine list that also includes wine from a variety of regions is even better.
Interesting varietals and winemakers
Tied in with variety is making sure there are a couple of the lesser-drunk varietals on the menu. They don’t need to be as wacky as a Harslevelu or Assyrtiko, but it’s amazing how much a wine list can be improved with a Pinot Noir, a Riesling or a single varietal Cabernet Franc. A wine list should also have a good balance between lesser-known boutique producers and the larger estates.
No longer than a page or two
Reading a wine list shouldn’t be work – if it takes more than a few minutes to skim the entire list, it’s too long. The same can be said for the food menu. As irrelevant as it may sound, how a wine list is designed has an impact on how well it can be understood – especially if the wine list is fairly large. A wine list broken down by varietal, region or by taste trumps lists that are categorised into “red” and “white”, although there’s nothing wrong with doing that if you’re wine list has ten wines on it.
Value for money
It’s not about how much a glass of wine costs, but what you get for your Rands. For a decent wine from an usual producer, anything up to R60-ish for a glass is a bargain – especially if it’s a wine you’d never be able to get by the glass elsewhere.
The vine suits the vibe
It might sound obvious but the wine should suit both the food and the ambience. This can go two ways: a restaurant has an overly stuffy wine list for its theme; or a restaurant you expect more from falls short. The latter is the less preferable option, no doubt.
Restaurants with solid wine lists in Cape Town:
Rua, Wembley Square
Rua has a perfectly balanced wine list that adheres to all of the above criteria for what makes a great list. Highlights include not one, but three Pinot Noirs, Pinotage from Beaumont, Rainbow’s End Cabernet Franc and Steenberg’s 1682 MCC.
Saint’s, Eden on the Bay
You wouldn’t think a place that touts itself as a beer, burger and rock ‘n roll joint would excel on the wine front, but Saint’s offers a succinct and original selection of wines – all of which are available by the glass. Anywhere with Diemersdal and Noble Hill on the menu is a good sign. An impressive and original cocktail list accompanies their large selection of beers.
The Pot Luck Club, Old Biscuit Mill
A little bit on the lengthy side, the Pot Luck Club has a wine list to match its culinary credentials. Expect all the wonderful producers – Nitida, Creation, Iona, Newton Johnson, Almenkerk and Meerlust, to name just a few.
Bocca, Bree Street
A great mix of producers and regions, including a Prosecco from Italy – a great match for the Italian food served. Any wine list with three or more rose wines on the menu is a good news for those who like it pink. Rather than breaking the wine list down by varietal, they’ve segmented the list by style – zesty, rich, aromatic.
Publik, Church Street
Not strictly a restaurant but you couldn’t write a piece about great wine lists without including trusty Publik in it. Their by-the-glass selection changes on a daily basis – expect the unusual and the more expensive wines you’d normally only be able to buy by the bottle. They also have a by-the-bottle only list and a small selection of craft beers. Biltong, cheeseboards and olives come with the wine but sell out fast.
Chalk and Cork, Kloof Street
A compilation of almost exclusively under the radar producers makes for interesting drinking. There’s even a Spanish Rioja to accompany their tapas menu. It’s impossible not to like a wine list that features Raats, JH Meyer, Spioenkop and a Cinsault-Pinotage-Pinot Noir blend.
Charanga, Bree Street
Interesting varietals, a good range of terroirs and a lot of winemakers you probably don’t hear of very often. They also make sure every varietal they offer is available by the glass too. For something stronger, try their South American-inspired pisco sours.