From 1996 to 2014 - Look at Sommeliers now!

Wednesday, 4 June, 2014
Jean-Vincent Ridon
Jean-Vincent Ridon goes back in time to 1996, painting the scene of Sommeliers in the 90's and the drastically changed South African wine industry.

I arrived at a new frontier, in a new democracy, and became part of a wine industry that had that delicious desuetude taste of a past long gone in all other wine countries. So much could be done.

In 1996 the top restaurant in the wineland was Decameron in Stellenbosch; Franschhoek was quiet even on the weekends and you had to go to Cape Town for any real decent gourmet experience. In 1996 expensive wines were retailing for R39,95 and the Platter’s was a pocket guide that could actually fit in your pocket.

In 1996 South Africa the word sommelier was urban legend, and Germain Lehodey, the most senior sommelier in the country had not yet founded the South African Sommelier Association.

Yes coming to South Africa was certainly something of a time travel into the past.

Back in 1996 the majority of the wine lists were pre-printed for restaurants by conglomerates, which enjoyed a monopoly in national distribution. Whoever travelled to East London or Welkom only had the choice between Chateau Libertas and Nederburg Baronne! There was no real need for sommeliers; clients were so drilled for brand loyalty that new wines had no chance to even be tasted.

Since 1996, not only have the number of wine producers tripled, so have the new offers and new products.

In 1996, Rosé was only semi sweet and a handful of producers were following the Boschendal Rosé sweet leadership. In 2014 you can find more than 100 dry Rosés, perfectly adapted to the cuisines of the world and our Mediterranean climate. In the modern day, the wine lists flourish with exotic names like Malbec, Petit Verdot, Grenache, Sangiovese, Mourvedre, Roussane and Viognier. Some classic clients have lost their marks, but this makes an exciting treasure hunt for the real wine lover.

This is what the sommelier must be: a compass on a newly charted map, not a dictatorial moral preacher.

The restaurant industry and wineries in Cape Town have altered so much in the last 15 years. Classic food lovers are sometimes confused by all these new offers, from Peruvian or Ethiopian cuisine, to the most sophisticated Cape flavoured fusion food. Wine lovers have seen a burgeoning of new independent wineries - all this diversification created a need for guidance and the noble profession of sommelier was re-born.

Sommeliers are actually fairly new on the scene in South Africa, and as it is in human nature, people tend to be scared by novelty. All too often clients fear the sommelier even though it is an irrational fear. The sommelier is not the owner of the truth, nor the leader of your taste - he must be able to surprise and charm your palate even at entry level; diversity rules at all price points.  

A modern sommelier is a guide who knows the food he serves and the wine he has in stock; he is the curator of a collection mastered by a broad knowledge of food and wine. Do not expect him to be a magical blind taster able to recognise a Meerlust 1982 from a 1983!

One should ask the sommelier for help, guidance or an alternative opinion. Eventually the taste of the client prevails, and his budget will always rule as it is the sommelier’s duty to offer the best match the client can afford. Impressing someone with a Chateau Yquem is easy; but offering an unforgettable experience with one affordable discovery should be the duty and challenge of the sommelier.

Sommeliers are here to guide you in this maze, make the sommelier your friend and your wine journey will become far more exciting!

Does anyone else have any "yester-year" memories to share about the wine industry?