Bringing up the House: When the minds of chefs and winemakers meet to elevate your restaurant experience

Sunday, 6 May, 2018
Malu Lambert
The dance between food and wine is a central act in most good restaurants. Any chef or restaurateur worth their salt understands the need to get this right. That is if they want to create something more than just a meal out.

The often murky—and sometimes financially motivated— politics of how restaurant winelists are built, notwithstanding, some restaurants dig a little deeper into the hospitality quagmire and produce ‘house wines’ in collaboration with winemakers they admire. Pairing food and wine, sure. Pairing chef and winemaker, even better.

One of the first places I encountered a wine made in conjunction with a restaurant was at Franck Dangereux’s Foodbarn. Made by JD Pretorius of Steenberg, the wines are styled simply as either the Foodbarn Red or the Foodbarn White.

When asked why he put in the effort to create house wines with a top winemaker, rather than just listing something suitable, Franck says: “For me the house wine is far more than a listing. It’s an opportunity to sit, taste and catch up with our winemaker friends, and bottle something delicious, uncomplicated and quaffable.

On the wines he chooses for this JD says: “They are all small volume wines that would get lost in another blend, so here they can shine on their own. This year we have a sauvignon/semillon blend as well as a Bordeaux-styled red: both are big and flavourful but not too demanding to have by the glass for lunch.

“The main challenge is not to make the wines too serious. We can get carried away very quickly!”

JD says wines like this can help make a winelist more interesting. “I know the restaurant trade is tough and relentless. But there is no reason why every restaurant can’t have an interesting wine or two on the list, we have them at all price points.”

Another restaurant bringing up the standard of its house wine is The Pot Luck Club in a vinous alliance with Elgin wine estate, Almenkerk.

“We had a meeting on the type of wine that they were looking for; it had to please most palates, but had to reflect the elegance of the Elgin cool climate for which we are known for,” explains owner of the estate, Natalie Opstaele.

This resulted in the the Pot Luck White, a 100 per cent sauvignon blanc as well as a red blend, The Pot Luck Red, a blend of predominantly syrah and merlot with smaller components of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.

On the topic of house wines in general Natalie presses the point the home: “restaurant house wines are too often cheap plonk that the restaurant makes a quick buck off. The choice of your house wine should not be considered lightly, and its price point should not sit at the bottom of the range either. If you put your hard-earned name on a bottle of wine, it had better be something you believe in.”

A little further north, James Diack owner and head chef of Coobs Parkhurst staked his wife’s name on it.

“To make our house wine we worked with our good friend Danie Steytler Junior from Kaapzicht,” says James. Danie made up individual barrels from the 2016 harvest with a general idea of what we wanted, which was a light but flavourful table wine. We then invited a group of friends, family and Coob’s regulars to make up their own blends using the individual components. ‚ÄčThe final blend was chosen blind—and it just so happened to be my wife’s, which led to the name ‘Pettirosso’, which is Italian for Robyn.

Restaurateur Neil Grant (of Burrata, Bocca and Open Door), who is also a sommelier, knows a thing or two about putting together a winelist. He went to Richard Kershaw of the eponymous wine brand to produce a chardonnay and then to Newton Johnson for a pinot noir, which are both bottled under the label ‘In Cahoots’, which go under his Sommelier’s Selection on the list.

“It comes down to the relationships I have with these producers, as the name suggests, we do it together. It tells a story!” enthuses Neil. “It’s so much more than just choosing a wine from a portfolio, and it offers the guests something unique.”

How would he encourage others restauranteurs to follow suit? “It’s tricky. You often find a lack of interest from the owners or operators when it comes to creating a bespoke wine list. It’s this reason why we have wine distributors compiling winelists and other restaurateurs charging listing fees and so on. Perhaps I should charge my food suppliers listing fees… can you imagine then how boring our food menus would be?”

Another chef-patron taking his winelist very seriously is Harald Bresselschmidt of Aubergine, who has a whole collection of tailor-made wines that fall under the label of ‘Aubergine Cuvée’.

“Working with winemakers allows us to tailor the style of the wine to suit our cuisine,” says Harald.

And what wines: he’s worked with the likes of Spioenkop for riesling; Migliarina Wines for chardonnay; Bruwer Raats for cabernet franc; Teddy Hall Wines for chenin; The Winery of Good Hope for Pinot Noir, and many more.

When it comes to the winemaking Harald says he makes sure he’s a part of the blending process. He also looks at ‘concept wines’ for winter or summer; as well as aged wines, “our Cape Blend is from 2001 for example,” he illuminates. “And one of our chenin blancs was from a forgotten barrel at Joostenberg. We use it as the cheese course wine in the degustation menu. It’s these considered approaches that help our winelist to be what it is.”

Creating wine experiences like this can’t help but sound, well, expensive. How does it make financial sense? Harald underlines that it’s all about the longterm:

“It is obviously an investment, but doing it this way also keeps the prices at bay for a few years. As an example, let’s say I have bought 1200 bottles sauvignon /semillon and we can sell that over a few years—the wine gets better and the price stays the same. All one has to add is the inflation.”

While making your own in-house wines as a restaurant is certainly something to aspire to, it’s of course, not always possible. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a list with interest, one that elevates your food offering.

Harald has some good advice: “Have some age on your list even if it is just a few whites and reds amongst others, you can always find them from producers in smaller quantities. Plus we have enough producers on the market, which produce small batch wines, you just need to find one you like and create your own label for it.”

Restaurants need to ask themselves the question: are they in the business of serving food and drinks, or are they in it to create food and wine experiences for their diners? If it’s the latter, then the winelist matters, and it matters a lot. That last piece of advice you can have, on the house.