Belthazar on tap

Wednesday, 21 January, 2004
Graham Howe
World's largest wine bar opens at V&A Waterfront
By Graham Howe

A showcase for Cape wine at the V&A Waterfront, Belthazar claims to be the largest wine bar in the world. It said so on the advertising posters plastered like a veil of secrecy that hid the contents within for months, and is highlighted on the impressive wine list now that it is open. The ambitious claim is somewhat of a talking point in local wine circles - and seems to have succeeded in attracting scribes curious to test the veracity of this vinocerous theory.

Apparently, it's not the size of the interior that counts in terms of square meters - it's the number of wines on tap. Ian Halfon, co-owner of Belthazar, carefully qualifies it as the biggest ‘wine by the glass’ wine-bar in the world. He comments, ‘in traveling all over the world looking for wine bars I've never seen a wine bar in Europe, Australia or America that has more than 30 wines by the glass. We will offer 80 - 100 wines by the glass on a continuous basis, all served in Riedel glassware.’ I have to admit that in my own travels north and south, it is the biggest wine selection I've ever seen by the glass.

Well-named after the King of Babylon who ‘drank wine before the thousand’ and gave his own name to 16 bottles of wine in one, Belthazar is no misspelling. (Try saying Belshazzar after a few glasses.) I counted seventy of the Cape's finest wines on tap in a space-age wine cabinet. Over a random tasting of wines opened over the course of the past fortnight, we found that the aroma and flavor of some of the Cape's flagship Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon, Viognier, Pinot Noir and Shiraz were as fresh as if just opened under our noses. (Each bottle has a neck-tag showing date of opening.)

Once you've opened seventy bottles of wines, the problem is how to keep them all in pristine condition - which is why most of us tend to drink one bottle at a time at home. In a lesson in state-of-the-art bar technology, I was shown around a star-trek refrigeration cabinet with dual temperature and humidity controls for white and red wines - which utilize nitrogen-infused technology pioneered in the USA over the last two decades. (Apparently, winemakers use the same technology when filling wine bottles).

What's more, the wine stays in perfect condition for up to six weeks after opening - with taps with one-way gas-flow gauges that replace the oxygen in each opened bottle of wine every time a glass is poured. Good old Yankee ingenuity at work for Cape wine.

Belthazar is ‘the realization of a lifelong passion’ shared by three young entrepreneurs - Jonathan Steyn, Doron Duveen and Ian Halfon. A lifelong collector of fine wine, Halfon says he buys the rarer vintages on the wine-list of Belthazar and Balducci's (its sister restaurant) at the Cape Winemakers Guild and Nederburg Auctions - having attended every year since 1988. The self-made restaurateur who started his career as a student selling candyfloss now operates the St Elmo's franchise throughout Southern Africa - but still serves table at his flagship Balducci's twice weekly in his inimitable hands-on style.

On my wine tour, Jonathan Steyn showed me the walk-in temperature-controlled vinoteque, one of the chic design features of the warehouse-style restaurant and wine-bar. The Belthazar trio searched the winelands for the Cape's finest - and designed a wine-list that lists over 400 wines going back five decades. With up to thirty wines of each variety from signature producers and all of the Cape's flagship red blends, they have devised an ambitious wine-list with easy-to-read vintage and critical ratings, awards, wine style and food pairings. Every glass is served with its own neck-tag listing the wine and vintage.

Asked about the economics of serving wine by the glass, Halfon comments, ‘There's more to the concept than pouring wine into a glass. It's about the quality, service and experience. We only use the finest Riedel glasses and have invested R2,4 million in the wine alone.’ Well, how much? After all, for some local consumers, the cost will be the bottom-line. A generous 250ml glass of Slanghoek Vinay costs R24 (80 per bottle), with most white wines in the R30-R50 range per glass. A 250ml glass of Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap costs R28 per glass (R85 per bottle), with most red wines priced from R30-R60 per glass. A Riedel glass rack and steam spray make sure the glasses are squeaky clean.

Halfon emphasizes that locals and tourists want good food, good wine and good service - and will pay a reasonable asking price for premium quality. He says Belthazar is a key window for the wine industry, a major investment and a showcase that will help to market Cape wine at the V&A Waterfront, the country's premier tourist destination.

Photograph: © Dirk Visser

· Belthazar Restaurant, Wine Bar & Grill, Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town.
· For table reservations: +27 (0) 21 421-3753
· Open daily from noon until late. See www.belthazar.co.za

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and www.blog.getaway.co.za - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."