There’s been talk about sommeliers reaching a glass ceiling in South Africa. But Gregory Mutambe, head sommelier at the 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa, says being a sommelier is still a lucrative (and promising) career choice.
Does working as a sommelier still pay in South Africa’s hospitality scene?
Very much so! The hospitality industry has started to value our contributions so much more. We’re the bridge between wine producers and consumers. We’re a source of knowledge about wines at a table. We enhance guests’ experience, while adding financial value to our respective establishments.
Is there a growing culture of sommeliers in South Africa?
When I entered the sommelier sphere 11 years ago, it was my wish that our coterie should be augmented. Now there’s a steady growth in numbers of sommeliers practising their craft locally. With this growth comes the support of establishments who are hiring these trained professionals. However I believe there’s still much room for improvement in this particular area.
As a sommelier, what do you look for in a wine?
GM: Wine is very individual and each wine has a story. Sometimes it expresses its unique sense of place and vintage. I look for its readiness to be enjoyed now and also how suitable it is to pair with the cuisine of the establishment or restaurant. Price factor is another important aspect to consider and how saleable a wine is for the client and restaurant. A wine must be a true reflection of its varietal or style.
What difference does a sommelier make in a restaurant?
We bring in significant beneficial returns to a restaurant. Generation of revenue through sales is an obvious one, but there’s also the gravitas that we bring to the dining room. When guests choose fine dining, sommeliers are the ones who take the dining experience to greater heights. In addition, sommeliers provide ongoing training to staff, thereby investing in the human resource, which is a cornerstone for any business to thrive.
How do you compile your winelist?
You have to curate a list that reflects trends. For instance you must include wines that match the cuisine of the restaurant and cover the diversity of styles and major wine producing regions from both the Old and New Worlds. Being in the Cape, the winelist needs to show a strong local wine influence. Sommeliers shouldn’t bring in wines they personally enjoy, but rather wines that will sell and suit the establishments’ customers.
You also have to work within the parameters of the budget allocated and get the best value for money in the process. There are always hidden gems to be found and there should be a section for “new discoveries” on the winelist to cater for discerning and adventurous wine drinkers. This is always a great talking point for a sommelier and patrons. A well-balanced winelist should have wines with different price points and of varying vintages, some of which will be collectables or well-matured treasures from years back, and some new, younger wines that are just great to drink.
What advice can you give wine producers?
They should grow varietals based on their unique terroir. They shouldn’t have to grow varietals because of trends. They also need to start growing varietals that can tolerate and thrive in extreme and changing environmental conditions.
What wine styles do consumers prefer these days?
This varies immensely, but elegantly wooded white wines such as some Chenin Blancs and Chardonnays are enjoying the lion’s share. Approachable red wines with good fruit concentration and accessible tannins are also popular. There’s a shift among winemakers to produce these styles. This is working at the moment, so it seems sensible to stick to it for now.
Based on trends, what would be your ideal winelist?
Chenin Blanc and Chenin Blanc blends are really trendy at the moment and Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Franc-led blends are making a strong mark. There’s an increase in hectares of Shiraz, which is tipped to overtake Cabernet Sauvignon in the near future. A move towards bottling single grape varietals that are traditionally used in blending is also on the rise, for example 100% Grenache (Blanc and Noir), Roussanne, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cinsault, to name but a few. With vegan menus in high demand, red wines with polished tannins are required to match these dishes.
About Gregory Mutambe
Zimbabwe-born and -educated sommelier Gregory Mutambe has a true passion for wine and food along with many years’ experience in both local and international wine competitions. This has enabled him to compile an extensive winelist for the enjoyment of guests at the 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa in Camps Bay. The impressive winelist he has created for the five-star Azure Restaurant has received various industry awards over the past decade, including maintaining a diamond rating in the annual countrywide Diners Club Winelist Awards.