Sipping with South African Sommelier Thato Goimane

Thato Goimane is proof that a sublime wine palate can be developed. Unlike many South Africans, the head sommelier at one of South Africa’s most exclusive hotel resort complexes, the super-luxury Palace at The Lost City, was not born to wine.

Never did he imagine when he left school and got a part-time job working in a bar that by age 30 he would be traveling the world tasting and buying wine and advising the rich, the famous — and regular folk like he once was — on what wine to pair with foods from caviar to curry.

Until recently, Goimane was head sommelier at Durban’s five-star boutique Oyster Box Hotel where, just last month, Prince Albert II of Monaco (son of the late Grace Kelly) and his new bride, former Olympic swimmer Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene, held a grand honeymoon party.

Goimane was brought up in Soweto by a domestic worker mom and grandma who were astonished to learn a school existed (the Cape Wine Academy) that taught students how to drink alcohol. The 31-year-old is proof that wine appreciation can be learned. The journey has made him cosmopolitan, urbane and knowledgeable. It’s given him a career he is deeply passionate about.

He talks about the language of wine in poetic terms. He sees romance in the ritual — pulling the cork, pouring, the sensual experience of eyeballing the wine in the glass, nosing the aromas, savoring the nuances of the flavors; and all the while remembering previous encounters with similar wines. Then there’s the anticipation and excitement. What will this wine be like? “Wine lives in the bottle. When you open the bottle, it changes its personality,” he says.

On top of this, there is the sharing, with the continual flow of hotel guests and restaurant diners, and also with his wife, Nini, a caterer. Nothing better than to pull a cork on a bottle or screw off a cap, pour two glasses, sit together, sip and unwind.

We asked Goimane to share some thoughts on the business of wine with Cuisine Noir readers.

1. Please comment on purchasing wine as an investment.

There are serious collectors around the world and wine’s investment potential is well documented. Wines are regularly bought and sold on auction at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

When I think of purchasing wine to sell at a later stage, I think primarily of France — but also California and South Africa. Wines that immediately come to mind include cabernet, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, malbec for Bordeaux, pinot noir for Burgundy. These can age well and for many years.

Some examples that come to mind: Château Mouton-Rothschild (Paulliac); Château Lafite-Rothschild (Paulliac); Château Latour (Paulliac); Château Petrus, Pomerol; Château d`Yquem, Sauternes; Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Burgundy; and Screaming Eagle, California.

I have 1,524 bottles in my personal cellar, two of which I think of as investment wines. Namely, a 1937 Château Latour Martillac and a 1970 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou.  I also have a bottle of Klein Constantia Vin de Constance (a South African dessert wine), which I’m afraid to open because I don’t know what year it is!

Readers Reference: Check out How to Invest in Fine Wine (London Sunday Times)

or Google “How to Invest in Wine.”

2. What is a good wine choice for a business lunch?

Depends on what’s on the menu. But as a rule of thumb I suggest a good bottle of light red and a good bottle of white for every meal.

3. Must one follow the rule of red wine with red meat and white with fish?

In my opinion, this attitude is old fashioned and clichéd. There are some red wines that are ideal with fish. For example a beaujolais or a pinot noir. There are white wines that would work perfectly with red meat. Then there is your palate and your preference.

4. For someone who wants to, how do you suggest developing a palate?

For white wine, start by tasting and drinking blends and wines that are off-dry or semi-sweet. For example, chardonnay and semillon viognier blends. Then move on to drier wines.

With reds, start with an easy-drinking cultivar such as merlot. Once your palate is a little more developed, move on to more complicated wines like pinotage and shiraz.

5. Explain the difference between New World and Old World wines.

I think of New World wines as more erotic and exotic. The aroma and bouquet are more forthcoming. The alcohol content is generally higher due to the influence of the climate. New World wine producers include South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and California.

I think of Old World wines as more complicated. There is more depth. You have to look for the aroma and bouquet — it takes longer to reveal itself. Again, this is a result of weather conditions. Old World wine producers include European countries such as Spain and Germany. And, of course, France.

6. When can you call “bubbly” Champagne?

Traditionally and legally, only if a wine comes from the Champagne region of France can it be called Champagne, which is made predominantly with a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes.

If it’s not from Champagne, it’s sparkling wine, known in Germany as Sekt; in Spain as Cava; in Portugal as Espumante; in Italy as Asti (among other varieties); in South Africa as Méthode Cap Classique; and so on.

7. When do you taste and spit and when do you swallow?

If you are doing a professional/formal tasting, it is advisable to spit.  However, if the “taster” or sommelier feels that the wine is exceptional and wants you to experience its full measure, swallowing is allowed.

8. Can anyone develop a palate for wine?

Yes. And wine tasting and enjoyment is very personal, so your palate and preferences will be different from mine.

9. What does your new job involve?

First, to continually enhance the wine list while developing my knowledge and experience. [He tastes up to 10 wines a day.] I also have to keep in mind the costing of the wines; how they will work into the wine list; and whether they will “move.”

Second, my prime job is to assist the customer — the diner — to derive maximum enjoyment from whatever wine he or she is going to drink. Part of this is advising, recommending and suggesting wines they have perhaps not tried.

I think any wine list should reflect the sommelier’s particular style. My specialty is French wine. I’m fascinated by its history and complexity. The 1855 Bordeaux official classification created the benchmark for French wines. There’s something “medieval” about it. In my view, French wine is the most “artful” wine in the world.

10. What are two of your favorite California and South African wines?

For Californian, I will say the Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 and the Trinchero Cabernet Sauvignon. For South Africa I’ll say my favorite is the Quoin Rock Simonsberg Oculus (white) and the Boschkloof Syrah (red).

Raise a glass and enjoy!

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.