The Wine Thief

One of the major attractions for visitors to Cape Town in the Western Cape province of South Africa is it’s thriving wine industry. The eighth largest wine producer in the world, it is considered a ‘New World’ producer although its traditions date back to vines and estate established in the early eighteenth century.

WRITTEN BY RUSSEL WASSERFALL 
IMAGES BY VERITY FITZGERALD 

With world class wineries right on their doorstep, sommeliers from Cape Town’s restaurants can explore every aspect of wine production.

One of the major attractions for visitors to Cape Town in the Western Cape province of South Africa is it’s thriving wine industry. The eighth largest wine producer in the world, it is considered a ‘New World’ producer although its traditions date back to vines and estate established in the early eighteenth century.

 

Pair the tradition of winemaking with a diverse offering of excellent restaurants, and the region is a rich playground for food and wine enthusiasts. Venues such as La Colombe and The Test Kitchen have featured in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants listings, while many others feature in notable global restaurant guides.  

 

The proximity of internationally renowned wine estates to restaurants of excellent reputation has played a hand in driving innovation in these two related industries. Wine makers can afford to be more experimental or expansive in their craft, as there is a ready market for their offerings. Chefs in turn are able to be more adventurous in their tasting menus, confident of finding a good fit with quality wines.

 

For the adventurous, there is a whole world to discover here. It is a world that a young sommelier called Ewan McKenzie explores with gusto. Ewan began his career presenting wines at the renowned tables of La Colombe restaurant in 2012. He took to heart his role in introducing new experiences in wine to his customers.

 

A strategic move to manage the wine collection of a trendy bar called & Union in the heart of Cape Town gave new wings to this mission. Around 2014, & Union was the center of a growing garagiste winemaker movement where regulars called in to taste new wines and talk about the craft with knowledgeable staff and young oenologists learning or sharpening their craft. 

 

Ewan was right at home there. Learning, talking, drinking wine and helping to drive a culture of informed wine appreciation wherever he raised a glass. He was building a phenomenal reputation as a wine consultant. Inevitably, this became a sommelier service which curated wine lists for new fine dining restaurants. He also ran courses for sommeliers or raised the wine knowledge of front of house staff. 

Ewan Mackenzie (right) constantly seeks opportunities to introduce new wine experiences to the restaurants and diners of the Western Cape. One wine quickly led to another and Mackenzie now has a range of his own crafted labels to present in broadening the wine experience for guests.

With the wine farms literally on his doorstep, he felt he should get his hands dirty to learn more about his passion. One tour on an estate led to another, and pretty soon he was asking if he could help with the harvest. The more he learned about the wine, how it was made how different cultivars presented themselves under different conditions of terroir or cellaring, the deeper his dive into wine became.

 

One evening, a glass of wine and a chat with Thelema winemaker Rudi Schultz raised an interesting idea. They were discussing the varietals that make up Bordeaux blends. One of those is a grape called Petit Verdot, used to bring colour and depth to blends – it acts almost like MSG in a blend to pop the flavor. 

 

Ewan had been thinking about creating wines that sommeliers could use on restaurant floors to teach people more about different cultivars. He wondered aloud if you could make a wine with Petit Verdot and broaden the experience of Bordeaux blends for people by introducing this wine.

 

It was a great thought that would probably have been left in the dregs of that night’s wine glasses except that very shortly after that conversation, he was introduced to Attie Louw. This seventh-generation winemaker from Opstal Estate in the Slanghoek Valley had a new wine he wanted to launch.  He’d been referred to Ewan to look at possible wine pairings as a route onto some of the better wine lists in the city for his Carl Everson Chenin Blanc. 

 

Their initial conversation led to a meal cooked by Ewan on the farm (very early in his career he worked in kitchens for UK celebrity chef Rick Stein) and a growing friendship. Attie was doing interesting things with Bordeaux blends, and it was not long before Ewan had secured himself a place on a tractor during the next harvest at Opstal. 

 

He noted Attie’s block of Petit Verdot vines and asked, as casually as he could, what would happen to the fruit not used in the 2015 Bordeaux blend. Chance smiled, because Attie was just as curious about the possibilities of this grape, one of the 5 noble cultivars in a Bordeaux blend. They decided that its character might best be expressed in a blanc de noir and so a new label, The Wine Thief was born.

Meeting Attie Louw (left) of Opstal wine estate was a turning-point in Ewan’s career and opened the door to his winemaking ideas. One wine quickly led to another and Mackenzie now has a range of his own crafted labels to present in broadening the wine experience for guests.

Named for the pipette used to sample wine direct from barrels, The Wine Theif expressed a character of wine geekery early on. Interested in older and unusual methods, the pair took in the grapes with their characteristic thick skins, ran them through the de-stemmer and then let them sit for 4 hours in a hopper. The weight of the grapes broke those thick skins and caused the bleeding of juices. Any pressing or macerating would have extracted too many tannins from a fruit known for a heavy tanning character. 

 

The juice from this gravity extraction went into two 225-litre oak barrels to ferment and so The Wine Thief’s Petit Verdot Rosé was born. In order to concentrate on the grape and not the wood, the fermentation vessels chosen were eighth-fill barrels. Any hint of heavy oak was long gone, allowing the grape to shine through.

 

It is a rosé made for rosé’s sake, an expression of the grape not just a way to use up extra grapes. And with that 2015 vintage, the wine bug bit deep. He is not a winemaker. Ewan is very clear on this point. He works with great winemakers to craft different or interesting wines, by asking questions and suggesting ‘what-ifs’ that come to him from his work on the restaurant floor. He helps makes wine from the perspective of frontline sommeliers.

 

The Wine Thief label is now five years old and he makes three different wines with Attie – Petit Verdot, Roussanne and Columbard. He has spread his wings into collaborations with other winemakers which can be found here. There’s even a second label of fascinating wines called Costa del Swart from a Swartland winery.

Seventh or eighth-fill oak barrels were used for the malolactic fermentation so that the wood would not dominate the character of the grape (left). And a really good sommelier should not be better looking than the wine, so shaving is discouraged, as demonstrated by Ewan Mackenzie (right) on a day in the vineyards.

In a gentle obeisance to the origins of his wines, his labels are based on three ordinance survey maps from 1948. There are the contour lines of the Slanghok Valley under the water systems of the Bot River region and over these in foil, the original boundaries appear of the Paardeberg farms of the Swartland. All are sites of great, emerging wineries.

 

Right now, The Wine Thief’s lines are limited to small vat production where he produces, bottles and labels between 300 and 600 bottles per varietal. To make it a viable business, he needs to get up to 2,400 bottles of each. There are plenty more glasses of wine to enjoy before he gets there though.

 

In the meantime, he is constantly networking, sowing the seeds of ideas for new wines and getting listings from obscure connections or small, maverick producers. Ewan runs exclusive, focused tours for visitors to the region based either on their own wine tastes or as a voyage of discovery of new Cape wine experiences.

 

Everywhere he goes, every vine he touches sparks an idea for a new wine. He is a sommelier’s sommelier focused on education rather than intoxication for his guests. As he explores the vineyards in his range more thoroughly, so the world will experience better and better South African wines.

Wine Thief labels are made from a combination of three old ordinance survey maps from the regions where he works with the vines. There is a new project under the Wine Thief umbrella called Costa del Swart (right), exploring some cultivars from the now-famous Swartland region.

© 2020 by Inkognito AS.

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