Interview: Eben Bezuidenhoud – Groot Bos Private Nature Reserve Sommelier
By Christian Eedes, 30 March 2015
How did you become interested in wine?
I grew up in one of South Africa’s most exciting wine regions, namely Walker Bay. During high school there were a lot of vineyards being planted, cellars built and estates developed. So it seemed like an exciting and creative industry to build a career in – a decision I haven’t regretted.
What do you love most about your job?
The access to incredibly exciting, innovative wines and working in an industry with people who show a genuine passion for what they do for a living.
What do you consider the fundamental principles of food and wine matching?
It’s all about matching palate weights and avoiding certain tricky ingredients that just don’t seem to do well with wine. Fresh coriander leaves (so popular these days) are hard to harmonise with wine. But with that said I encourage people to be adventurous and to try vertical pairings! Most people are familiar enough with horizontal pairings.
What do you like most in a wine?
Complexity and evolution. A wine has to be in equilibrium when you open the bottle, but if it remains unchanged during the course of the evening, or worse deteriorates, I get bored with it and start looking for something else to try. Wines that catch my attention by their understated intricacy and elegance make me fidgety in my seat.
Which wine do you think is most versatile with food?
Blends! Blends! Blends! We are fortunate in South Africa to have a huge variety of very interesting blends, both white and red. Blends are like the chameleons of the wine world – able to shift their aroma and flavour profiles to adapt to intricate and sometimes challenging dishes.
How many wines do you taste on average per day?
Wow, that varied hugely. It could be as few as 3 to as many as 20.
Do wine ratings and scores matter?
No. They don’t. Not in my opinion anyway. I use them to stay current with what other people in the industry are talking about, but they don’t affect my decision-making process at all when it comes to listing wines. They’re too impersonal.
What’s the best part about interacting with customers?
The most rewarding moment is when you can see the customer learning something about wine which they didn’t know before.
Relate your most embarrassing moment on the floor.
I was working at Singita in the Kruger Park where I hosted many wine tastings. This particular evening the guests didn’t want to do the tasting in the wine cellar, so we opted to taste a few refreshing whites in the lounge. Now, to give a bit of detail, the roof had wooden slats as décor. In the middle of the tasting a bit of warm liquid poured onto my head and as I looked up to see what is was I realise it was a vervet monkey sitting on the roof that had just peed on me.
Which variety or style of wine do you think is most underrated?
Aged white wines, especially varietals usually perceived as “made to enjoy it its youth”. Take Sauvignon Blanc for example. Most people want to drink the current vintage because the wine would be “over the hill” if not. But I have tasted South African Sauvignon Blanc from 1997 that showed so much complexity that I just had to sit with the glass for a while and forget everything else going on around me.
How important is the glass you drink from?
If you have the luxury of drinking each variety or style out of especially designed stemware it would add to the occasion. But it shouldn’t be something to obsess about. A good quality glass with a tulip shaped bowl is fine for most wines. The preparation of the wine is of greater importance.
What’s the South African wine industry getting right and what’s it getting wrong?
We’re seeing an influx of lateral-thinking winemakers coming into the industry that are pushing the envelope and challenging our perceptions on wine. It is an exciting time to be part of the industry. Winemakers have realised that innovation is key and that they cannot rest on the laurels of previous generations’ successes.
In terms of what we are getting wrong, I feel we aren’t defining our own distinctive personality. In my opinion it still happens too frequently where winemakers and marketers use other countries as references in order to explain our wines. I hear phrases like “This Cabernet is shows the mint notes of a Coonawarra” or “That Syrah is just like a Rhone red”.
How do we get more South Africans to drink wine?
There are a few wine marketers who are brilliant at making wine less obscure to the general public. We need more people like that who can “bring wine down” from the intimidating pedestal it has traditionally been placed on. At the end of it all wine is a social drink. We are supposed to enjoy it while having fun with friends and family, celebrating life’s most special moments and savouring delicious food. There is no need to make others, who may be new to the subject, feel intimidated or inferior.
What has been your best wine experience/fondest wine memory?
I was hosting an elderly couple from the United States during their visit to the Kruger Park. At the start of their stay they said I shouldn’t pay much attention to them as they didn’t understand the intricacies of wine and had given up on the subject. But throughout their stay I showed them interesting wines, making sure they were shown in the absolutely most perfect conditions. The evening before they checked out they bought an obscene amount of wine from me and told me that I had rekindled their interest and passion for wine. To see two people become as excited about wine as I am is simply by giving them my time and knowledge for a few minutes a day is what makes this profession all the worthwhile.
Bezuidenhoud is a member of the South African Sommelier Association, formed to help uplift and promote the service of wine.