Changing tastes
Cape Town, South Africa


I swirl my wineglass of Constantia Sauvignon Blanc, making little circles in the air with it like a radar surveying the surrounding vineyards. All is well, the vista is magnificent and I could easily be forgiven for thinking that I was sitting on one of France’s finest prestige wine estates. Around me, slivers of vines eagerly reach up from the steep hills like green fingers grasping for the infinite sky.

Beau Constantia is one of a handful of wine estates in the revered Constantia Valley – Cape Town’s very own vineyards (at least the ones closest to the CBD). The region is the birthplace of winemaking in both South Africa and the southern hemisphere’s ‘New World’, as wine experts would call it.

Megan van der Merwe at Beau Constantia, with her distinctive bun, vineyard-soiled boots and formidable spirit, is a force to be reckoned with. And that’s perhaps a good thing – she’s a young winemaker in an aged industry that sadly has taken a battering of late, as the estates have had to navigate a string of state-imposed prohibitions.

Filling our glasses with Cecily (the Viognier named after the estate’s owner), Megan describes her wine-making technique and philosophy as “developing wines of integrity, going far beyond how you farm in the vineyards.”

For Megan, it extends into cultivating a sense of community, to produce fantastic wine made with respect for the entire environment.

“It seems at this point that us Capetonians are still too burdened by our traumatic history to successfully brand ourselves, so instead we have resorted to drawing from outside references,” she says about the state of the nation of South African wine. “This, however, is somewhat of a borrowed solution. To me, it feels inauthentic. Because we consider ourselves inferior with regard to our wine-making and social heritage, we are compelled to mirror our global competitors to attract the upmarket international consumer. I want to change that.”

This story first appeared in The Captivating Cape Town Issue, available in print and digital.

This story first appeared in The Captivating Cape Town Issue, available in print and digital.

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Talking of heritage, Cape Town’s agricultural story, while resounding and substantial, is actually a relatively short one in terms of its timeline. It deserves mentioning that the whole foundation of the city quite literally had its genesis as a food garden. While textbooks may tell you all about the 1652 arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, there’s an earlier tale to look into. In 1647, the Dutch Nieuw Haarlem floundered into the waters of Table Bay and half of the sailors were forced to remain onshore, to be collected a whole year later. Upon their return to the Netherlands, they convinced the Dutch East India Company that the land would make a decent victualling station for the company’s ships. All it took was seven years for Cape Town to see its first colonial, agricultural settlement with thriving gardens and vineyards for European tastes, soon following suit. Some 400 years later, the city still serves this purpose. Cape Town is a veritable food and wine destination, growing among locals, Africans and the international jet set alike – as a Mother City beyond the expected definition of the moniker – for her enticing epicurean experiences. A stone’s throw from Beau Constantia is South Africa’s famed La Colombe restaurant, where I first met sommelier Joseph Dhafana. His story is one of a phenomenal journey from refugee to the top of one of the city’s (and country’s) best restaurants. As with many in the industry, the pandemic has sadly meant that Joseph has left La Colombe, albeit with the intention of devoting more time to his emerging wine label.

Among his string of accolades and achievements, Joseph was one of the founding members of the Black Cellar Club (BLACC), an organisation whose goal is to make wine feel less intimidating to non-white Capetonians. He has a continued desire to see grass-roots level education around viticulture, particularly in black African culture where wine is not the usual drink of choice.

Over a glass of his Mosi 2020 Syrah, we talk over the tasting notes. Joseph points out that while many Western and white Capetonian wine drinkers are familiar with the flavour wheel (which helps give tasting references to respective varieties), in many African contexts the usual terms are completely lost. With the assistance of others, he is producing a more relatable flavour wheel that will be available in three African vernaculars, one of several such projects that roll off his tongue.

“It’s hard to know what a gooseberry is in winespeak if you’ve never seen or tasted one. A decade ago, I’d attend a wine function and would be the only person of colour present. Thankfully, that’s now changing.” Armed with his fierce determination, charming smile, and a bottle or two of his own wine in hand, Joseph is a trendsetter who is undoubtedly helping usher in a more diverse dispensation and understanding of the good stuff.

Over the course of the pandemic, restaurants in Cape Town and around the country were forced to reimagine their offerings almost overnight. The Test Kitchen, a name familiar in global gastronomy, unfortunately was a Covid-casualty. However, not long afterwards, it rose again like a phoenix from the ashes, in the form of ‘The Test Kitchen Fledgelings.’

Dylan Frayne, the humble head chef at the helm of this new venture, confides that Fledgelings’s main focus is advancing the skills of those staff members who otherwise would not have the ability to get hospitality training. I’m encouraged that despite all that has happened, his focus is on the regeneration of the sector and keeping people in the industry. Needless to say, his enthusiasm is entirely contagious.

“Initiatives like this are incredibly exciting as it makes for a far more inclusive industry here in Cape Town, actively involving all our employees’ ideas, knowledge and perspectives, while being considerate of their diverse backgrounds,” says Dylan.

It’s a reset of sorts for gastronomy in the city; and while challenging, it could actually be for the better. 

Nathan Clarke is one of the young protégés at Fledgelings whose narrative is a reminder that the proof is in the pudding (literally, in his case, you’d agree after a taste of his chocolate fondant). Growing up in a troubled area of Cape Town known for gang warfare and crime, Nathan now stands proudly as sous-chef of the new initiative. But he doesn’t only have big dreams for himself.

“What I would like to see more is a strong willingness to use all local produce. I would also like South African chefs to take a deeper look at our cultural background and try to incorporate local and traditional cooking methods and techniques into their food,” says Nathan.

It’s clear that Fledgelings is already inspiring a new decade of inclusivity in the food industry.

For as long as I have lived in Cape Town – and long before – the city has always thrived on an evolving, creative culinary and drinking scene. It seems that the pandemic has prompted a shift into a more authentic expression of that creative spirit. And it’s far more than just a return to basics, but a reorienting around purpose, passion, and perhaps a bit more grounding. While eating and drinking here has always been mouthwatering, this paradigm shift makes it all the more delectable. | |

Photography by Claire Gunn, Jared Ruttenberg and courtesy of Beau Constantia, Black Cellar Club and The Test Kitchen Fledgelings