Jean Engelbrecht is a leader in the world of premium South African wine. He grew up on the Stellenbosch property that houses the Rust en Vrede winery, which his father, Jannie, bought in the 1970s. At the time, the wine industry in South Africa was undeveloped, with most wineries churning out mass-produced plonk. But Jannie had a vision to make high-quality wines at his estate, and Jean extended it as one of the young pioneers attempting to put Cape wine on the world stage after Apartheid ended.
In 2007, Engelbrecht opened a restaurant on the Rust en Vrede property, which now holds a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence for its nearly 1,300-selection wine list. In August 2017, Tawanda Marume joined the restaurant team as wine director. "There's not many wines in Zimbabwe," said Marume, recalling how he came to wine from his home country. Marume had moved to South Africa for a writing exam and, finding himself in Stellenbosch wine country, decided to take an introductory course at the Cape Wine Academy to gain a basic knowledge of wine. That sparked his interest, leading to jobs at a boutique wine shop and at La Colombe restaurant in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia; he moved to Tanzania in 2015 to work for the resort group Singita Grumeti Reserves before returning to South Africa to work at Rust en Vrede.
Engelbrecht and Marume spoke with assistant editor Emma Balter about running a restaurant in a wine region, how Syrah in South Africa differs from other countries, and what challenges the up-and-coming wine country faces next.
Wine Spectator: What is it about wine and the industry that initially excited you?
Tawanda Marume: It is how involved it can be and how ever-changing it is every day. It's an industry that is constantly on the move, and that is fun because every day is different, and there's new techniques, new grape varieties, so it's an industry that is engaging, that brings people together. It's one that is really fascinating for me.
WS: Why did you decide to open a restaurant adjoining the winery?
Jean Engelbrecht: I came across the idea in the late '90s. I was inspired by the French Laundry in Napa. What I like about it was the way that they presented wine and food together within a wine-producing area. It took me a couple years before we did the same thing at Rust en Vrede, and it's been a great asset to the property and the wines. I think we attract people that maybe wouldn't come here just for wine, but then get exposed to it.
WS: Who are your guests?
JE: The bulk of our visitors are from overseas. They're tourists, so when they visit South Africa, the chances are good that they will visit a winery, or the wine areas, and then maybe embark on a safari.
TM: From my side on the floor, it's quite an interesting exercise and undertaking. Most of the people are on a journey of discovery of South African wines, even the ones who are experts in wines from different regions. They may not always know what is happening in South Africa.
WS: South African wines are on the rise. What are some challenges that go along with being a up-and-coming region?
JE: We have some hurdles that we need to get over as an industry. In my personal opinion, there's too many substandard [South African] wines available, especially in America. We need to get the message out there from the premium point of view. We need more producers taking the long journey to North America, more premium producers. I think then it will help us a hell of a lot.
TM: I do share the same sentiments. There are so many times when I serve guests from North America and Europe, and they are so surprised and fall in love with South African wines, and their comment would be: "I didn't think South Africa makes good wine." When I investigated to find out which wines they drink, [I] realized it's the mass-production wines that tend to get to international markets. We've come a long way, and the wines have greatly improved, but we need more exposure of the premium wines outside the country.
WS: How do you define South African Syrah, compared to that of other countries?
TM: It's not easy to pinpoint exactly. There are various styles of Syrah and Shiraz in the country, so it boils down to the region and the winemaking style that is applied. You have producers that use a bit of carbonic maceration and make Syrahs like Côte-Rôtie, and you also have producers who do a little bit of extraction that make Syrahs with more bold fruit expression.
JE: If you line up some premium Syrah from South Africa in a blind tasting, I think people will be surprised that in general, our wines would go through more as [seeming like being] from the Old World than from the New World.
WS: What do you drink on your own time?
TM: I drink mostly whites. When I started in the wine industry, most of my friends didn't really drink, so I used to have a lot of open bottles. I figured if I had whites I would keep [them] in the fridge a little bit longer and have it through the week. So now I drink mostly white, and it's really across the board. Chenin-based blends, sometimes Sauvignon Blanc.
WS: What do you see on the horizon for South African wine?
JE: I'm fortunate that due to my job I get to travel around many different countries in the world every year. What has always been interesting to me is [that] the younger generation is definitely drinking more wine than ever. They're very knowledgeable, but they're also on a very serious journey of discovery. For us, being a producer but also a restaurateur, it is a fantastic opportunity. If you come to the Rust en Vrede restaurant, we will always pair South African wines with wines from other countries, because it's a yardstick for the consumer. I'm very excited about the way wine consumption is going, and I think in the next 10 years or so it's going to be even more exciting.