"Nothing tastes greater than the familiarity of home," says One&Only Cape Town's head sommelier Luvo Ntezo.
For Luvo Ntezo, the Head Sommelier at One&Only Cape Town, it doesn't matter how far he travels or how many of the world's most expensive wines he's tasted—there's no place like home. "Nothing tastes greater than the familiarity of home," he tells Food & Wine. "When I taste a Cab from home, it gives me the nuances of soil, the sense of familiarity. This is not just a South African wine, this is not just wine among some of the great wines—this is my identity, this is my home. It hits the right notes within me—which makes our wines stand out above the rest for me."
At One&Only Cape Town, 85 percent of the wine list is South African—the remaining 15 is dedicated to the best of the rest: Champagnes, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, Napa Cabs, Oregon Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay, Argentinian Malbecs—and this purposeful curation of regional wines stems from Ntezo's deep-seated conviction to champion and bolster the South African wine industry.
"Let us focus on our identity as South African," he says. "Let the terroir dictate what we can produce and take it to market, not the other way around—otherwise if we go the other way around, we're going to produce artificial wines. We are not Bordeaux at all.
"I went to Bordeaux to taste wines, and when I came back, my greatest overview was that, as a country, we are not far off to some of the best regions of the world," he says. "We've got the terroir, we've got the identity, we've got the passion, we've got the soil. When you taste South African wines, there's a passion, there's a heart—but what makes me want to buy a wine again and again is that our wines give a purity of fruit, they have accessibility.
"Whereas if you buy a Bordeaux 2015 Cab, they will tell you that this is a great wine, so you should buy it, keep it in the darkest corner of your cellar and forget about it for the next decade," he says. "We don't make wines for that. Our approach is wines shouldn't be an ornament to decorate your house and to massage your ego. Buy it, drink it, enjoy it—because it's made to be enjoyed with that accessible fruit. We don't over-oak, we don't use a lot of new wood. I think we make some of the most beautiful wines you can find—and they over-deliver. Twenty dollars will give you one of the most amazing wines from South Africa. We are passionate about what we do, we put our hearts in the soil."
Among Ntezo's most-recommended wines is an Abrie Beeslaar Pinotage. "He's the only winemaker out of South Africa to have been voted best winemaker in the world three times," Luvo says. "He's a very humble fellow. He's a cellar master, but he calls himself a soil farmer—'I'm only a soil farmer,' he says. 'If they think I'm the best in the world, it's their palates not mine.' What's unique is that the relationship we have with him at the hotel allows guests to not only enjoy his wines at the resort, but to also visit the wine estate and have an exclusive masterclass experience with him. It's not everyday you go to South Africa and you go to the wine lands and taste wine with the guy who's been voted best winemaker in the world three times.
"I love his Pinotage because I'm a big fan of his, but it also hits all the right notes," Ntezo says. "It's well-made, it's got that lovely purity of fruit, it's got typicity—he makes a Pinotage that's juicy and fleshy."
For guests looking to try a quintessentially South African varietal, Ntezo will often also recommend a Chenin Blanc. "We've got more Chenin Blanc than any other part of the world," he says. "In fact, if the whole world combined their Chenin Blancs, South Africa would still have more Chenin Blancs than the entire world combined. So that's part of the identity of South African wines, and we make it in unique, different styles—you'll find very sweet 300 grams-per-liter sugar, and you'll also find dry 0.5, 0/8 grams, oaked, un-oaked, boxed, unboxed, good, bad—but the majority, of course, is really great. It's important for people who visit South Africa to taste Chenin Blanc, as it's the ultimate identity of who we are as far viticulture is concerned."
That said, in Ntezo's role as head sommelier, he ultimately takes a liberal approach when recommending pairings. "There's no orthodox way to drinking wine," he says. "People should be able to drink wine in whatever way that appeals to them. If you want your crisp un-oaked Sauvignon Blanc with your steak very well done, as angry as the chef may be, if that combination works for you, that's the best combination."
But for guests interested in pushing past personal boundaries and trying new things, Ntezo finds that it's back story and context that can often be the most convincing.
"I'm big on stories," he says. "Wines can be the same varietal or they can taste the same, but each one carries a significantly unique and different story. As a sommelier, it's my job, which is my passion, to go and find these stories and share them with the guests—and bring them to the wine lands, too. Some of these stories happen when we bring them to the wineries to taste wines, and we find out that this guy started making wine in a squash court he converted into a winery, and he goes on to being one of the most awarded winemakers in South Africa, making wines just in a squash court. That's a story on its own—it's all about the people who work the soil."
So much so that each week, especially during harvest season, Luvo dedicated his days off to assisting in wineries throughout the region. He's actively involved in spreading the gospel of South African wine across the globe as well as mentoring a new generation of winemakers and key industry decision-makers. He tells Food & Wine that what he's seeing is extremely encouraging—especially when it comes to the rising new guard.
"Two months ago, I was a guest speaker at the BRICS Summit within the agricultural sector and I saw a huge representation of predominantly black women enrolling in winemaking and viticulture. Not only tha, within the winemaking scene, we see transformation even outside the academic field.
"There's a program with Cape Winemakers' Guild, which is a very important guild in South Africa where they run a protege program," Luvo says. "This protege program will buy wines through auction—where I go every year to buy wines for the hotel. The protege is taken is taken out of university and is given mentorship of six months at different wine estates—but not just picking grapes, but in key positions. Wherever they work, they're able to bottle barrels for themselves and they're responsible for selling it—and the proceeds are completely theirs. At the end of the protege program, they get employment—it's a 100 percent success story, everyone who went through the protege program either went on to become a winemaker or went on to own their own wine label or wine brand. I think that's what being a protege or being part of a mentorship program should be all about—not just to mentor you to be a cellar assistant at the tasting room or at the cellar underground where your skill isn't really fully explored."
Even beyond the makers in the industry, Luvo says there's been increasing support for more representation in the South African wine industry. "I did a program that the University in Cape Town in business wine management," he says. "It's a post-graduate program, and 75 percent of that class was black. It's expensive to study at the University of Cape Town, but to see companies offering to fund employees to go and study at these programs so they can come back to be financial directors within the wine industry is very noble. As is the fact that we're able to continuously engage and talk about transformation rather than keep it under wraps—because at the end of the day, a fully transformed wine industry is beneficial to all of us. That's the ultimate goal we want to see: all of us working together for the same common goal, which is the uplift the wine industry and the children within the industry."