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What makes a great wine list?

How does one judge a wine list? Dan Nicholl tells us why he loves the one at Farro in Johannesburg.

by: Dan Nicholl | 18 Oct 2019

Culinary flags are at half mast in Johannesburg this week as some sad news filters through the restaurant community: less than a week after one of the finest lunches I’ve had this year, one of the city’s standout lunch spots is no more. As satisfied as the trickle of customers may have been, they remained a trickle, and so Farro in Illovo has made the commercial decision to open for dinner, and dinner alone. 

The Johannesburg restaurant scene continues to be headlined by Marble and Saint, the wildly successful pair of David Higgs triumphs that combine the mastery of Higgs in the kitchen, the business savvy of Gary Kyriacou, and the design brilliance of Irene Kyriacou, who has created visual masterpieces that give both restaurants their sense of theatre. And I’m usually eating at one of them each week, with Marble in particular a favourite of many wine producers for the introduction of new vintages. But big showpiece establishments need counterpoints, and that’s exactly what Farro is: small, intimate, understated.

It was the aforementioned Higgs who recommended Farro to me, and I’ve been several times since. On each occasion, I’ve been struck by the pared-down approach. Last week’s lunch – my final one at Farro, unless daytime trade returns – was a vivid illustration thereof. The menu comprises only four starters, five main courses, three desserts and a handful of snacks. But despite such a modest selection, it took me a full 15 minutes to finally place an order. Braised garlic cappelletti or a salmon tartare? (Tartare, in the end – fresh, rich and given a most satisfying crunch with a liberal sprinkling of capers.) Pork belly or roasted duck? (Duck, with a cameo from a dried wafer of salami that added an inspired dimension to the bird.) 

It’s home to some exceptional food, then, but it’s the wine list that really makes Farro for me. I’m particularly fond of the selection that Bertus Basson has curated at Spek en Bone in Stellenbosch and Farro’s list has a similar feel, just on a far smaller scale. Seven whites, seven reds and a couple of sparkling options. But it’s a list that packs so much into little more than a dozen options. Fancy a white? There’s the house option, which in many restaurants would be a nondescript sauvignon blanc, but at Farro is a Swartland colombard (a grape I sense is starting to sneak back into the collective wine consciousness). There’s a semillon from Force Majeure in Stellenbosch; a pinot gris from Usana; The Foundry Grenache blanc; and the smooth delight that is Keermont’s Terrasse. Or, for something particularly special, David And Nadia’s Aristargos, a vertical selection that will come under the hammer this weekend in the charity lots at the Cape Fine and Rare Wine Auction.

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If the whites make for a fascinating selection then the reds enthusiastically follow suit. The soft charm of the Craven cinsault, served with a slight chill. The Rough Diamond Project tempranillo, Fledge and Co.’s cabernet sauvignon, and Duncan Savage’s red blend. Or there’s my choice for my farewell lunch: the Spookfontein pinot noir, one of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley’s lesser known players, but a wine that embraces all the qualities that make the valley as good as any pinot noir country around the world. And like the cinsault (happily drunk on a previous visit), it’s a wine that works perfectly over lunch, the lightness of touch and cooled temperature working a treat.

There are a couple of dishes I still need to try (there’s a goat’s cheese and onion tart I have in my sights), but it’s the rest of the wine list that I’ll really be charging back for. Managing to work oddities, rarities and small-batch brilliance into so compact an offering shows just how much thought has gone into shaping the wine offering, and echoes the approach to the food perfectly. Alas, the follow-up won’t be over lunch, but I’ll happily make do with dinner, and that lovely little wine list. If you’ve missed out on lunch, then don’t make the same mistake with the evening service – Farro is well worth the visit.

What I’m drinking this week: Another 2015 Stellenbosch cabernet sauvignon, another triumph – this time from Tokara. With Miles Mossop gone from the cellar and Richard Carstens having departed the kitchen, there’s been considerable change at Tokara in recent times, but the restaurant remains excellent, and so does the wine. The simple, uncluttered design and screwcap convey a feel that undersells the wine within (and deliberately so, I suspect) – a lush, fruit-driven cabernet sauvignon that’s already softened nicely, but without losing the structure of the grape. It’s not 100 percent cabernet sauvignon – the 2015 has a little malbec and petit verdot to it – but the dominant grape delivers a premium wine at about R120 per bottle, which makes for relatively good value.

Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine


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