In this interview, we chat to Mike Buthelezi, Sommelier of Sandton’s esteemed Epicure Restaurant, well recognized as one of South Africa’s top culinary experiences. Having had the opportunity to work in various dimensions of SA’s hospitality industry and regarded as one of SA’s leading sommeliers, Mike shares his journey into the world of wine with us…

1. Mike, you built an extraordinary reputation for yourself over the past couple of years. What does it feel like being regarded as one of SA’s top sommeliers?

It is an honour. It’s truly been a fulfilling journey thus far, doing what I love. With that said, this role also comes with certain responsibilities and expectations. However, I have learnt to thrive on this. I am continuously looking for improved ways to provide our guests with a unique and truly unforgettable experience – that to me is the ultimate goal.

2. Having worked at a number of leading brands in the industry, tell us a bit more about your responsibility & role as Sommelier at the highly regarded Epicure Restaurant?

Our vision at Epicure Restaurant is to bring the rest of Africa a bit closer to Johannesburg, exposing Jozi palates to rare African cuisine accompanied by our fine wine collection. Primarily, selecting fine wines was rather a challenging and great learning experience for me. I have had the privilege to work amongst Chef Coco who is as passionate about African cuisine as he is about fine wine. In the end, the result was clear. The aim was to include wines in our collection that would reflect and complement the culinary dishes on Chef Coco’s menu in a significant manner.

3. Developing a passion for fine wine by enhancing your skills & educating your palate over the past couple of years, tell us a bit more about your journey into the world of wine?

Coming from an Engineering background, venturing into the wine world was quite a challenge. Understanding the wine culture as well as keeping the proverbial fire burning has most certainly not always been easy. You have to be passionate and self-motivated. When I started, there were only a few sommeliers in the industry and the profession was not as respected at the time as it is now. Nonetheless, it has been a life changing experience, being able to meet people from all over the world and being an integral part of their dining experience. Surely, the wine world evolves all the time and keeping abreast of the current industry trends is one of the most exciting perks of my job.

4. We are honoured to have our wines listed at the acclaimed Epicure Restaurant. Which De Toren wine is your favourite & what is the perfect meal on your menu to pair with this wine?

When considering our Epicure menu, the De Toren Fusion V is an ultimate favourite and pairs exceptionally well with Chef Coco’s The Perfect Pepe dish; a culinary delicacy consisting of goat’s meat with roast plantain mash. The plantain is a unique fruit which develops a lovely smokiness when roasted and adds complexity to the wine. Whereas, the goat meat makes the tannins supple and approachable – making this the perfect accompaniment!

5. What are the most interesting observation you have made, regarding guests when it comes to ordering food or wine?

Now more than ever, people are willing to try out something new, something they have not done before. This is exactly what our Epicure menu is all about. I have also observed that our guests are starting to grasp the true role of a sommelier. Over the years, I have also learned that in order to thoroughly understand your client, one should actually be able to listen. Listening is key as guests are entrusting a huge part of their dining experience on us as sommeliers. However, those with a palate for certain styles of wine sometimes prefer to stick to what they favour regardless of their meal choice.

6. When you dine out, what do you look for on a wine list of a restaurant?

In South Africa, we are rather spoilt for choice when it comes to wine. Therefore, I believe variety is key in two parts when looking at a wine list; choice and financial accessibility. I am quite thrilled to observe when guests actually take their time, carefully selecting their preferred wine from the wine list. In my opinion, the choice for wine served by the glass should cover a wide spectrum, including various styles of wine. Besides listing a variety of wines, the wine list should also be educational and informative.

7. What makes a wine fine?

I believe a fine wine is one that truly stands out. One that is unforgettable, long after enjoying the last sip. It’s the one that you can talk about to anyone who cares to listen. It hits that spot that triggers some kind of emotion.

8. Looking back, any wise words to budding sommeliers and aficionados?

One should always be open to the idea of learning new things on a continuous basis. Also, never be afraid to be different. Take stand in having your own opinion and trust your instincts. Familiarize yourself by tasting various wines, it truly is the only way you get to understand the subject at hand. And then of course – treat yourself every so now and then to a bottle of fine wine.

Mike, we wish you all the best with your future endeavours and we look very much forward to visiting you at the restaurant again in the near future!