Since the abolition of apartheid, the wines of South Africa have been slowly making their way into American restaurants. But a list consisting only of South African wines -- much less 70 of them, all available by either the bottle or the glass -- was unheard of in the United States.
Unheard of, that is, until Walt Disney World in Orlando debuted Jiko, a 235-seat African-themed restaurant at its new Animal Kingdom Lodge, which opened in April.
Jiko's list showcases wineries from the Stellenbosch, Paarl and Constantia regions; many of the wineries are so small that it's a stretch even to call them "boutique." Sommelier and restaurant manager Suzanne Bonham began scouting vineyards 18 months before Jiko opened and found winemakers who were working out of former stables and garages, printing their labels one at a time off hand-run machines. Convinced that there were enough quality bottlings available, Bonham and advanced sommelier George Miliotes quickly decided to go with an all?South African list.
The list, of course, includes top names such as Kanonkop, Mulderbosch, Rust en Vrede, Saxenburg and Thelema, along with value leader Backsberg. Large producers like Simonsig are represented, as are wineries such as Kanu and Rustenberg, whose limited allocations have Bonham fretting that Jiko, which has more than 600 bottles in inventory, will often run out of wines on the list. Since the restaurant has only been open a month, it's too early to tell if that will be a problem, but she feels it's worth the risk. "This list is our chance to show the range of what South Africa has to offer," said Bonham.
Wine-and-food matches are a challenge since the cuisine of Jiko, which is Swahili for "the cooking place," is multicultural and complexly layered. Chef Serge Burckel uses as many as 30 different ingredients in entrées such as banana leaf?steamed sea bass with asparagus puree, mushrooms and apples, which Bonham pairs with a Rustenberg Five Soldiers Chardonnay 1999. Jiko gets almost the entire U.S. allotment of the single-vineyard Five Soldiers, and the wine is so popular with diners that people often take home bottles or even buy it by the case. "Sometimes I think we should be known as the Jiko Wine Shop," said Bonham.
With such heady entrées and unfamiliar labels, how does the Jiko staff deal with the diners who inevitably ask for French or California wines? "We ask them what they like and point them toward the most comparable South African wine," said Bonham. "The South African climate mirrors the northern coast of California, so the grape varietals and flavors are familiar."
The evening I visited, most diners were more than happy to put themselves in the capable hands of the servers. At the table beside me, a couple ordered a total of six different dishes, and asked their server to "just make recommendations by the glass." Jiko has 16 sommeliers on staff to help answer questions, and the servers stay savvy through weekly classes on the wine offerings.
So far, the reaction to Jiko's wine list has been something of a vindication of her work, Bonham says. "When we decided to go with exclusively South African wines, the big question was, can you sell it -- even by the glass? So it's great to see people carrying it out by the case."
Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge
Walt Disney World Resort
2901 Osceola Parkway
Bay Lake, FL 32830
Telephone: (407) 938-3000
For priority seating: (407) WDW-DINE
Open: Dinner, 5:30 p.m.?10 p.m.
Cost: Entrées, $16?$27
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
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