CAROLINE’S FINE WINE CELLAR
Wednesday 13 May 2020
Dr Peter Rating – Website: 4/5
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 4/5
It is not the best of times to be a wine drinker and smoker now in South Africa. We are approaching the 50th day of lockdown and living under the most restrictive covid-19 conditions in the world. Alcohol sales, including online buying, are forbidden. Alcohol is deemed not to be an ‘essential’ product, unlike in most other countries. The home stocks are running dry for many and, for some, run out completely. We must therefore dutifully and patiently wait for lockdown Level 3 – seemingly some way off as the virus is far from its peak – for the bottle shops to open for 3 mornings a week. Meanwhile, according to the news today, an estimated 20,000 lives have already been saved. That is good news amid the teetotal gloom.
I began reviewing online wine stores a few months ago – long before lockdown, coronavirus and covid-19 became part of our daily vocabulary – beginning with Premier Cru and then Wine Cellar. It is timely to look at the online retailers again in the hope that sales will soon be permitted. I buy often from Caroline’s Fine Wine Cellar and regularly attend Caroline’s specialist wine tastings. It thus makes sense to share my first-hand experiences with you.
Caroline’s, as the retailer is affectionately known, has 2 stores as well as an online business. The stores are in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD and in the Southern Suburb of Tokai. The CBD shop beneath Strand Street is by far the larger and resembles a cave with its terracotta tiled floor, arched wine displays, wooden shelving, and discreet lighting. Living in Wynberg, the Tokai branch is slightly closer and with the ease of available parking outside. It has the same style of décor but a smaller selection of wine albeit with the same broad range. Both stores are open during regular weekday shop opening hours and on Saturday mornings. The staffs are always polite and well dressed in pale and navy-blue uniform that adds to the exclusive wine merchant brand.
‘Purveyor since 1979’, Caroline’s has an established footing in the fine wine and international wine market. Owner Caroline Rillema had a varied wine career at the Lanzerac and Carlton hotels, retail in Johannesburg, and marketing for Buitenverwachting and La Motte before opening her first specialist wine store in the CBD. She is engaging company and ready to share her obvious passion for wine and to recount tales of her frequent (before lockdown) trips to the wine regions of the world. The website ably describes the focus on the finest South African wines and those from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire, Champagne, Italy, and Spain, together with the New World.
Wine is the best place to start. Caroline’s offers 1,169 South African and International wines that range in price from R86 to R9,620. South African wines number 711 with imported wines making up the 458 remainder. France predictably makes up the bulk of international wines (254) followed by Italy (69), Portugal (46), Spain (32), Australia (20), New Zealand (13), Argentina (10), Germany (9), Chile (4) and the USA (2). Not all wines are currently in stock which is entirely understandable given the present ban on the transport of alcohol. The website groups South African wines by style – then by cultivar for red and white wines – and foreign wines by country with France and Italy sub-divided by region. There are also selection options for Platter’s 5* and Rare Wines. The simple drop-down menus are easy to use. One can usefully sort by Popularity, Latest or Low-to-High price or High-to-Low price within any selection. Rijk’s 2014 Pinotage (R298) tops the Popularity of South African wines whilst the 2010 Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico Reserva (R695) currently heads the imported range.
Compare Caroline’s with other like specialised online retailers, and the range and number of wines (711/458 South Africa/Imported) is on a par with Wine Cellar (circa 550/440), fewer than Port2Port (972/860) and more than importer Great Domaines (84/426), whilst wine.co.za sells only South African wine. Select an individual wine from the bottle shot and you will find more detailed information about the region, a Tasting Note, food pairing and the producer. This information is basic and adequate for most wine lovers to be able to make their purchase, though I prefer more details about the viticulture, wine-making and tasting analysis, which is included by some of the competing retailers. Caroline’s prices are broadly comparable to those of her online competitors. My impression from 3 years of buying South African and international wines for my own pleasure and for my Cape Wine Academy/WSET studies is that Caroline’s wines tend to be priced around 5% to 10% higher – there is the added expense of 2 shops to run – than elsewhere. That said, I am fortunate to live locally and so able to collect purchases from the Tokai store. There is always the delivery fee to factor in. Shipping fees are not currently listed on the website due to lockdown so I cannot comment on how they compare. Nonetheless, I do find Caroline’s useful when looking for a specific wine or region, particularly so for wines from Germany, New Zealand, and Australia.
Turning to other products and services, I have always enjoyed the tasting events. I have attended inter alia those for Alheit, Eben Sadie and French Rosé wines. Caroline often hosts these herself or the winemaker hosts, which makes for an enjoyable and informative evening with the opportunity to buy after. The events are invariably very well-supported, and I advise early booking. There is a Wine Club too, which I have not joined, that offers a case of selected wines every 3 months with free delivery for circa R1,500. Neither have I attended any of the School of Fine Wine courses for enthusiasts (four 2-hour sessions at either store, morning or evening) or service staff (Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced levels). Caroline’s also offers a broad range of wine accessories that includes glasses, decanters, aerators, glass and bottle bags, openers, and stoppers.
My experience of Caroline’s is generally very favourable. I am content to pay slightly extra on occasion to buy the wines I want for my studies and tastings that I host. I can offset the extra cost against the benefit of being able to collect the wine/s from Tokai. I have mentioned the limited but basic information on the website. Other niggles include the fact many of the more limited or specialised wines, notably imported wines, are often listed on the website but sold out. This pre-dates South African lockdown and the severely curtailed movement of wine. Further, whilst listing total stock number, the website does not show the number of bottles in the CBD and Tokai outlets. The tie up between the 2 is not perfect which has meant that I have had a wasted journey to Tokai for a wine that is in Strand Street, even after a prior phone call to check. There appears to be no regular transport of wine between the 2 stores – other than when Caroline happens to be making the journey – and so it always feels like I am asking a huge favour to collect a bottle from Tokai that is in the CBD shop.
To conclude, these are minor gripes compared to the impressive selection and range of wines that Caroline sells. The layout of the stores makes for easy browsing and in comfortable surroundings with staff always to hand. Use the online shop too but it helps to shop around if you want a particular wine but do not forget to factor in shipping fees. Above all, show your support for Caroline’s Fine Wine Cellar to re-stock your wine cellar when lockdown ends. Sweet Caroline, we wait for the good times to seem so good again … 😊