RESTAURANT REVIEW: When it comes to the business of wine, South Africa’s vintages may be late to the table but it’s definitely not to be outshined by their Western counterparts, having proudly come into their own. And making sure that wine enthusiasts and connoisseurs in the U.S. take note of this discovery is Xai Xai Wine Bar, a South African wine bar in New York City.

“Xai Xai offers a window of exposure for South African wines in the New York area,” says 35 year-old co-owner Dorian Gashi, as his gaze falls beyond the glass façade of his establishment, the only wine bar featuring exclusively South African wines.

Ensconced since October 2007 in the city’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, Xai Xai (pronounced shy, shy), is riding the ascendancy of South African wines. Cozy, yet with seating for 60, it is large enough to ignite festivities- from an after-work drinks to a mixer or party.

The night of our visit, a frigid Saturday in late January, the joint was jumpin’, as they say, with a crowd of young Manhattanite. Manager Thabiso Mohohlo, a 38 year-old native South African, tells us that Xai Xai wine bar picks up a respectable mixed crowd of Africans and non Africans during the week.

Brett Curtin, 35 year-old and the second of three co-owners, designed the locale with his South African homeland in mind, enhancing clean modern lines—wire wine racks are mounted in a crisscross pattern on beige nubby plaster walls, the glass rack over the bar is black and high-tech—with nostalgia-revealing touches of home; he has punctuated the room with rough-hewn, chunky cypress columns; squared wooden ceiling beams, and an arc of reedy birch barks to define the seating area.

Our miniclan sampled three reds with which we were quite pleased: a 2004 Tumara Pinotage from Stellenbosch (a premier wine-producing area not far from Cape Town); a 2005 Stark Conde Cabernet Sauvignon, also from Stellenbosch; and a 2004 Haute Cabriere Pinot Noir from Franchoek. The Pinotage was a mandate as it’s South Africa’s signature variety, a happy cross between pinot noir and cinsault grapes, spicy and dry. As a good number of reds on the menu bore a 2004 vintage, we queried Mohohlo as to why. He explained that 2004 produced many excellent, crisp, young and dry wines-the reward for prescient vintners to harvesting early.

Innovative is Xai Xai’s adapting of the Italians’ penchant for the quartino, a quarter liter carafe. The quartino allows up to four enthusiasts enough of a tasting to fully appreciate a wine’s attributes. Quartini are priced at $10 to $22, while full bottles range in prices from $33 to $160. The three owners act in turn as sommelier.

Patrons at the bar also have a chance to try some typical South African culinary specialties from a light eclectic menu. Try the Bunny chow, a lamb and tomato stew drenching a roll; the Dröe wors sausage made from dried meat, commonly beef or the more South African nouvelle, ostrich tartare. Xai Xai also offers standard bistro fare like a wine-friendly cheese plate.

Gashi’s grandfather seeded a passion for wine in him, cultivating grapes on the family plot in his native Albania. Once in U.S., he became a constant on the tasting route where he discovered fine South African wines in growing profusion. Serendipitously, Gashi, Curtin and Tanya Hira, the 31 year-old, third co-owner were neighbors; plans for a wine bar showcasing South African wines couldn’t help but be born. Today, Xai Xai can boast proudly of its uniqueness and success in helping to introduce South African wines to the U.S. market. Hira, with a background in marketing, flies to South Africa yearly with Curtin where they taste and select Xai Xai’s wines.

In the less than 15 years since the end of apartheid boycotts of South African products, South African wines have come proudly into their own: A shining example of post-apartheid progress in industry building and integration with the global market.

Shipping almost exclusively premium wines since the year 2000 when South Africa began to actively cultivate the U.S. market, exports have grown from just 2000 cases a year to over 1.8 million by the close of 2008. Xai Xai’s upper-end selection of nearly 100 labels is a beacon to that progress.


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