The below is an adventure, what began as a buying trip to South Africa and turned into a true love of the region, the people, the culture and of course the wine! Working for Oddbins is unique in that we are a tiny buying team (just 3 of us), which requires a very involved approach where listing a new wine is more than it seems. It's a new partnership and during my journey I tasted some wonderful wines but also met some truly fantastic people. So, my story is of course about the wine but perhaps more importantly, about the people behind them.
It began with a challenge to revitalize the range, followed by a tasting in our London boardroom, it wouldn't do; I knew that I had to go to South Africa to experience the region and taste the wines in their natural habitat, alongside the people that made them, to get it right. In what seemed like a whirlwind, I touched down in Cape Town just a few weeks later! I remember landing and thinking to myself 'Okay, you're here. Now what?'
I had a lot of ground to cover, from Constantia to Swartland, out to Hemel en Aarde to Greyton in just a 10 day period. I hadn't been to SA before and I was alone with no comfort of a travel buddy, at least at this point...but things have a funny way of working themselves out and as I walked into arrivals there was a man holding a sign with my name on it. This was my first encounter with who I would come to call the 'legendary Cambell Jooste' Zoom Safe Trips and Tours. At this time he was simply a ride from the airport to the hotel. I had no idea he would become such a significant part of my trip. From the get go I went to hop in the back seat, but Cambell was having none of it,"in the front with me", he said. And that would be my seat for the remainder of the trip, next to Cambell, not just my driver, but my tour guide, wake-up call, lunch buddy and friend.
There was no better way to start day one (ease into it) than at the serene Stellenbosch farm owned by the legendary Ken Forrester - The Chenin Man! Ken has been making wine for many years and his speciality is Chenin Blanc, which aged to leesy and textured, but for me it is the purity and quality of the 'Petit Chenin' that I loved - no oak, just straight up quality fruit and varietal character - bring on the crunchy apple, honey and linalool! During the visit I wandered down to Ken's barrel room to take a look around. In the back corner was a barrel with 'Roussanne' written on the face...'what is that?'. I love Roussanne, a native white Rhône grape. It's rare to see it completely on its own, especially from South Africa, and rarer to see it done right. Slightly hesitant, I tasted it and was wowed! At this point it was only sold via Ken's farm in SA, but it was so good I had to bring it back and share with the fellow wine lovers in the UK.
Now that I'm warmed up and have had a few sips of Chenin, it's time for a different experience...I hopped back in the car with Cambell and set off to stop no.2. Through the green, mountainous terrain of Stellenbosch and out into Swartland. It looks more like a desert, but has some super gnarly bush vines! We pulled up to a small farm house and made our way up the driveway. I was met with a curious glance that implied 'who the heck are you?'. 'Jenny', I said, anticipating the questions. He tried to act like he hadn't totally forgotten that I was coming, and what a better way to do that than offer up a plastic cup of a new vermouth they were producing (ok, I can roll with this). Pretty soon though, we were laughing about it along with the fact there is a cheap brand of wine called 'Oddbins' sold in Checkers (the local supermarket) that doesn't have the best reputation for representing winemakers and he had thought that was who I represented! (Note to self - say Oddbins UK moving forward). A few minutes later, the man behind the establishment showed up - Adi! We went to chat in the cellar which was a stark contrast to Ken's place. It contained open top fermenters with all sorts of interesting things bubbling and was being watched over carefully by a big picture of a 60's pin up girl. Adi offered me an espresso - 'do you take butter?' [Huh?]. I truly thought he was taking the piss. A sort of 'let's mess with the tourist' kinda thing, but then he simply plopped a dollop in his own cup - not my cup of Joe please. I later asked Cambell if he had an answer for me. Nope! But he did laugh (mystery to be solved - if you have the answer, feel free to tweet me @oddbinsbuyers). Anyway, I tasted some awesome wines...watch this space!
Next on the list is Miles Mossop! Miles' story is a good depiction of what's happening in the SA wine scene at the moment. He started at one of the more established estates, making wine for Tokara and was allowed to vinify a small amount under his own label each year as a bit of a side project (quite common). The culmination of this is three awesome wines, yes, awesome. As a couple of months before my visit, Miles has moved on from Tokara, hopefully giving him even more time to focus on what's not a side project anymore. These wines are seriously wonderful. Saskia - an oaky, leesy white Rhône blend, Max - a rich and juicy Bordeaux blend and 'The Introduction', an old vine barrel fermented Chenin from the Swartland.
Okay - it's impossible to go through every stop, even the ones with some of the more memorable wines, but at this point I've been in SA for a few days now and I'm slowly settling in and Cambell is definitely helping. On day three, he is waiting downstairs with a cup of coffee, settling into his routine of reading the morning paper in the lobby whilst I'm usually 5-10 minutes late. We hop in the car and we're off again, this time to meet one of the sweetest and most talented people I've met, Adam Mason. Adam is the brainchild behind Mulderbosch Wines and again, has a side project.
The wine is called Marvelous! Finding wines in the UK sub £10 on the shelf that are REAL, crafted wines is difficult. Many a time they are shipped over in large tanks and bottled here. Marvelous is Adam's baby and these are small volume parcels of grapes taken from sites that best suit each varietal, blended to create three seriously delicious wines - a Red Bordeaux blend, a Red Rhône blend and a wonderful White Rhône blend. Also from Adam, and two of my favourites, are his Yardstick Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - the Pinot is juicy, silky and fruit driven and instantly appealing, and the Chardonnay is toasty and rich. Adam is coming over in October to do tastings in the stores. Watch our Twitter feed for when he will be at your local Oddbins.
Next stop! Not another farm though, this was a different approach. A way to cover more ground and soak up a bit of the culture. Cambell and I were off to Publik - a wine bar in Cape Town run by Dave and Dave (both Dave's actually make wine). They are all about getting the weird and wonderful into the bar and showcasing some of the interesting projects that are happening in the region. While some are awesome, some are a work in progress and some are downright scary, but that was the fun of it and either way it's great to see so much innovation. Over a plate of Charcuterie including Biltong, we tasted through a line up of wines. Part way through, Dave put this bottle down in front of me, with a totally serious and straight face - 'try my wine!'. So, I too kept a straight face, staring at the red headed man affectionately cradling a baby pig! The rosé was simple, charming and quite appealing, but was the UK market ready for Spider Pig to make an appearance on their dinner table? That was up for debate! Either way, the night turned into a great evening and eventually the story of THE Spider Pig was revealed, which made me like the wine even more, but that is a story for another day...The same evening, I came across Samantha O'Keefe's 'Lismore' from Greyton. Sam is an amazing lady and basically pioneered the region way up in the mountains. She is making a Rhône style Viognier, a Syrah that will blow your mind and has just added a Pinot Noir. I tasted these and was so impressed that I rescheduled my trip and Cambell and I drove two hours out to Greyton to meet Sam the next day. Her wines will be arriving into Oddbins in September.
Next up - Alex Dale from Radford (Winery of Good Hope). This guy is a true talent and the range is fantastic. We already work with Alex but I popped by for a lovely lunch with some of the vineyard staff anyway (this is a daily routine - stop, chat, live and enjoy - we could learn a thing or two!). He introduced me to Gus, his brother who grew up making wine in Burgundy. Gus is now working at Paul Roos on a tiny (literally tiny, just 3000 bottles) project, which I only found out about after I tasted and fell in love with his wine. These wines are very old world in style. The white, Paul Roos Die Skoolshoof is a co-fermented blend of Chardonnay/Chenin - really hands off winemaking here that is made in a Burgundy style - it is nutty, roasty, oaky and mineral and a gorgeous and wonderful red Bordeaux blend, the Paul Roos Die Filantroop which is a rustic and earthy Shiraz blend. A true boutique wine, which to top it all off, gives the proceeds back to provide education for the farm workers families. When the wines were listed in Oddbins there was so much pride amongst all the workers, which is exactly what it's all about.
When the trip came to an end, I was sad to go, and I was very humbled by my experiences and the wonderful people I had met. I received a text message 1 day after landing from Cambell Jooste making sure I had made it home safely (enough said).
Days later, I was in one of my local branches and got to chatting to a customer named Jim who is from Johannesburg, about my trip and the wines. Jim and his buddies had signed up to ride the Prudential 100 miles to raise money for children's education in South Africa - www.bokamosotrust.org.uk. He tells me a bit more about the Bokamoso Trust and I am in awe and touched (yes, Buyers do have hearts!). Jim bought himself a few bottles of Paul Roos and in the spur of the moment, I told him that Oddbins would sponsor his team in their ride (oops, how do I sell this to the powers that be on Monday?!). He was surprised and cheekily asked if in addition to the money for the charity, his team could have wines for the ride - my answer was no. Oddbins doesn't do cycling and drinking! But we did agree that they'd get a case of South African wines for AFTER the race. In addition to the £500 being donated by Oddbins on their behalf to the charity, for every 10 minutes Jim shaves off his goal time, the charity will get an extra £50. The ride takes place on July 30th and you can follow Jim's journey @oddbins #OnYaBikeSA