An evening with Journey’s End

There is a popular pastime in Scotland for hillwalkers called “Munro-bagging”. A Munro in Scotland is a hill over 3000ft and the practice of “bagging” involved climbing all of them. There is ongoing debate about the exact number but a recent list puts that number at 283. I’m not a Munro-bagger as I can only lay claim to two. One of these was Ben Lawers, overlooking Loch Tay. The reason I remember it so well is that I climbed it on a gorgeous summer’s day and the views from up on the mountain are nothing short of spectacular. The other reason though was that for 75% of the climb you could see the top of the mountain, or at least, I thought it was the top. Just as you reach the crest you realise that the top is still a mighty long way to go and you’re forced to drop down into a valley before having to climb all the way up again. That last part was very tough going.

I was reminded of this story last night at dinner with Rollo Gabb, owner of the Journey’s End winery in South Africa. I asked him where the name came from and he talked about the location of the winery on the edge of Stellenbosch, only a couple of miles from the coast, overlooking what is know as ‘False Bay’. In the old days many a sailor was drawn into False Bay believing their journey to Cape Town had come to an end (Journey’s End) only to realise they still had the treacherous task of rounding Cape of Good Hope. I suppose that is how I felt coming to the false summit of Ben Lawers.

Rollo makes Journey’s End sound like a pretty special place. Originally from Shropshire he comes from a very entrepreneurial family who have had a hand in bringing many well-known wine brands into the UK. In 1995 the family bought the farm in South Africa and after taking over from his father in 2007it is now Rollo’s aim to grow the estate sufficiently to make premium South African wine but also make it work as a commercial venture. I was already aware of one of the wines, the Pastor’s Blend. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, it is a wine that Rollo describes as his easy drinking wine and he jokingly adds it’s his Monday night wine. The blend changes depending on the vintage and it sees a bit of oak, giving it a softness without losing the fresh fruit. The wine was the result of a slight misunderstanding when Rollo gatecrashed what he thought was a party at a neighbouring property, carrying a case of wine. It turned out to be a church service, but I’m sure the wine didn’t go to waste and Rollo became good friends with the local pastor and the Pastor’s Blend was born.

Journey’s End also produces Chardonnay and for me the 2010 Single Vineyard Chardonnay was stunning. The oak was beautifully integrated, which means it’s not as obvious on the nose and the freshness of this wine when tasted makes it an absolute joy to drink. Rollo has started producing Sauvignon Blanc which we didn’t taste but I’m being told it is beautiful. I was slightly dubious about that considering the estate is in Stellenbosch but Rollo assured me his location, although in Stellenbosch is facing the coast and that brings with it the cooling influence of what is locally known as the ‘Cape Doctor’, an on-shore wind so called because it also helps to keep disease and rot at bay.

Rollo has named his top wines after this wind and we got to try the Cape Doctor Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, as well as the Single Vineyard Merlot 2007. Both are gorgeous wines with the Merlot being soft, spicy with ripe plummy fruit. I found the Cabernet Sauvignon very elegant with a much more savoury, tobacco like nose but none of the green stalkiness you sometimes get with this grape. Journey’s End completed a new winery in 2010 and all of these wines were made by borrowing other wineries’ facilities, so Rollo is very confident that the quality of subsequent wines will really take a jump over the next few years. He certainly isn’t short in ambition in putting premium South African wine firmly on the map and it seems like Rollo’s journey has only just started.

France still leads the way

For many wine drinkers France still leads the way. In a recent survey regular wine drinkers were asked to identify wine regions and seven out of the top 10 were French regions. The only non-French regions mentioned were Rioja (Spain), Chianti (Italy) and the Napa Valley (California). That is pretty telling and taken as a cue by the French that their ‘Appellations’ rock.That may be the case for those that most of us would know, regions such as Bordeaux, Champagne and Chablis for example, which don’t struggle for recognition. But what about Costieres de Nimes or Lirac? Is there value in putting those names on a label or do they end up just confusing the average wine drinker? Would you know what you were drinking if you bought a bottle with one of those names on the label?

The French have long held the belief that the sense of place is crucial to their wines. This concept, referred to as ‘terroir’ is central to the principle of Appellations. A few years ago I witnessed an ‘average wine consumer’ asking a winemaker from Burgundy what grape variety was used to make their red wine. The sense of surprise was followed by a Gallic shrug and then a matter of fact statement along the lines of ‘well…Pinot Noir, of course!’. It may be blatantly obvious to those who are in the know, but many people still don’t realise that Chablis is made from Chardonnay for example. This sums up the idea the French have that the grape variety comes way down the list in terms of importance. For that reason the grape variety often isn’t even mentioned on the label, assuming it is allowed to be on the label. Now consider that the same study concluded that grape variety is a very important cue for the regular wine drinker when buying wine, it seems to me this may be a missed opportunity. Speaking to some French producers earlier this week many of them are trying to find a way to use this information to help the average consumer by making labels easier to understand. One supermarket wine buyer actually called for some of the lesser known Appellations to come together under some sort of umbrella brand to help the wine drinking public.

You may like the mystery that is often attached to these strange names, evoking far-flung places but sometimes it helps just to know what you’re drinking. A votre santé!