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Majestic Wine Buyer Matt Pym’s love affair with South Africa began just over a decade ago. As he explains, travelling the Cape’s famous wine routes also had a part to play in his choice of career.

The Cape Escape

I first visited South Africa in August 1997. Fresh out of university and with no career path in mind, I’d already been backpacking around Australasia and South East Asia for six months when I flew from Bangkok to Johannesburg. Two friends and I hired what just about passed for a car from the well named ‘Rent-a-Wreck’ and headed south to Cape Town.

Having quickly familiarised ourselves with the sights (OK, pubs) of Cape Town, the winelands of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek soon started calling. We spent a couple of fantastic days travelling along the famous wine routes. It didn’t take long to fall in love with this part of the country, with its stunning mountain ranges, dramatic coastal views, baboons in the vineyards and wonderful wines and food. Indeed, it may well have been this short introduction to SA wine regions that first sparked my interest in the wine trade.

Back as a Buyer

A year later, by now a fresh(ish)-faced Majestic trainee manager, I was enthusiastically selling wines from some of the estates I’d visited on the Cape. Then in 2000 I was lucky enough to land a job in the buying team and was ecstatic to discover that one of the regions I’d been given responsibility for was SA.

I started planning my first buying trip out there almost immediately (well, it’s important to really get under the skin of a region to do the job properly…). The following February, I was back in SA getting a rather different view of the wine trade. Not only did I no longer have to pay for tastings, but I was also able to forgo the joys of Rent-a-Wreck and use Hertz instead!

During that week I got a real flavour not just for the wines, but for the people behind the wines. I met legends of the SA wine trade such as Beyers Truter (then winemaker at Kanonkop and now the force behind Beyerskloof), Giles Webb of Thelema, Danie De Wet and Neil Ellis to name but a few. Nine years on, I’m happy to say that we’re still stocking incredible wines from these guys.

It’s not all work, work, work.

My next visits came in 2005 and 2006, by which time my love of fishing and sport had leaked out. Happily enough, these are passions shared by many South Africans! For me, one of the true joys of the SA wine trade is the people I buy wines from. It’s great to do business with people who share your love of wine and food, who have a keen sense of the importance of the land – and who are always happy to indulge in a spot of banter whenever England play the Saffers at cricket or rugby.

After the serious business is done, I always try to make time to see a game or go fishing in the magnificent Atlantic Ocean off Cape Point. Catching my first yellowfin tuna (74 KGs) was an experience I’ll remember forever. To balance things out, I’ve also seen some English sporting performances in Cape Town that I’d really rather forget. Anyway, back to the wine.

Then and Now

Yonder Hill Cabernet Sauvignon / Cabernet Franc / Merlot 2003, Stellenbosch
£8.99 or £6.74 when you buy 2 bottles*

I first visited the stunning Yonder Hill winery in 2001 and this was one of my very first new additions to the Majestic range. This Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blend has spent 22 months in barrel after fermentation. And with just over 4 years in bottle, it’s now nicely mature. The complex nose of chocolate, cassis, coffee and tar is well balanced and pure on the palate with a long, rich finish.

Cap Maritime Shiraz 2008, Boukenhoutskloof, Walker Bay New!
£12.99 or £9.74 when you buy 2 bottles*

A find from my most recent trip, this is renowned winemaker Marc Kent’s first vintage of Shiraz from the Atlantic-influenced Walker Bay region. Lots of cracked white pepper on the spicy, aromatic nose, indicative of cool-climate Shiraz. The palate is freshened by meaningful acidity.

Maturing Well

By 2005, SA wines were really starting to break free from the shackles imposed by decades of international exclusion. New ideas on regionality, vinification and viticultural techniques were taking hold as winemakers started to travel overseas and learn new techniques, which they would then refine and apply to their own estates. It was an exciting time to be there and I was able to expand our range of SA wines, focusing on quality driven producers and listing new wines from Vergelegen, Spier, Boekenhoutskloof, Buitenverwachting and Klein Constantia.

From Strength to Strength

My most recent visit last year proved to me the strength of the SA wine industry. Wines from famous estates in ‘classic’ regions, such as recent listings from Rustenburg, are better than ever. At the same time we’re seeing dynamic new producers emerging in other regions – try Paul Cluver or Iona Sauvignon from the dramatic coastal Elgin region or the new Cap Maritime Shiraz from Walker Bay. As a result, the review tasting I conducted on returning to the UK was by far the most impressive we have seen and I took on over a dozen new wines for Autumn 2009.

The future for SA wine looks very bright indeed. In fact, as I write this, it occurs to me that it’s time to start planning my next trip. I believe there’s some small football tournament on in June. Mind you, that’s the wintertime and the tuna season ends in May. Decisions, decisions…

Zalze Pinotage 2008, Western Cape
£6.99 £6.65 or £4.99 when you buy 2 bottles*

When Pinot Noir and Cinsault were first crossed in 1925, Pinotage was the result. Since then it has emerged as South Africa’s signature red grape. There are many different styles, but this great-value version is characteristically fleshy, full-bodied, refreshing and fruity, with hints of bramble and banana.

Bellingham ‘The Bernard Series’ Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2008, Western Cape
£9.99 or £7.49 when you buy 2 bottles*

Bernard Series wines aim to showcase small, extreme or sometimes previously forgotten vineyards. The average age of these naturally lowyielding vines is 40 years old, which is reflected in the depth and weight of this wine. 12 months’ maturation in French oak barrels adds complexity, resulting in a wine packed with tropical fruit, melon, honeysuckle and vanilla spice flavours. This vintage won a gold medal and the Chenin Blanc Trophy at IWSC 2008.

Elgin Vintners Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Elgin
£9.99 or £7.49 when you buy 2 bottles*

From a partnership of six dedicated grape growers, this has a vibrant nose of tropical fruit, lime and asparagus. Gooseberry and green figs on the palate complement the grassy backbone and long elegant finish.

Groot Constantia Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Constantia
£12.99 or £9.74 when you buy 2 bottles*

Founded in 1685, Groot Constantia predates most estates even in the Old World. Their 2008 Sauvignon won the IWC trophy for Best South African White Wine and the winemaker, Boela Gerber, believes the 2009 is better still. With plenty of tropical fruit and freshly-cut grass characters, it’s defined by a lovely, steely minerality.

Rustenberg Chardonnay 2008, Stellenbosch
£12.99 or £9.74 when you buy 2 bottles*

From another glorious 17th Century estate that’s widely recognised as one of the truly great names of South African wine, this classy Chardonnay is very much in the mould of good white Burgundy, with lovely minerally fruit and balanced new oak.

Kanonkop Pinotage 2007, Stellenbosch
£19.99 or £14.99 when you buy 2 bottles*

In my view, this is consistently the best Pinotage in South Africa – and therefore the world! Made in a very classical style, it’s fermented in small open vats, then matured in mainly new French oak for 16 months for a serious, substantial wine that also displays real elegance and freshness. It’s superb now, but having tasted these all the way back to the mid 1980s I’d recommend buying enough for the cellar as well. I do.

*All prices valid until 26th April 2010

  • Bruce Tomkins

    I have just read the Spring Edition of Grape to Glass, and just wanted to comment on just how informative and enlightening the articles were to read.

    For someone who has an ambition to get into the wine industry, the articles made me more determined to move from my current role within the building industry to that of the wine industry.

    Matt Pym’s evocative article as wine buyer struck a particular chord with me, as it painted a vivid vision of where I want to go in my career.

    Thank-you for producing an especially enjoyable read, and I look forward to the next edition with great anticipation.

    Bruce Tomkins

  • Laurence Measey

    Your selection contains may Sauvignon Blanc which is the variety that has stormed ahead in the past ten years. To my palate the “new Marlbourough” of South Africa is in the costal regions particularly Elim. These wines are true SB but less austere than Loire and more elegant than NZ. Do try when next you visit.
    South African wine growers are a particularly nice bnunch of people and hust touring around is a great pleasuie