KWV Winemaker Richard Rowe at Toronto's Toca at The Ritz.

KWV Winemaker Richard Rowe at Toronto’s Toca at The Ritz.

A few weeks back KWV Winemaker Richard Rowe was in town to introduce a number of his The Mentors series of wines. Quite a departure from the usual KWV bottlings that we see on the shelves, The Mentors I tasted that evening were amongst the most polished and accessible South African wines that I have ever tasted.

Wholly seduced and intrigued by the wines, I decided to put Richard to task in an effort to discover what made these wines so very different, and of course I had to ask him all of those awkward questions about South African wines. I’m happy to report that he was both frank and to the point… and he was a delightful fellow to boot.

Good Food Revolution: So Richard, would you mind explaining your role within KWV?

Richard Rowe: About 7 years ago the board identified that there was a need for our winemaking to become more international in style and quality, and wanted to see a shift in the overall culture within the winemaking team. KWV is a major exporter and up until very recently was not permitted to sell in the domestic RSA market. Thus as a major exporter it was essential we delivered on our customers’ expectations. Or to put this another way, we were not keeping pace with the quality and stylistic evolution of our competitors.

I initially accepted a role as Chief Winemaker, for a 5 year period, with a view that after this time I would relinquish the role to one of the existing winemakers. Essentially a succession plan was commenced from day 1, and now Johann Fourie hold the Chief Winemaker position. He has been with KWV for nearly 8 years and in the early stages of his new appointment is making a dramatic contribution.

My current position which commenced at the beginning of this year, is Consultant Winemaker / Brand Ambassador. In this role I provide support to Johann and the general winemaking team, and spend 3 months per annum in brand promotional activities in our key international markets. (Which is essentially what I have just returned from; later this year I have India & Sri Lanka, and China, Japan Singapore next year.)

The evolution in my role I think is most appropriate, as we have our wines in a pretty healthy position, but stress your “work is never done,” and it was felt with all the changes and improvements we needed to start telling the world what we have done. And with all due respect to our commercial people it is essential to have winemakers in the trade.

GFR: And that’s not a South African accent you have there… how did you find yourself making wines in South Africa?

RR: Further to comments above, the board felt that to achieve the necessary changes that it would be more effective with an international winemaker. I am Australian but the position could have been effectively filled by winemakers from many countries. KWV mounted an international search, and here I am!!

I have not only small scale winemaking experience, but large scale as well, and in fact there are not too many local companies that KWV could have sourced winemakers with the skill sets necessary.

GFR: Now I know that most think of KWV (Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt)as being an enormous co-operative, but I was recently introduced to one of your smallest lines, “The KWV Mentors” and I have to say that I was rather impressed. Please explain how The Mentors came about and what distinguishes it from the other wines in your portfolio?

RR: KWV, was not only a Co-Operative, but also the regulator of the RSA Wine & Grape industries. This is no longer the case, and currently KWV is privately owned with a major black ownership, in fact one of the few wineries in RSA. Up until 2006 it was very difficult for us to keep small premium parcels separate, as they were essentially blended in with bigger volumes. In 2005 we started construction of the Mentors Cellar, a stand-alone facility with a capacity of 400 tonnes. In this facility all the premium parcels are processed principally for the Mentors label. The Cellar is very well equipped, with small tanks and small scale winemaking equipment.

The rationale behind The Mentors label is that we needed to increase our presence at the ultra-premium end of the market, and to use this presence as an umbrella for the rest of our products. This was in fact a key strategy, as unfortunately we have tended to be “pigeon holed” by many consumers and gate keepers as a more cheap and cheerful brand, which we need to address. To a large extent the strategy has been successful, as The Mentors brand is the most successful RSA wine brand in not only local wine competitions but international as well. We were delighted to have been awarded earlier this month the most successful exhibitor at the Veritas Wine Awards for the third consecutive time. Veritas is the oldest and most prestigious competition in South Africa, with increasing numbers of international judges.

GFR: How many wines are there in The Mentors, and why did you chose these particular grapes and blends. I ask that as Grenache Blanc is not a grape you often see labelled as a single varietal, and one of the blends was a little bit different too!

RR: The number of wines in the range varies subject to quality. In the portfolio last year there were 10, and 8 this year. If a wine is not of exceptional quality it is not released. We also use the range to release any lesser known varieties. For example in addition to the Grenache blanc, we have a 100% Petit verdot, a 100% Cab franc, which is in addition to, Semillon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Chenin blanc , plus in the reds, Pinotage, Shiraz, Canvas (Rhone blend) and Orchestra (Bordeaux blend, with all 5 varieties)

The evolutionary opportunity / challenge is to ensure we are getting the right varieties from the best sites in the most appropriate regions. This as you would imagine is work in progress. From 2012 we released two SAB’s one from Darling, and the other from Stellenbosch, which is principally sourced from a vineyard high in the Bottleray hills, and which doesn’t show typical Stellenbosch features.

I am particularly excited about the Mentors Chardonnay, which we released for the first time in 2011. Not only are we sourcing fruit from Elgin, probably one of the best regions to grow Chardonnay in the country, but our winemaking has changed dramatically and which focused on fruit purity and structure, balanced acidity and subtle oak.

In fact I would say that the most important aspect of our winemaking is to identify the styles we want to produce, and this translates to balance structure and finesse. Gone are the clumsy dirty, over wooded wines, with low acidity lacking varietal flavour and freshness.

A selection from The Mentors, the most awarded range of South African wines.

A selection from The Mentors, the most awarded range of South African wines.

GFR: How have The Mentors been received critically? and how do you feel about the role of the Wine Journalist in todays wine world?

RR: The Mentors wines are repairing some of the damage of the past, and presenting KWV and South Africa as a producer of outstanding table wines. The Mentors wines have been received with enthusiasm and surprise, surprise that South Africa can produce such outstanding wines. This is why my new role is so important!

Wine journalists… Yes a subject I have some strong views on, and probably a discussion for another day. But briefly there are many wine journalists for I have enormous respect. Good wine journalists need to fulfil a role in entertainment, distribution of knowledge and promote evolution within the industry.

GFR: Speaking of journalists, Jane MacQuitty of The Times of London’s critique of some of the highest rated South African wines in 2007 certainly didn’t do the industry any favours when she wrote that wrote that half were tainted by a “peculiar, savage, burnt rubber” odour, “a cruddy, stomach-heaving and palate-crippling disappointment.”… do you feel that this rang true in any way?

RR: I think this was true, and believe the cause of the problem to have arisen due to high pH during winemaking which promotes bacterial instability, and which reduces the impact of SO2. The problem is today very rare, but we live with the consequences which again is why my role is so significant .

GFR: One thing that I noticed in The Mentors wine was a wonderful purity of pristine fruit across the entire range… speaking about “that smell” (tar/bandaid/smoke/burnt rubber) that so many people associate with South African wines and that fact that there is certainly none of that in any of your The Mentors bottlings. What’s the story there?

RR: Our wines today have 0.2 – 0.3 lower pH’s than previous years, this serves to improve the acid balance and freshness, and when this is coupled with a very good understanding of wine style your end result is pristine fruit and elegance, which essentially makes up our winemaking philosophy. Part of this is also modest alcohols, subtle oak usage, and of course our great belief in screw caps!!

GFR: Okay… you are certainly not a Burnt Rubber Denialist then… so you are saying that when some winemakers make out that “that smell” is from terroir, perhaps from pockets of iron rich soil dotted around The Cape, sometimes referred to as a “wild bushy character” then they are talking complete bollocks? Is it the root stock, the soils, the storage, the bottling, the cultured yeasts, the fermentation techniques, or a combination of all of the above?

RR: It’s not terroir at all, it never was and never will be. As I said above, the consequences of high pH are dramatic. It encourages bacterial spoilage, premature aging, brettanomyces problems, and rapid ferments, as opposed to cool clean slow ferments….. the sum of which are burnt rubber characters.

GFR: And where do you stand on the Pinotage question?… Why does Pinotage get such a bad rap. I’m guessing it in many cases relates to you two answers above?

RR: I’m a Pinotage fan, I never used to be, but when you’ve tasted a wine like the 2011 Mentors Pinotage … it is fantastic. Clean vibrant fresh varietal & juicy with lovely tannins and silky flavours on the palate. The controversy regarding Pinotage is all that more topical because it is a variety unique / bred in South Africa. (Pinot noir x Cinsault)

GFR: Are there any other grapes that you feel have still to reach their full potential in South Africa?

RR: Good question!! We love Petit Verdot because it is inherently low in pH, and produces generous ripe rich flavours and lovely tannins, although you need to manage the tannin extraction. It is not only a great blender, but can also stand alone.

Grenache blanc is also low in pH, and the subtle terpenes (Riesling like)this wine develops with bottle age are magnificent

We are also keen on Malbec, and it’s only a matter of time until we produce one from one of our vineyards in Stellenbosch.

I’m a great believer in evolution, and believe in the need for continual improvement. In our case we will continue to revise and finesse our winemaking, look at trends and consumer requirements, but the biggest opportunities for us are to look at our viticultural practices, and continue to assess new viticultural sites.

GFR: Richard thank you for your frank answers. We look forward to seeing you The Mentors in our market very soon.

We’ll be giving GFR readers a heads-up when The Mentors arrive as we are most impressed and feel that they deserve your attention.

Aha… and we have just discovered that The Mentors “Canvas” with be available in the first week of December for $24.95

Jamie Drummond - Good Food RevolutionEdinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he hasn’t really been given straight answers about that smell in all the years he has been in the business. Thanks Richard!