Famous (flying) foreign winemakers were a big deal in the world of wine a few decades back. It was a natural progression from the not-so-famous flying winemakers – mostly Australian – who exported skills acquired at Roseworthy in Adelaide. In very little time they brought an apparently alien culture of clean cellars, clean fruit and clean wine to the Old World. The major purchasers of these services were the UK supermarkets, primarily through intermediaries. The major suppliers were the cooperatives dotted across the southwest of France, where vast swathes of vineyards were being “upgraded” with plantings of more saleable cabernet, merlot, shiraz and chardonnay.
I worked with several who did stints in South Africa for UK supermarkets. More than their competence and technical abilities, what struck me was their grasp of the economics of efficient winemaking and their ability to manage relationships in the cellars in which they worked. The two extremes of the trade – artisanal and industrial – may appear to inhabit opposite sides of a spectrum, but their relationship is symbiotic. Fine wine producers try to distance themselves from the world of commercial winemaking but they are co-dependents. Putting high-end commodity producers under the same roof as pre-modern Cape winemakers who really thought they were making world-class wines wasn’t necessarily a formula for success. Fortunately the visitors has been schooled in managing dinosaurs.
Nothwithstanding the winery politics, the flying winemakers who came to South Africa contributed to the skills upgrade which followed the end of isolation. The more junior members of the winemaking teams were willing to learn from them, and went with them to international technical conferences. The competence gap narrowed remarkably quickly, at least insofar as the next generation was concerned.
So is there a role left for the famous foreign winemakers? How useful is their knowledge, compared with those whose expertise is grounded in the same place as the vines grow? It’s a fair question, and one which requires an examination of the wines produced at the Cape cellars which benefit from their input. Michel Rolland – a high profile international consultant who works with over 100 estates in 13 countries, has been involved at Vergelegen since 2013. He instantly made a positive and discernible impact on blends the base wines of which had already been made before he became involved.
Hubert de Bouard, who took Chateau Angelus from a solid but uninspiring St Emilion to one of the top three estates in the appellation, has been directly involved in the transformation of Klein Constantia. True, there’s also been a new winemaker and a new general manager. While it’s impossible to separate the part he played from those who are involved full-time, it cannot be discounted: De Bouard runs a full-time consultancy, addressing technical issues at a number of leading estates, mainly in France.
Pierre Lurton, who heads up Chateaux Cheval Blanc and d’Yquem in Bordeaux, and directs Cheval des Andes in Argentina, serves as an advisor to Morgenster. He has overseen the estate’s Bordeaux blend from even before the vineyards were in full production.
All three of them are highly qualified oenologists at the top of their game. In terms of sheer depth of knowledge as well as practical experience, they are pretty much unmatched in the world of wine. Lurton has had the longest direct involvement with a Cape property. The fact that the earliest Morgenster vintages – most notably the 2000, 2001 and 2004 – which are still available have aged so well, and now sit comfortably alongside Lurton’s French wines from the same era (as a recent tasting in Johannesburg showed), confirms the value he has brought to the cellar
For these relationships to work, and to be worth what they cost, international consulting oenologists must be more than specialists in the cosmetics of wine. They must be what Federer’s or Djokovic’s coach is to a great tennis player – able to get the very best out of a property which is already at the top of its game.