Gary Jordan (left) is a man on a mission: A mission to produce world-class wine that proudly represents his homeland of South Africa. To date, The Jordan Wine Estate has proved more than successful, garnering awards across the international board, and being enjoyed across broader and wider geographies than ever before…
Gary has also expanded into the restaurant business with the emergence of High Timber as an increasingly popular destination ‘wine-dining’ restaurant for London city folk and tourists in equal measure.
Gary spoke to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide at High Timber, interview took place, April 2010.
Tell us some background about yourself?
In the 1800s my family emigrated from Leicester, England to South Africa. My great grandfather had been a shoemaker: a business that had been passed down from father to son for generations.
I’d always loved working with my hands, planting things, being with nature and in particular had spent a significant amount of time in wine regions. So it became a natural next step, when in 1982, in partnership with my parents, I bought a derelict farmhouse on the outskirts of Cape Town with a view to planting grapes.
I trained as a Geologist, learning a lot about soil, rocks, mining, prospecting and so on but in actual fact, the experience helped gain a significant handle on which grape varieties would work in which parts of the new estate.
While the land we bought at that time was not expensive, it was also not seen as the most sensible investment – farmers could not make ends meet. It was still the height of apartheid and that business type was not sustainable. However, my family has always enjoyed a challenge! Looking back now, today we spend three times more on corks than we paid for the land in 1982 (laughing).
From the top of our farm we can see from Table Mountain to the Stellenbosch mountains and the situation of the farm is within one of the seven biomes of the world (one of the seven wonders of the world) where you can see more species of plant life than you would find in the whole of Europe. Amazing! Stellenbosch is like the green lung that sits between Cape Town and the interior. Truly beautiful!
We replanted the whole estate and decided to specialise in four main grape varieties: While this may not seem possible orsensible, we happened to own the only farm in the region that uniquely encompasses a North, South, East and West facing slope. In addition, the slopes start at 60 metres above sea level and go up to about 410 metres. This substantial difference in elevation coupled with really well drained, lean soils affords us the opportunity to make first class wines with several different grape varieties.
For our top end wines we import all our barrels from France. Each barrel costs about as much as a return trip to South Africa from the UK. You can only use each barrel about five times before you cut it in half and use it for pot plants (laughing). So you certainly have to focus and think about costs and appreciate that only the very best wines will go to barrel.
What is the KWV?
The KWV was originally a state controlled regulatory body and winery set up by the South African government in 1918 to manage surpluses of grapes. They determined all the fundementals in South African wine production. The predominant use of the surplus grapes was to make Brandy which, for many years, probably represented the main international image of South Africa in terms of alcohol production.
How would you describe the history and development of wine in South Africa?
Wine has been made in South Africa since the 1680s – so there’s a rich tapestry of history and culture in grape growing and wine making – perhaps placing South Africa much closer to the Old World than the New. In those early days, apparently fine Constantia (original South African wine growing region) wine graced the tables of the nobility, before unfortunately South African wine production fell into the dark ages for a couple of hundred years.
It was the 1960s or 1970s when a standards system similar to appellation controlee was introduced whereby each bottle of wine was given a number that could be traced back to a particular batch, barrel or vineyard. This also provided a quality stamp.
Cold fermentation techniques were pioneered in South Africa but New World areas such as California, Australia and later New Zealand were able to forge ahead with such techniques, while South Africa remained isolated from the world through the sanctions associated with Apartheid.
During the 1980s and into the 1990s Nelson Mandela was released and apartheid came to an end. At this time the world became South Africa’s oyster as the country was welcomed back into the world at large and she has subsequently taken great national pride in the quality of her wines on the international stage.
Historically 98% of production was around Semillon. This was followed (more recently) by Chenin Blanc; a grape with naturally higher acidity, thereby lending itself to a warmer climate. So much has developed so quickly from a viticultural point of view. All manner of exciting grape varieties have been introduced that match the variety of climate and richness and sophistication of available terroir.
Describe the wine map around Cape Town
Stellenbosch is perhaps the most internationally renowned region situated around Cape Town. Jordan wines were fortunate to be at the forefront of this development from the early 1980s. There is the original, historical Constantia region and others like the Paarl Region.
Because of the proximity of all these estates and regions and the diversity of grape varieties, you can travel a wine route in a day which will allow you to sample the equivalent of the best of burgundy, Bordeaux and the Loire! New visitors to the region are always bowled over by the extraordinary, beautiful landscape and the sheer quality and variety of wines to be found.
Tell us more about Jordan Wines and the Stellenbosch
A journalist called John Platter started an independent guide which you may think of as the ‘Michelin Guide to Wineries’ inSouth Africa and awards one to five stars – he’s like the Robert Parker of South African wine. He gives great detail on the wine and Stellenbosch and Jordan wines have appeared in that guide for a number of years.
A little bit of my heart and soul goes into every barrel and every bottle. The watchword is quality, not quantity. The unique nature of the terroir on the Jordan Wine Estate coupled with focus on the quality of production has enabled the estate to win a number of international awards across a number of wines. In fact, it is unusual to be able to achieve this with both red and white wines. Some estates may have planted a variety of grapes but only have success with one. This comes back to the uniqueness of the Jordan estate and those North, South, East and West facing slopes that have the mix of elevation and the right quality of soil.
How has the export business stood up during a global recession?
Generally speaking South African wines have stood up well – in export terms to the UK – better than say French and Australian wines.
Naturally the UK and Holland are the traditional export markets for South African wine but in recent years this has extended to the US. In August 2008, the US was 16 barrels away from being our (Jordan’s) largest export market but for us this dropped away within a period of weeks of the credit crunch.
In addition, the large supermarkets have done wonders in putting wines from all around the world onto the radar of the general public, however when you do business with a supermarket buyer you are putting your production in the hands of effectively one person – when the supermarket buyer changes you might be in some trouble!
As a little piece of us goes into every bottle we like to deal with independents individually who will likewise put a little of themselves in the sale of the wine – be it to consumers or high end restaurants. In operating this way, our export figures have stood up well.
Do you see the forthcoming football world cup in South Africa as having an impact on the wine business?
Yes, most definitely. Anything that is followed by at least a billion people is bound to have a positive impact on what we do. There’s a whole bunch of promotional activity planned leading up to, during and after the competition and, like all South Africans, we’re very excited by the World Cup.
Tell us about your restaurants – At the Jordan Estate, South Africa and High Timber, London.
Opening restaurants was a natural progression: We’d spent so much time engaging with restaurants as part of our business, we thought that introducing some ‘wine-dining’ would be a great step forward.
On our estate in Stellenbosch, we have a great chef, George Jardine, who is originally from Scotland and is producing wonderful food. The Restaurant at Jordan has gone from strength to strength and we’re delighted with the progress.
In terms of London, we’ve had a long and very dear relationship with Neleen Strauss who has long been a successful restaurateur. We found such a great site on the banks of the Thames, overlooking the Millenium Bridge with the Tate Modern and Shakespeare Globe Theatre on the other side of the river we just had to take the plunge.
The city has changed so much just over the last ten years, with both tourists and city folk extending out to this part of the river,as well as significant accommodation developments. These factors help ensure that a restaurants like High Timber thrives in this location. We have a passionate chef – Justin Saunders – who with his team have the vision and talent to provide quality, consistent food and what a better place in the world to showcase a cellar collection of 40,000 bottles of wine!
What are your plans for the future?
We’ve had the strength of character to open two new restaurants in a year during a recession and it has been the best thing we could have done!
We’re currently negotiating in South Africa about the potential to expand the Jordan Wine Estate. At the same time we’re looking at new export markets for our wine – China and Russia as examples. Currently 50% of wine produced at Jordan is consumed in Africa and 50% exported outside the continent, that ratio may change, as it’s increasingly a global business.
Who knows, we may even be looking at new restaurant sites – watch this space!