Part 2 of Memoirs of Cape Wine Import

Insight Magazine continues to follow two young female entrepreneurs, starting a wine import from scratch during one of the most challenging times in modern history.

Written by: Mia Westby and Isabella Hedemark

07.01.2021

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Part two of their story, with a special wine lesson by the sommelier Isabella Hedemark from Urban Substans.

We literally stumbled over the Beyerskloof winery at a wine fair in Stellenbosch fall of 2019.  

To be honest, we were there for the wine consuming—not the wine tasting part. At that point we hadn’t even started thinking of creating a wine import business. However, being open to life and people in general, we got to know a fine young Afrikaans man named Christiaan, a descendant of the Dutch settlers.  

He worked at the Beyerskloof winery and spoke very highly of it, telling us that they specialize in the Pinotage grape and explaining how it was cultivated at the university of Stellenbosch. The Pinotage grape was a hybrid between Pinot Noir and Cincaut; a successful hybrid, unlike most others. In France, mixing grapes is like swearing in church, but in the new wine world they have no such reservations.  

One of several hands-on shipments from the dock to our storage.

A Norwegian Explorer in Africa 

Coincidentally, a fellow South African fan and famous Norwegian explorer, asked if we could help him find a good red wine to import while we were down there, preferably a Pinotage blend. He had been most helpful when we were new to the area and we were happy to return the favour.  

I remember asking him for help to arrange transportation from the airport and he sent someone from the mafia to pick us up. Post shock, the chauffeur turned out to be very nice, I remember thinking, “TIA”—This is Africa.  

The Wine Tasting 

Anyways, in order to find the best suitable red wine, we called our new friend Christiaan at Beyerskloof and he was kind enough to arrange a wine tasting. We invited a few more local South Africans and the tasting produced one clear winner: the Beyerskloof Synergy Cape Blend. It’s a mix of many different grapes and I remember our sommelier, Urban Substans, called it a fairy tale blend. We were also impressed with Beyerskloof’s white wine; a Pinotage and Chenin Blanc blend, the only one of its kind. White wine from a red wine grape? Why not? It was delicious and in line with our company ethos, which is to have an innovative portfolio.  

Lesson #2 to Aspiring Wine Importers: 
Do something different than everyone else.
It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond. 

Luckily for us, the original buyer didn’t follow through, so when we had established our company, we felt that we had already laid the groundwork with Beyerskloof and we were ready to import the two wines that we truly believed in. However, we had forgotten the vial first step: Establish a relationship with the winery.  

Wine is Business 

Since it had gone so smoothly in person with our other wineries, we took it for granted that the winery wanted to do business with us. Sometimes we get so caught up with the business side of things, that we forget the social game. Wine is a business area, alongside other luxury segments, in which the producer is selective with regards to whom they accept as a distributor. This is probably due to the pride they take in cultivating their product, and it is a sign of quality. Everyone can buy a Prius, but to buy a Pagani you would also have to jump through a few hoops.    

Beyerskloof’s Synergy Cape Blend

We had a short standoff with Beyerskloof, all the while knowing that the pandemic had taken a toll on the wine business in South Africa and the previous non-negotiables like minimum quantity, was now negotiable. After a few emails back and forth, we managed to reassure them that we run a tight ship and seeing that both well-established Backsberg and award-winning Le Lude estate had put their trust in us, so could they.  

What is so special about the Pinotage? Sommelier Isabella Hedemark, founder of  www.urbansubstans.no, explains.

Pinotage—The Ugly Duckling that Turned into a Swan 

Imagine Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein having a baby. Would it be a perfect child?  

Photo: Urban Substans, Isabella Hedemark 

Pinotage is a rare example of a successful hybrid grape, a grape combining the best characteristics of mum and dad, created by a professor in 1925 at Stellenbosch University. The idea was to cross the “diva grape” Pinot Noir, that give Holy Grail associations to wine lovers all over the world, with a working horse and high yielding grape—namely Hermitage (Cinsaut). Pinotage is today one of South Africa’s national treasures. 

Unfashionable Led to Uprooting 

The story of the Pinotage grape continues like the story of the ugly duckling. In the beginning this robust and early-ripening grape tempted local farmers to overplant and maximize the yield from the newcomer. Combined with a lack of knowledge on how to handle Pinotage in the cellar, this resulted in wine of lower quality with acetone-like aromas. Most of the production was used for bulk and cheap table wine. A bad reputation was to bedevil Pinotage wines for decades.

When a group of visiting British Wine Masters described Pinotage as “hot and horrible” during a tasting in 1976, the local wine makers decided to uproot most of the Pinotage wines and replace them with international, popular grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  

Perfecting Untapped Potential 

Then something changed. A few visionary wine makers unveiled the potential of the misunderstood grape. By keeping the yields low and experimenting with modern wine making technology, they succeeded in bringing forth the best in Pinotage and made it shine. In 1991, Beyerskloof’s cellar master Beyers Truter won a prestigious international wine competition with Pinotage, and thereby put South Africa and its indigenous grape on the international wine map. Beyerskloof Wine Estate has since won many national and international awards for its high-quality Pinotage wines, and Beyers earned the reputation as The King of Pinotage. 

After seventy years, South Africa’s ugly duckling grape turned into a beautiful swan and Pinotage finally received the appraisal it deserved.  

The Taste of Pinotage 

Deep, intense ruby colour. Oddly enough, Pinotage tastes nothing like either of its parental grapes. Good Pinotage smells and tastes of blackberry, black and red cherry, fig, tobacco and menthol. It’s juicy with high alcohol and tannin. It also makes delicious rosé wines with notes of strawberry, pink grapefruit, mint and just the right weight. •