• Alex Starey: how collaboration is driving South Africa forward

    South African winemakers can have some of the biggest, and loudest, personalities in the world. Alex Starey, winemaker at Keermont, is, by comparison, far more relaxed and laid back, which shines through in his elegant, carefully crafted boutique wines. He shares his experiences of the South African wine scene and what we can expect when he joins his UK importer, Swig, at next month’s New Wave tasting in London.

    South African winemakers can have some of the biggest, and loudest, personalities in the world. Alex Starey, winemaker at Keermont, is, by comparison, far more relaxed and laid back, which shines through in his elegant, carefully crafted boutique wines. He shares his experiences of the South African wine scene and what we can expect when he joins his UK importer, Swig, at next month’s New Wave tasting in London.

    mm By September 6, 2017

    Alex Starey’s Keermont wines are rightly turning the heads of the major wine critics. Matthew Jukes urges us all to “buy every bottle you can” and Keermont was one of 15 producers in Tim Atkin MW’s Top Growths from South Africa 2016. Here Starey shares his story to date. 

    Alex Starey, winemaker at Keermont Vineyards, a boutique wine estate set in the naturally-formed amphitheatre between the Helderberg and Stellenbosch mountain ranges.
    Alex Starey, winemaker at Keermont Vineyards, a boutique wine estate set in the naturally-formed amphitheatre between the Helderberg and Stellenbosch mountain ranges.

    What have been the main developments for the winery over the last two years? 

    The Keermont brand started in 2010 with 1,500 bottles and we have grown that to about 40,000 bottles per year now, so every year seems to outshine the last. I like to think that our wines improve a bit every year,  so we are building a solid reputation, but obviously the international attention on all the great wines being created in South Africa has pulled us along. We owe a lot to our colleagues for building brand South Africa and of course the tireless team at Wines of South Africa who work their butts off to create a good image for us.

    What do you see as the main opportunities, and challenges for the South African wine industry?

    I feel these two questions are very connected. For a long time South African wine has been known for being cheap. People have not been prepared to pay good prices for South African wine. This works its way back to the source: the farmer, his staff, and his vineyards all suffer. We are slowly starting to see the perception of South African wine changing. More money per bottle means more demand for quality grapes and therefore better grape prices. Hopefully, this leads to better farming and business practices on farms including the social aspect.

    In South Africa we have a massive inequality problem. I believe that if we can improve education for the poor, it will lead to a better future for all South Africans.

    There seems to be a camaraderie amongst winemakers in South Africa, has that played a part in your own development?

    Work hard, play hard...South African winemakers are pretty unique in how much they collaborate in their winemaking but also having fun and relaxing - and surfing - together
    Work hard, play hard…South African winemakers are pretty unique in how much they collaborate in their winemaking but also having fun and relaxing – and surfing – together

    Absolutely! When we started making wine at Keermont, we contacted many wineries for advice and people were amazingly open. I remember going to see Adi Badenhorst at Rustenburg about Cabernet clones and he took us through his whole cellar giving us guidance. I try to do the same to any new winemakers who contact me now and still regularly tap into other winemakers for advice.

    This mentality seems to have rubbed off on our importers who are now putting on trade shows together!

    Who has been your greatest influence, both internationally and locally?

    Wow, that’s a tough one! So many great wines to draw inspiration from. I have worked with some great winemakers including Stephan Ogier and Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus), but i consider my friend and neighbour Dave Trafford of De Trafford Winery to be my mentor. He just has a very pure and simple attitude towards making wine. I am also the Mullineux’s biggest secret admirer!

    The Keermont winery neatly tucked away against the mountain side.
    The Keermont winery neatly tucked away against the mountain side.

    How do you see the UK market? How important is to you?

    The UK market seems to be incredibly evolved and complex. It has obviously been such an important wine market for so long and so heavily traded that it can be intimidating at times. That said, I find the British consumers to be quite open minded about what they drink and happy to try something new.

    South Africa has always had strong ties with Britain, so our wines are more readily accepted in the UK than in some other markets. For Keermont, the UK is a very important market. We have great agents at Swig who we enjoy working with (which we regard as very important). They manage to sell decent amounts of wine into a market that I think many countries view as a testing ground for what’s good in the world of wine. This has the knock on effect for us in that other markets will consider our wine based on its reputation in the UK.

    Alex Starey's winemaking is winning further acclaim with every vintage
    Alex Starey’s winemaking is winning further acclaim with every vintage

    What other markets are opening up for you around the world – and why?  

    We have seen a lot of growth in the local South African market. This may be because we are focussing on it more, but I like to think that there is also growing awareness of the interesting and exciting wines being produced. Tourism also contributes to local consumption. Internationally, I think Japan is a very exciting market for South African wine. The impression I get (I have not yet visited Japan) is that there is a real appreciation for the detail in wine. I think the New Wave South African style is well suited to Japanese cuisine too.

    Why are you involved in next month’s New Wave tasting, what do you hope to achieve? 

    I believe the New Wave tasting is a great collection of open minded, quality driven producers. The producers have been selected as opposed to a general trade show where anyone who can afford a stand can be there. This means the customers attending are assured everyone is there on merit and can taste all the wines with an open mind.

    Keermont shares the same valley with Kleinood and De Trafford wineries
    Keermont shares the same valley with Kleinood and De Trafford wineries

    You were at the first taste New Wave tasting in 2015, how was that for you?

    I think it really drew a lot of attention to the revolution that has been occurring in the South African wine industry and to the quality that can be achieved in South Africa. So, a game changer for the perception of South African wine from which Keermont benefited.

    Give us your elevator pitch why a buyer should come and taste your wines at the New Wave tasting?  

    Keermont is about a place. This place, I strongly believe, has the potential to become an internationally revered wine estate. We are at the beginning of that journey: laying the foundations for generations to come. This is why we emphasise ‘Grown, Produced, and Bottled’ at Keermont Vineyards. All of our wines are made from grapes grown on the farm up on the mountain slopes above Stellenbosch: Exciting terroir = Exciting wines!

    As your heading back to the UK what’s your favourite dish?

    Stilton cheese is awesome, but for a meal I love a good pub lunch. Fish and chips with mushy peas and all!

    Favourite restaurant?

    London's Oxo Tower makes quite an impression...
    London’s Oxo Tower makes quite an impression…

    The Oxo Tower’s restaurant made a big impression on me. Obviously the very fine dining experience and great staff, but I loved the view down over the Thames.

    Best place for a drink?

    My friends in Clapham Common have a great patio out the back of their house. Whenever I’m in London I buy a couple of nice bottles to take around and enjoy with them. 

    What you are drinking whilst you are here?
    Beaujolais and Loire white and red. We can’t get them at home, and when you can they are are expensive compared to local wines.

    Favourite city in the world outside South Africa?

    London, of course! I love the energy of central London (for a few days at a time).

    Best thing to do as a tourist in London? 

    Walk! So many amazing hidden gems in between the tourist sights which you miss if you aren’t on foot.

    Best place to go to meet another South African?

    The Underground. You can spot that accent so clearly.

    (NB: Main picture is by Tim Atkin MW).

    • The Buyer will be featuring other South African winemakers and their UK importers and what to expect at the tasting over the coming weeks. 

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