The Buyer
Ken Forrester & Gaucho’s Martin Williams roll out Rare Barrel

Ken Forrester & Gaucho’s Martin Williams roll out Rare Barrel

It’s said getting wines listed in key restaurants is all about relationships, usually between the importer and sommelier or head of wine at any particular venue. But there are times when the usual rules of engagement go out of the window, particularly when you have the personalities of Martin Williams, chief executive of Rare Restaurants, that includes the Gaucho Group and M Restaurants, and Ken Forrester, founder of South Africa’s Ken Forrester Wines involved. They have formed a friendship as well as business relationship which has culminated in them working together on a bespoke wine that Forrester has made for Williams called ‘The Rare Barrel’ made from one of the few plots of Mourvèdre in South Africa.

Richard Siddle
14th November 2023by Richard Siddle
posted in People: On-Trade,

The Rare Barrel joins Rare Restaurants limited edition of own wines including The M Collection, made by leading Argentine winemaker, Susana Balbo, and the wine – Vina Patricia – it continues to make from the vineyard that Gaucho used to own in Argentina.

Martin Williams is one of those restaurant operators that takes his wine seriously and does not simply hand it over to his head sommelier and their team to sort out. It was very much part of his training when he first worked at Gaucho in the mid 200s, before leaving to set up M Restaurants and then returning as chief executive of both groups as part of the private equity team that took over the chain in 2018.

Wine might not be quite as important as the steaks that have made Gaucho part of our premium restaurant scene for nearly 30 years, but it is very much a fundamental part of the business and one which Williams and his new team of sommeliers, headed up by Marina Diaz, strive to get right and innovate all the time.

Gaucho has embarked on an ambitious opening programme with new restaurants above in cities around the UK including Liverpool, above, and Newcastle and most recently Cardiff

Gone has the all Argentine list, to make it more, in keeping with the modern fine cuisine that executive chef, Mike Reid, has created for the revitalised Gaucho Group that continues to spread its wings around the country with Cardiff the latest new opening on the back of Liverpool and Newcastle.

Which is where Ken Forrester and his wines from South Africa come in. He is one of a number of producers, both in South Africa and around the world, that have been able to forge close ties with Gaucho, under the new management team that wants to bring premium, classical and inspirational wines from around the world to its customers.

Forrester, and his UK partner Enotria&Coe, have been very much part of that story as Gaucho and M Restaurant look to widen the scope and ambition of their respective wine lists.

Williams likes his wines so much he makes sure his holidays take him to the most eye catching wine producing countries around the world – which means he is a regular visitor to South Africa.

It was on one such trip, in January this year, that Williams paid a visit to Forrester at his winery inStellenbosch to catch up.

Exclusive wine

It was during a visit to Ken Forrester’s winery that Martin Williams suggested Forrester made an exclusive wine from some of the new American oak barrels that he had invested in

Here he takes up the story: “We had a nice good lunch and went for a tour of Ken’s winery and had the chance to taste a few wines straight from the barrel – and that’s where the ideas was born. I tasted wine from one of the barrels and said to Ken why don’t we make an exclusive wine for the restaurants straight from that barrel.”

The barrel he had chosen comes from one of the small plot of Mourvèdre vines that Forrester has on his farm.

The wine that grabbed Williams’ attention actually came from one of a handful of American oak barrels that Forrester had recently been persuaded to take on – against all his former principles of never ageing any of this wines in anything than French oak barrels.

He says it was during a lunch with fellow South African winemaker, Bruce Jack, that Forrester had met someone from a bourbon cooperage in Kentucky and managed to convince him that he was really missing out on using something special to age his wines in.

These, he was assured, were not like the usual US barrels, as they had been toasted and steamed to ensure no strong flavours would influence the ageing wine.

It is the first time that Ken Forrester has worked with American barrels to make his wines

Forrester initially thought the barrels could be good for making Syrah in, but soon realised they would be much better suited to “taming” what he sees as the austere, natural characteristics of Mourvèdre.

Forrester says he is excited to finally have a wine that he believes does justice to the quality, versatility and unique characteristics of Mourvèdre, a grape variety he helped first introduce into South Africa having first planted his 1.2 hectares of vines back in 1997.

A move at the time he admits could have bankrupted him and the winery if they had not taken to the ground and his local climate. It’s a variety that has intrigued and mystified him ever since.

Jack in the Beanstalk variety

“Mourvèdre is like a Jack in a Beanstalk variety. You plant it and it grows so fast, straight up. You have to prune it back so early in the year in order to help its grapes ripen in time,” he explains.

It’s also a variety that makes you wait. In fact you can rely on having picked all your other grapes, have them fermenting away and washed the cellar from top to bottom and the Mourvèdre will still be hanging out there waiting to ripen, says Forrester.

When he first planted and tasted his first Mourvèdre harvest he thought he had made a terrible mistake with its strong metallic-style taste. “I thought I had created a monster of a wine,” he says.

The new Gaucho in Covent Garden

He even took it to the professors at the wine school in Stellenbosch to ask them what he should do with it. Their answer was to put it in wood – not a new barrel – and see what happens.

“After three or four months it was like a lion tamer bringing it under control,” he adds.

Forrester says he has always been fascinated by the effect that wood can have on a wine. You have to remember, he adds, that wine is full of proteins and what wood can do is act like a magnet with iron filings and help all those proteins align together, which helps give it the richness, smoothness and characteristics you associate with ageing.

The Mourvèdre he has made since has proved to be a key part, be it in a lead or supporting role,in his Icon premium blends including The Gypsy, and Three Halves where the earthy backbone of Mourvèdre works well with fruity Grenache and spicy Syrah.

The Rare Barrel

Gaucho’s Martin Williams and Ken Forrester with two of the limited edition Rare Barrel bottles at Gaucho in Richmond

For the special wine he has made for Williams, Rare Restaurants and Gaucho and M he is taking Mourvèdre from two barrels, a one fill barrel and the other a second fill barrel- neither of which have had bourbon in them Forrester is quick to stress.

“It would be too intense to come from a one fill barrel,” says Forrester. ‘The second fill barrel tones it down and gives it balance.”

He believes the 100% Mourvèdre wine has all the gastronomic characteristics it needs to match the styles of cuisine at Gaucho and M. “It is very rare in itself to see a 100% Mourvèdre,” says Forrester, particularly from South Africa.

The wine has both structure and strong tannins, that work so well with Gaucho’s premium cuts of steak, but also has finesse, balance and lovely vibrant fruits that again work with Gaucho’s rich sauces and side dishes. “It has very discreet tannins,” adds Forrester and expects it to age and get “silkier” for some years to come. “The 2021 is still very much a baby.”

Marina Diaz, Gaucho and M’s head of wine, says it reminds her of a “classic Rioja” and particularly likes how elegant it already is considering its best years are ahead of it.

In all there are 220 magnums of The Rare Barrel made, which are now on sale at £150 a bottle, says Williams.

“It’s so exciting for us to have such a unique wine like this to show our customers. It truly is a wine with a personal story. Our story. That’s what makes it so special,” he says.