Keeping 15 luxury lodges across South Africa stocked with premium South African wine requires knowhow, logistical chutzpah and a very large amount of wine – 180,000 bottles to be precise – of the very best the country has to offer. South African wine expert, Geoffrey Dean, met up with Francois Rautenbach, general manager of Singita Premier Wine Direct, and was shown round an Aladdin’s cave of top South African vintages and producers.
“I also have three bottles of Lanzerac’s legendary Cabernet Sauvignon 1957,” says Francois Rautenbach.
Tucked away in a pleasant but nondescript industrial estate on the edge of Stellenbosch, is one of the most remarkable collection of South African wines on the planet. What was until 2020 a sawmill in an old warehouse is now the home to a staggering 100,000 bottles of premium wines from 85 South African producers, with multiple vintages dating back several decades as far as 1957. It is owned by Singita, the safari company that has 15 luxury lodges in southern and eastern Africa, and whose all-inclusive rates allow guests to drink whatever wine takes their fancy without a supplementary fee.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, consumption is rather heavy with between 43-47,000 bottles of wine drunk in these lodges per annum. No entry level or mid-market wines, but all lower, mid or super-premium. Hence the need to maintain such a huge stockpile of wines, and the man in charge of doing so is the general manager of Singita Premier Wine Direct, Francois Rautenbach, himself an experienced judge at South African wine auctions and competitions.
The entrance to the Singita maturation facility, where Rautenbach has his office, is deliberately low-key, with little or no hint of the existence of the valuables within. A small sign outside mentions Singita, which is the Shangaan for “Place of Miracles.” For any wine lover allowed inside, that is indeed what this 500 square metre treasure trove of a refrigerated warehouse is.
“It has to be managed very carefully on a weekly basis,” Rautenbach told me when I visited. “I have to buy in the same number of bottles that leave the facility each year. That is not just what is drunk in the lodges but what wines we sell to guests and other private clients by way of an international home delivery service. That is normally about 6,000 bottles per annum, although it was down by half in the pandemic years.”
When we wander behind Rautenbach’s office into the maturation facility itself, which is refrigerated at a constant 12 degrees Celsius, a consignment of 160 bottles is being prepared for delivery to an American couple’s home address in the USA. “This couple have been buying off us for 15 years,” Rautenbach revealed. “Generally they order between 90 and 240 bottles. We’ve quite a few guests who make 10 to 12 purchase orders every year.”
When Rautenbach joined Singita in 2000, the company had only two lodges and consequently needed much less wine than now. “We’re have stock from 85 South African wineries now, although I do add a couple of new ones each year, and we have a core list of 120-130 wines that are real guest favourites,” Rautenbach declared. “Then there would be another 100 or so difficult-to-acquire labels such as Eben Sadie’s Mev Kirsten or Chris Alheit’s Cartology where we might have only several bottles of each. Something like Kanonkop’s Paul Sauer Cabernet Sauvignon I like to have at each lodge although not necessarily the same vintages.”
The 15 lodges themselves have their own refrigerated bulk cellars that, depending on their size, stock between 2,000 and 8,000 bottles. Whatever the occupancy, these are kept fully stocked. Between them all, they house a staggering total of 80,000 bottles (on top of the 100,000 at the Stellenbosch facility). Every bottle originates in the facility, with those destined for Singita’s Tanzanian lodges being shipped by sea from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam.
Temperature loggers in the refrigerated containers give readings every 15 minutes, which are downloaded onto a computer, allowing Rautenbach to monitor the wines’ storage. They are then driven in refrigerated lorries to Singita’s main camp in the western Serengeti 957 km away. “It is quite a logistical exercise but fortunately we have a really professional partner company,” Rautenbach reflected. “Six weeks is the shortest time we’ve done it from Stellenbosch to the Serengeti lodges, although it can take up to 10 weeks.”
Getting the wines to Singita’s South African lodges in the Sabi Sands game reserve and the neighbouring Kruger National Park is altogether easier, although it still takes three days door-to-door. One pallet (just over 800 bottles) at a time is taken by road to Johannesburg, where a delicatessen supplier meets it and transports it along with their dairy products to Nelspruit, a couple of hours drive from Sabi Sands.
A key role for Rautenbach is to observe drinking style trends. “You can really feel where the guest movement is going,” he professed. “Light flavoursome reds is an area the world is switching on to. That’s not an area South Africa traditionally made much of but it’s changed in recent years. When I started to see the indicators coming through from guests in weekly feedback, it was a case of trying to encourage our producers to make more of these wines. Having purchased these wines early on, it has put us in a very good position. Now I can happily cover that area.”
While wanting to keep the list fresh, Rautenbach revealed he had many vintages of some of South Africa’s greatest wines, including 23 different years of Klein Constantia’s celebrated sweet wine, Vin de Constance, going back to 1994. “I also have three bottles of Lanzerac’s legendary Cabernet Sauvignon 1957,” he purred. “I will hold them back for what I would call really interested guests so that I can offer them a wine they would not otherwise get a chance to try.
“We’ve more than a few guests who’ve stayed at Singita lodges over 20 times, and I like to keep lines of communication with them and all guests open. It really is a privilege to work with such a special collection of wines.” Singita guests pay a princely rate but they are not charged a single rand to drink the wines, even a 1957 Lanzerac.