The Buyer
Swig’s Robin Davis on keep riding South Africa’s New Wave

Swig’s Robin Davis on keep riding South Africa’s New Wave

If you were blown away by the excitement, dynamism, and buzz of the first two New Wave tastings, highlighting and celebrating some of the best winemaking talent in South Africa quality, then you really are in for a treat with its return to London on September 3. Robin Davis, co-founder of the New Wave tasting, explains why his own distribution business, Swig, is so keen to be involved again and why he believes it is going to be “easily be the best tasting yet”. In the first of a series of articles with each of the five importers involved, and some of their key winemakers, Richard Siddle talks to Davis about what we can expect. (Main picture: BlankBottle’s Pieter Weiser competing in the Vintners Surf Classic, picture by Thys Lombard).

Richard Siddle
16th July 2019by Richard Siddle
posted in People,People: Supplier,

If you have not yet managed to get along to one of the New Wave tastings then block out September 3 in your diary. Particularly if you want to explore, discover and get your hands on some of the most exciting and breakthrough wines coming out of South Africa.

New Wave South Africa was another collaborative importers tasting that Swig was involved with

The New Wave South African tasting is back. After its breakthrough year in 2015 the tasting is set to return to London on September 3, back at its original venue, Phonica Records, in the heart of Soho. Once again the five original importers, who have done so much to transform how tastings are now held in the UK trade, have come together to host this year’s event. They are: Swig; Dreyfus Ashby; Indigo Wine; New Generation Wines; and Fields Morris & Verdin.

Once again the focus is not really on them, but on the dynamic wine scene in South Africa, described by many top critics as the most exciting wine country in the world. If you are not able to go to South Africa to see for yourself then the New Wave tasting is like taking a fast track, crash course in the new styles of wine being made by a new generation of winemakers. Here Robin Swig kicks off a series of interviews with the importers and winemakers who hope to make the New Wave tasting such a key part of the wine industry’s calendar.

This is the third New Wave tasting you have jointly held. Why are you doing it again?

Robin Davis Swig: it will “easily” be the best tasting yet

In the last three vintages there has been an exponential improvement in quality. This has to be brought to the attention of the trade. It will easily be the best tasting yet. Awareness for New Wave wines has grown so much since the incredible response to the first tasting in 2015. Before that, there were so few listings in the on-trade. There was the odd token bottle of South African wine that was unrepresentative of the amazing progress the country has made.

The second tasting in 2017 brought in many tasters and there were a lot more producers who were ready to be part of the event. Many more listings have resulted, that you now see across the whole of the UK. So we know it’s working,

Among the founding importers, and a few others, we represent 50 of the best New Wave producers. But without pooling together, these producers and this amazing movement will not get the recognition it deserves. These wines more than ever show they are exciting, balanced, intriguing and fresh, have good stories, and they virtually all come at a price that like for like deserve a place on every wine list.

There is so much profile raising do to though. And although quite a number of other wholesalers are now listing New Wave wines, we feel we still need to be a collective of importers to do this with sufficient impact.

What have you learnt from the past events?
Keeping the quality of the producers has been fundamental to the success. Go to any generic tasting and you’ll taste many howlers. It saps your energy and puts you off the whole idea. The feedback proved we were right to keep it tight, and not expand the numbers too quickly.

Making it fun and lively, relaxed, with music the first time worked, and we kept that the second time. Both tastings have had a warehouse vibe, without any stuffiness. But we’re coming back to Vinyl Factory in central London, which although Shoreditch was a great success, we think will be easier for more to get to.

What can we expect different from this year’s event overall?
There are 10 new producers this year. They’re all amazing. And they’re all coming! Also, I’ve been tasting wines from the others, and honestly, the quality is exceptional. It shows the openness, with how they communicate with each other about quality, the healthy competition, and the development in vineyard farming, and cellar practices which are more hands-off, is really paying off.

Can you talk us through your own South African portfolio and how that has grown since the last New Wave tasting in 2017?

Berene Sauls will be coming to the tasting for the first time with Swig

We’ve taken on three producers, including the wines of Tesselaarsdal, a Pinot Noir from Hemel-en-Aarde, made at the cellar of Hamilton-Russell. The winemaker/owner is Berene Sauls, who worked for many years at Hamilton-Russell, and they helped her get started. Her wine is already much revered and enjoyed.

We also are bringing in the wines of Jessica Saurwein, who is also making delicate, pure Pinot from a couple of sites as well as a super fine Riesling. Franco Lourens has recently joined us. Franco is the Chris Alheit’s assistant winemaker. He’s making wonderful blends rhone whites and Chenin, and red from Cinsault.

What highlights / producers/ winemakers will you have at the tasting?
It will be great to have Hanneke, she is the new winemaker at AA Badenhorst. The range here is more polished than it used to be. My feeling is these wines, while well-known, will some day be some of those you’ll wish you had in your cellar. They will be really collectable gems of this era of South African wine.

The highly respected Pieter Walser from BlankBottle will be back at the New Wave tasting

Pieter Walser of BlankBottle has also raised the bar considerably, now with a temperature controlled cellar, and just a better understanding of everything. The wines here are tasting incredibly dynamic. A good winemaker in France said to me the other day he’s the Ganevat of South Africa. It’s a nice thought.

It’s just brilliant to have all the winemakers, and great to taste the new wines from Keermont, Restless River and Alphabetical, as well as welcome Berene Sauls, Jessica Saurwein and Franco Lourens for the first time.

How do you see the overall South African wine scene – what is standing out for you?

It’s good to see many young entrepreneur/winemakers helping to shape the future. Some of them will develop amazing brands, and bring these wines to a wide audience. Established, traditional producers have upped their game in the last five years, and you’re starting to see some excellent mainstream wines. The effect of New Wave has been to accelerate the advancement of quality across much of the South African wine scene. I see some big importers looking to take on the wines. This is excellent, as it benefits South Africa, and makes the wines more accessible.

What do you think buyers and sommeliers should be focusing in on?
Any and every sommelier is important. They have the power to introduce the wines to their customers, who in turn will buy them again, and have the confidence to buy them for home drinking too. Independent buyers and shop owners are key in this movement. The wines really work on the shelves as they’re not the stereotypical New World wine.

Seeing the South African landscape for yourself is the best way to see what it can offer

We are also working hard to extend this outside London, by inviting as many restaurants and independents as possible. Larger on-line buyers are important for this to work as they can sell higher priced wines than super markets. The movement needs to grow to become sustainable and we hope to see buyers from pub groups and regional wholesalers.

What are the biggest opportunities for South Africa?
The first biggest opportunity is for it to become natural to have these wines on wine lists and on the shelves of good independents. This would be sustainable for many of the producers with whom we work and it works at the price points.

The second big opportunity would be to develop more wines that can be good wines by the glass that are still high quality, fun and New Wave, so that some of these can be seen in the best of the upmarket chains.

What are the biggest challenges with South African wine in the UK’s premium on-trade?
Its strength is having a wine range of styles and varieties and blends, but it also means not one recognisable grape name – like people associate Malbec with Argentina, Shiraz with Australia, Pinot Noir with New Zealand, Cabernet and Merlot with Chile.

It means you have to have more expertise, to have the confidence to list and sell these wines, and it’s now important to invest more in getting on-trade buyers out to South Africa. This really brings it home. The brand owners of New Wave are pretty small and stretched so the budget isn’t there to pay to get people to South Africa, but once you’re there, they’ll treat you like best friends.

How is business in general/ across all your portfolios?

It’s not all about South Africa at Swig. It has recently taken on the English producer, Wiston

Very good. It was great taking on Wiston from Sussex, and that’s going well. We have something different from the big players, whose wines you see everywhere. We’re taking on pretty much nothing that isn’t organic. And in the middle ground we really offer something individual that you won’t see all over the place.

What are the new big opportunities you are seeing in the premium on-trade this year?
It’s moving fast, with new opening, ideas, and some good places are expanding. And that means it’s good for us and we are lucky to be working with these guys.

What are the biggest challenges and how are you getting over them?
The hardest thing is to be muscled out by a larger wholesaler, who takes over the entire list. You can lose a lot of turnover suddenly if you lose two or three accounts this way. I understand the attractiveness for a restaurant group in some ways, but to me it’s a shame not to carry on supporting the smaller importers, who support the smaller producers. What made the place fun and interesting for the customer and staff may quickly be lost. Diversity is lost and lists become like every other.

We are dealing with this by increasing our range, but we don’t want to have poor wines that are cheap, to fill a gap on a list.

  • You can taste Swig’s wines at the 2019 New Wave Tastingwhich is going to be held on September 3 at Phonica Records (Vinyl Factory), 51 Poland Street, London W1F 7BE from 10am until 6pm. To register to attend please click here.

  • You can keep up to date with the latest news about the New Wave event on Twitter at @NewWaveSA2019 and Instagram on newwavesouthafrica and at #newwaveSA.

  • The Buyer will be featuring the other importers taking part and some of their South African winemakers taking part in the tasting over the coming weeks.
  • You can also find out what is happening across the country as part of Wines of South Africa’s South African Wine Festival 2019 that is happening in the first week of September.

  • That will include a special restaurant “safari” on September 2 that The Buyer is holding in partnership with Wines of South Africa where we will be taking a group of wine buyers, sommeliers and wine merchants on a tour of different restaurants where we will be meeting South African producers along the way, and tasting their wines paired with food from that restaurant’s menu.