Bryan MacRobert – developing on two fronts
12 April 2015
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Brad Brown: Welcome onto this edition of Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now and we’re joined now by another winemaker who is doing some incredible things and carving a niche for himself. Making a name at the same time and we touched base with him, he’s in Spain at the moment, you’ve got to love technology! Bryan MacRobert, welcome, nice to touch base, thanks for taking the time to chat to us.
Bryan MacRobert: Thanks for having, it’s nice to be in Spain, but you miss your home and always want to get back and get in touch with people back home and people back in South Africa. I at least still spend quite a bit of time there.
BB: I was going to say, you’re running a couple of different projects, one obviously in Spain, one in SA, that must come with its own set of challenges? It’s not like it’s just next door and you can pop over if something goes wrong, either one of them. If you’re in SA and something goes a bit pear shaped in Spain or vice versa, it must be quite difficult to manage.
BMR: It’s challenging, it’s tricky, what helps me is I have a lot of support from both sides. A lot of support in SA and then also this side, quite a lot of support, so it helps me to do my own thing, but you have to be organised.
You need to know what you’re doing and be organised, but then sometimes when you’re not there, you need someone to rely on while you’re not there. It’s between family and good contacts and good friends that you manage to do both. It takes time to grow two projects and that’s why we’re here in Spain because you’re growing but it’s coming on nicely, little by little.
Where did it all begin?
BB: Let’s take a step back and start where it all began for you. Where did your love for wine first develop?
BMR: I think it started at a very young age for me. Growing up, I grew up in Malmesbury in South Africa on a small farm, close to Cape Town, just 50km north of Cape Town. I think growing up in a small town where you have one big cooperative, everyone supplies that cooperative.
During the harvest, the whole town kind of gets a bit of life and it was always during the harvest periods, I was small, five, six, eight years old and the whole town gets completed, big trucks coming through, grapes everywhere, there’s a huge vibe about the harvest and that sort of captures you as a kid.
I think from then, you start really appreciating agriculture and also the wine season, the harvest, everything that goes with it. I think from there the interest started and then one of my most favourite memories from when we were kids, I was in Standard Five, Grade Seven, we had an excursion to the cooperative in Malmesbury. Obviously you’re there with your whole class in the bus, you offload and just when we’re about to leave, they give us all a sip of grape must from the tank.
But I don’t think they planned it correctly because the tank was fermenting. We had basically must with a bit of alcohol and you can image kids at whatever age they are in Grade Seven running around with a bit of alcohol. From that day I realised, hey, there’s something special in wine, maybe I’d like to see what this does in the future.
I think from there I had an introduction into wine, at a very young age. Then through high school and then afterwards you have to decide, what do you want to do, what do you want to study. I took two years off, gap years, took one gap year which turned into two.
Then coming back I decided that I think agriculture is what I want to do and from there moved onto winemaking cause it’s a great occupation. It’s very challenging, but also very rewarding and you get to work in agriculture. You get to work in many different aspects throughout winemaking. You get to travel the world and see different cultures and live wine in different cultures, different countries, different forms. It’s really interesting, you can dive very deep into wine, so that’s why I chose wine.
BB: How many of those classmates from Grade Seven ended up following a similar path to you and now work in the wine industry?
BMR: No, I think my interest was sparked, maybe the others weren’t so polarised by grape.
BB: I love that. Bryan, tell me a little bit about, once you had studied and then as a young aspiring winemaker, what was it like finding somewhere to work and learn, cause that’s what it’s about, it’s not just a case of working, it’s a case of learning and trying to find your own way in the space.
Finding my way in the wine industry
BMR: Definitely, it’s definitely trying to find your own direction, your own style. There’s so much to learn in such a little time that you’ve got to eventually learn from all ways possible. Then also with that, you need to start picking your own style, your own type of wine you can make and start doing that and start believing in what you want to do. My journey, well, I suppose I left university, studied at Stellenbosch for four years, managed to do a wine degree in four years, which is quite difficult.
BB: I was going to say, that’s unique.
BMR: Then after that I went to work, basically worked one harvest in South Africa, then another one overseas. I started in Priorat with Eben Sadie when he was still running a project there and that really sparked an interest in me.
The fact that you can go, working in a different country, a very old wine region. I really kind of was looking towards the older wineries in the Mediterranean region, then the modern world, just to see how people have lived with wine over many generations.
How wine has changed basically everything, from your diets to the way you live, to your culture. Everything is integrated into the vineyard, viticulture and in wine and I really wanted to see that. That really was special working in Priorat. Priorat is another part of Spain, it’s on the Mediterranean side of Spain, just south of Barcelona.
I spent four harvests travelling between Priorat and then I started working for the Sadie family in South Africa. Between the two companies, I was working for them for four years and that was really a great experience, working for one person, for one company in two different countries.
You see a lot and you also start to develop your own tastes, your own of what you want to do. That was kind of like where my base foundation formed and I was in Spain. Then later on, now, if I carry on talking wine in Rioja, the opportunity arose to be start something in Rioja and I just couldn’t turn it down.
So it’s really, it’s great to be in a different region as well, Spain, it’s just totally different to the Mediterranean part of Spain. Different varieties, different climate, different soils, it’s really a different experience. Within these parameters you have to kind of pick your own style and move and then defend your brand and what you’ve got and what you do.
BB: You talk about picking your style and working with someone like Eben Sadie and we’ve spoken to him here a few times on Old Mutual Live and it’s incredible to me how he is just; I don’t want to say he’s flown in the face of conventional thinking around wine, but he is doing his own thing. He’s out there, he’s an amazing guy, how much has that influenced the way you do things Bryan, working with Eben?
Eben Sadie is an inspirational winemaker
BMR: Well, he’s an amazing person, Eben is Eben and he’s really good at what he does. He’s hugely intelligent, hugely well studied in wine, not only in wine, he’s drunk a lot of wine, he’s really like a mentor. I think for South Africa, he’s a great person to have in South Africa, really unique.
Not many wine regions in the world have got someone like him. Working for him was very good, was very interesting and I think it really helped me to form maybe a bit of discipline and really start thinking what you wanted to do and really believe in yourself and push and do what you want to do.
That I think sparked the interest in me to make my own wine. I always had the interest, but you need a bit of oomph to try and get you going into making your own wine and taking on a project and doing it. I think in there I started to get my own initiative, working for him.
That’s when, basically in 2013 I started with my own company in South Africa. I’ve been making wine before, but then registered the company in 2013 and also in Rioja, we started in 2013 with two companies. Everywhere you go you learn, but I think Eben was also a bit of a mentor, a great person to work for and a great person to have in South Africa.
BB: He has incredible talent and I just love speaking to him, I can speak to him for hours on various things from wine to surfing. He is an incredible guy. Talk to me about that decision to go on your own, cause that is a big decision.
Obviously as a winemaker it is something you do want to do, but it obviously comes with its own risks and you need to be brave. It’s stepping out, out of someone like Eben Sadie’s shadow, for lack of a better phrase and then trying to become yourself and make a name for yourself.
Stepping out onto your own
BMR: It is, it’s a big step. I think everyone, deep down, when they make wine, every winemaker wants to make his own wine, it’s kind of like, it’s inside you. It’s what you want to do and you want to defend that, you want to sell that and you want to tell people about what you do and why you do it.
I think almost every winemaker wants to make their own wine. The big step is then obviously doing it and with that you need a lot of support. You need to be, you can’t just go on your own, buy grapes and then try and make it, the wine world is very complex, very, very difficult to start.
You need to have, it always makes it easier having a bit of a family background with vineyards or family background with sellers, it just helps you to step and I was very lucky in South Africa. My father’s got a small farm with vineyards and my neighbours have all got vineyards and grapes, so that really helped me to start my own brand and my own projects in South Africa.
In Rioja here, also, my fiancé’s father is helping here with starting a project. You need support, you can’t go on your own. You need either family support or some various support, in the form of grapes, land, it’s a very long, tough process to start your own project.
I think if you’ve got the support and the willpower and the willingness to struggle and also maybe a willingness to suffer, it’s the way to go. I really enjoy making my own wine and I think at the end of the day the fruits, it’ll pay off, you’ve got to think long term. It’s a generation game.
BB: Let’s touch on the two projects and what you’re hoping to achieve out of each. Let’s start with what’s happening back in SA and the project you have going there. You mentioned that your dad has got a small little piece of land with some vines on, what are you up to in SA right now Bryan?
Producing real South African wine
BMR: SA started, I started in 2007 making my first barrel of wine when I started working harvest just after finishing university, I started making a barrel in the cellar where I was working and at that time. I really wanted to start with Chenin cause Chenin Blanc was, we saw the potential of Chenin in SA in the late 2000’s.
We saw the potential, but the market wasn’t ready for Chenin and I really wanted to start doing a kind of thing with Chenin. I started with Chenin Blanc from my neighbours vineyard, which is a very nice vineyard, the neighbour of my father and that’s how I started with the Tobias brand, was back then.
Then my father had varieties that you didn’t really, weren’t very well recognised, but obviously with us having the vineyards in the farm, we experimented every year making wine in the garage in the back. But you had to experiment to see what you had and with those.
Often like every second year you’d get like a really great bottle and wow, I think I should maybe try and make wine from these grapes, that are lesser well-known. Then started making a blend of Sera, Mourvedre and Cinsault. Cinsault was then great for bulk wine, but the older the vineyards, the better the quality of the grapes.
That’s kind of how the project started, basically from having the vineyards in SA and then putting that into bottles and then starting to market that. The Tobias brand started, for me, having the vineyards, wanting to really show what we had in the vineyards and putting into bottles and that’s how that project started. The wine is really good and it’s really fantastic to work with those vineyards.
Then also wine comes from the vineyards, the way you work the vineyards. We started changing it a little bit more, the way we worked the vineyards, going more towards not adding fertilisers, not adding herbicides, starting to work a bit more organically, under the organic blanket and also started changing the wine.
It was really like experimenting in your own backyard, it was really great and that’s the Tobias brand. Every year we improve, we get more and more focused on the wines, so it’s coming along nice.
BB: Brilliant. Let’s touch on Spain and the project you’ve got going on there, what are you up to and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Operating with Old World grapes
BMR: Well, Spain is another kettle of fish. It’s a very old wine region in the world. Spain has the most amounts of vineyards planted, the most surface area of vineyards planted in the world, for a country. There’s a huge Old World and a lot of people that have cultivated vineyards, understand vineyards.
The varietals are big, so there’s a very big culture and I think I came to Spain to learn, in the beginning; to see what it’s like working in a country where you have such an old history of vineyards, of viticulture, where everything revolves around the grape, around the wine, the food, the menu. Everything is involved in Spain, in one of the Old World countries like this.
Basically what to achieve, was for me to first learn and see how it is to make wine in a region like this. Then secondly with the project, I’m very fortunate now in the last, well, I’ve been working in Spain since 2008. So now in the last three years we started the project here and what I’m trying to achieve in this project is taking old varieties, old vineyards, cause there’s such a wealth of old vineyards in Spain.
Like old vineyards 80 years old and up, making wines now from old vineyards, from here in Spain. Vineyards that you were planted in the late 20’s and 30’s and were ploughed with the mule, down slopes, they’re really difficult to work. They’re not recognised at all.
So basically here in Spain we’re looking for vineyards like this, we’re doing old vines. Two weeks ago we were ploughing with a horse in the vineyards cause tractors don’t enter the vineyards, so it’s either by hand or by horse or mule that you have to plough these vineyards.
Basically making wines from before the Industrial Revolution, from before the mechanical agricultural revolution of the tractor and all those kind of implements, big heavy horse power. I really want to go back into what we were doing for many generations before we changed the vineyards, changed the way we work in farming and agriculture. That’s basically what I’m trying to do in Spain, what we are doing.
We’re bringing out wines from 50 – 100 years ago, that style of wine, the old varieties, the old clones, the old way of working. Because people in the old days were much more attached to the soil and the vineyards and what was going on. I’m going back, taking a journey back into that, in Spain and we’re producing, the first wines in the tank are really good, really amazing.
BB: I love that, it’s an incredible story. Bryan, if people want to find out more about your wines on both fronts and what you’re up to, you’ve got some web presence, where can people find you?
BMR: We’ve got two websites, the company in South Africa is Bryan MacRobert Wines, so the websites is www.bryanmacrobertwines.com and that’s the SA website. In Spain it’s called, the company is La Aventura, like the adventure and it’s www.laaventurawines.com, in Spain, you can find all the information about the wines we’re making, the vineyards we’re working. Then on Facebook, we have a Facebook page for both as well, La Aventura Wines and Bryan MacRobert Wines.
BB: Cool, Bryan, what we’ll do is we’ll pop the links to both those websites and those Facebook pages in the show notes to this episode of Old Mutual Live. I want to get you on in another episode to talk a bit about the wines, particularly the Tobias brand here on Old Mutual Live cause it’s doing amazing things and getting rave reviews as well and I want to find out a little bit more about it if that’s good with you.
BMR: No problem, no problem.
BB: Thanks for your time today, much appreciated and we’ll chat soon.
BMR: Thanks very much Brad. Cheers.