John Connolly – for the love of South African wines
08 August 2016
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This is Old Mutual Wine edition, thanks for joining me, I’m Jenny Crwys–Williams . John Connolly, of course, is well known for mega sales of all of his works of fiction and of course one of the most famous characters that he has invented – and he’s almost real – is Charlie Parker.
John comes to South Africa often and he’s known for loving wine, so I’ve grabbed him. I want to find out more about his wine choices in this country of ours. I don’t suppose in Ireland you get all that many bottles of South African wine?
John Connolly: We do and we don’t, it’s gotten better. I was just thinking about this when listening to your talk. My father never drank wine, I didn’t grow up in a household that drank wine because Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s, wine was expensive. It was a very limited supply, most of it came from France.
When I began drinking wine I would drink stuff like Blue Nun and Black Tower, really nasty stuff that I’d take to parties. Then whenever I felt queasy the next morning. I remember there was a restaurant in the city centre in Dublin that advertised its house wine as such, that is a bit like saying: We’re a house wine that’s Crackling from the famous Crackling brother’s vineyard.
My exposure to wine was very limited, my father would drink one bottle at Christmas and I would buy it for him. He’d never buy wine for himself, he was a beer drinker. The first girl I went out with, her parents were inclined to have wine at dinner and that was really my exposure to drinking wine. I thought they were really posh, it’s not even Christmas!
My introduction to wine in South Africa
But my choices were very conservative because we were so limited and actually my introduction to wine, my education with wine began in South Africa. Because I came over here for the first time in 2000 and I was doing an event. My first event was in Cape Town, one of those lunches and it was sponsored by a man named Bruce Jack who had just set up Flagstone. He was first winemaker I’d ever met.
We were sitting at the table with him and he was explaining how he sourced his grapes and his background in the industry. He said: We’re going driving, tasting some grapes and some wines. What I love about winemakers is they go to other winemakers and try their stuff, it’s quite a community of people.
He said: Do you want to come in the car with me for a day. So the publicist and I and a friend of his who’d come over from Ireland, we drove around for a day, around Stellenbosch tasting wines. There’s something about tasting wines with the winemaker because they tell you things.
They have a vocabulary that you as a casual drinker simply don’t have. We were drinking wines straight from the vat, the wines that hadn’t quite matured yet. Which I’m not going to do that very often, I learnt my lesson there, don’t swallow!
So before that I suppose I drank American wines and I’d drink big, woody Chardonnay and things. Then I came here and I was trying; we were going to Thelema and trying Thelema Chardonnay and thinking, where have you been all of my life!
Buying South African wine from Germany
Subsequently what we do now is in Ireland, I found a gentleman named Martin Belman in Germany. He only imports South African wines, huge quantities of South African wines and then ships them free. Free of shipping charges if you order over 100 quid worth of wine. Okay, they’re a little bit more expensive than they would be here, so almost exclusively in my wine cellar is South African wines now.
I drink very few French wines, almost no American, very little Australian. The Australian stuff is kid of over-priced and we don’t necessarily see the best of it. But I think people come over here on holiday, Irish people or Europeans and try South African wines and immediately become converts.
Jenny and I, my other half is South African. We have a house in McGregor, just on the edge of the winelands there. So we’re right down the road from Springfield, the work of time, oh my gosh, and life from stone is wonderful, it’s this gorgeous Sauvignon Blanc. I’m not usually a Sauvignon Blanc fan. Really now, all we drink is South African wines.
So occasionally some Spanish stuff, but when I go away, it all comes back to South Africa. When I go away now, when I was in Australia, when I was in Perth last year, I went to Margaret River. I’d become quite curious about visiting wine regions, simply because of my exposure to wine here.
Pinotage is not to my liking
When I was in Argentina on a book tour I went to Mendoza and I was trying things out, local varietals I’d become very interested in. So wines like Tarontay from Argentina, which we don’t see a lot of. But I have to say, having said all of that, my big confession and this is where the South Africans draw…I’ve never found a Pinotage I like.
JCW: Because they’re too –
JC: It is a taste thing, the taste of Pinotage, does nothing at all for me. I find it slightly –
JC: Yeah and maybe it’s also curious, perhaps it’s a psychological thing. Because it is a little bit of a Frankenstein grape. Perhaps I bring to it a prejudice even before I’ve tasted it. It seems there’s an element of contrivance to it. So when I taste it, I find it very hard to separate the taste from the process that went into creating it, which is completely unfair. Who is to say that in matters of taste, there’s nothing logical about it. I’m open to being converted, I think.
JCW: I think there are some nice Pinotage’s now and they’re certainly getting awards. So somehow rather the rough edges appear to be going. But I’m also interested in some of the other varietals and there are some gorgeous South African wines.
South African wine invading my literature
JC: There are, and I’ve started sneaking mentions of them into my books –
JCW: Have you now?
JC: Yes, occasionally Louis has been known to drink Meerlust Rubicon, obviously when he’s quite flush and I always struggle with the pronunciation. It’s quite interesting, in the last book, in a time of torment Louis and Angel and Parker in this very remote little town in the Carolines. They find a little wine shop run by two gay men who have this little boutique wine store and they pick up a bottle, and I’m not going to try it’s ….
JC: Vergelegen, because I tasted their wines and I though that’s quite nice. So I sneaked in a reference there and the poor American, there’s an audio book of it and to hear the poor American reader trying to pronounce that word. It’s actually worth buying the audio book just for that you know! I’m doing my bit for the South African wine industry by plugging it in the books, whenever somebody is having a bottle of wine now, they tend to have a bottle of South African wine, because I just find it amusing.
JCW: Charlie Parker could possibly pour himself a glass of something that’s very Southern Hemisphere?
JC: That’s what’s been happening throughout the books now, whenever wines are introduced, they tend to be South African wines. Yes, so wines that I happen to like myself, but in the same way that Parker would never like a piece of music that I don’t like. He has the same taste in food that I do. He doesn’t eat seafood, my blind spot is anything with six legs.
There was actually an article in the paper yesterday in the Irish Times that the future, apparently one of the great, new nutritionist super-foods will be cockroach milk. I remember thinking, frankly I’d rather die and how exactly do you milk a cockroach, what kind of job is that? That’s going to be a minimum wage job if ever there was one! So, he shares my tastes, so it’s not surprising that he would therefore share my taste in wine as well.
JCW: Listen, lovely conversation, I’m going to read your next novel with more than my usual –
JC: With a close eye and a glass in your hand I hope.
JCW: John thank you so much.
JC: My pleasure Jenny.
JCW: Thank you.