Pete Gottgens has made zebra samosas for Mandela, owns Europe’s most northerly vineyard and serves only South African wine on his 200-bin list. Tom Bruce-Gardyne travels to Loch Tay to share a glass of Chenin at the award-winning Ardeonaig
Dubbed the grand dame of Durban, The Edward was one of the hotels in South Africa in the late 1960s. As the country’s first five-star hotel, it attracted politicians, tycoons and military top brass who were treated to a full-blown orchestra after dinner. ‘And as general manager my old man had to open the dancing every night,’ recalls the 45-year-old chef Pete Gottgens. The staff of over 400 included a dozen German, French and Italian sommeliers who would ply the tables promoting their country’s wines. ‘The list was totally international, and the wines were served with great pomp and circumstance.’
But with the advent of sanctions, South Africa’s increasing isolation began to affect its wines, says Gottgens. ‘We were very inward-looking as a country because we had no one to benchmark ourselves against. We grew up thinking KWV was really good and Nederberg was awesome. When we came out of the Apartheid slump we suddenly realised we had very little of world, knock-out standard.’
Gottgens, who today runs Ardeonaig, an award-winning hotel and restaurant in the Scottish Highlands, is passionate about South African wines. Though it is almost 15 years since they began to flow freely once more into the UK, he feels the real potential of the country’s vineyards is only now starting to filter through.
‘I’ve always believed South Africa caught up in price far quicker than it caught up in consistency and quality. With wine it just takes that much longer. Guys make a vintage and it takes them three or four years to make sure they’ve got it all right. Whereas with food you can go and re-cook it five minutes later.’
Growing up in the business, Gottgens says he never wanted to do anything else. Other than a week as a boat builder, which was ‘too much like hard work’, he has always been a chef. He came to Britain in 1990 and cooked for a Cajun/Creole restaurant in Leeds, a country house hotel on the Channel Islands and a gastropub in Berkshire before moving to London where he opened his first restaurant in the mid-90s.
The Springbok Café in Chiswick claimed to be Europe’s first genuine South African restaurant. Among the delicacies on the menu were zebra samosas, snoek dumplings and char-grilled ostrich liver with Pinotage sauce. The wine list was equally uncompromising with every drop coming from Gottgens’ homeland.
‘Ever since I’ve had my own business, anything produced by a grape, bar sherry, has always been South African.’ And he isn’t just talking table wine, but also brandy, port, fizz and even grappa. This sounds a bold statement even now. Back in the mid-90s when availability of the country’s wines stretched little further than KWV Chenin Blanc, it was beyond bold.
‘I didn’t know any better,’ says Gottgens, throwing up his hands in defence. ‘And I was hugely intimidated by European wine.’ He insists it was not a conscious decision to be patriotic or provocative, but a case of sticking to what he knew best. ‘We began with 10 reds and 10 whites and one bubbly at the Springbok Café. Thinking back, I cringe at some of the food we served and probably some of the wines too.’
Hoping to publicise his new restaurant, Gottgens had 10,000 leaflets printed up to distribute round Trafalgar Square when Nelson Mandela made his famous speech there on 12 July 1996. By some benign twist of fate, one of the President’s aides picked up a copy and that afternoon Mandela himself strolled into the restaurant with the world’s press crammed in behind. Springbok was suddenly on the map: proof of the benefits of a bit of clever marketing.
After 11 years in London, Gottgens’ restaurant business had expanded to include Fish Hoek, Dumela and a separate catering company. But in 2003 he decided to sell everything and swap the big smoke for the banks of Loch Tay. ‘I wanted somewhere remote that would become a food destination in its own right. And I just love it up here. From a food point of view in terms of local ingredients it’s like sticking your head in a candy shop.’
When Gottgens bought it, Ardeonaig had been closed for nine months, but ‘with a quick lick of paint’ it opened within days. Then in November 2007 it shut down for a £1.6 million refurbishment, a third of which went on the kitchen. The number of covers was doubled to 75 split between the main dining room, a new cellar dining room used for wine dinners and the kitchen itself where up to eight guests can have a ringside seat. Though anyone expecting Hell’s Kitchen with Gottgens in the role of Gordon Ramsay swearing through the steam, may be disappointed. Ardeonaig’s state-of-the-art extractors keep things nice and chilled.
In the grounds there are five thatched African rondawels for guests to stay in. There is also Europe’s most northerly vineyard, though, with just 48 vines not yet in production, the Gallos of this world have little to fear. However with a few more decades of global warming, who knows…
At Ardeonaig, Gottgens takes the same hands-on approach to his wine list as he has always done. ‘I do all the food purchasing, the majority of the cooking and all the wine buying. I’d say 98% of my wine gets consumed with food, so it’s absolutely critical to have things that work with your menu.’
SPOILED FOR CHOICE
So can South Africa provide everything when it comes to wine? ‘I’d never say everything, that would be nonsense. But I do believe we have an ample variety of good quality wines that is growing by the day.’ There is the odd moment of doubt however, as with the country’s Viognier – ‘the ultimate food wine’ in Gottgens’ eyes. A recent trip to Condrieu, the grape’s spiritual home in the Northern Rhône, left him disheartened. ‘The wines were unbelievable, but then I’m not charging hundreds of pounds a bottle.’
When James Payne became Ardeonaig’s sommelier last summer having worked at The Square and Le Pont de la Tour, he was told the 200-strong list would remain South African. There was a stunned silence. ‘But then he became really excited,’ says Gottgens. ‘And now James is able to interpret the customer’s European palate and give them what he feels they’d enjoy from South Africa.’
I wanted somewhere remote that would become a
food destination in its own right. And in terms of local
ingredients it’s like sticking you head in a candy shop
Aside from having a sommelier, the classic way to encourage trial of unusual wines is to serve them by the glass, but Gottgens shakes his head. ‘I believe it’s a dirty word – it’s very bottom end,’ he says.
Instead the Ardeonaig operates an open bottle policy. ‘We’ll pull the cork on any bottle and if you drink half that is all you pay for. And then it’s up to the skill of my staff to shift the other half.’ Much of this goes into the hotel’s popular tasting menus where the wines are served in flights of three – a glass and a top-up each.
Buying Ardeonaig was ‘the best investment I’ve ever made,’ says Gottgens, who was happy to escape London’s cut throat scene. But through being in London he met and got to know Mandela well by cooking for him at banquets and intimate dinners held everywhere from the High Commission to Downing Street.
And this, as he concedes, was hardly pre-ordained. While one grew up watching the country’s old guard shuffle round the dance floor of his dad’s hotel, the other was locked up on Robben Island, seemingly for good.
OK then – how do you sell South African wine?
Given the way people tend to play safe the more they spend, higher-priced wines from countries like South Africa are bound to be at a disadvantage. If you have a totally South African list like Ardeonaig’s that won’t be an issue, but what if you want to simply increase your range of the country’s wines? Imbibe asked Pete Gottgens and Ardeonaig’s sommelier James Payne for their advice.
Pick a supplier who will help you dip your toe in the water and buy three to six bottles at a time.
South African suppliers worth considering are: Richards Walford, Berkmann Wine Cellars and H&H Bancroft.
Consider listing by style rather than country to show South
African wines alongside similar vintages from elsewhere.
Use tasting notes to express comparisons. For example ‘A Marlborough-style Sauvignon Blanc’, or a ‘Northern Rhône-style Syrah from Cederberg’.
Among South African wines that work particularly well with
food, consider lightly oaked Chenin Blanc and red blends from the Swaartland.
Offer flights of three for the more unusual South African wines.
Make a virtue of South Africa’s great value for money – especially over the Old World given the strength of the euro.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – May / June 2009