When first the Bordeaux specialist writer Jane Anson, and then Meininger’s, broke the news that Michel Rolland was to launch a super-premium red wine called Pangaea, made from grapes grown in France, Spain, California, South Africa and Argentina, there was a predictable debate on social media. Responses ranged from “It reduces wine to merely a bulk commodity” to “The next big step change will be creating the best possible wine. Doesn’t matter if single varietal, blend from one parcel, commune or village or even county.” Perhaps the most balanced words came from Rob McMillan, head of Silicon Valley Bank: “It plays against the whole idea of terroir, but capitalism is the final judge. If there is value in the product, it will sell.”
Critics of a project that was, in fact, the brainchild of 41 year-old South African called Travis Braithwaite, overlooked the fact that while the idea of blending premium wines from different countries is unconventional, it is far from unknown. In 1988, Peter Sichel co-owner of Château Palmer and proprietor of Château d’Angludet in Margaux, made a wine called Montage with the Christian Brothers winery in California that brought together Napa and Haut-Medoc. “Dick [Maher, president of Christian Brothers] sent out feelers to me and we met in the Napa Valley. I loved the idea. It is very creative. And the wine is wonderful, isn’t it?” Sichel told a reporter from the Chicago Tribune.
That project didn’t progress far beyond its first vintage; reportedly some of Sichel’s neighbours did not think consorting with competitors on the other side of the Atlantic was appropriate for a man who was one of the Bordeaux’s most prominent merchants and producers.
“It plays against the whole idea of terroir, but capitalism is the final judge. If there is value in the product, it will sell.”
Another pair of one-off blends called One Wine One World was created for charity, 22 years later by James Suckling in the shape of a white from Italy, Slovenia and Hungary and a red from France, Mexico and the US.
Jean Charles Boisset had no qualms about releasing his initial release of JCB 3, a 50-50 blend of Sonoma and Burgundian Pinot Noir in 2011, the first year that Joachim Heger from the VDP winery Dr Heger in Baden, Paul Achs from Weingut Werner Achs in Neusiedlersee in the Austrian Burgenland, and Wolfgang Tratter of St Paul’s in Italy’s Alto Adige made a three-country, super-premium Euro-blend that’s matured and sold at the five-star Central Hotel at 3,048m on the Gaislachkogel Mountain, in the Austrian ski resort of Sölden.
A winning combination?
What set Braithwaite’s and Rolland’s project apart, and attracted the interest of the wine media, was a combination of factors: the involvement of the world’s most controversial superstar wine consultant; the number and variety of countries; the wine’s £500 price tag; and finally the fact that no one who was writing about it had had the chance to taste the liquid for themselves.
Meininger’s still hasn’t had that opportunity, but it got to have an exclusive online interview with Travis Braithwaite, an unfamiliar name to the wine industry, even in his homeland of South Africa.
Braithwaite was born in Canada but grew up in the winelands of the Cape in South Africa and studied business at the prestigious Stellenbosch University. While still a student, he started “a company in the wine industry with some friends… to make some extra money”. After a break trying his hand in other sectors, this led to him being “sucked into the wine space consulting to wineries on everything from branding to vineyard planting to business setups… how to sort of create a successful wine company.”
Braithwaite, whose vinous favourites include Lafite, “Chevals from the 80s and 90s” and Colgin and OVID from California, says he consulted for “a couple of hundred wineries” - an impressive number, considering that, according to SAWIS, the S. African wine statistics service, in 2021, the total number for the entire country was 536. He lists an impressive set of clients including Rijks, Kleine Zalze, de Grendel, Saronsberg, Zorgvliet, Villiera and, “in a more holistic role”, Hidden Valley and V Collection.
Braithwaite admits that he had no viticultural or winemaking qualifications but he “looked at a lot of wineries in South Africa and [saw that] the structures of how they were set up was just incorrect in terms of creating a business structure to work.”
"Businesses were creating products to sell, not creating products for end consumers."
He continues “Knowing the industry quite well from growing up in it - a lot of family friends owned lots of farms - I realized that “the businesses were creating products to sell, not creating products for end consumers.” So, he hired viticulturists to “look all the way from soil analysis to environmental analysis in the area to what you can plant, what you can grow effectively… in terms of creating products that made sense from those from those locations.” Surprisingly, perhaps, given the extent of his advice and range of his clients, Braithwaite’s name rang no bells with one of the best-connected wine producers in Stellenbosch.
First steps into winemaking
Alongside his consultancies Braithwaite also says that he “went into the cellars… learnt how to make wine. I pursued a few projects, a couple of ideas, nothing on a major commercial basis, more just something interesting.” These ideas included a label called Seven Steps which, according to the locally authoritative Platter’s Guide, in 2008 produced a Western Cape Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.
The winemaking, Braithwaite says, “was never majorly commercial… we had a small consumer base that we sold to… private clients.” Then his winemaking partners left the country and he dropped the project in favour of taking a couple of years off to travel to other wine producing countries – in particular, Spain, California, Argentina and of course France. He was, he says, already thinking of taking grapes from all these countries to make a Bordeaux blend.
Then, one day in 2015, Braithwaite continues, “I sat down and thought to myself, “This is a project that can be done. If I do something like this, people are going to pay attention because it's interesting. But I need someone whose blending skills are unrivalled, who's the best at what he does in the world.” He had once met Michel Rolland briefly in South Africa, so he called him, spoke to his secretary, asked if he could steal a few minutes of his time and ran through the idea. “We discussed a few elements, and Michel told me I had to think about one or two things. A year later, in the middle of 2016, I phoned him and I said, I've tied up a few more aspects of this whole project. And he said, what are you doing on Monday? I was sitting in Cape Town. He said, Come to Argentina.”
Braithwaite took the next flight to South America and two men talked for a few days before Rolland agreed to become a partner in the project.
They tasted some of the barrels from the Frenchman’s Argentine properties and had “many long discussions around the concept of what I wanted this wine to be and how I wanted this wine to present. I wanted… something that had ageability, finesse, structure. I didn't want massive fruit bombs. [Rolland] came in with his ideas on the way he likes to make wine… Because we're working with five different regions, the idea was to pick a region and a variety because of how it grows in that region… and will work in an overall blend. So, it's quite a hard thing to do.”
What was the background to the name? “There were months and months of going back and forth, throwing ideas around. And then one day we were talking through concepts and Pangaea was one of the ideas and it just made sense. The supercontinent of Pangaea included every single geographic place that makes wine at the moment. There was the concept of those moving apart. And, of course, vines moved all over the world - smuggled on boats, replanted, changed, moved to different areas. Our idea was that we were bringing it back together. And Pangaea was a name that people could associate with. They could Google it and find the ideas behind the concept of the supercontinent and the world splitting. And it aligned with my thoughts on bringing the world back together as one.”
Hopefully, the Googlers will spell the name correctly. If they look for ‘Pangea’ and ‘wine’ they’ll find themselves reading about a Syrah produced by the Chilean producer Ventisquero.
Over the following months, Braithwaite says he “went around, found everything”… had little batches [from] each of the countries flown to South Africa in early 2017 and… “sat with Michel and then we tasted through everything and we filtered down the components and the areas and the vineyards that we wanted to use.”
In fact, of course, it wasn’t that simple. Braithwaite acknowledges that while he “brought some to the table… Michel had some obviously from the properties that he has, [offering] us access to great facilities and great vineyards.”
Unfortunately, anyone curious about where precisely which ‘great vineyards’ in any of these regions were involved in the project and how many wines were made under Rolland’s supervision will be frustrated.
Braithwaite explains that “We did debate this quite heavily. I think the confusing point would be you've got a wine, you've got a new project, then all of a sudden you throw in five producers. We just thought, you know, it's not something we don't want to share, but the importance is where we're getting the grapes from as a location.”
"I didn't want this to become a project of five different wineries because that's not what it is."
But where are those locations? Surely, for $500 it’s reasonable to want to know where in Napa the Cabernet comes from, for example. “We have cellars all over in each place... What I'm saying is I didn't want this to become a project of five different wineries because that's not what it is.”
In the future, there will be more information, it seems. “One of the things we’ll do with our clients, once they come into our database or our mailing list, is to have more detailed vintage reports on each of the harvest periods, the soils, and we can include locations of where our vineyards are.” But not yet.
The first blend was put together in 2017, using components from the 2015 vintage. The 2016 vintage will be launched at Vinexpo Singapore this summer. The 2017, 2018, and 2019 are all in bottle, but there was no 2020 because of the California forest fires.
Given the six-month gap between harvesting in South Africa and Argentina versus France, California and Spain, why stick to a single vintage?
“That could be the traditional sort of aspect in me. I enjoy a representation of a single vintage, so we do get everything within a vintage year from the different locations… the challenge to make the best wine and blend we can every year.”
Once the blend has been decided, barrels of the wine from France, Spain, Argentina and South Africa are shipped and, in some cases, flown - in double-walled, stainless steel temperature-regulated containers - to California for ageing and bottling. This inevitably raises environmental questions. Braithwaite responds that “There’s a charity here in South Africa that I love called Green Pop. They plant trees all over Africa, so we've been in talks with them and that is one of the projects we are looking at supporting… I think there are many things we can offset, and we need to look at ourselves very carefully when we decide to do a lot of things. But I wouldn't say our project is massively more unfriendly than a lot of wine projects around the world.”
"The weight of bottle was important for me."
Braithwaite’s comment about “looking at things carefully” is slightly undermined by his admission that Pangaea comes in a bottle weighing over a kilo. “Everyone around the world recycles now.” he responds, “And for me, for the character of what we were making… the weight of bottle was important for me.”
Deciding the price
How did Braithwaite and Rolland decide on the number of bottles – 3,000 with 500 held back for library stock - and the price tag of $500? “it made logical business sense for something that was a little unknown. I mean, no one has ever tried these regions together. So, start off with a smaller production… and increase supply as demand increases.
"No one has ever tried these regions together."
We can make more, but we obviously want to stick to our specific sites… As for the price, I did the maths, looked at all of the production and logistics costs, including finishing in Napa Valley, which is far more expensive than most places in the world. I didn't want the wine to be completely unattainable. I wanted it to be at a price point out of Napa Valley that made sense for something of the quality that it is. And it's incredibly high quality in my opinion. And something that took a lot of man hours and effort and time.”
And distribution? How did Braithwaite find buyers for the soft launch of the 800 or so 3-bottle-packs of 2015 vintage? “We had friends who had friends coming to the Napa Valley... So that was that was pretty much the first formation of our private client base. And then last year, with [specialist London merchants] IG Wines, we did an official initial release with them into the UK market.”
How many had tasted the wine? “I'd say out of our initial sales last year, probably 80%. And we did a few events with wines with some of IG’s top clients who tasted and that's where the bulk of our orders came from. Or from people whose friends told them to buy it.”
Pangaea wants to join the ranks of the world’s most illustrious wines – alongside the greats of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa and Tuscany. The fact that Michel Rolland has committed himself as a partner suggests that he has confidence in it, and his involvement augurs well for its quality. Many traditionalists will balk at the multi-regional concept; even the more open-minded will question the lack of information about where the grapes are grown; and the environmentally-conscious will question the carbon footprint.
But, in recent decades, other ground-breaking wines including super-Tuscan vini da tavola, Bordeaux ‘garage’ wines and Napa Valley upstarts have all surprised doubters to become firmly-established parts of the collectable wine scene. Maybe an inventive, well-connected young South African really has created the wine that opens the door for multi-country blends. Time will tell.