In 2006, Rollo Gabb produced his first barrel of Destination Chardonnay. It was the only barrel that year: ‘That’s why I called it Destination; I was either destined to sink or swim. So, I kicked off with the one barrel and off we went.’
There might never have been a Nemo moment for Rollo. ‘I could have taken the option of sitting on my arse and just being some sort of playboy,’ he says, half-jokingly. His father had been extremely successful in the commercial wine business (Roger Gabb was behind the brands Kumala and Isla Negra, among others) and, after university in Manchester, Rollo enjoyed being a young man about town running nightclubs, including the legendary Hacienda. When I meet him in Quo Vadis, one of the London restaurants he is involved with, echoes of his ‘Madchester’ days are apparent on his groovy paisley-patterned multi-coloured shirt (we take a moment to admire each other’s shirts, as I have a rather groovy one on myself).
Despite making his own way in the hospitality scene, it wasn’t long before he followed in his father’s footsteps and the wine sirens began to call. He worked on some vintages in Australia and Italy and got some experience on the shop floor of Oddbins, before working with his dad for eight years.
‘It was really cool to work with my dad, he’s a very cool man; very relaxed. He wasn’t particularly focused on building a large company; he started, aged forty, selling wine to local pubs in Bridgnorth and then it all happened for him quite quickly, with a brilliant West Midlands team, all learning about wine.’
In 1994, Rollo’s father went to South Africa and created Kumala. To demonstrate that he was also happy to invest in South Africa, he bought a plot of land on the coast called Journey’s End: ‘Twenty hectares in size, no winery, no water, no house, but a beautiful little bit of vineyard.’ Roger Gabb produced four wines there, some of which won respected trophies in the early years, but at twenty hectares, Rollo described is as unsustainable: ‘It was too small and didn’t have a winery. In those years, South Africa could only command a price of a certain amount – in my view you need forty hectares to be fully sustainable.’
Rollo took over Journey’s End in 2007, bought some more land and eventually built a state of the art winery at the estate. ‘I wanted to get on with it and actually try and achieve something – it didn’t need to be a financial achievement; it was more about creating something.’ Journey’s End is now a 120 hectare estate, which produces a small range of premium hand-crafted wines on site.
Speaking with Rollo, I think that his legacy at Journey’s End will be marked in three ways: refining and defining the palate of Journey’s End wines; sustainability and community. The UK’s palate has changed dramatically since the 1990s and the wines have developed to reflect this. ‘Each year, we have been taking one step away from oak and one step towards ecsensuating the minerality. But we have also taken the lead from the traits of the vineyard.
‘My vineyard is on the coast; we’re the most southerly in Stellenbosch and we’re the closest to the sea. We look right out over a bay called False Bay towards Cape Point – it’s very beautiful. With that, we’ve got this wind that comes off the sea 24/7, cooling the vineyard down, which helps with the fruit definition. You also get better natural acidity, which is a consistent theme among my wines; they’re not your New World jammy fruitbombs, not your big Chardonnays. Very restrained; nice, tight acidity and very clean, pure fruit.’
When it comes to sustainability, South Africa is arguably leading the world in sustainable farming. The Western Cape has had major water issues in recent years, so the country has had to stay one step ahead of nature, and Journey’s End is no exception. ‘Sustainability is key in today’s world,’ says Rollo. ‘I think anyone who’s lucky enough to have a bit of land has to farm sustainability, otherwise it’s going to die. You’ll be ethically irresponsible and no one will want to buy your wine.
‘We are fully solar powerered, I catch all my rain water; I have interlinking trenches that send it into a series of dams, which go into my vineyard. I then have boarholes, which feed my winery and all the properties. All the dirty water goes into my water treatment plant, back into the dams and then back into the winery, so we’re just recycling everything as much as we can in order to use less.’
Journey’s End also employs organic practices, like planting wheat in between the vineyard rows to keep all the topsoils in place, stopping them from washing away when it rains. The wheat also prevents weeds from popping up because it has a very strong root structure, so there’s no need to spray chemicals. Lupins are planted amongst the wheat, which helps to fix the nitrogen in the soil (nitrogen helps even out the ripeness in the bunches) and animals are introduced into the food chain – they’ve got around 600 geese running around eating all the snails and 60 beehives on the farm, from which they make their own honey. ‘Bees for me are a mark of a very healthy, happy vineyard,’ explains Rollo.
Minimal intervention has been key for the new wave of Journey’s End wines and, for Rollo, everything starts from what happens in the vineyard. With that, there is also a huge focus on the team and the community. ‘Wine starts in the vineyard; it starts with your team,’ explains Rollo. ‘We are Fairtrade certified, although we go far beyond anything that Fairtrade does, starting with paying everyone really well, with school fees for the kids and all the medical care. We built a school in the local township for 1500 kids, which is amazing. We do a crèche, we do a Beat The Bully project, which is now in five schools where we have full-time employees managing it.’
Rollo paints a picture of what wine estates in South Africa can look like – the big house on top of the hill, surrounded by a community with severe poverty issues. ‘That makes you think, ‘What can we do?’. So you look at actually what you can do.’
With sustainability and community high on the agenda, Journey’s End sounds like a really happy place to be, with everything working harmoniously to create some great wines – but also to build infrastructure that will last for generations and change the course of people’s lives. Rollo splits his time between other businesses, like the restaurants in London, but his passion lies in what he has created at Journey’s End. ‘The wine is a business, too,’ says Rollo, ‘but it’s much more of a holistic thing. I think farming needs to be that – you can do things on a ginormous scale and make it really commercial or you can have a little farm and make it a really beautiful place to be. There’s a difference between the two.’
Perhaps it’s also been a personal journey for Rollo to arrive at this point. He admits to having been ‘really, really lucky’ to have the starting point he did, and there have been twists and turns along the way (including his house burning down and leafroll virus affecting his vines, resulting in his prized 25 year-old vineyard being pulled up). But it’s far from over, with Rollo and his team continuing to experiment in winemaking (he’s introduced amphora this year) and releasing a selection of wines off-trade, so that consumers can now enjoy Journey’s End wines at home too. To me, it sounds like the End is still a long, long way off.
Honeycomb Chardonnay 2019 (Marks & Spencer, £8)
Named after the beehives at the farm, Honeycomb Chardonnay is made from handpicked fruit, which is picked in two different stages: in January on the side of the vineyard that sees the morning sun first for fresh characteristics of green apple and high acidity; then a couple of weeks later on the other side of the vine for the more tropical fruit characteristics, such as guava and pineapple. It’s very Burgundian in style, making it really great value.
Destination Chardonnay 2018 (Tanners, £20.50)
The Destination Chardonnay vineyards are very exposed to wind, which results in a smaller crop. With a much lower yield, Journey’s End are completely going for quality with this wine. A cold soak helps to extract a little more flavour from the skins, then the must is wild fermented in French oak barrels, ‘the Rolls Royce of Burgundian coopers’, for 7 to 8 months before bottling.
It is full and opulent on the palate; very textural. The fruit – green apple and citrus – is ripe and rounded, yet the acidity has been carefully preserved, which is so important in order to prop up the oak and the fruit, and sits there as a key backbone. With an elegant, soft finish, it has been compared very favourably with Meursault.
Only around 8,400 bottles have been produced and Rollo has kept 20 cases back to see how it develops. Compared to the 2017, which is fuller with more body (and drinking beautifully at the moment), this wine really demonstrates the move to elegance.
Bluegum Merlot 2017 (Sainsbury’s, £13.50)
There is a bluegum forest right next to the Journey’s End winery and the eucalyptus scent appears to have found its way into the grapes. The Bluegum Merlot comes from 25-year-old vines grown on sandy, granite soils, which help with the aromatics. The grapes are handpicked, then macerated in whole bunches, which lifts the fruit, making it slightly fresher. It is fermented for two to three weeks, then it has 18 months in barrel.
It’s a real move away from the jammy fruitbombs that the New World is known for and it’s why the acidity is so important. Merlot can be very ‘blousy’ and can lack focus and direction, but this Merlot has very clean, restrained fruit and wonderful freshness. Leaning towards Bordeaux, it’s smooth, silky and elegant.
Sir Lowry Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 (Waitrose, £10.99)
Sir Lowry is one of the region’s historical figures from the 1800s. He was the Govenor of the Cape and, in Rollo’s words, ‘a huge boozer and a great womaniser and all that sort of nonsense’.
This Cab Sav is bold but not overpowering (perhaps like Sir Lowry himself) with cassis, dark plums and cherry on the palate, with a sumptuous chocolatey aftertaste. Although it’s had 19 months of barrel age, the oak is not that apparent; it’s all about the fruit, the acidity and the structure. FYI, it goes very nicely with partridge.
Cape Doctor ‘The Red’ 2015 (on-trade)
This is Rollo’s top red and the varietals change depending on the vintage: ‘I just take the very best barrels in the cellar and come up with the best cuvée I possibly can.’ Previous vintages have been 100% Cabernet, for example, but the 2015 sees a blend of five varietals, Cabernet, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.
Made from all handpicked estate fruit, taking the best selections from each block, it is then naturally fermented and aged in predominantly new French oak barrels for two years in, then another couple of years in bottle before release.
A party of primary fruit comes through on the palate – blackcurrant, summer pudding, blueberries from the Malbec, a bit of mint, bramble, apple crumble, stewed fruits, prunes… There are layers of fruit with soft tannins and the nice french oak sitting in the background, which is all well balanced with good acidity and minerality.
For all the black fruits, it’s certainly not a powerhouse of a wine; it possesses a very Bordeaux profile, with the acidity underpinning the restrained fruit. Rollo predicts it will age beautifully – his first vintage of Cape Doctor was 2007 and it still looks very young, with ‘impeccable fruit’. This 2015 is for drinking now, but it will age for 20 years to pick up more evolved, complex characteristics.