The Cryan game
What the doctor ordered: attending a medical conference in South Africa made a wine importer out of a medic, and business has never been better
Stellenbosch vineyard in the Western Cape. Photograph: Getty
I have been guilty of ignoring South Africa for a while. There was no malice behind this; it simply did not appear on my radar much of the time. It may be that the downturn has lead to fewer wines being imported, as has happened with many wine regions, or it could be our interest has switched back towards Europe generally.
In the not too distant past South African wine seemed to be on everyone’s lips (literally) but more recently it is certainly mentioned far less. Several retailers I spoke to said both interest and sales had stagnated.
In recent years South Africa has faced criticism on two fronts.
Firstly, a number of leading UK journalists complained that many South African red wines had a flavour described as “burnt rubber”.
Then in 2011 a Human Rights Watch report condemned South African wineries for inhumane practices. This was dismissed as anecdotal by industry spokespeople, who pointed to the huge advances made over the last decade and the many Fairtrade wines that are now produced in South Africa. However, it remains a sensitive issue.
As for the “burnt rubber” charge, there certainly were, and still are occasionally, wines that have such faults, but by and large South Africa has moved swiftly on to become one of the more exciting New World countries.
The quality of winemaking has increased hugely, with countless new small producers bursting on to the scene every year.
Sadly we don’t get to see many of the really good wines here. Our supermarket shelves have plenty of mass-produced easy-drinking wine that competes with Australian and Chile on price. At the other end of the scale, small boutique estates can sell much of their wine locally at fairly high prices, and place the remainder in a few select countries. It doesn’t leave much for the Irish market. However, one person is determined to change that.
Dr Eilís Cryan, a medical doctor (I am always pleased to find a medical doctor selling wine), reports that sales at Kinnegar Wines, her specialist South African wine-importing company, are going very well.
“Since the recession started I have had an enormous increase in both turnover and sales,” she says.
Cryan sells directly to the public, all over Ireland, including the North, and even to France recently.
The business started in 1998 when she attended a medical conference in South Africa with her doctor husband. “We stayed in a hotel in Stellenbosch, which provided us with a guide.”
Their guide was André Morgenthal, now a leading member of the South African wine business, who brought them to three of the top estates, Thelema, de Trafford and Vriesenhof, two of which Cryan now imports.
“I thought I would really like to buy a few cases but transporting them back to Ireland would have cost an arm and a leg. So instead I bought a pallet [around 50 cases] and shipped them home. We drank some, sold a few to friends and a few cases to Ashford Castle who have supported us ever since.”
The list is still small but includes some of the best wines of South Africa.
Cryan visits twice a year to meet suppliers. “There is,” she says, “a real energy about the wine business at the moment. South Africa has a new generation of winemakers, a lot of them in their 30s, who didn’t know apartheid and have travelled the world making wine and learning. Swartland is probably the most exciting region with three of the top five wineries in Platter (the SA wine bible), but for anyone travelling to the country Franschoek is a fantastic place to visit.”
Regarding the Human Rights Watch report, she says “I am sure there are people who mistreat their employees, but I certainly do not deal with them”.
Cryan encounters occasional resistance to South African wines.
“There are some clumsy wines, but I tell people they just haven’t tried the right wines. Once they have tried a few of mine they usually come back and ask for more.”
I have often had more success with white South African wines than red. The country certainly produces world-class Sauvignon Blanc. Chenin Blanc is still one of the more widely-planted grape varieties and there are some excellent examples, very different to those of the Loire.
As for the red wines, we still don’t see enough of the exciting new wines. However, if Cryan has anything to do with it that may change.