What's your background in the wine biz?
I was born into a wine family during harvest – my father, Ross Gower, was a winemaker. After completing my degree, I joined my dad setting up our farm in Elgin. I learnt the trade from him and spent a few harvests in New Zealand, Burgundy and did a short stint in Germany, then moved to Bordeaux for a year to play rugby and work in a château. After six weeks in France, the other five people working at the château resigned in quick succession and I was left to hold the fort over winter!
What's the best-kept wine secret on the Woolies' shelves?
Am I allowed to say our boxed wine? This is the most challenging part of what we do. There are price constraints and we aim to blend a wine that will satisfy a broad spectrum of tastes, so it needs to be spot on.
We also do a lot of exclusive blends, such as Thelema The Abbey and our co-branded ranges. Not many people know this but if a wine has Woolworths branding on it, this means that it is produced exclusively for Woolies and isn't just a rebranded wine, which you'll see elsewhere in the market. We blend between 200 and 250 wines for ourselves every year. This allows us to get better wine at a better price, so wine lovers should come to us first!
Your top piece of wine advice everyone should listen to?
Drink what you enjoy, no matter what others say. The rest of the world turns up its nose at South Africans putting ice in wine, but it works in our climate and often our wines' flavours tend to be more intense than European wines, so can handle the dilution
Name three people with whom you'd most like to share a bottle.
My dad, Paul Pontallier (previous MD of Château Margaux) and Winston Churchill (although if it were only one bottle, he would consider that breakfast, apparently).
The most interesting trend in the world right now?
I'm fascinated by the move to more innovative packaging. Canned wine is becoming a trend, and Woolies has been spearheading the move to more premium wines in a box. Wine drinkers are notoriously conservative when it comes to packaging and the introduction of screwcap to replace cork was an uphill battle. But smaller pack sizes and more flexible formats are more suited to our modern lifestyles. Modern winemaking techniques have made our wines taste better earlier than before, so consumers often want their wines to taste the same no matter when they consume them. This is where the new formats play a huge role. Traditional bottles will continue to rule the roost for cellar worthy wines, though.
Your top tip for hosting the best braai?
I am a big fan of C-grade meat where the animal is a little older than A-grade. The meat isn't necessarily as tender but is certainly more flavourful. I also aim for beef with more yellow fat, which means the animal has been grass-fed. I find the softer yellow fat is richer, but renders better through the meat than firm white fat, keeping the cut juicy during cooking.
Your favourite wines to drink with steak?
My steak picks really depend on the cut. I'd go for the Ken Forrester SGM with fillet. It's Shiraz-driven but the Grenache brings in a softer red berry aspect, while the iron-y character of the Mourvédre pairs well with rare beef. With rib-eye, I'd drink Thelema The Abbey. Rib-eye steak has beautiful marbling through the meat, keeping it moist as the fat renders while cooking. The Abbey has a slightly higher acid content, which keeps your palate clean through the meal. When I'm eating sirloin (with a thick crust of charred yellow fat – yum!) I'll drink Boplaas Tinta Barocca. It's a robust grape, so it pairs well with the strong flavours of sirloin
SHOP ROB'S PICKS