It was a charity dinner at Olive Beach, with wines from Boekenhoutskloof, the edgy boutique South African winery that is all the buzz in wine circles in India these day. And if that wasn’t enticing enough, the wine dinner by Chef Manu Chandra was being headlined by maverick winemaker Marc Kent who is hitting the headlines for all the right reasons, all of them to do with the wines he makes. The Chocolate Block, the red blend that everyone is talking about, is to be the premium pour, with the entry levels white and red wines, The Wolf Trap, along with it.
The terrace at Olive sees a small group of people gathered. This dinner isn’t about PR, major hype or much of the hoo-ha that goes with the launch of a wine. This is free flowing, relaxed and friendly. And of course, Marc Kent is there, quietly lounging in a corner. Chef Manu Chandra is in the kitchen, personally preparing the courses selected for this wine dinner. This is one of his own favourite wines, and he hasn’t been able to stop talking about it.
Marc is a New Age winemaker. One look and this stands out quite clearly. Linen suit, suede loafers and artfully overgrown mussed hair (his wife is a professional hair stylist, and he gets his haircuts for free, he confesses). He speaks plainly, with humour and without conceit. As the evening progresses, it turns out that this is definitely one of the most fun interactions with a winemaker I have had.
First off, Marc confesses to being there under duress. “I don’t do winemaker dinners,” he says with a shrug and a smile. “But Vishal (Kadakia, of Wine Park, who imports Boekenhoutskloof wines to India) told me I have to do this. Just say a few words about my wine, he said.”
The evening proceeds to take off, with wine flowing, peppered with Marc’s anecdotes. “I don’t want to bore you with wine stuff,” he interrupts to say seriously. Nobody looks bored. The two Wolf Trap labels are poured, and appreciated. Rhone-style blends, the white is a blend of Viognier, Chenin Blanc and Grenache Blanc, while the red has Syrah, Mourvèdre and a tiny bit of Viognier for the bouquet. “The name Wolf Trap is because in the 1700s, European settlers were losing their cattle to wolves, so they set up wolf traps. Never caught a wolf, though!”
Marc refers to himself as an ‘almost accidental’ vintner. “I only wanted to fly jets. But early on I waited on tables, and while doing so, fell in love with wine.” And thereby hangs a tale. Today, his name is spoken with respect in winemaking circles around the world. His tour de force, The Chocolate Block is not an easy-drinking quaff of a wine – it is complex, with layers and surprises, quite worth the rather steep price it commands in India. “We (Boekenhoutskloof) now making about 4 million bottles a year. Wine Spectator and Robert Parker have endorsed The Chocolate Block, and it has won a few wine of the year nominations” he says, adding that it is on multiple restaurant wine lists, and widely being poured by the glass. El Bulli, Fat Duck, Joel Robuchon, Wolfgang Puck all serve it.
The name, The Chocolate Block, is catchy, and there is a story to this too. A few years ago, while Marc was talking to his London importer, he mentioned that he wanted to start a new label and was looking for a name. His importer said he could suggest one, on the condition that the entire first year allocation would come to him. Fair deal, said Marc, and The Chocolate Block was born, Today, his importer is kicking himself for only asking for the first year vintage of this super-successful wine!
Kent is a self-confessed Rhone style wine lover and makes an annual pilgrimage to France at the time the Rhone Valley offers ups its en primeur wines. But his roots are firmly in South Africa, where Boekenhoutskloof is situated, in Franschhoek. Franschhoek has already made a name for itself in the wine and food domain. “There are 16,000 residents and 34 restaurants – it’s the gastronomic capital of South Africa,” says Marc. Boekenhoutskloof itself lays strong emphasis on sustainability. “Organic winemaking to me means leaving the world in a better way than how we found it. We are working towards turning biodynamic. We are artisanal – even the egg whites we use for fining are from free range hens, and the wines are naturally fermented. We makes wines of texture. The Wolf Traps are for early consumption, but this one…” he indicated the bottle of 2010 on the table “has still got 5 to 8 years in it. Our wines have a following around the world. And see, I believe that a wine’s quality lies in the second half of a bottle.”
None of this is said with an iota of vanity, quite matter-of-factly. Stories follow, on fans of The Chocolate Block from Morgan Freeman to John Cleese, Hilary Swank and Peaches Geldof. Marc leads a fairly high-profile existence, on first name terms with celebrities flying in to South Africa and stopping by his vineyards. But that night, he is just one of the guys having a good time around the table. And judging by the popularity of his wines, he is on the right track. The Chocolate Block started out in India over a year ago with an allocation of a mere 300 bottles. Today, it has quadrupled, and the demand is steadily rising. Not bad for an unusual wine made in a boutique winery in a town in South Africa.
Dessert comes along, an aptly named tribute called the Ode to The Chocolate Block. Marc may not do the ‘winemaker dinners’ too often, but Bangalore cannot help but remember him, and his wines.