40 Under 40: Derek Kilpin

Wednesday, 16 August, 2017
Catea Lisbet Sinclair
Derek Kilpin is the right person to talk to when you need a drink. And not just any drink, a fine drink from some of the top Domaines across Europe.

Walk into any half decent store in the great overseas and you will find a sizable collection of international wines ranging from fine to barely quaffable. Walk into any half decent wine store in South Africa and the international section will be a sad little corner with dusty bottles of Prosecco and some Spanish wine, if you are lucky. Kilpin aims to change that.

Since his start at Great Domaines in 2007 he has imported and distributed some pretty impressive wines, the most noteworthy being Pol Roger and a few Grand Cru estates. His enthusiasm for wine started in Stellenbosch where he attended university, which led him to work for several respected wine merchants in the United Kingdom and back again to South Africa in 2007. While the romantic in me cringes to think of wine as something as unpalatable as a commodity, it is reality and in a country where wine over 100 bucks is considered expensive, importing expensive European wine is risky business. That is where Derek’s true success lies - his mix of passion for wine and business chutzpah allows you to get so mushy and intrigued by European wine that you don’t mind blowing your child’s education fund on some Romanée – Conti. Great Domaines owner Wayne Visser picked up on that and roped Derek into the chancy task of taking a hobby business to a big wine business, run on the premise of strong relationships and a passion for wine rather than pure financial gain.

A decade and many bottles of great wine later, Great Domaines is thriving and growing. They have recently decided to represent some of South Africa’s top estates in Gauteng, a project that have been going from strength to strength since its inception. And how do you get listed as a Great Domaine? “The criteria for choosing these producers was simple- we have to really like their wines and want to have a beer with them after a hard day in the trade.” Derek explained, “Mission accomplished!”

What vintage are you?

1981. Unfortunately a shoddy vintage in most fine wine regions in Europe.

If you could bottle yourself, what would the tasting note be?

Greying on the edges, light-bodied with good energy, fully mature and now starting to show some signs of premature ageing.

What sparked your love for food and the drink?

Studying at Stellenbosch University, getting a student job and working alongside a great bunch of friends at Waterford Wine Estate in Stellenbosch.

Aliens invade Planet Earth (The Donald, anyone?) How do you go about to show them what it is that you do and love?

If they are aliens then they probably enjoy travelling so I would take them on one of our annual gastronomic wine tours to Europe. If they want to stay put in South Africa then we would lock them in the cellar and over a few weeks take them through the wines from the 80 odd estates we import from Europe. Once that is done, they won’t be able to fly their ship so we will chuck them in an über and send them to the Swartland.

What is still on your wine bucket list?

Any bottle of wine made by the late and great Henri Jayer.

What makes a wine fine?

Balance, purity, complexity and length.

What do you rate as your proudest achievement?

Building Great Domaines from a hobby business in 2007 with no employees to an exciting business representing some of the finest wines on the planet whilst being supported and driven by 17 passionate and committed staff members.

What is a big no-no to you when it comes to making wine?

Deliberately picking late to get ripeness whilst sacrificing balance. And using new wood when the grapes can’t handle it.

What would you like to achieve over the next 15 years?

Normally it is a ‘five-year plan’ question! 15 years is still a long way off so, for now, my hope is that all those years down the line, I will still be in the industry making a difference and adding value. And that my liver is still in good working order.

Who or what is your idea of oenological brilliance?

Winemakers that travel extensively and use all their experiences and knowledge to coax the absolute best out of a plot of soil to make balanced, authentic wines.

What is your favourite New World Pinot?

Ted Lemon’s Littorai.

And your favourite classic one?

Anything from Domaine Armand Rousseau.

Where does South Africa's strength lie in the global wine industry? And our weakness?

Our strengths lie with the current generation of winemakers that are simply making better and better wines. There seems to be a much greater understanding and implementation of planting the ‘right’ grape varieties in the right places and harnessing all the possible potential from the country’s old vineyards. We also have a lot of influential international journalists on their side which is helping push the Brand South Africa message.

Our weakness is probably not having a sufficient number of qualitative brands that have the volume to spread to the far corners of the globe and build the qualitative message of South Africa, which still often suffers from the image of being a country of good value wines.

You have 100 bucks in your pocket. What wine do you buy?

Buy a bottle of Newton-Johnson’s “Felicite” Pinot Noir and place the R10 change into a bank account which can be your first deposit to creating a budget to put towards a collection of Burgundy.

How can Joe Public purchase wine without becoming confused and/or intimidated by the sheer number of wine and cultivars available?

Do not be intimidated by what everyone else is saying. Buy and drink what you like! That said, if there is sufficient interest in wine, everyone owes it to themselves to learn more about wine by reading and tasting as much as possible. Find someone you can trust where appropriate advice and direction regarding wine can be given.

Where are you happiest?

In nature - often doing some lazy fishing - and with friends and loved ones drinking fine wine and eating great food.

Biggest vice?

Placing more importance in building my personal wine collection than buying a house! That and getting too emotionally invested every time our national cricket side take to the field.

Where would you like to see the South African wine industry go and grow over the next ten years?

The economics of the industry is a challenge. We need more viable farm entities, where wine is being sold profitably and employees are being empowered wherever possible. It would be great to see growth in the perception of the quality of South African wines and to see that over the next decade how we have taken a significant chunk of the market share away from competitors. Although quality is on the up I would also like to see more growth in wine quality from the majority of the industry, not the minority.

Your cellar is underwater. You can save one bottle of wine from your collection – what do you choose?

Probably my one and only bottle of 2011 Clos Rougeard ‘Les Poyeux’.

What is your fondest food and wine memory?

Drinking a Pol Roger 1998 magnum for my dad’s birthday. It was accompanied by a spotted grunter fish braai, of which the fish was caught two hours before.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

David Attenborough, Jerry Seinfeld, David Brent, Jonah Lomu, Didier Dagueneau, Donald Bradman, Roger Federer, Bruce Springsteen and if I could choose a waiter for the evening, Adi Badenhorst.

What is the best and worst thing about working in the wine industry?

The best thing is drinking and selling some of the greatest wines on the planet. Meeting and spending time with the people who made them and being exposed to different countries, cultures, languages and food. Worst thing is probably fatigue after too many dinners!

Looking back, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Read more, taste more, travel more, buy more wine!

Derek Kilpin (Mike Turner Photography)
Derek Kilpin (Mike Turner Photography)

more news