40 Under 40: Roland Peens

Thursday, 21 September, 2017
Catea Lizabet Sinclair
Roland Peens is without a doubt the most dedicated taster at any wine event that I have ever poured for. Always immaculately dressed, his stoic air is mildly disconcerting for a poor pourer like myself. Roland has been blessed with a palate and an intimidating head for wine. It is glorious to behold.

It was a June 2000 batch of Tassies in his student days at Stellenbosch that went straight to Roland’s head and lured him into wine. He grew particularly fond of the aforementioned batch, requesting it whenever he went out to the student pubs. I bet that went down as well with the bartenders then as a glass of Tassenberg will go down with most of us now. He graduated with a degree in Economics and made his way into the wine industry, where he has tasted, flourished and made quite a name for himself.

Roland worked in marketing, as a sommelier and now as Director at Wine Cellar, a title he’s held since 2005. Wine Cellar is a provider of top South African and international fine wine with professional advice to private customers. The company also boasts the largest private wine storage facility on the continent, with 25 000 cases in their care at any given time. Despite his love for European classics, Roland champions South African wine and is involved in various initiatives in the industry - writing, judging and tasting, to name a few. He is resourceful and creative - Young Guns was founded by him, which acts as a platform for young talent venturing into the wine industry to showcase their stuff. I, for one, would feel pretty good if Roland chose my stuff to be showcased. I caught up with him to talk wine and inspiration.

What vintage are you?

1982 – very good in SA and fortuitously brilliant in Bordeaux. Rustenburg Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Latour are the business.

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

Lean, energetic, but full of flavour.

What sparked your love for food and the drink?

I have always loved food, but ironically it was Tassenberg that sparked the love of wine and the finer things. While studying at Stellenbosch I was introduced to the staple drink and it got me questioning the world of wine. The June 2000 batch (noted in very small letters on the side of the bottle) somehow tasted much better than any other. I began seeking out this bottling and asking the barman at a late night ‘jol’ which batch they had on offer was a tricky question. From there I joined the wine society and started tasting as much wine as I could. I was fascinated by how all the contributing factors in wine lead to countless different experiences in the glass.

Aliens come down from space and you must explain to them in one bottle of wine what it is that you love about wine – what do you serve them?

Tassenberg. The first wine for me on my journey should be good enough for Aliens. And it contains Cinsaut, so it’s pretty hip.

What is still on your wine bucket list?

I am keen to go to the south of Chile and discover the forgotten vines of the Itata Valley. We are importing some next month; ‘Rogue Vines’, a project with old vine Cinsaut, Moscatel and Carignan in a similar vein to what we are doing in SA with old vines.

Tell us about your lucky break?

A trip to Stellenbosch with the family in my teens somehow left an indelible mark. Without that, I would likely have studied somewhere else and not have immersed myself in this amazing industry.

What makes a wine fine?

The intent of the producer. A producer who has a vision of what they want to produce, a clear aesthetic, as well as a broad perspective will produce fine wine. I applaud different styles, but abhor narrow-minded winemaking. What is not a fine wine, is any wine where corners are cut in the vineyard and winery.

What has been your greatest mistake?

I try not to live with regrets, but not buying Bitcoin early is probably a mistake.

What is your biggest motivator?

Balance. If one can manage to work in the field you really enjoy, with products you really enjoy, then the rest becomes easier. Balancing work with exercise, social and life is most challenging and getting it right is motivating.  

How do you measure success?

Again balance. If one can do what you want to do, when you want to do it, then you are highly successful. One must have the capabilities of course and money is therefore important. But working all the time doesn’t mean you are successful at life.

What inspires you?

People who have their own clear aesthetic. Experiences, products, and people that don’t chase trends but rather find inner beauty and confidence are super inspirational. Wine, food, art easily fits into this notion, but really you can draw inspiration from every facet of life.

It’s Wednesday night at 6:30. What’s for dinner?

A quick lentil curry.

If you weren’t in the wine industry, what would you be doing?

Hopefully something entrepreneurial in coffee, cheese or maybe art.

What do you rate as your proudest achievement?

A ‘yes’ from my wonderful wife, Jessica. Pretty cheesy, but true.

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

Cutting corners. In every part of the wine growing and winemaking process, there will be options to save money and time. This even extends to the winemaker’s palate. If you don’t know what benchmark wines taste like, don’t expect to make a benchmark wine.

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

Assist in building a successful secondary fine wine market in South Africa.

Who or what is your idea of oenological brilliance?

Again, finding an aesthetic. For winemaking, it means understanding the vineyard and its potential beauty and constraints. I think communicating wine successfully is also very difficult to achieve.   

Where are you happiest?

I have mentioned Jessica already, so when I am not with her, then I am happiest on a trail on the Helderberg or Devils Peak. The Cape mountains are magical.

What flavours inspire taste memories for you?

After a heavy week of tasting, your senses become heightened and you find yourself identifying flavours everywhere. But there is something special about the aromas that come from fermenting whole bunch Pinot or Syrah. Haunting.  

Biggest vice?

Coffee no doubt. Sometimes I think that I love coffee more than wine.

What are the biggest challenges we face in the South African wine industry? Where would you like to see us go and grow over the next ten years?

South Africa is one of the largest producers of wine in the world but we have a slight domestic market. We have to grow the wine market in South Africa on all levels in order to make it more sustainable. This means a better understanding of wine from the farmer, winemaker, distributor, retailer and restaurateur. The wine culture and increased consumption will follow.

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

Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault en Magnum!

What is your favourite food and wine memory?

Probably a glass of Comtes de Champagne and foie gras on arrival at Chateau Pichon Baron on my first visit there 12 years ago. I can still taste the creamy richness and balance, even though I don’t really like foie gras.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? What would you cook and why?

Jessica, Madiba, Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson, Joan of Arc and James Bond. That could be fun! Lamb cutlets on the braai with a South African Syrah.  

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

It’s like a big family and having worked in it for 15 years, you get to know everyone. The downside is that it becomes difficult to split work and leisure sometimes. It is also difficult to explain that even though I might be at a tasting, it’s still work!

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

Enjoy your 20s and have fun, there is lots of work ahead!

Roland Peens
Roland Peens

more news