Earlier this year, Canadian-South African winemaker Travis Braithwaite announced the launch of a multi-continent wine made in partnership with the world’s most famous winemaking consultant, Michel Rolland. The storm of derision and scepticism on social media for his Pangaea wine label was immediate: ‘Bullshit’, ‘third-rate grift’, ‘soup’ and ‘sacrilege’ were some less-than-gentle opinions.
Why the outrage? Seemingly, Pangaea faced affront in wine-related circles thanks to its globalist sentiment; the premise for the wine, a Bordeaux blend made up from grapes harvested in a handful of regions from across the world. But with its first vintage sold out, number two set for release and more in the pipeline, Pangaea isn’t a brand that cares for the outrage on platforms such as X. It has the cellars of the wine-collecting elite in its sights.
Few people in the wine world had ever heard of Travis Braithwaite when news of Pangaea appeared. Born in Canada but raised in South Africa, he studied Information Science at Stellenbosch University. In 2005, he was one of the three founders of the Winemaker’s Choice Awards, where he was introduced as the event’s marketer. Intriguingly, the original press release says he worked ‘part-time in the industry’ and his bio says he did work ‘behind the scenes’ at wineries in Stellenbosch.
A fringe player he may have been but he’d had another idea. ‘What,’ thought Braithwaite, ‘would a Bordeaux blend be like if every component was perfectly ripened?’ More to the point, what if every grape came from a different part of the world?
‘What would it be? What would it taste like, if the grapes had been given the best chance to ripen and had the most elegance, structure and ageability?’ He pondered this idea until he put in a call to Michel Rolland’s office, convinced the desk to put him through and pitched the idea to the consultant winemaker.
It took two calls but after the second, Rolland invited him to Argentina. He flew out the following day. Braithwaite suggests that he caught Rolland at ‘the right time’ and that he had a youthful curiosity for the concept. ‘He always wants to learn something new,’ says Braithwaite.
With Rolland on board, the process of finding the blend began. ‘We went through about seven before finding the final one,’ says Braithwaite, who adds that Rolland is ‘like a savant when it comes to blending.’ In the end, the final composition included: Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Merlot from Bordeaux’s Right Bank, Malbec from the Uco Valley, Cabernet Franc from the Helderberg in Stellenbosch and Petit Verdot from Dehesa del Carrizal in Castilla la Mancha.
The grapes are harvested, vinified and aged in their country of origin under the supervision of the Pangaea team, then shipped to California for the final blend. Managing wines across multiple continents, with different harvests, vinification and ageing taking place throughout the year is a logistical challenge – or a nightmare depending on your multi-tasking skills. But for Braithwaite ‘the challenge of the harvest and representing it’ is part of the enjoyment.
Nonetheless, it took a while for everything to turn out right. ‘In the first few years of the 2015, I thought, “shit, have I made a mistake?”,’ he admits. ‘There was so much power, every component was fighting for dominance, it was like they all had boxing gloves on. Even by 2019 it wasn’t ready. I’d neglected the integration time.’
The wines are concentrated, glossy and big on structure – but they’re also still very youthful, surprisingly fresh, and aromatic, the tannins ripe and supple
By 2023, those unruly components had settled down. The 2015 and recently released 2016 are simultaneously exactly what you would expect from a Michel Rolland ultra-premium Bordeaux blend and yet also very different. The wines are concentrated, glossy and big on structure – with a hefty 14.7% abv to boot. But they’re also still very youthful, surprisingly fresh and aromatic, the tannins ripe and supple. Fifteen to twenty years ago, prevailing winemaking tendencies would have made wines like these an undrinkable stew of chewy oak, boiled fruit and hot-to-the-touch ethanol. These are far from undrinkable and, at US$500 a bottle, that’s the least one should expect.
What of the individual wines or a notion of terroir? Although Braithwaite jokes that in France he’d be ‘hanged in the high street’ over Pangaea, pan-regional and pan-national wines are nothing new. French négociants have a long history of cross-regional blending and a historical practice of bulking up insipid domestic wines with those from Algeria or Spain. Penfolds II, launched in 2021, combined Australian and French wines; Jean Charles Boisset made a blend of Sonoma and Burgundian Pinot Noir in 2011.
Ironically, despite choosing each country for the best possible grapes, Braithwaite says that every year sees a mix of ‘easy, medium and hard harvests’. The 2015 is Cabernet-led, the 2016 a greater proportion of Merlot, the 2018 is 50% Malbec and the 2020 wasn’t made at all because of smoke taint in California. For all the perfection it seeks by sourcing globally, there could be as much vintage variation in a future vertical of Pangaea as in any other mono-varietal or mono-regional wine.
For all the perfection it seeks by sourcing globally, there could be as much vintage variation in a future vertical of Pangaea as in any other mono-varietal or mono-regional wine
In the future, Braithwaite wants to make more ‘wines of the world that have never existed before,’ and ‘blend varieties that would never normally go together.’ He doubts there would ever be a white cuvée though, as the wines ‘don’t travel as well and there’s too high a risk of spoilage’.
In some circles, the Pangaea label will never escape the tag that it’s a gimmick. But Braithwaite’s background is in business. He has clearly pictured a high-rolling, wine drinker-collector and thought, ‘what is it that they don’t have yet?’. And the 600 bottles allocated to the UK from the 2015 vintage (from a total of 2,000 bottles) ‘sold very quickly’: evidently, that target market is intrigued.