It’s been quite a journey,’ says Miguel Chan, who celebrated his 10th anniversary as group sommelier for Tsogo Sun Hotels last year. Born and raised in Mauritius, he first visited South Africa as a hotel school student in 1998. ‘I’d never seen vineyards until I drove from the airport to Franschhoek. I could finally add context to my theoretical wine lectures. It was the catalyst. I knew I wanted to specialise in wine.’
A sommelier’s job, he explains, is ‘to make patrons feel as comfortable as possible in choosing a wine. Most importantly, we need to look at the wine in the context of how well it will pair with a dish – and then serve it in the correct way.’
Not for one second did Miguel imagine that he would end up working for Africa’s leading hotel group, in charge of selecting wines (and other beverages) for hundreds of restaurants and bars spread across more than 100 hotels in South Africa, Africa, the Seychelles and the Middle East. ‘It’s quite a massive company,’ he says.
After graduating, Miguel gained experience at top hotels in Mauritius before being invited to spend the 2003/04 season working at The Cellars-Hohenort, a five-star hotel in Constantia, Cape Town. ‘I didn’t even know what “season” meant, because in Mauritius we have tourists all year round!
The season was so successful that he was offered a permanent position, one that he filled for the next five years. ‘Having mostly only worked with French wines in Mauritius, I really got to know the wines of the Constantia Valley and then the rest of the industry.
The industry got to know him, too. After being named South African Young Sommelier of the Year in 2007 by the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, he became a sought-after judge at various wine competitions. Then, in 2009, he was approached to join Tsogo Sun Hotels, which required relocating to Joburg. ‘For months I couldn’t make up my mind. I loved working in Constantia, a beautiful part of the world, serving wonderful wines to an international clientele, and I’d never worked for a big corporate before. But eventually, I made the big jump.’
Focus and diversity
As a keen hiker, runner and gardener, Miguel quickly fell in love with Joburg, which he describes as ‘a vibrant city where people are always welcoming, with the best climate in the world’.However, he admits he initially questioned his career decision over the first couple of years. ‘Wine wasn’t a major focus at Tsogo Sun Hotels until I came on board. Over 80% of our wines came from just one distributor, and, at first, management didn’t understand why I wanted to introduce more diversity, especially given that the local clientele tended to stick to a particular brand, wine or grape. I had to persuade them to be more adventurous.’
Miguel called Joburg-based wine authority Michael Fridjhon for advice. ‘Michael invited me to lunch at his home and, over four hours, explained both the evolution and enormous potential of the local market. Without his insight and encouragement, I don’t think we would be where we are today.’
Miguel became determined to drive change. ‘Once management understood what I was trying to do, which was contribute to our guests’ happiness, I had their full support.’
Extremely active on social media (with more than 9 400 Twitter followers, for example), Miguel has played a huge role in creating awareness about the increasingly exciting #TsogoWine offering, changing the perception that a large hotel group cannot compete with boutique hotels or fine-dining restaurants, and ultimately helping to transform Gauteng’s ‘wine culture’ – especially in the ‘wealth radius’ of Sandton, Hyde Park and Rosebank. ‘Today, Gauteng accounts for 76% of our annual wine sales, and it’s driven by locals,’ he says. ‘Where Cape Town is highly seasonal, accounting for just 10% of our annual wine sales, in Joburg we have a new generation of local wine drinkers with a sense of adventure. It’s probably the greatest thing that could have happened to the wine industry, and it’s now also starting to happen in KwaZulu-Natal, which has recently overtaken Cape Town with 10.2% of wine sales despite having fewer beds.’
Exceptional yet affordable
It’s a remarkable fact that Tsogo Sun Hotels was the most successful bidder at last year’s Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction, and one of the top three buyers at the Cape Winemakers Guild auction. ‘We’re not trying to show off,’ insists Miguel. ‘We don’t spend irresponsibly butstrategically, to give our guests the opportunity to buy the most exceptional yet affordable collection of local wines.’
He believes Tsogo Sun Hotels’ auction wines add value to the guest experience, as do the regular pairing dinners he organises. ‘Our Chefs Tables, which we set up in some of our kitchens or presidential suites, have become very popular,’ he says. ‘Working with artisanal suppliers of ingredients ranging from Wagyu beef to handcrafted chocolates, we tailor-make dishes to serve with boutique wines you’ve never heard of, or wines with some age on them. This year, we are planning to expose our guests to a selection of “natural” wines, and during the cooler months we plan to revive interest in South Africa’s fantastic fortified wines, whether it’s offering a dry “sherry” before the meal, or a “port” paired with chocolate. We know South Africans have a sweet tooth, and many millennials drink semi-sweet rosé, so a Cape Ruby or Tawny is not a big jump from there.’
Miguel’s demanding job means he is never bored – but it also means he has had to step back from judging at wine competitions, other than the Michelangelo International Wine and Spirit Awards, which Tsogo Sun Hotels sponsors. Nonetheless, his highly respected palate means he is constantly approached by producers to taste their wines: ‘If I discover something exciting, I add it to the list. If not, I give honest feedback. Ultimately, my aim is to uplift the industry as a whole.’
For more information about Tsogo Sun Hotels’ wine offerings visit tsogosun.com