Former rugby player’s journey from the fields of France to Hemel-en-Aarde

Former rugby player’s journey from the fields of France to Hemel-en-Aarde
Burton Francis in the vineyard. (Photo: Supplied)

When a back injury ended his career, Burton Francis threw himself into making wine, in the classic Burgundy style.

It’s an exciting game but when you’re playing at a competitive level, your career as a rugby player is likely to be relatively short-lived. What comes next defines your future — and possible fortune.

For Burton Francis, the question about his “next” arose after an injury put a rapid stop to a career that took him from the Boland Cavaliers’ youth level to some of South Africa’s top teams — the Stormers, Lions and Blue Bulls — to Agen, between Bordeaux and Toulouse, and Grenoble in France.

Eight days, never mind eight years, in France would rub off on anyone and for Francis, that meant falling in love with wine and in particular, the expressive, elegant whites and velvety reds born in Burgundy, where the choice of wine is narrowed down to basically two varieties: pinot noir for Bourgogne Rouge and chardonnay for Bourgogne Blanc.

Of course, other varieties are planted in the region but Burgundy is not only the original home of chardonnay and pinot noir, its terroir is also best suited for classic, Old World expressions of the wines.

Moving to France was never simply about rugby, he explains: “It’s a different ballgame. You have to immerse yourself in a different culture and learn the language because otherwise, you won’t survive it.”

Plan B

A career-ending back injury in 2018 triggered a Plan B for Francis, while at Grenoble, so he threw himself into education, with Wine & Spirit Education Trust level 2 and 3 courses, followed by an MBA in wine and spirits at the Burgundy School of Business, with a view to launching a Burgundy-style wine back home.

“When I hurt my back I was like, okay, what have I done? What can I take back from France? I only had rugby. It was my career. Now I needed to make a new life for myself. So I immediately switched from rugby to books.”

Two years later, Covid struck. Francis and his family stayed for another six months in Burgundy, before deciding to return home to Paarl, with a plan.

“I rang up all the producers in Burgundy, because tourism was closed at the time and they were alone so I could meet them, speak to them about their winemaking style and get them to reveal their secrets.”

This ignited his dream of creating his own wines back home: chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

This year, he’s released his maiden vintages of Francis Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, through a collaboration with La Vierge and in consultation with wine veteran Kevin Grant of Ataraxia.

The Burton Francis range. (Photo: Supplied)

Grapes are sourced from two special blocks on the Hemel-and-Aarde Ridge — known for producing some of South Africa’s finest chardonnay and pinot noirs – handpicked, crushed and aged in old French barrels.

Only 1,400 bottles of Pinot Noir and 1,100 bottles of chardonnay have been released.

“We’re looking for an intimate market, so it’s more for wine clubs, collabs with chefs, food and wine pairings, etc. For Pinot Noir Day (18 August), we did an oxtail potjie in Wellington. That was a fantastic experience because we had 60 bums on the seats and it was a very good night. So now we’re collaborating with restaurants in Franschhoek, Langebaan and Cape Town.”

This is no side hustle: it is the culmination of his journey from soil to soul, Francis explains: “I genuinely fell in love with the wines of France. It’s my story.” DM

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