It is a feature of the wine world that some human DNA has become embedded in certain grape varieties. In South Africa, for example, it’s impossible to think of Chardonnay without seeing the formidable presence of Danie de Wet from De Wetshof before you. And who can pronounce “Pinotage” without mentioning Beyers Truter in the same breath?
I am standing 400m up on a mountain overlooking the town of Stellenbosch, Table Mountain lurking in the distance. The steep slopes are covered with vines, as are those on the other side of the Jonkershoek Valley. Directly below, the white-washed old buildings of Lanzerac hotel and winery sparkle in the midday sun. I brace myself for the wine maker’s viticulture insights, notebook poised for words on soil types, harvest yields, vine-spacing and average daytime temperatures.
“Over there,” says the wine maker, Wynand Lategan, pointing away from the vineyards to the town. “That’s where I was born, right there in Stellenbosch Hospital.”
Regular attendees of wine events will have experienced an inspired wine maker or marketer stating that “wine is made in the vineyard”. Which is, with respect, becoming a bit of a cliché.
The role of the human hand in making wine can never be underestimated. As Duimpie Bayly, a true South African wine legend and former head of production for Stellenbosch Farmers Winery says: “Wine might be made in the vineyard, but I’ve never seen a horse winning the Durban July without a jockey.
Since stepping out from under the Distell-Lusan Wines canopy a few months back to become an independent operation once more, it has been pretty much business as usual at Neethlingshof Estate. This venerable Stellenbosch farm – icon, for me – is set on one of the region’s best sites. The old Cape Dutch architecture lying at the end of the pine-tree corridor continues to portray a genuine, homely feel. The gardens are pretty with restrained, un-showy landscaping and wonderful views. And the wine is still being made by De Wet Viljoen, his 15th Neethlingshof harvest having ended a few weeks ago.
As they say in the classics: What’s not to like?
The colonisation of the South African wine landscape by foreign powers continues, with French group AdVini doing most of the running of late. L’Avenir was first to fall in the hands of France’s fourth largest wine business, based in the village of St Félix de Lodez in the Languedoc, followed by Le Bonheur and a majority holding in Ken Forrester in 2016.
The deal cementing AdVini’s acquisition of Stellenbosch Vineyards has just dried, and I’d say the future for this bunch looks so bright they’d better get another set of Vuarnets.
I looked at the Swiss-German as if he had just curdled the cheese fondue. Before me, a glass of red wine stood next to a bottle he had made from vineyards grown on a piece of earth as suited to Cabernet Sauvignon as the Israeli desert is to un-detonated missiles.
If American authors Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski had shown more interest in visiting wine farms than drinking themselves into painfully advanced stages of cirrhosis, my guess is that Bottelary would have been their favourite parts of the Stellenbosch Wine Route. For this is still real farmer country, here along the Bottelary Road. Where wineries and houses and sheds look like they are lived and worked in, perched on hills covered in low-level bush-vines, industrial looking bulk wine dealers jostling for attention with hard-drinking houses known around here as Bush Pubs or Divorce Activators.
In general, players in the modern South African wine industry have been relatively slow to recognise the importance of brand-building, preferring the micro approach of marketing centuries-old buildings, terroir-driven vineyard sites and finely-tuned artists working among a few rows of barrels lined-up in a dank cellar. With the importance of economy of scale in driving a successful business coming increasingly to the fore as a non-negotiable part of the business model, Brand Building in Wine 101 is now all the rage, and one of the names popping up on the case-study list is Stellenbosch’s Kleine Zalze.
It has only been three decades since attending my last university class, but I can’t remember any of my teachers being quite this engaging and enthusiastic about their subject. But then again, Professor Sanette Ferreira from Stellenbosch University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, is at the coal-face of arguably the South African wine industry’s hottest topic, namely wine tourism.
Quietly, the new category of Super Pinotages is causing a ripple through the incoming tide of things offered by Brand South Africa. Not everyone – present company excluded – is convinced that Pinotage can bear the torch as the nation’s grape: that sought-after focused ray of light, in clarity unmatched by any wine country, that cuts through the wad of global vinous offerings and makes universal consumers sit up and say, “Oh, that is South Africa in a glass, and we all like it. What a great piece of the wine world that neck of the woods must be.”