It was time to go in, right to the heart of the Stellenbosch Mafia. Guy who wrote the book about them, Pieter du Toit, well he reckons the local mobsters hang out at a joint named De Volkskombuis, pretty hard to pronounce for two New York wiseguys like me and Frankie the Juice. But nothing a little google-translate ain’t sorting out. Volks the kombuis and go volks yourselves, too.
South Africa looks set to become home to the largest urban wine vineyard in the world. This is if President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vision of a brand-new city built in the country is realised. During his recent State of the Nation Address, Pres. Ramaphosa suggested it was time to build such a new modern city in South Africa. But besides featuring shiny skyscrapers and sleek bullet-trains, the new city is also to host a vineyard from which various wines are to be made.
As in all art, nothing can ever be perfect in the wine world. But Alto Estate does come impossibly close.
Location, yes. Alto lies on the slopes of Stellenbosch’s Helderberg, one of the patches of God’s earth that manages to combine spine-tinglingly magnificent scenery with geography and geology that is ideal for the growing of grapevines. It is mountain granite from the Cape’s Fold belt that has been ground down over the past 1,5 million years, iron-rich and red and rocky, and lovely soil for wine vines to get stuck in.
With all the steely Sauvignon Blanc wine I drank in New Zealand it amazed me that no airport metal-detectors were activated on the long way home. Although there was a tense moment at Dubai International when a surly, garlic-breathed member of the security staff had to twice pass the hand-held scanner over my left kidney to ensure I was not carrying a harmful object aimed at unleashing some glamourous Middle-East terror.
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.