Of Horses, Wine and Rugby

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Avid rider (of horses) and columnist for international magazine SA Show Horse Emile Joubert, writes,about Hempies du Toit, a winemaker with a thing for hooves.

In rugby terms, a tight-head prop forward is referred to as the work-horse of any team. This is the guy who does all the hard graft. Stong as an ox ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ or a Percheron, depending on your preferred terminology ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ the tight-head is the cog around which any team’s scrum power revolves. Many an international rugby coach will tell you that he selects his tight-head before any other player.

Hempies du Toit, or Gerhard for those wishing to be formal, is remembered as being one of the strongest and craftiest tight-heads ever to pull-on the Springbok rugby jersey. A combination of brute strength and an uncanny ability to outsmart his opponent in the scrum made Hempies the centre of the Springbok scrum that, amongst other, terrified the All Blacks during the Boks’ 1981 tour to New Zealand.

The term “workhorse” is, however, more relevant in Hempies’s case than in that of most front-row forwards.

“Growing up on our wine farm Alto on the slopes of the Helderberg outside Stellenbosch, horses were part of most days’ activities,” says Hempies, who today makes wines on his farm Annandale, situated just below Alto. “The vineyards were planted very close to each other, so we would use massive Fries horses to get between the vines for lugging stuff around the vineyards. And when the horses weren’t working in the vineyards, I’d be on their back ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ with a sack for a saddle and lekker thick rope for reins.”

Besides an interest in winemaking and in rugby, Hempies lived with horses. “If you look at this valley from Annandale up to Alto, it is probably one of the most beautiful pieces of wineland one can find anywhere in the world,” he says. “Since I was a kid I found it apt that something as beautiful as a horse should be among the vines, helping us farming families to tend to the soils and to give us a bit of fun when we want a ride.”

Growing up in the farm in the 1960’s, Hempies would often see a line of riders passing through his farm on out-rides. “They were properly kitted out with gleaming saddles, crops and riding caps. And I soon discovered that the riders were from Annandale farm, a few kilometres below Alto where a Miss Van Reenen ran a riding school and a horse rehabilitation centre.”

Despite the fact of rugby players not being known for their horsemanship, Hempies soon began riding with more sophisticated gear. And even entering competitions. “There was a gymkana centre at the bottom of the Vlaeberg Road on the other side of Stellenbosch, and myself and the riders from Annandale would easily ride the ten kilometres from our respective farms to compete in the gymkana,” he says. “But man, that course was rough and ready, hell on the horses and worse on the riders. It made scrumming down at prop seem easy!”

After studying Oenology and Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, Hempies joined his father, Piet, at Alto, this being the 1970s and Alto then being one of South Africa’s most famous wine estates. This was before the days of professional rugby, and Hempies had to juggle his job as a full-time wine-farmer with the rigours of playing provincial and international rugby.

“I’d always try and make time for riding, and had by then built up a good relationship with Miss Van Reenen and her crowd of young riders that would descend on her Annandale farm during school holidays for riding camps,” he remembers.

As fate would have it, the Du Toits sold Alto, and when it came to looking for a new farm to continue his career in wine, Hempies found himself buying Annnandale in 1996.

“Besides having access to great soils for grapes, I was drawn to Annandale’s history,” he says. “It was founded in 1688, the same year the Du Toits came to South Africa with the other French Huguenots. Heritage, good wine and a place that has a history ensconced in horses ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ what more could a guy ask for?”

Upon taking ownership of the farm, Hempies found that Miss Van Reenen, who had not been interested in, making wine, had converted Annandale’s old wine cellar into stables for her horses. Hempies had to bring his wine equipment back into the space, although the tasting room still sports a lot of the horsey paraphernalia Miss Van Reenen left behind.

And of course: what else is to be found on a bottle of Annnandale wine than a etching of a horse.

“I still keep a couple of horses ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ Boerperde ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ and enjoy my riding,” says Hempies. “Not so much on the farm, but we are a group of friends that take our horses to interesting places for a ride. Like riding a long a beach on the West Coast and stopping for oysters and champagne. It sure beats trudging through the vines on a massive Fries horse and trying to hold onto the ropes!”

During a recent wine festival, Hempies and a few wine farmers in the region introduced wine tours on horseback. “This was hugely successful and very popular ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ what better way to experience the winelands than from horseback where you can walk among the vines and access paths that are impossible to reach by car,” he says. “And of course, sitting on horseback you have a better view than most!”

Hempies may just be onto something here, as the wineland roads are becoming increasingly congested and following the back-roads on horseback offers many new possibilities.

But when it comes to wine, there’s no sweaty saddle about the stuff Hempies makes. Annandale’s wines are made with minimum intervention from technological gizmos, allowing the wine to express the natural deliciousness of the grapes they are made from.

The Annandale Cabernet Sauvignon is a perennial favourite, its flavour-profile benefitting from extensive aging in new French oak. It is packed with flavours of black fruit with notes of cedar and fynbos. The Shiraz is made to the classical French style ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ none of that overtly sweet New World stuff. Here the tannins are lean, with flavours of white pepper and spice.

Cavalier is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz, bringing the best of these juicy varietals to the fore. And the Annandale Port is a surprise package. With this area not being renowned for Port, Hempies shows that an old work-horse can still have a couple of tricks up his sleeve.,, ,,,

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