Von Arnim: the Legend Continues

Many families of the wine world, predictably, ascribe their generational involvement with vineyards and wine to the grape’s elixir being for them “a way of life”. But experiencing the second flight of Franschhoek’s von Arnim clan now running their Haute Cabrière estate, one can firmly state that for this renowned part of Cape wineland family DNA, wine is not a “way” but truly is life itself.

The von Arnims’ blood, sweat and toil; hopes and dreams; their very essence of being and that place they command on earth – a place which the sun shines brightly on – is driven by nothing other than those 750ml bottles of fermented grape liquid they create. Wine grown and crafted to enrich the lives of others by a family whose soul centers around one of the most blessed, civilized and beautiful things this world has known.

Achim and Hildegard von Arnim.

Takuan, the second generation von Arnim to take control of that Haute Cabrière winery his father carved into the mountain on the first stage of the Franschhoek Pass, exudes the kind of efficiently authoritative – yet casual – confidence of a winemaker who is in tune with his destiny. And why shouldn’t he? He is, after-all, a von Arnim: Son of Achim, one of the last of South Africa’s great living wine pioneers and the kind of man Frank Sinatra would have written “My Way” for if Frank had preferred Pinot Noir and sparkling Cap Classique to Jack Daniel’s.

Yet, since returning to South Africa after a five-year jaunt through the vineyards of Europe in 2004 and then stepping into the shoes as cellarmaster in 2012, Takuan has taken the Haute Cabrière brand, which includes the range of Pierre Jourdan Cap Classiques his father began making in 1984, on a new trajectory. There is a wine range called Haute, carrying Takuan’s individual style, including Chardonnay aged in clay amphora vessels. And of course, he has a non-negotiable commitment to continuing the legacy on which Haute Cabrière was built, including the Pierre Jourdan Cap Classiques plus other stalwart still wines, such as the stratospherically successful Chardonnay Pinot Noir.

Takuan smiles sardonically and shakes his head when he is asked that predictable question, the one he will be facing for most of his life as a winemaking von Arnim. Namely, how tough an act is it to follow in the foot-steps of your father, Achim?

“You have no idea,” he admits. “My father was a pioneer in the Cape wine industry, the second to make Cap Classique – as cellarmaster at Boschendal. Then, with Cabrière in Franschhoek, which he bought in 1982, he created the first winery in the country solely committed to Cap Classique. Without a penny in the bank, he took risks, pioneered, led. Built the business into a major success, something he did with his style, personality, enthusiasm. Yes, indeed, a tough act to follow.”

But there is nothing like confidence in your own ability to step out and find your own place in this world, especially this world of wine. “With what we are now doing at Haute Cabrière, I can honestly say that during my life as son of one of the country’s great winemakers and personalities – from a child growing up in the house and then working alongside my father in the cellar – I am showing that, yes, I paid attention. I took in what I saw about wine and grape-growing, I listened to the technical details and the rules and the laws and the instructions. I was present, I took it in. And now, I can do this.”

Before meeting Takuan, I had spent a few hours with Achim at the house he and his wife Hildegard share below the Haute Cabrière cellar. I was trying to get an inside-edge on families of winemakers and the importance of generational evolution in wine, but Achim was more interested in letting the current wines from the von Arnims do the talking. A brilliant Sémillon under Takuan’s Haute range, also aged in clay amphora. The Haute Cabrière Chardonnay un-wooded, as austere and stony and rapier-precise as a Chablis. Followed by an energetic, life-affirming Pierre Jourdan Brut Cap Classique, just to wash the palate.

“Have you tasted!?” says Achim. “Un-believable! Takuan is brilliant in the cellar, and I must say he works his arse off. He is doing an exceptionally good job, and he himself truly has a pioneering spirt.”

“Like his father?” I ask.

“Perhaps,” says Achim. “But then, I have better looks.”

Looks aside, as patriarch they surely can’t come much more inspirational and influential than Achim. Trained at the famous Geisenheim Institute in Germany, his legacy is built on one part scientific and technical precision, with another part’s artistic and cultural appreciation of and belief in wine being one of mankind’s greatest contributions to earth’s role in the universe. And then to round things off, he has two parts of commanding and individual personality to drive his beliefs home.

On the creating of a successful wine brand and winery in just under 40 years, Achim draws on two aspects. One is discipline and a systematic approach.

“First of all, with wine you have to know what you are dealing with – and wine is not ‘made’,” Achim says, and this he drives-home throughout the day by correcting any reference to “winemaker” or wine “making”.

“Wine is grown or crafted,” he enthuses. “And despite this image of a gung-ho, individualist, I have always loved the fact that with everything you do in the industry, it is about people with various disciplines coming together to pool their knowledge and their vision towards a shared outcome: Discussion… decision… action… control!”

He is equally keen to highlight the other contribution of wine’s human element: “Authenticity, originality,” says Achim. “I think that is another aspect that helped the name Haute Cabrière and the wines to capture the imagination of the consumers. We have always been authentic. My late mother, Theodora, was part of the team from the start, helping with hospitality and our book-keeping. Hildegard, between raising our children, played an integral role behind the scenes with entertaining, telling our story, doing wine-tasting and tours and establishing relationships with customers. We were and are authentic. “And during everything, no matter what, we had fun.”

The second-generation von Arnims active on Haute Cabrière, namely Takuan and his sister Tanja, who this year joined the team as marketing director, not only inherited a strong wine lineage from Achim. Their mother Hildegard also hails from a wine farm, this in Germany’s western wine region where her father was a grape-grower next to the Mosel River. Actually, when it comes to working with wine grapes from an early age, Hildegard trumps them all.

“I remember during spring all our family’s adults – grandmother, dad, mom – would work in the vineyards, binding the shoots,” says Hildegard. “We children would play between the vines or along the adjacent roads. I was about nine or ten when I watched my mother binding the shoots on the vines and told her that I am sure I could do that. She let me give it a go, and that was that – I started working in the vines as a child.”

Not surprisingly, after heading-off to the Cape in 1971 – having just married Achim in Germany – Hildegard said that she would not be getting involved with winemaking as she had already had her fill.

She has, however been the driver of Cabrière’s spirit of hospitality that has been entrenched in the values of the estate from the very beginning.

“Mum is very much the unsung hero of Haute Cabrière,” says Tanja. Like Takuan’s position of leading the wine operations, Tanja is responsible for ensuring the von Arnim legacy continues in the important department of marketing and hospitality. “Our mother still does cellar tours and winetastings, and much of the ethos of Haute Cabrière as a centre of wine, food and friendship was established by her.”

Takuan in the vineyard.

For Tanja, it is about using the estate and its position overlooking Franschhoek to market and ingrain Haute Cabrière as a leading force in wineland hospitality. “We aim to position the brand through the experience people have at Haute Cabrière,” she says. “Takuan is responsible for creating these incredible wines. I have to make sure that all facets of hospitality are integrated with the wine in offering a unique experience people want to return to.”

Takuan is quick to add a word his father is particularly partial to: “Fun – the whole Cabrière experience must have an element of fun, and celebration. That’s why people and wine are made for each other, are they not?”

Yes, especially people made for enriching the world through the essence of wine they have captured in their soul. We are so lucky to have them.

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