Archive for the ‘Heritage and innovation’ Category

Inspirational women of the Cape winelands

Friday, August 8th, 2014

In South Africa we celebrate Women’s Day on 9 August each year in homage to the women of our nation who fought tirelessly against the tyranny of the Apartheid government.

The Cape winelands have a long lineage of inspirational women. One of the most fascinating tales is that of Ansela van de Caab (a surname given to slaves which means ‘from the Cape’), who started out her  life being born to a slave in the Castle and ended up having a secret love affair with Laurens Campher, a dashing German soldier in the service of the Dutch East India Company. He was granted a farm by Governor Wilhelm Adriaan van der Stel in 1685 and subsequently moved to Muratie , his piece of land at the foot of the Simonsberg mountains, some 40km from Cape Town. He used to walk, an arduous three-day journey, to visit Ansela in the Cape slave quarters. In 1699, Ansela was released after being baptised in the Castle. Laurens fetched her and their three children – Cornelius, Jacoba and Agenetjie – and took them to their new home, Muratie, where she lived the rest of her life in freedom.

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The current owners of this historic estate in Stellenbosch, the Melck family, honoured the role she played in the history of their farm by naming their flagship Bordeaux-style red blend after her.

Then there’s another one of my favourite winelands stories, that of Catharina Ustings, the unconventional first owner of Steenberg (Mountain of Stones), a widow from Germany who stowed away on a ship and landed at the Cape dressed as a man! A feisty pioneer, she outlived four of her five husbands. Legend has it that she hunted on horseback and shot the lion that took her second husband, Hans Ras, whom she married within two months of her arrival. Her third husband was killed by marauding tribesmen and her fourth was trampled underfoot by elephant! After she took a fifth husband, Matthys Michelse, she was granted permissions to lease the farm they were living on with her five children, which was formerly named Swaaneweide (The Feeding Place of Swans) in 1682. Governor Simon van der Stel later granted her request for the 25-morgen property in what is now the ward of Constantia, the cradle of winemaking in South Afirca, bequeathing it to her as a gift. Catharina later approached the governor for a legal title deed for her land and took ownership in 1688, becoming the first woman to own property in the Cape.

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Catharina’s, Steenberg’s fine dining restaurant, is named after her.

And don’t forget to raise a glass of the Cape’s finest in tribute to the matriarchs of the winelands who have played an integral role in the success of their family wine farms in more recent times – there are at least four who immediately spring to mind.

Warwick’s First Lady range of wines was named after matriarch Norma Ratcliffe, who is often referred to as ‘The First Lady of South African wine’, as she was one of the first women in the country to make wine in this traditionally male-dominated arena. Canadian-born Norma has played a pivotal role in the success of this family-run wine estate on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. She was also the first woman to become a member of the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild and the only woman to have served as its chairperson to date. It’s been a year of milestones for Warwick. The late Stan Ratcliffe purchased the farm 50 years ago in 1964 and their first wine, the Warwick Cabernet Sauvignon, called La Femme Bleu (The Blue Lady), was released 30 years ago in 1984. Although Norma has handed over the reins – her son Mike is now Warwick’s MD – she remains very much involved in the estate and acts as Warwick’s own ‘style director’, advising the winemaking team.

Vera Sperling of nearby Delheim was the creative driving force behind her husband, legendary winemaker Michael ‘Spatz’ Sperling, and played a signiificant role in making Delheim the much-loved family winery it is today. Spatz set sale on the Winchester Castle from Germany to South Africa to work on his Aunt Deli and her husband Hans Hoheisens’s farm on the slopes of the Simonsberg in 1951. The farm, then called De Drie Sprong, was later renamed Delheim (Deli’s Home).  In  1975, Spatz bought a second farm, as he needed land suitable for growing red-wine varieties. These high-quality low-yielding Vera Cruz (Vera’s Cross) vineyards are named in honour of her (it’s been wryly suggested that the name reflects the cross and suffering she has had to bear since marrying the inimitable Spatz in 1965). Their son Victor and daughter Nora Sperling Thiel are now the hands-on management team.

Artist Jayne Beaumont of Beaumont Wines and her late husband Raoul Beaumont bought historic Compagnes Drift Farm in Bot River in the 1970s. They started making their own artisanal range of wines in the original wine cellar with its antique basket presses and open cement kuipe (fermenters), the oldest in the region, in 1994. The wines were initially made by Jayne, then later by Niels Verburg, who now has his own nearby wine farm and label, Luddite. Oldest son Sebastian, who returned to the farm in 1999 after graduating in oenology and viticulture at Elsenburg, is now at the helm. Honouring another inspirational matriarch in the Beaumont family is the acclaimed Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc, which is dedicated to Raoul’s mother.

Lesca de Wet, wife of highly regarded cellarmaster Danie de Wet of De Wetshof , is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to sales and marketing. Her considerable contribution has seen this Robertson estate win the President’s Export Achievement Award an impressive five times! The future seems assured as their sons Johann and Peter, the third generation of De Wets on the family farm, have joined them in their wine business as marketer and winemaker respectively.

These are but a few of the many inspirational women across the winelands who paved the way for women in the wine industry today and are deserving of a Women’s Day toast. Cheers!

– Lindsaye Mc Gregor

Celebrating winemaking

Monday, February 1st, 2010

As the first few tractor and trailer loads of grapes start to make their presence felt on the roads of the winelands it’s good to be reminded that Christ’s first miracle was turning water into wine. This was the subject of the reading at a special mass held in Stellenbosch this week – as it has been for the past 16 years.

Southern hemisphere winemakers are in the fortunate position of having the feast day of the patron saint of winemaking, St Vincent, fall very close to the annual harvest. Vignerons in the northern hemisphere celebrate his feast day (January 22) while snow is still on the ground, whick makes for a chilly event. Not that it stops the Burgundian Confreries resplendent in their scarlet regalia from having a darn fine parade and feast over the last weekend in January.

In Stellenbosch the event is low key, having been held at the local Catholic church for the past 16 years. It must be said that although having patron saints is a Catholic thing, many of the worshippers who attend the event observe other religions. Behind it all is the bushy-bearded ‘Ole man wine’ of the SA fraternity, Dave Hughes, and he always makes a point of inviting someone from another religion to deliver the sermon. Having a Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim perspective presented during mass makes the conversation over lunch at La Pineta interesting!

The collection taken goes to the Stellenbosch hospice which currently provides care to 600 patients in the district – up substantially from the 100 patients when the observance of St Vincent’s began nearly two decades ago. Another interesting local tradition is that the winemakers (and some distillers) bring along a bottle or six that is then donated to the church and provides enjoyment for the clergy.

As Dave says, it’s handy having a bit of spiritual intervention if you’re a producer reliant on the vagaries of the weather…

Bottelary bonding

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Yngvild Steytler of Kaapzicht told me some wonderful stories at a dinner recently. I won’t steal her thunder (or potential material) because she’s thinking of starting her own blog – and after hearing a few of the tales I think she should.

The event was a dinner for 20 or so folks at Mooiplaas. The family-run farm’s marketer, Dirk Roos, is a keen cook and has gained a reputation for his Langtafel (long table) lunches. The whole thrust of what Yngvild was saying is that Bottelary wine farmers and grape growers are a rather special group of people. “They are always willing to help – no matter what. When I go overseas on a marketing trip they feed my husband. If Oom Kosie’s (Steenkamp) lorry breaks down in the middle of harvest, one of the neighbours will be there within an hour or two to make sure the grapes get to the cellar… and if someone’s wife is in hospital, the kids will be picked up at school and taken care of without a problem.”

Steytler son and heir, 29-year-old Danie jnr chipped in with a few stories of his own. He’s worked harvests in America, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Greece, Germany and after all that experience, there’s nowhere he’d rather be than in the Bottelary hills of Stellenbosch. That might have something to do with his heritage but then there’s also a two hectare vineyard of the second oldest block of bushvine Chenin Blanc on the farm too. “And it’s got a SAWIS certificate proving its age,” Danie said. Together with lanky Bottelary wine centre manager Donovan Rall (he of the inaugural 5 Star Platter rating for his Rall Wines Swartland white blend fame…) Danie’s hatching a few plans for this special parcel of old Chenin Blanc.

Not only are Bottelary producers Mooiplaas, Kaapzicht, Groenland, Hazendal, Bellevue, Goede Hoop, Sterhuis, Fort Simon, Koopmanskloof and Hartenberg making good wines, but these selfsame producers were in the forefront of biodiversity efforts too. This group of farmers banded together to proclaim a conservancy in the Bottelary Hills long before it became fashionable to do so. Listening to Mooiplaas viticulturist Tielman Roos talk about the fauna and flora you realise how close to nature they all are.
“Where else in the winelands will you find a group of wine farmers who are prepared to help each other out rather than compete – and then still go on holiday together, canoeing on the Orange River?” was Yngvild’s parting shot. I find that sort of old-fashioned neighbourliness reminiscent of bygone times and while it’s a characteristic that’s in short supply nowadays, it doesn’t make them dinosaurs. It makes them special.

Heritage and innovation

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

It was quite a contrast, going from a muddy vineyard in Durbanville to the place where goats frolic in Paarl. The first event was the symbolic planting of 350 new ‘old’ Pinotage vines at Meerendal, one of the original farms to plant Professor Perold’s crossing of Cinsaut/Hermitage and Pinot Noir. Meerendal GM Benny Howard said the event was to mark the 350th anniversary of winemaking in South Africa and also to celebrate Meerendal’s history and association with Pinotage.

I say new ‘old’ Pinotage because the stokkies were cultivated from vine material in Meerendal’s Heritage block, originally planted in 1955. The first wine is expected to be made in 2012 and is intended for a reserve bottling, Howard said.

Marking the historic occasion was interesting for me because of an interview with former UK supermarket wine buyer Alan Cheesman I’d read that day. He recently judged at the Pinotage Association’s annual Top 10 competition. While he dismissed the country’s 350-year wine heritage as “rubbish”, stating that it really is less than two decades old, he had a lot of positive things to say: that SA winemakers and viticulturists are “among the best in the world”; the marketing arm of SA wine, WOSA, is the second-best of its kind in the UK (Chile is first); ethical trading and biodiversity will probably prove to be one of South Africa’s biggest strengths in the future; SA wine has huge mass market appeal in the UK because of old Colonial links, the numbers of South Africans living in the UK – and vice versa – and the strong sporting ties between the two countries and also that SA is succeeding in getting Britons to appreciate mid- and high priced offerings, not just value wines.

The one thing that really resonated for me was Cheesman’s statement that “South African winemakers and marketers are outward looking and have a ‘can-do’ attitude sorely lacking in some European producers.” Nowhere is this more obvious than at Fairview in Paarl – my second wine event that day.
Prior to the opening of the revamped tasting room, Charles Back had shared a lineup of wines – and some typically unique insights – with a few people. Alongside the first wine ever bottled by Fairview, a 1974 Shiraz made by his father Cyril, were anecdotes of an auction at the farm, preceding the Nederburg auction by a year. Braam the butcher was the biggest buyer – and his purchases fitted into the boot of his Roller! Contrasting this was a preview of a completely new range of wines – La Capra. Capra is the Latin term for goat but Back says it could be broken down into ‘Cap’ – from the Cape, and ‘Ra’ – the Egyptian sun god…

The intention is for La Capra to be the vehicle to carry a lot of the produce from the past few years’ extensive planting projects. “It also gives us the opportunity to be more versatile than in the Goats range. That is almost exclusively Rhône-based… we tried to break out a bit with the Bored Doe but it wasn’t a huge success.” It also means that Back’s wines will be heading onto supermarket shelves, something he’s steered clear of until now.

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