SA Wine Legend: François Naudé

Down a quiet residential street in Stellenbosch you’ll find ‘Château Naudé’, the home of celebrated winemaker, François Naudé. Modernity—in the forms of offices and apartment blocks—have sprung up around the heritage home, a bona fide national monument. François has lived here for 30 odd years. Like summers trapped in bottles of vintages-past, stepping through the doorway of his home invites you into a nostalgic maelstrom. Photographs of family and friends cover the walls, antique furniture gleams darkly in the low light. There’s wine everywhere; from the subject of art and books as well as bottles piled on every available surface to the subterranean cellar that he built himself.

He leads me past an indoor fireplace the size of a small car, and into the country-styled kitchen. “This is Isabella,” he says opening the door for his dog, a Maltese and fox terrier cross. “The friendliest dog in the world.”

Like dog, like owner; Francois is a self-confessed people’s person. He chats away as he bustles around in the kitchen making us coffee (it’s just, just too early for wine).

He’s in the midst of preparing for Le Vin de François Auction: an annual event where guests are collected from their homes and taken to a secret destination for an auction where the entire vintage of ‘arguably the best pinotage in the world’ is sold off in one evening.

Le Vin de François is a family project that began after his retirement in 2005 from L'Avenir Wine Estate as winemaker and cellarmaster where he garnered countless accolades. Among them the Chardonnay du Monde and the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London, from which he has brought home the Perold Trophy (for the best Pinotage in the world) three times. L’Avenir Pinotage also became a winner in the ABSA Top 10 Competition for a record seven times.

Le Vin de François falls under the stable of Chateau Naudé Wine Creation, a joint venture with his son François jnr and daughter Melissa. François compiles the flagship pinotage after tasting through the cellars of various leading producers—for the ultimate pinotage.

These days he is also the Keeper of the Key of the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild, an honorary member of The Pinotage Association and is chairing the Stellenbosch Wine Circle (the second oldest Wine Guild in South Africa).

Not bad for a winemaker who began his self-taught career at the age of 45.

“I have a crazy passion for wine,” he says. His is an odyssey that includes 18 years as a pharmacist, a builder of spec houses as well as being the don of a handyman empire before heading to the Cape, where he went from garagiste to award-winning winemaker of one of Stellenbosch’s most esteemed estates.

Born and bred in Pretoria, his mom was a corporate secretary. “She could do anything, she was a very capable woman,” says François fondly. His dad was a senior member of the civil service.

A petrol-head he says initially he wanted to be an engineer, but that the thought of sitting at a desk by himself depressed him. “I’m crazy about people, I’ve always had lots of friends.”

The idea of becoming a pharmacist appealed to his people’s person nature, that and “I like working with my hands.” He threw himself into it, studying every aspect of the business, even the perfume making. “If you cannot run every facet better than the people you hire; you cannot manage them,” he says philosophically.

The wine bug bit later in life. “We were flying home from George, and we were fortuitously seated next to my wife’s doctor. He was crazy about wine! When it came time to order drinks with our meal, he said to me: you can’t eat without wine! So we ordered a Nederberg Select Cabernet circa ’62 or ’63.” The next two hours were spent engrossed in the particulars of tasting wine, a masterclass in the air that saw François’s life passion take flight.

“Then I got crazy into wine,” he says simply. “I joined the oldest guild in South Africa, Les Chevaliers du Tastevin de Pretoria, of which I soon became chairman.”

He was still working diligently away in the pharmacy, with the plan to buy it from the owner when he retired. This was the chemist’s catalyst; when it came to the time the owner didn’t want to sell, and because of a restraint of trade clause, François couldn’t trade as a separate entity. He was at a loss.

Soon followed a short foray into building spec houses—where he learnt everything from laying foundations to putting in windows—which led to him starting a handyman business. This proved profitable enough for him to move his family into an upmarket Pretoria neighbourhood, and to buy a Porsche, nogal.

“One day I was reading Reader’s Digest, and came across this philosophy of the ‘train ride’. How life is not about getting to the stations, working from one point to the next, but about taking the ride, and enjoying it.

“I thought to myself, that’s amazing. I said to my wife: I’m working myself to death to keep up with the Joneses. I want to get closer to my passion.

“I had such a wonderful wife, you know what she said to me: ‘My darling whatever you want to do, I’m 100 per cent behind you.’”

And so began the next chapter. He came down to the Cape and worked various odd jobs, from handyman gigs to private wine-tasting tours.

Opportunity soon came knocking, owner of Lievland, Paul Benade said to him: “Why don’t you make your own wine? We’ll help you, come and get some grapes.”

“We made our first wine in this house. Magda and I sorted the grapes at this very table and we fermented it in the cellar. It was a ’92 Cabernet Sauvignon.”

A chance meeting through a handyman job led him to befriend Marc Wiehe. Who tasted his homemade wine during a dinner party and said: “Why don’t we buy a farm?”

François’s response was: “I’m not interested in making wine—I want to make great, magic wine. The property has to be somewhere in the golden triangle of Paarl Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.”

And so the great quest to find the magic property began. “My wife went looking, she went to every farm in the area, over 55 of them, asking them if they were for sale. One day she found it. It was magic.”

The property was L'Avenir Wine Estate, and under François’s passion and drive it became one of the most respected estates in the Cape Winelands.

“I didn’t study winemaking, if you have a passion for something you can very quickly become more knowledgeable than those that have studied. I was to be able to recharge my brain with a lot of chemistry knowledge that I acquired when studying pharmacy.

“I think a lot of tasting and drinking and reading up in the years prior to my winemaking also made a big difference in my ability to make magic wines with a kind of a consumer cap on! Always remember wine is made to be drunk and to be enjoyed.

“My biggest triumph though was for me to stay happily married my entire life while Magda was still alive, because it takes two to tango in marriage; and I think I somehow passed my exam there?

“She was the best wife any man could have wished for. She was my biggest fan; my greatest love and without her my life and career would have been pretty ordinary and boring.”

We doubt François could ever have been boring; now in his autumn years, he is still sprinkling the world with his special kind of magic. 

- Malu Lambert