SA Wine Legends: Achim von Arnim

It feels a little like I’m walking into the lion’s den as I push open the door to Achim von Arnim’s study and art studio. Achim has a reputation that precedes him. Larger than life, sure. Eccentric, definitely. Visionary? Absolutely. Today is his 73rd birthday, and it’s not the lion I find, but instead I’m enveloped in a warm handshake by paint-splattered hands and a mischievous energy that fizzles up in his blue eyes.

Achim is the erstwhile cellarmaster and founder of famed Franschhoek wine estate, Haute Cabrière. The cellar is carved into the side of a mountain—pushed to the very rocky edge of what’s possible, it’s extreme. But then everything Achim does is. There’s no middleground. That would be too boring.

South African born Achim followed his German roots by studying at Geisenheim. (The von Arnims can trace their Germanic lineage all the way to the 12th century.) There he became great friends with local chardonnay legend Danie de Wet. “Danie studied hard, and I played hard. Luckily I’ve forgotten most of the things I got up to!”

In the 1970s Achim landed the pivotal job as cellarmaster at Boschendal “I took the job on the condition that no one would come and bother me in the cellar.” It’s just as well he was left alone; it was here he developed the first Blanc de Noir in South Africa. He soon saw the potential for making Champagne style sparkling wines in Franschhoek, and so he purchased a piece of land in the early 1980s, then called Clos Cabrière.

Here he developed the region’s first MCC—in an area that is now so awash in bubbly it has an official Cap Classique route. The iconic MCC is called Pierre Jourdan and was named for the farm’s original owner, a French Huguenot. Pierre christened the farm, which dates back to 1694, for his hometown Cabrière.

A first for a first. Achim was the first to plant pinot noir in Franschhoek for the production of Pierre Jourdan Brut: a classic blend of chardonnay and pinot noir. The chardonnay he sourced from his friend, Danie de Wet.

At that time Cabriére was the first South African winery to be devoted entirely to the production of MCCs, but has since, of course expanded its portfolio with a few other firsts, namely the staggeringly successful Haute Cabriére Chardonnay Pinot Noir. A still wine blend, which was also the first of its kind.

They’ve excelled with the still reds too: Haute Cabrière’s pinot noir vineyard was planted with Burgundy clones in 1989 and the maiden vintage in 1994 received a 5-star accolade in the Platter Guide.

In the 2011 the winery debuted another first, the Unwooded Pinot Noir 2011. (It’s believed to be the first unwooded pinot in South Africa).

Achim and Hildegard live in a house opposite Haute Cabrière, which they’ve called home for over 30 years. At the entrance emblazoned in gold lettering over the front door is: ‘Sun, Soil, Man, Vine’, which portends to Achim’s philosophy that wine is grown, not made. Just try and call him a winemaker… He abhors the term. “Great wines are grown!”

Achim and Hildegard

From his studio—where an antique suit of armour presides over the painterly chaos—Achim leads us into his dining room. The walls are covered with his vivid art. Circular, graphic breasts are a recurring theme. His wife of 48 years, Hildegard is with us, both in life and in a large format portrait that takes pride of place. His style is as magnetic as he is; a mix of Picasso meets cubism meets eccentric Franschhoek wine grower. His work has been documented in a book of his art and poems, called Naked. He gives me a copy inscribing it with cursive flourish.

“I like being naked,” he grins in his typical impish way while handing over the same-titled book. Spending time with Achim is like fast-forwarding through the day so rapidly does he change tack; there’s the bright light of humour swapped quickly for an edge of darkness; followed by the impassioned rose dusk of a poet. There’s nothing neutral about him.

“I often wake up in the middle of the night and just have to write something or paint something,” he enthuses. “My life is always full of surprises, even to myself, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The poet rears his head again as he talks about his love of wine. “If a wine doesn’t tell you its story, it’s not worth drinking.” He shares a quote from novelist Marguerite Yourcenarto to illustrate his meaning: Wine initiates us into the volcanic mysteries of the soil, and its hidden mineral riches.

Achim and Hildegard have four children. Takuan, the eldest has taken over as cellarmaster, then there’s Zoe who lives in Belguim and has blessed them with two grandchildren. Tanja, who works in wine marketing, has also given them a grandchild, Harrison—who Achim calls George in a nod to The Beatles. Tamo, a son, is their youngest and works in travel and hospitality.

Achim with his son, Takuan von Arnim

We walk through the rooms of his home, going from painting to painting each one has a story attached. There’s the Zen side to Achim too. There are ‘ensos’ drawn throughout his house: a hand-drawn circle, it’s a Japanese exercise to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. He’s also been practicing karate for 50 years.

It’s a life vociferously lived.

“If you take yourself too seriously, you’re dead,” says Achim in all-seriousness.

“I don’t know what’s happening next and I don’t want to. This is just the beginning.”

- Malu Lambert