SA Wine Legend: Giorgio Dalla Cia

Giorgio Dalla Cia settles into a red leather couch. His trademark white hat hangs off a stand behind him. There’s the buzz of his winery and distillery below us, the sound of a Stellenbosch day coming from an open window, and a breeze occasionally scented with the aroma of coffee floats up from the adjacent Pane E Vino, the family’s food and wine bar.  But all my attention is on the legend in front of me, so magnetic is his presence.

Not only was Giorgio once knighted by the Italian President in 1986 for his achievements in the South African wine industry, but this Italian-born distiller and winemaker is celebrated for making one of the first Bordeaux style blends in South Africa, the iconic Rubicon. A wine, which earned him the accolade of South Africa’s Champion Winemaker in 1980 as well as the IWSC Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande Trophy (for the best blended red wine in the world) for the Meerlust Rubicon 2001. He also took home the 2005 title of Winemaker of the Year, which he was awarded in his home province of Friuli. Most recently Giorgio received the Living Legend Award at the 2016 Veritas Awards.

“I grew up surrounded by wine, brandy and grappa,” says Giorgio. His father ran a distillery and wine merchant business in Friuli, Italy, and from a young age, Giorgio was granted access to the backstage of this alchemic world. Not that it removed any of the magic of it for him, if anything it enhanced it. “When I was a little boy I was enchanted by how they could create this clear liquid from fresh fruits. I thought they must be some kind of wizards. I also wanted to be a magician. Though I didn’t know it at the time—it was already decided for me anyhow!”

Tradition dictated that Giorgio being the eldest had to follow in his dad’s footsteps. “In Italy tradition is more important than anything else—luckily it was what I wanted to do.”

After graduating from Scuola Enologica di Conegliano with a degree in Viticulture and Oenology he joined his dad manning the stills.

But the politics and way of living in Italy was getting to him. He wanted to stretch his wings.

So when the opportunity came to move to South Africa (Transvaal) to start up a company dealing in brandy and wine. He jumped at it.

He moved down to the continent with his wife Simonetta and their two young kids (Vittorio, a son and Marta, a daughter) in tow.  

“It didn’t last long,” says Giorgio referring to the job, “…but I never left.”

His next move was to Bergkelder. His eyes light up when he speaks of Stellenbosch: “Stellenbosch was this little heaven, with mountains, forests and vineyards.” It was around this time that the couple’s third child—and now the head of the family business—George was born.

A couple of years later in 1978 his career took the pivot he’d been waiting for. “I had gone to Meerlust to help with pressing. And Nico Myburgh [owner of the estate], never let me leave—it was the most fantastic thing to happen in my career.”

When the minds of visionaries meet. “Nico Myburgh wanted to break away from the bulk wine business. His dream was to go on his own and make a great wine. He wanted to emulate the French Bordeaux.” This was right up Giorgio’s alley.

“I grew up with these grapes and knew how to handle them. That's where the whole great Rubicon vision started. In the following years we experimented, using all the great French houses as references. The first idea was blending a third of each component, but the final decision was to blend 70 per cent cabernet sauvignon, 20 per cent merlot and 10 per cent cabernet franc. The idea was not to destroy the aroma and characteristics of the cabernet sauvignon but to add some complexity.”

Another thing that set Meerlust apart was the use small French oak barrels, in a time when SA winemakers were shying away from them due to the expense. 

“I was recently invited to a tasting by Distell, they have a fantastic collection of old SA wines. They had a few of the original bottles of the Rubicon from ’78. I’m getting goosebumps just telling you about it! I didn’t expect the wine to be still so alive, with such an intense colour!

“I make wine to last. Tannins and polyphenols work as a backbone for the wine, and if you have a good backbone, you live longer,” he says with a smile.

After 25 years at Meerlust, George convinced his father into retiring from the estate and opening their own distillery and winery, Dalla Cia at Bosman’s Crossing. Here they produce six different wines as well as six varieties of grappa.

When not meeting with his much-loved friends at Pane E Vino, reading books on philosophy and history or collecting rare coins you’ll find Giorgio doing well, almost anything interesting.

“Some people are just like plants, they don’t know they’re living!” He says emphatically. “It’s not important to live long—what’s important is to have a full life. At the end of every day I ask myself, have I done something interesting? If you’re always open to know more, to do more, to live as much as humanly possible and to respect everyone—eventually you’ll become a philosopher yourself and create your own philosophy.

“That’s the only way for you to be free.”

- Malu Lambert