South Africa’s Wine Legends: Hempies du Toit

“I could drive a tractor by age six,” says Gerhard “Hempies” du Toit. He’s sitting with his back to the fireplace in the tasting room, his boerboel, Doc, lies at his feet. “It was never a choice. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to go into farming; our family’s roots run deep in agriculture.”

Fifth generation winemaker, Hempies owns Annandale Estate in Stellenbosch. He makes robust, traditional red wines with plenty of heart. He’s just turned 64. Clad in a red jersey the outline of his shoulders hints at his rugby playing past. (He earned five caps as a front row strongman on South Africa’s Springbok national rugby team). His lightly tanned face shows the evidence of a life spent outside, and a thick salt-and-pepper moustache along with matching thick eyebrows—one of which he often raises ironically while speaking—completes the picture.

“From a very young age I dreamt of making my own wine on my own property,” he muses. Like some kind of fine and delicate drapery, ageing cobwebs commandeer the room. The silken strands are said to date back to 1954. The previous owner didn’t believe in killing spiders, as she wanted to live in harmony with nature. And, when Hempies bought the farm in 1996, he promised her he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I started helping my dad out in the cellar from a young age. One of my first jobs was to fill a wheelbarrow with the leftover stalks.” Hempies grew up on Alto Wine Estate (also in Stellenbosch), as his father Piet was winemaker there from 1959 up until 1983. He says he even sometimes sat up watching the tanks while his dad slept, making sure nothing went wrong—these were the days before cooling technology, and just mountain water was used to bring down temperatures. 

“My father never gave me a ploughed piece of land to farm—I always had to start from scratch. I made pocket money by growing vegetables and selling them. I would sometimes run the farm while my parents would go on holiday. There was nothing else I wanted to do more.”

His dedication and perseverance as a young man paid off when he took over from his dad as chief winemaker at Alto in 1983. It was a tenure of many successes, including the honour of being awarded a grand slam at the 1993 Vinexpo in Bordeaux. The 1984 vintage of the Cabernet Sauvignon was the only South African wine to win a "Grand Prix d'Honneur". In 1995 this was followed by a gold medal for the 1987 vintage.  Hempies and his father are also credited with driving forward a style of red wine that’s known as a ‘Cape blend’, aka Alto Rouge.

Though celebrated in his role at Alto, he longed for his own piece of earth. Before Annandale transferred into Hempies’ well-worked hands, the farm was doubling as a riding school as well as a shelter for abandoned horses, which had been under the stewardship of Miss Van Reenen for 48 years. 

“The riding school used to come past Alto when I was a kid, and I used to join them for outrides.” Over the years Hempies got to know Miss Van Reenen, and the two formed a bond.  When it was time for Hempies to go on his own, a deal was struck, “she wouldn’t have sold it to just anyone,” he says. Hempies was then the proud owner of his own farm, the realisation of his life’s dream.

“It was difficult,” he admits. “I had children in varsity [he has three sons and a daughter]. I was in deep, deep debt.

“My rugby mentor taught me to never think I was more important than the game, but to be humble and to be thankful for the part I get to play.” 

With this attitude he put his head down, and planted 45 hectares in five years: vineyards of Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are barrelled for anything between six and eight years, and sometimes even longer—as is the case with ‘The Key Merlot 2004’ which spent a whopping 12 years in barrel.

 “I make wines with as little interference as possible in the fermentation and maturation process, no yeasts and very little sulphur. And I never rebel against nature. I accommodate it the best I can, no matter the wind rain or drought. It’s not a glamorous farm, but the essence of what we do here is quality.” 

His legacy is set to continue into the future with his traditional red wines; and adding to the portfolio is a wine based on old Cape winemaking principles. He holds it up to show me and scrawled across it in his handwriting are the words ‘Nostalgia, Old Cape Red.’ 

“Plus,” he says hopefully, “I have five grandsons: maybe at least one of them will be a winemaker and one a rugby player.”

Looking back at this life he says: “I couldn’t have done it without the mentorship of my father, and what he taught me about farming and business.” His father passed away at the age of 94. 

I picture young Hempies monitoring tanks and planting vegetables for pocket money; all the while dreaming about owning his own wine farm one day, and I ask him what he would say to his younger self if he could. With a smile he says: “I’d say well done my boy.” 

-Malu Lambert