Time in harness

Thelema could never be accused of being flashy or ‘in-your-face’... Their way of doing things is always low-key and very personal – which is something that came up for discussion during a small media gathering at the Helshoogte property recently.

The revamped Rabelais label. It’s understated and subtle yet reeks elegance and refinement.

With less than 10 folks invited to sit around the table and taste older vintages of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cab-led flagship blend Rabelais, the talk turned to the days when getting a bottle or six of Thelema Sauvignon Blanc was quite a coup.

“We would have people driving out to the farm to buy it at the cellar door,” Thomas Webb recalls. “And if you didn’t get in your order in the first two weeks of July, you lost out,” another old timer remembered.

But that was in the days when there wasn’t a lot of Sauvignon Blanc around – which seems like an insane concept nowadays with the winelands awash with the popular variety! But something Webb casually mentioned was that winemaker Rudi Schultz has been at the reins since December 2000.

“You almost qualify for a gold watch!” someone quipped. “Do people even get gold watches any more – and what is the threshold for qualification?” another asked. Valid point. Gold watches used to be handed out upon retirement after long and faithful service. . It appears that 20 to 25 years is the qualifying standard for long service but that gold watches are seen as something of an anachronism.

The modern reality of life nowadays is that people simply don’t stick it out very long anymore. A younger generation tend to job hop in search of either career advancement or fresh challenges. But there are winemakers who have hitched their wagons to one employer and remained steadfast.

One person who definitely qualifies for a gold watch is Pieter Ferreira of Graham Beck. No-one could ever accuse the irrepressible “Bubbles” of not loving his job! He first joined Graham Beck in 1990 and saw it expand to Franschhoek, buy a property in Firgrove and then courageously jettison its large still wine divisions to focus solely on sparkling wine. That Graham Beck is one of South Africa’s pre-eminent Cap Classique producers is not in question.

Hartenberg Estate’s Carl Schultz took over winemaking at the Bottelary property in 1993 and has in his imitable calm, unflappable way guided them through more than 25 vintages – as well as a multi-million rand cellar revamp. He often says that the best fertiliser for any vineyard is the winemaker’s footsteps – and often does so accompanied by his dogs. Diners Club Winemaker of the Year bragging rights for Merlot is just one of the honours he’s received.

Like Thelema, Vergelegen is one of South Africa’s wineries which is no longer front of mind, having been superceded by any number of newer, flashier, hotter, trendier producers. Which is not to say that their wines have fallen by the wayside: far from it. Many believe that Andre van Rensburg, the erstwhile ‘enfant terrible’ of the local wine fraternity who exhorted his compatriots to “go and plant vegetables” if they couldn’t handle the competition after the infamous 1995 SAA Wine Shield defeat to Australia and New Zealand, is making some of the best wines of his life.

Never let it be said that Vergelegen’s Andre van Rensburg is not keeping up with what’s happening on the wine scene... Vergelegen’s Gauntlet tells its own tale.

Time has somewhat tempered Van Rensburg’s  outbursts but he has always maintained that there is no viticultural property quite like Vergelen. “I will die here!” he has said on more than one occasion. There is no artifice to the burly Van Rensburg and his bone deep love of the Somerset West soils and vines is plain for all to see.

The Malan family roots are planted deep in Simonsig’s soils – but so are Debbie Thompson’s. It seems like just yesterday that the shy blonde girl from Springbok joined the Stellenbosch operation but it’s been 20 years! In that time she has run multiple marathons, married and produced two children and been adjudged Woman Winemaker of the Year, a prospect which she admits terrified her. But the public speaking required pushed her out of her comfort zone and she now concedes that she grew in confidence as a result.

The wet, drizzly and downy mildew plagued year of 2002 saw both Sjaak Nelson and Abrie Beeslaar join wineries where they still ply their trade: Jordan and Kanonkop respectively. Both have had the benefit of taking over from talented vintners after working in tandem with them. Gary and Kathy Jordan are confident in Nelson’s abilities, having seen him grow and thrive every time they gave him additional responsibilities. Beeslaar has been able to call upon the wisdom of the Krige brother, Paul and Johan, as well as predecessor Beyers Truter during his 19-year tenure at the renowned property.

Neil Ellis is undoubtedly an eminence grise of South African wine and he has always maintained that it takes at least five to seven years to get to know what a property’s vineyards are capable of. You need to see how the vineyard copes in a dry year, a wet year, a season with disease pressure or heavy winds. Once you’ve attained that sort of institutional memory, it’s possible to interpret the soil and the grapes and craft the best possible wine.

All of the wineries mentioned are undoubtedly making the most of the accumulated wisdom that their cellar jockeys have gathered.

Gold watches anyone?

- Fiona McDonald