THE STELLENBOSCH WINE ROUTE – THE PEOPLE AND THE DOGS!
Heralded as the world’s first official “wine route” way back in 1975, this picturesque coastal wine region sprawled around the second oldest city in South Africa, has continued to dominate wine competitions and awards both International and local, with a steady stream of almost legendary, award winning wines.
Recent history tells us that three close friends, luminaries, and as it turns out, all visionaries got together and started the Stellenbosch Wine Route:
Spatz Sperling of Delheim, Oom Neil Joubert of Spier and Frans Malan of Simonsig and so initially there were just 3 estate wineries, that all grew the grapes, made and bottled their wines on the estate, with special tasting facilities to receive guests and present tastings and stories and not a few late night parties and the Wine Route grew from this humble start.
I recall many fond memories of going to visit Oom Neil at Spier. One seemingly couldn’t arrive and not stay for the next meal of the day, so an early call and morning coffee, extended to a walk through the cellars and tasting the new bottling. This was invariably followed by lunch and, yes, wine tasting and more wine tastings and if you weren’t careful it became dinner and wine tastings! But it didn’t end here, this could go on and then later in the evening from the little cellar under the staircase in the house out to the dusty cellar in the old barn, and here Oom Neil would wisely counsel that one’s body “actually provided the services of filtration, therefore if it spent all night working on filtering young, tannic wines, one would undoubtedly wake up tired!” Hence after midnight we never drank a drop that wasn’t at least 10 years old! He had some fine dogs, huge beasts that lay about, seemingly unaware, but frequently one would notice just one half interested eye observing the late night goings on and their tails were lethal! They could knock a glass off a table effortlessly, a most dangerous sort of canine indeed.
These stories of wine tasting experiences in Stellenbosch abound and are oft recounted amongst friends of old. One of our living legends, a Springbok rugby player, before the game became professional, one Jan Boland Coetzee, is often in the middle of these old stories. Only a few people can attest to ever having seen him in shoes, unless they were rugby boots. He speaks with the broadest Northern Cape accent, in fact to an untrained ear he sounds almost Welsh, (even early on any given day, that is to say before any “tasting”) a true Western Province rugby hero and Springbok rugby legend. Not to forget another such legend, Hempies Du Toit, with his own estate Annandale, dating back to 1688. Enough of the bulky forwards let’s move to the back line, that remarkable wing Jannie Engelbrecht who scored 2 tries with a broken collarbone to beat an opposition team and win the series for The Western Province. Ah yes those were the days, no substitutions, you played a full game, for the full duration and it was glorious, often muddy, always hard, running rugby. However I digress – there are plenty more legends, lots of their dogs to meet and loads of new wineries. Today the Stellenbosch Wine Route boasts over 190 members and, amongst our members, we are proud to have stalwarts and pioneers, from the early days, the likes of the Myburghs of Meerlust, Billy and Ursula Hofmeyr at Welgemeend with the Cape’s first Bordeaux blend, Gyles and Barbara Webb, of Thelema, she now almost 30 years later, still a top marathon runner having just completed the polar marathon! From Politics of the day, Paul Sauer and the Krige’s of Kanonkop, with their fine bevy of dogs. Hidden up in Ida’s Valley, underneath the Hell’s Hoogte pass another legendary Cape Estate and historic cattle stud Rustenberg, just now again transitioning from one generation to another, with young Murray Barlow having just been crowned “Young Winemaker of the Year!” The early export pioneer Rust en Vrede, The First Lady of Cape winemaking Norma Ratcliffe and Warwick, Stan, her husband and a man of uncommon common sense always kept some fine canines, and the property is now headed by son and CEO Michael, a major mover and shaker, auctioneer and public speaker. There were others that played a role before the next wave, The likes of Vergelegen, and then also Boschendal the jewels in the crown of mining giant Anglo American and adjacent, almost in silence, the demure, super consistent, stylish Morgenster, owned by one of the finest gentlemen in the business, Julio Bertrand. He too keeps a fine hound. And so the industry grew and grew and local Bosch boy, who did really well in Johannesburg in the banking sector, GT Ferreira with his ever so statement like Tokara, perched at the top of the Hells Hoogte, like a beacon and another Johannesburg mogul, Jeremy Ord a technology giant established Waterford with the aid of Kevin Arnold, who is also known for some fine hounds, large Rhodesian Ridgebacks and the like. Dare I say we launched Ken Forrester wines in this era, the early 90s, a new political dispensation, with Mr Mandela as President and South Africa had seemingly managed a miracle transition, investments were flowing and confidence returned under the guidance of President Mandela. We saw the multi- million rand development and establishment of Kleine Zalze, complete with immaculate De Zalze housing estate and magnificent 18 hole golf course, with the multiple award winning Kleine Zalze wines, closely followed by Camberley and then Clouds, both at the top of Helshoogte and then Ernie Els cellar standing as a sentinel on the Helderberg. At about the same time Murray Boustred, also ex Johannesburg, started Remhoogte on the slopes of the Simonsberg and filled the tasting room with some of the finest work of local taxidermists, trophies of every wild beast that ever roamed the African plains, lovingly stalked and hunted by Murray, a great African Bwana.
Of late, a new flurry, Delaire-Graff, destined to be one of the great wineries of the world, a newcomer that raised the bar seemingly forever now already almost 5 years old. This multi award winning winery, exquisite boutique hotel, fine restaurants and lush gardens to rival perhaps even Babylon is a must see, the views, the architecture, in a class of its own! Now with foreign interests renewed, French wine nobility, the Madame May de Lanquesang from Chateau Pichon Lalande, came and established a magnificent property, an amphitheatre of vineyards and a massive, modern gravity assisted cellar. Glenelly wines are certainly worth seeking out. She was followed by local nobility, South Africa’s richest woman, Wendy Appelbaum, and her husband Hylton at De Morgenzon; horse breeder property magnate, insurance heiress and tireless crusader for the underdog (that reminds me I digress, there are still many dogs to introduce you to, she in fact keeps a pair of fearless Jack Russells, and a secret cat, but that’s another story. . .).
Since then, more recently there’s been a slow but steady flow of new investment to Stellenbosch and the winelands, notably Michael Jordaan, outgoing CEO of First National Bank and businessman of the year 2013, and his vivacious wife Rose, a very clever architect in her own right, settled back in the home he was brought up in, high on Bothmaskop overlooking the Simonsberg after he clinched a deal to buy it back! Meanwhile in the valley below International businessman Adriaan Van Der Spuy revived a beautiful old vineyard, Oldenburg, a very fine location and some great wines already. Closer to the town of Stellenbosch in Devon Valley, a Belgian Industrialist Fons Aaldering has revived an old vineyard to establish his eponymous label, Aaldering. Another property development guru, Tom Breytenbach, and his wife have recently joined the industry and stepped in to rescue and revive another old vineyard, now called Brenaissance, complete with cattle stud and winery as well as what has fast become the home of pizza local! And so the beat goes on, Swartland is having its own revival with an eager young bunch of “terrorists”, making wonderful wines and cleverly capturing the imagination of the press. Both local and foreign journalists flock to the annual “revolution” and a host of small volume, quirky wines that are often snapped up within weeks of coming to market.
Remarkably Stellenbosch still however garners the lion’s share of all the awards medals and competitions, with just on 12,000 ha of vineyard, representing approx 10% of the national vineyard. Stellenbosch manages almost 70% of all the awards and certainly some of the very best names in the business. The area is remarkably complex, too wide really to be one single definition and to this end it has evolved from one to five separate routes, governed (rather practically) by their road access, to allow visitors to understand each sub route and make navigating easy. The five routes are Bottelary on the North West, Simonsberg in the North, Stellenbosch “berg” to the East, the Helderberg to the South and Stellenbosch Hills to the East.
Truly a remarkably broad area that really needs closer definition, if one considers that it runs from Villiera in the North West to Hellshoogte in the East, to the Hottentots Holland mountains and Journeys End in the South, all the way to Faure and Meerlust in the west; a vast, complex and varied topography, with a myriad soil types and multiple opportunities for varied and specialised viticulture. This complexity has the possibility to yield awesome deep rich Cabernet, wonderful, spicy Syrah, full rich buttery Chardonnay, some exceptional coastal Chenin and uniquely expressive Bordeaux styled blends that have placed Meerlust and Kanonkop firmly on “first growth” footing. Although one UK pundit would have it, that one only needs to have made one vintage and that from grapes purchased from someone else’s vineyard, in order to be elevated to First Growth status, but again I digress. Now where was I, ah yes I must introduce you to the vineyard dogs!
One of the most famous was a resident mutt, on the original Mulderbosch Farm before it moved, yes surely that’s easy enough to understand – why shouldn’t a farm be able to move? Just look at an old map and compare a recent one! however that’s entirely another story for another day, as I was saying. . . the farm needed considerable clearing, planting and development when Larry Jacobs and Mike Dobrovic set about crafting their first Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc and this faithful mutt would follow Mike through the vineyards all day and eventually take a nap under an elevated shady tree and then follow Mike home, but never actually came that close. He maintained a distance, but then as far as Mike is concerned one can understand that! succumbed to snakebite, named from an early Tom Waits song. The dog was called “small change” and today a very special Chenin Blanc is presented in a tin with a coin slot to collect your small change!
Today he has been immortalised on the Faithful Hound label a delightful Bordeaux style blend, crafted by Mike in honour of the mutt, but Mike had a soft spot and he made one more contribution to the canine wall of memory, he immortalised a fearless Jack Russell who succumbed to snakebite, named from an early Tom Waits song. The dog was called “small change” and today a very special Chenin Blanc is presented in a tin with a coin slot to collect your small change!
Beyers Truter, who famously fifteen years after we had first met, once asked my brother how long he had known me?! Now Beyers is the, did I say THE Pinotage man, from a solid grounding and years at Kanonkop he realised his dreams at Beyerskloof and his Flagship wine is named for a faithful hound called “Diesel”, certainly a brave name for a Pinotage!
The hounds of Stellenbosch abound and we too are not immune at the Forrester household. We seemingly have a season ticket to the local SPCA/Animal Welfare shelter and currently have 7 mutts, 4 German Shepherd types (approx.) and 3 long-legged Jack Russell’s; life is seldom dull, I can assure you.
So when next in the “Cape of Good Hope,” as King John of Portugal would have had it in the 14th century, do come and meet some of the old dogs, the rugby legends, the new dogs, the big city moguls, the imports and some great local strays. There be great wine, great stories and great people too, here in Stellenbosch at the very heart of the South African wine industry.
Ken is the leading light and owner of Forrester Vineyards, Stellenbosch, which he has built up over the last 21 years. He, with his wine maker, produce some outstanding wines such as FMC, an iconic Chenin, full and rich. The Gypsy, a wine made with predominantly Grenache, with some Shiraz, matured in oak for 24 months. These are very special wines but there are others for everyday drinking, try Workhorse in M&S. He is also one of the founding shareholders of a first rate restaurant close to his Vineyard called 96 Winery Road.