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Cape Crusader

Jack Smith

It is a balmy June afternoon at Delaire, Laurence Graff’s lush, 100-acre vineyard property in Stellenbosch, on South Africa’s Western Cape. The grand opening is just a few days away, but the billionaire jeweler’s latest creation remains a work in progress. The driveway is muddy with landscaping projects, and, inside, chairs and tables are sheathed in cardboard, and pieces from Graff’s collection of contemporary paintings lean against the walls, waiting to be hung. Even in this unfinished state, though, the estate is a sight to behold.

Indeed, as Graff explained to me by phone from London, when he acquired the property in 2003, he did so with aesthetics, not winemaking, in mind. "I had never before aspired to become a winemaker," he said. "I bought Delaire for the sheer beauty of the place. It was like some marvelous uncut diamond; once I saw its potential I was determined to exploit it."

Graff has accomplished this by building a high-tech winery within the same sleek hillside structure that contains a restaurant and a tasting room. The property also includes a heliport, located behind and above the winery, amid vineyards planted with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. For outdoor dining there is a deck out front, with views of the surrounding Stellenbosch Valley. Soon to come are a hotel and a hillside villa, from which guests will be able to enjoy a view of Cape Town’s Table Mountain in the distance.

Delaire is anglicized French for "from the sky," and the name is warranted. Situated on the crest of the Helshoogte Pass, the property seems to hover above the surrounding farms. Puffs of clouds cruise by at eye level, while shafts of sunlight fall onto the fields below, causing them to flare up in brilliant Technicolor. "Friends who have seen this place are wild about it," Graff enthused.

It is easy to imagine Delaire with Graff’s coterie—Elizabeth Taylor, the Sultan of Brunei, Donald Trump—milling about and gazing openmouthed at the panorama spread out across the valley floor. With luck, guests may even spy the resident family of Cape Mountain leopards moving through the vineyards. "We’re going to install TV cameras to monitor their whereabouts," said Graff. "We know they’re there; we’ve seen their paw prints. They’re all different, like fingerprints. Or diamonds."

Delaire’s general manager, Johann Laubser, accompanies me as I move around the property’s deck, taking in the views. "From a scenic point of view," he says, as if he is reading my mind, "this is the finest vineyard in the world."

Although this may be so, that distinction could belong to any of a number of vineyards on the Western Cape. At Anne Cointreau’s Morgenhof estate in the Stellenbosch district, for example, a steep, rugged trail climbs the Simonsberg mountain range to a rocky summit surrounded by haunting peaks. In Constantia, Lowell Jooste’s Klein Constantia, with its manicured lawns and stately architecture, looks like an elegant country manor. At Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch, the stone gatehouse, terra-cotta roofs, and courtyard with a fountain create a festive, let’s-all-stomp-grapes-and-drink-wine atmosphere. Johann Rupert’s L’Ormarins estate features waterfalls spilling down from high cliffs where lynx and leopard make their dens.

And at the Franschhoek Pass Winery, Nick Davies makes an enjoyable rosé sparkler from those grapes that the local baboons have not eaten. Davies’ Italian-style villa overlooks the vineyards, and, as I discovered during my visit, he uses the terrace as an ad hoc driving range to discourage the pilfering primates. "Would you care to take a swing?" he asks as he hands a golf bag to me.

From the terrace, the baboons are a 5-iron away.

 

We expect vineyards to be picturesque. But what distinguishes the Western Cape from other highly touted winemaking regions—the Napa Valley and Bordeaux come to mind—is that the region’s villages and roadsides are no less atmospheric than the vineyards. The prevailing look—cozy one- and two-story farmhouses and shops with whitewashed walls, thatch roofs, sculpted gables, and window boxes bursting with tulips and purple jasmine—harks back to the architectural style brought over from Holland by Dutch colonists in the 17th century.

The colonists produced the territory’s first wine in 1659, not so much to enhance their lifestyle as to ward off scurvy on the high seas, which was probably the best reason for consuming those roughhewn early vintages. Presumably the production and quality of the wine improved in the 1680s with the arrival of the Huguenots, French Protestants fleeing persecution in Catholic France. Recognizing that the French brought a tradition of viticulture and winemaking skills, the Dutch awarded them land in what would become known as Franschhoek ("French Corner"), which contained some of the colony’s most agreeable terroir.

During parts of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Western Cape was producing perhaps the world’s most prestigious wine: the Constantia estate’s Vin de Constance. It was made from very ripe but not botrytised Muscat grapes that grew in the shadow of the Constantiaberg Mountain. There, the setting sun cast long afternoon shadows that, together with cool sea breezes, mitigated the blistering summer heat. The wine’s aficionados included such notables as Frederick the Great, the Duke of Wellington, and Napoléon Bonaparte, who drank a bottle every day while exiled on Saint Helena. In their writings, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Baudelaire lauded Vin de Constance.

Other South African wines became popular with the English, who made up the world’s largest population of wine drinkers at the time. They enjoyed the wines’ quality and flavors, as well as their prices: Great Britain, which then ruled the Cape, had cut South African customs duties to one-third that of other wine-exporting nations, and, by 1822, one in every 10 bottles of wine consumed in England came from the region.

However, trade with Great Britain proved to be a double-edged sword when, in 1861, England signed a treaty that cut import duties from France nearly in half. Almost overnight British wine merchants were flooded with cheap French wine, while the demand for South African wine disappeared. Not long thereafter the dreaded phylloxera infestation arrived and devastated South Africa’s vineyards, forcing countless winemakers out of business. Constantia was among the estates that went into bankruptcy, and, by the mid-20th century, it was more or less forgotten.

 

Rain splatters against Niels Verburg’s station wagon, and rooster tails of mud rise in the car’s wake as he drives along Stellenrust Road. The country byway leads from the Waterford property to Johan Malan’s Simonsig estate, the meeting place of the Cape Winemakers Guild—an association of South Africa’s top winemakers. "The road gets messy on days like this," says Verburg, proprietor of Luddite Wines and a member of the guild. "The potholes can be bad, too. And then on dry days it’s dusty. Either way I have to keep washing my car."

The road could have been paved long ago, and traffic on it would move faster. But, according to Verburg, a blacktop road would not enhance the landscape the way a dirt road does. "There’s a less rural feel," he says. So for the time being Verburg and his fellow landowners accept the occasional pothole and the mud and dirt. "It looks more traditional," he says, "And Afrikaners feel strongly about tradition."

While that may be true, South Africa did change drastically—politically, economically, and culturally—when, in April 1994, the country voted to abolish apartheid. "We had been isolated for decades," says Verburg. "The international wine market had forgotten what kinds of wine South Africa could produce."

The chance to remind the market came that same year, at the London Wine Trade Fair, which Verburg and several of his fellow guild members attended for the first time. However, the South African offerings did not receive the type of reception the winemakers were hoping for. "We were shocked to see how far we had fallen behind the rest of the world," says Verburg.

For most of the 20th century, a state monopoly, the Kooperatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereeniging van Zuid-Afrika (Winegrowers Cooperative Union of South Africa), dominated the country’s wine industry. The cooperative set stringent quotas and tightly controlled production and distribution regulations. Thus, while the international market was embracing wines such as Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc from California, Australia, and South America, South African vintners were focused on Chenin Blanc and other varietals that suited the cooperative.

To be sure, South African vintners had cornered the market of one wine, Pinotage, but the varietal seemed to be an acquired taste. Indeed, British wine critic Hugh Johnson described it as "… a uniquely tragic South African viticultural experiment."

 

Few would have guessed that 15 years after the forgettable showing at the London fair South Africa’s vintners would be producing wines as impressive as their vineyards’ scenery. But these days, South Africans are not the only ones making wine in the country, says Mike Ratcliffe, the managing director of Warwick Estate, a Western Cape winery. "It doesn’t matter if you’re from France, Italy, the United States, Australia, or New Zealand," he says. "If you’re a winemaker, the Western Cape is the place to be."

The worldwide migration to the Western Cape has been recorded in the John Platter South African Wine Guide, the country’s wine-industry bible. The 1993 edition listed 199 wineries in the region; by 2009 this number had more than tripled, to 619. "Instead of a few large farms and wineries you now have hundreds of small boutique wineries," says Ratcliffe.

Not all of them are small, however. Consider, for example, Vergelegen Wine Estate, which is owned by Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining and natural resources consortiums. Rupert & Rothschild, in the Franschhoek Valley, represents a joint venture between the Ruperts of South Africa and Baron Benjamin de Rothschild of France. Two other members of Bordeaux’s prominenti—Bruno Prats, former owner of second-growth Château Cos d’Estournel, and Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, co-owner of Château Angélus—have partnered with Klein Constantia’s Lowell Jooste in Anwilka, a winery in Stellenbosch whose vintages critic Robert Parker has described as fabulous.

Michel Rolland is also here, having planted Shiraz on the Simonsberg in partnership with former big-game hunter Murray Boustred. Phillip Freese and his wife, Zelma Long, have teamed with Ratcliffe on a venture called Vilafonté, which produces only two wines––both of which Bartholomew Broadbent, son of the British wine auctioneer, imports to North America.

Throughout the Western Cape, new low-yield vineyards have replaced the old plots, and resorts have sprung up around them to accommodate hordes of well-heeled oenophiles. Any list of the world’s top-100 restaurants routinely includes five from the Western Cape: The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français, in Franschhoek; La Colombe in Constantia; Rust en Vrede in Stellenbosch; and Jardine and Aubergine in Cape Town. "It used to be very easy to get into a top restaurant in Franschhoek or Stellenbosch," says Freese. "You could just walk in and get a table. But this is no longer so; now they’re filled with wealthy customers from all around the world. I can be traveling in the Golan Heights and people will ask, ‘Have you been to Rust en Vrede? Or Le Quartier Français?’ The Western Cape has definitely become the spot."

Yet no matter how fashionable it has become, the Western Cape remains distinctly African, a point that André van Rensburg, Vergelegen’s winemaker, made in the 2009 edition of the John Platter South African Wine Guide. Though van Rensburg had received accolades aplenty, his greatest thrill came "the night a leopard nailed a duiker [antelope] in the garden."

 

The landscapes and wines of the Western Cape are certainly different from Bordeaux’s, and so is the prevailing disposition. "Bordeaux is not very hospitable," says Morgenhof’s owner, Anne Cointreau, as she leads the way through her estate’s French rose gardens. "People are welcoming in Champagne, or Cognac, where I am from, but if you go to Bordeaux, it is very closed and exclusive."

This, says Cointreau, doyenne of the French liqueur dynasty of the same name, would be the wrong attitude to convey in South Africa. "You cannot come here with French ideas," she says, referring to hospitality and to winemaking. "The smallest things can be different. For instance, a French winemaker will break away the leaves on the vines to give more sun. But you can’t do that in South Africa because the sun is too hot. You need to leave the leaves on for shade or the plants will burn."

These are not things you learn overnight, but Cointreau’s family has been making wine since 1270. "I know what a vineyard means. The soils and climate here are a winemaker’s dream."

No matter how promising the winegrowing conditions are in the Western Cape, most of Cointreau’s friends tried to discourage her from buying Morgenhof, which she acquired in 1993. "It was two years before the national election [the one that would abolish apartheid]. There were a lot of farms up for sale then. People said, ‘Wait, wait. It is too unsettled. There will be violence.’ I told them, ‘We never know what tomorrow may be, but every day is lucky for me.’ "

Brimming with confidence, Cointreau opened Morgenhof to the public, inviting guests for lunches, weddings, special events, and overnight stays. "In 1994 we served 4,000 meals," she says. "In 2000 we did 43,000."

This kind of tourism is critical to establishing the Morgenhof brand. "Cellar-door sales are the key to our business," she explains. "People want the personal contact. They want to tour the cellars and feel the barrels. They want to have a picnic and drink the wine they saw being made. It is a romantic, elegant experience. Years later they may forget other things, but they will remember the days of picnics and the wine."

It all sounds serene, even utopian—unless, some might argue, the wine Cointreau is serving is Pinotage. "To mention Pinotage is to step on a minefield," according to Jacques Roux, marketing director of Boschendal, the historic estate that lies between the Groot Drakenstein and Simonsberg mountains. "Everybody’s got an opinion. They either love it or they hate it."

Actually, the issue transcends matters of personal taste. Marc Carter Kent, whose Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon is served at England’s award-winning Fat Duck restaurant, finds the wine somewhat offensive. "I think we can do better," says Kent. "Some people think making Pinotage is waving the flag, because it is uniquely South African. I can’t stand the stuff. It is holding the country back."

Roux disagrees. "It defines the South African style in wine," he says. "It’s a matter of national identity. It’s something you can’t experience anywhere else."

The wine’s origins date to 1925, when, for no particular reason, Abraham Perold, a professor of viticulture at Stellenbosch University, crossed a Pinot Noir with a Hermitage vine. According to legend, he then planted the seeds in his backyard, where they grew wild. Two years later, Perold’s successors, C.J. Theron and Charlie Niehaus, rescued the plants, which were later used to produce South Africa’s premier native wine. Its first recognition came in 1959, when the judges at that year’s Cape Wine Show selected a Pinotage as the event’s top wine.

This success and the ease with which it is vinified have made Pinotage popular among South African winemakers. But it has been an object of derision for British critics, including Michael Broadbent, who has described the wine as tasting like rusty nails. Despite the criticism, Pinotage has become a frequent trophy winner in blends and has engendered a worldwide fan club (www.pinotage.org).

 

For western cape winemakers, one of the most popular places to gather is the restaurant 96 Winery Road, where the starters include crispy pork-belly strips with tomato chutney. The main courses include loin of gemsbok wrapped in bacon with mango atchar on polenta or roasted duck in a rich port-and-black-cherry sauce topped with homemade puff pastry.

Our table includes Warwick Estate’s Mike Ratcliffe and the restaurant’s owners, Ken and Theresa Forrester, who also produce the highly regarded Forrester line of wines. Murray Boustred and Michel Rolland from Remhoogte say hello on the way to their table. The atmosphere is lively and ebullient, as it should be. "We all know how lucky we are to be living here," says Ken. "We have the climate, and we have the lifestyle. Where else can you arrive by jet and be in the vineyards in 10 minutes? Every day we get up and tell ourselves how lucky we are."

Ratcliffe agrees with Forrester. "People come from thousands of miles away just to share in this lifestyle," he says. "I have the most upscale labor force. My workers are doctors, lawyers, bankers. They fly in at harvest time to help pick grapes and then stay overnight at the One&Only [Cape Town] or some other five-star hotel."

The way Ratcliffe sees it, South African wines are just beginning to realize their potential. "The French have been making wine for 1,000 years, and we’ve been at it now for 15. Our climate is better than Bordeaux’s, and I think our soils are better, too. Give us 20 years, and I think we can make something that’s not just as good as Bordeaux, but better."

So saying he orders a bottle of Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage for the table. It has an inky red color with dollops of ripe mulberry and cherries on the nose, and it is excellent.

 

A few days later I am at the Singita Sabi Sand game reserve, and, for the moment, wine is the furthest thing from my mind as our Land Cruiser creeps through the high grass of a riverbank. Our guide, Shadrake, sits in the scout seat over the left front fender, wordlessly watching as the safari vehicle flattens the dense underbrush. Up ahead, a young leopard is oblivious to our presence as it closes in on its prey, a fat monitor lizard. It is not an especially large cat, perhaps 100 pounds, but if spooked it could disappear in a flash or, worse, turn disagreeable.

Then we see the leopard clearly; it is closer than we had thought. In fact, we are about to bump into it. Wordlessly and frantically, Shadrake motions for Nikki, our driver, to back away. The leopard slowly turns to favor us with a look of total disdain before vanishing into the bush.

Moments like this, says Francois Rautenbach, who heads the wine division for Singita, are what conservationist Luke Bailes had in mind when he helped create the Singita Game Reserves. "Because most of the fences separating the private reserves have been taken down, animals can now follow their ancient migratory routes as far as Zimbabwe and Mozambique."

That was fine for the animals, but Bailes wanted to make life more enjoyable for his safari guests as well. "Previously a hot meal and a shower were thought to be enough, but he wanted to do something on a higher level," says Rautenbach. Thus Bailes began offering gourmet cuisine, plunge pools, air-conditioning, opulent furnishings in the common areas and suites, private spas, and some of the country’s top wines. "We enjoy introducing guests to premium South African wines," says Rautenbach. "We frequently hear people say, ‘We had no idea South African wines were so good.’ "

On my final day in the country, I take advantage of an opportunity to taste what was once considered the country’s best wine. Our footsteps echo off the terra-cotta tiles as Lowell Jooste, owner of Klein Constantia, leads the way through the cellars to a simple wooden table and chairs. "Welcome to the most exclusive restaurant in Africa," he says.

It is not the cuisine—sandwiches of cold cuts and cheeses—that makes this place so special; it is the surroundings. The table stands in the middle of Klein Constantia’s library, where steel cages guard bottles bearing one of the great names in the history of viticulture: Vin de Constance. "Some of these wines go back to the 1700s," says Jooste, "and they’re still drinkable."

It was not until 1980, though, when Jooste’s father bought the Klein Constantia estate, that the legendary wine was reborn. "We had no idea of the estate’s pedigree," says Jooste. "We didn’t hear any of the stories about Vin de Constance until a professor from U.C. Davis came out and mentioned it."

With that, he uncorks a bottle of Vin de Constance and pours two glasses of the fabled elixir. Then, a few moments later, he pours me another.

For information on tours through South African wine country, contact Giltedge Travel, +27.21.713.0296, www.giltedgeafrica.com.

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Photo by Dana Allen
Photo by Cheryl Zibisky