Elgin living legend: Dr. Paul Clüver – the spirit of Elgin

Monday, 12 February, 2024
Christine Lundy
Despite all his achievements, Dr. Paul Clüver, founder of Paul Clüver Family Wines, has genuine humility and passion.

When I contemplated writing a series of articles about Elgin living legends, the natural second step after Neil Ellis was to interview Dr. Paul Clüver, the neurosurgeon/farmer. Fortunately, I was very naïve and didn't realise what a daunting task it would be to try to capture his story and his impact not only on Wines of Elgin but on Elgin at large, from people to nature.

I first met Dr. Clüver in 2008; my husband, then CEO of Accelerate Cape Town (a business organisation focused on economic growth in the region), had been invited to the Paul Clüver Family Wines farm to meet, in true Clüver style, for lunch together with Su Birch, then CEO of WoSA. I vividly recall that day and the magnificent pot still used to distill Elgin's own "calvados," one of the many ventures the Clüvers have been involved in and the inspiration behind my title. Fast forward to 2023, and here I am working closely with the family in my capacity as marketing manager for Wines of Elgin.

I have realised that this article is going to be slightly different from the one intended, as the living legend here is truly a family affair.

The Clüvers' involvement in wine happened involuntarily, similar to how they became farmers. Covid-19 gave Dr. Clüver the opportunity to reflect and write a richly documented book entitled Building Bridges, weaving in family stories, stories linked to the farm, photographs, articles, reports, testimonies, and so on – a true wealth of information and attention to detail. Therefore, one needs to look back at the family history to better understand where this "culture of hard work, discipline, modesty, and caring" comes from – one of the headers from the book and a golden thread throughout – and what led them to be pioneers in wine in Elgin.

It probably starts with Matthys de Villiers, Dr. Clüver's father's maternal grandfather, dubbed "one of the most romantic figures in South Africa" in an article written in the Cape Times in 1922 on the occasion of his 90th birthday. From a manual labourer at the plough, following family misfortune, to an entrepreneur and landowner earned through sheer courage and determination. One of the farms was De Rust. Part of his will was to ensure that no one could sell the properties; they would only be able to use the land.

De Rust Farm – from subsistence farming to commercial farming

When Dr. Clüver's father, a talented psychiatrist (who was awarded a PhD in 1977), inherited the farm, it was in very poor condition due to poor farm management. The big question for him and his wife, Gertrud, was, "What to do with the farm?" They had no farming experience at all and received mixed advice. "Elgin is cold and wet with naturally acidic soil... It is not an area with natural grazing or one where established pasture thrives. The summers are too dry, and the winters too long and cold."

It was a stressful time for them; they had to understand what to plant, grow, which livestock to have but had little time and money to invest. The last tenant who had rented the farm for the past 13 years had been burning the veld and allowed grazing before the pastures could be restored, leading to impoverished soils and erosion.

Their objective was to understand what would be profitable vs. self-sufficient farming. They started experimenting with consultation from Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute.

Dr Clüver wrote, "One of my bad habits is the complete inability to watch someone struggling to do something, making, building, or operating without feeling the urgent need to take over" – a character trait he said he got from his mother, Gertrud Clüver. She was the one who took over from the various farm managers they had in place and drove the farm to commercial success. It is also important to add that she was also one of the pioneering visionaries not only in farming but also in social projects through schooling, housing, and healthcare.

Here is a tribute to her by one of Dr. Clüver's cousins, and I find these character traits echo quite a few of the Clüvers:

"Aunt Gertrud seemed to be a person of unlimited energy who cared passionately for every soul on the farm, an intellectual who devoted much time pondering the meaning of life, a practical planner whose vision saw bare veld converted into a model farm of significant proportions, the diplomat who could adroitly handle the role of the administrator and hostess with grace and poise, above all a woman whose home exemplified warmth and hospitality."

History then did repeat itself, as this time it was Dr Clüver and his wife Songvei moving to the farm. His dynamic wife managed the farm and for 7 years they only lived together during Dr Clüver's off weekends and holidays, coordinating his leave with the manager's leave.

Wine, a new chapter

Ernst le Roux in the 1980s conducted research on terroir. He found that "Elgin has a cool climate very similar to Burgundy, and therefore the most suitable area to grow Burgundian wines like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir." As a technical and viticultural manager at Nederburg, he was tasked with finding a farm in Elgin interested in growing grapes for them. Nederburg was then the market leader in quality brands. They had a knowledgeable, innovative management team, both technically and in marketing.

The Clüvers were contacted, and despite the fact that they had no knowledge or experience in viticulture and that the political conditions were very uncertain, they were "seduced" and took a leap of faith. This decision had a huge impact on them. "Getting into wine, not through tradition or strategy, ended up changing our lives, our children's lives, and many others' lives, completely," wrote Dr. Clüver.

The deal would take place as a joint venture between SFW (Stellenbosch Farmers Winery) and De Rust. They would share the cost of development and profit from the final product. The Clüvers would provide the land and water, and SFW the technical training and supervision from top professionals, namely Günther Brözel, Ernst Le Roux, and Hannes van Rensburg. Only the best virus-free plants would be used. A selection of the most suitable sites would be used for different cultivars.

Thanks to Nederburg's connection, the Clüvers have been hosted and welcomed by the best. "Becoming part of the wine industry was an extraordinary, life-changing experience. It is a sharing, caring, open, collegial, and convivial industry, where wineries are happy to invite you to share their product and their knowledge," such as visiting the "first growth" wineries in Bordeaux. In true Clüver hospitality style, they also hosted prestigious individuals such as the Mondavis and Robin Day from Penfolds.

But between 1987, when the first vines were planted, and 1991 when the wine was first bottled, quite a few changes occurred in management, leading to a change in strategic direction. 1996 marks the end of the joint venture; the Clüvers went solo as a family and break the cycle of men in the city and women at the farm.

Conservation and biodiversity

One cannot talk about Dr. Clüver without mentioning conservation. In 2022, he received the WWF South Africa's Living Planet Award for pioneering conservation work. He was recognised as a pioneer, innovator, and leader in the field of regenerative agriculture and for improving the lives of others and the natural world they depend on.

The work started with his mother Gertrud, part of the soil conservation committee promoting good farming practices and proceeding to remove alien vegetation. Clearing aliens is costly, difficult, and slow.

In the mid '90s, he managed to involve all landowners with a connection to Groenlandberg to become part of a conservancy. More than 30,000 hectares were registered in 1998. The main objective at the time was to control wildfires and protect biodiversity from alien plants.

In the early 2000s, he was the first landowner in the Western Cape to sign a perpetuity contract to legally bind part of the De Rust farm to CapeNature's Stewardship Programme.

"The Cape stewardship's program has made a quantum leap forward by recognising that conservation cannot be practiced in isolation, that the public and private sectors have to work together... The Cape Stewardship Association is the vehicle through which landowners who have made commitments toward conserving land for future generations can lobby the public sector in terms of their future needs," wrote Dr. Clüver in a CapeNature newsletter.

Researching for this article has shown that what I have shared is only the tip of the iceberg, as I haven't even touched on education – a significant pillar and focus for the family who have transformed so many lives. Despite all these achievements, there is genuine humility and passion. I will always remember Dr. Clüver greeting all Masters of Wines on their visit to South Africa with little Timba, his precious dog, tucked under his arm.

After nearly a year working closely with the family, I can honestly say that the legacy lives on; the genes are very strong. Paul Clüver Junior, who has taken on the name following family tradition, continues to not only grow the business but also heads or is part of a number of organisations contributing to the advancement of South Africa. The Clüver ladies, who prefer to stay in the background, also continue the tradition and are a formidable force of nature, all playing a very important role in the business, environment, and education.

Christine Lundy

Christine Lundy is a French wine and lifestyle writer and marketer passionate about creative storytelling in writing and visual form. She came to South Africa 23 years ago with her South African husband. Her creative career started in luxury retail, advertising, and publishing. Fate led her back to the vineyards. Having grown up with Pinot Noir from her family estate in Burgundy, she had always had a passion for wine. She studied with the Cape Wine Academy and then completed her WSET 3. As she learned more, she wanted to share her knowledge and started writing for a number of magazines, including Classic Wine Magazine and Food & Home, where she wrote the wine column. A move to Johannesburg gave her the opportunity to return to high-end marketing with fine and rare wine importer Great Domaines. Back in Cape Town, she was given the opportunity to share the Wines of Elgin story and became their marketing manager.