A Family Affair

Monday, 14 January, 2013
Angela Lloyd
Finlayson: it's a strong word, much like the family who bear the name. A family indelibly linked to South African wine.
It started with pathologist, Dr Maurice Finlayson, who, with his indomitable wife, Eleanor, purchased Hartenberg in 1948. While still practising medicine in Cape Town, Finlayson and his wife established a dairy, vineyards and fruit trees; they also raised poultry and four sons. Walter and Peter went on to become among the Cape's best known winemakers, while of the younger two, Graham is an architect and David is involved in the food business. Walter, the eldest son, who had started making wines in his father's Hartenberg cellar, made his name after moving to Blaauwklippen in 1975. In the late 1980’s Walter with his wife, Jill and family moved to Glen Carlou, the farm they’d started on the Paarl side of the Simonsberg. In 1994, he was joined by his Elsenburg-trained son, David, who had spent working trips to Australia, California and France. The following year, the young Finlayson took over in the cellar and Donald Hess, of California Hess Collection, became a partner in the winery. It was the sale to Hess that allowed for the purchase of Edgebaston in 2004; today it is wholly owned by Walter’s son, David.

This 30 hectare property, a portion of what had been a larger farm, lies on the south side of the R44 between Stellenbosch and Klapmuts, 'And therefore, thanks to the demarcation committee, not officially part of Wine of Origin Simonsberg-Stellenbosch,' Finlayson sighs resignedly, 'though we're on a spur with the same soils as Morgenhof and Remhoogte on the other side of the road, which are part of that WO.’ The inherent quality afforded by those similar soils is, however also realised in the Edgebaston wines.

Finlayson continued as cellarmaster at Glen Carlou until 2009, an association with an unhappily abrupt ending, since when Edgebaston has been his sole focus. Last week, I corrected the notable omission of these wines in my tasting experience. Unlike many Stellenbosch properties, there are no fancy gates, tree-lined avenue nor fancy tasting room. I pulled up past foundations being dug and a lot of dust; enlargements are in progress just before harvest. 'A typical Wally move,' smiles Finlayson; like father (Walter), like son!

Leading me into the very grunt of the cellar, he explains it’s based it on a 'very basic, no frills' Aussie model: 'my focus is on actually making wine rather than running a tasting room, but if someone wants to call to make an appointment, that's okay.' So many winemakers have to juggle what they are actually trained and, presumably, hired for, with office jobs; this is what Finlayson wanted to leave behind after Glen Carlou.

Despite the 'no frills', I was seated on a handsome oak armchair – an incongruity given the surroundings but explained as a hand-me-down from his parents’ home when they moved – with an equally handsome, if also incongruous and dusty oak table, ‘my grandmother’s’ (the indomitable Eleanor), on which to write notes and which was spread with an array of bottles and glasses.

Like his father, David Finlayson displays a laid back easy charm as we talk and taste. The annual crush is now around 250 tons, 180 of which are home grown on 22 hectares of vineyard bearing sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet. The balance is bought in; Finlayson is secretive about his sources, but is clearly delighted with them: a decades old pinot vineyard, another in the Witzenberg; two chardonnay blocks, one 25 years old and one block of old bush vine cinsaut; there are others and more in the pipeline.

'I planted sauvignon blanc thinking cash cow,' Finlayson admits, 'but now wish I'd planted more cabernet.' For R60, the tropical-toned Edgebaston Sauvignon Blanc 2012, blended with 5% semillon, won’t disappoint but it is one among many. More interesting is the sauvignon-dominated The Berry Box, 13% semillon, 8% barrel-fermented viognier and 7 grams of fruit-lifting sugar add charm and drinkability to 2012. It hits the spot for both those who drink fruity as well as dry. Chardonnay makes up the white trio. Again, freshness and fruit purity are key, but with portions of natural ferment, concrete egg ferment, new oak and lees enrichment, there is potential complexity to benefit from ageing. The whites show no shortage of competency nor attraction but the Finlayson red wine genes ensure these are the stars of the range.

The Pepper Pot is Finlayson’s Rhône-style offering; 'First vintage in 2007, before many others started with this type of blend,' he points out. Shiraz-based with mourvèdre, old bush vine cinsaut (a Finlayson favourite), grenache, viognier (just the wet skins fermented with the shiraz) and a splash of tannat, it's bursting with spicy, savoury satisfaction; the '12 (available end February/early March) is even more expressive than the flavoursome '11. For R65 this will give great pleasure to both palate and pocket; a real bargain. A (red) Berry Box mops up 47% merlot in a mainly Bordeaux-style blend plus some shiraz; with its fleshy, freshly ripe red fruits and stylistic firm tannin indicator, it like Pepper Pot offers great value, though I prefer the former. 'People like either one or the other, rarely both,' Finlayson confirms.

These blends, the two reds and white are volume productions, widely available. 'One has to have wines in supermarkets as people are drinking at home due to drink/driving issues,' Finlayson rationalises.

At the top end of the range are the David Finlayson small batch wines (the Edgebaston wines and blends lie sequentially below them); the maiden pinot noir falls under this label. Fruit for 2011 comes from two sources; 60% from a site described as '4 kilometres from False Bay', the balance from Benguela Bay near Hermanus. Forget Burgundy, Finlayson deliberately approaches pinot in a fruitier, New World style, one with black rather than red fruits, and a zingy freshness to firm up the rich juicy flavours. Both the 2011 and yet to be released 2012 show similar delicious characteristics, though the latter is sourced from a different Stellenbosch site and one from high in the Witzenberg above Tulbagh. A separate bottling of the 2012 from Stellenbosch is destined for the CWG auction. It validates the view that pinot doesn’t have to reflect Burgundy to be great and should have wide consumer appeal. So to the two cabernets, the jewels in this quality range. 'I'd be bored without such a variety of styles,' Finlayson admits. Labelled Edgebaston and David Finlayson GS (the latter in memory of George Spies under whose name two iconic cabernets – 1966 and 1968 – appeared), both wines are from home vineyards shared between clones 163, Schleip, and cleaned up local 46. If the wines are unashamedly rich in alcohol it's because Finlayson doesn't want any mint; 'there's a very short window between that and over-ripe fruit' he notes. Both '10s tasted are models of balance, including extraction. 'I've learnt from all my travels,' Finlayson advises, 'none more than with Paul Pontallier at Château Margaux. He taught me about the importance of splitting pressings; he’d stand by the press, tasting regularly to judge when this was necessary.' A move Finlayson follows with great effect; these grape tannins (oak is judiciously used, even with more new in the GS) are ripe, vibrant and dry, clearly indicating the likelihood of softening with age. Both cabernets are lovely, classic wines.

If David, his sister, Carolyn Martin at Creation and his cousin, Peter-Allan of Crystallum, represent the current younger generation of Finlaysons, there’s yet another in the wings. David and Liesl’s daughter, Daniella aged 12 (pictured), is a willing helper in the cellar. The Finlayson wine family affair (‘families drive quality’ he maintains) looks well set to continue.