THE TWENTY CLUB: Winemakers with staying power

Wednesday, 20 February, 2019
Graham Howe
In a world where the only constant is change, a handful of Cape winemakers have made twenty vintages at the same wine farm. Talk about staying power.

At a recent tasting at Paul Cluver Wines in Elgin, veteran winemaker Andries Burger declared, “We want to start the Twenty Year Club – an association of winemakers who have made twenty or more vintages at the same wine farm.” The plan is to hold an annual dinner where members bring a wine of the same age or older to a special food and wine pairing dinner at a restaurant with a chef who has been there for twenty years or longer – say Harald Bresselchmidt of Aubergine.

Celebrating his twenty-third vintage at Paul Cluver, Burger says they start picking the first grapes of the new harvest the next day – Chardonnay, one of their hero varieties, along with Pinot Noir and Riesling. Over the last three decades, he has matured like the vineyards, refining the estate and flagship Seven Flags range out of the oldest blocs on the fruit farm which has been in the Cluver family for well over a century. Burger declares, “The age of the vineyard is the key to great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There’s nothing like the elegance of old vines” (the Seven Flags label is sourced from a thirty-two year-old vineyard, one of the oldest Chardonnay blocs in the country).

We enjoyed the natural tastes and fabulous textures of tomato and farm figs (preserved, pureed and baked) at Salt, the new restaurant at Paul Cluver, over a spectacular view of apple orchards, vineyards and mountains. Talented winelands chef Craig Cormack has created a contemporary cellar-door menu. With so many tempting choices, we opted to share a few delicious compositions, creatively plated, the main gradient enhanced with wonderful garnishes from game fish sashimi with pineapple salsa to beef sashimi with gooseberry achar. Fine attention to detail is the watchword at Paul Cluver – like using a special German yeast and German wood to make their delicate Riesling.

Andries Burger enjoys talking about the finer points of winemaking – the age of forests, the cutting of timber, the role of the density of staves, the tightness of grain, the degree of toasting and which origin of oak suits which variety. The top three Burgundian coopers who supply Paul Cluver with 65 new wine barrels every year visit the Elgin farm every vintage to taste the new wines. In France winemakers order barrels toasted specifically to suit the style of the vintage and use a heavier toast in lesser vintages – ‘like toast hides stale bread’ quips Paul Cluver. The use of open-top fermentation and 5000 litre wooden vats is crucial to their Seven Flags label – building complexity through blending the three oldest sites, a whole-bunch component, open-top ferment and barrel selection.

On the way home from Elgin, I counted the number of winemakers off the top of my head who would be eligible to join The Twenty Club. In the top marques of France winemakers may change rarely, perhaps only with the passing of generations at family-owned cellars. But in the mobile new world, winemakers often seem to play musical chairs, relocating to a new cellar every few vintages. I thought of winemakers with staying power in South Africa, many of whom I have been privileged to enjoy tastings with over the course of the last twenty years – and shared in their journey. If I inadvertently forget a few, please excuse my omission – and blame it on a wine scribe’s memory.

Driving back from Elgin via Somerset West, Andre van Rensburg, one of South Africa’s legendary winemakers, who joined Vergelegen in 1998, would make the Twenty Club. Once known as the enfant terrible of Cape wine, he is now a veteran of the Cape renaissance. Then there’s cellar master Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira, one of the longest-standing winemakers, who has been at the helm of the MCC revolution since joining Graham Beck Wines in 1990. (And while we pop over the berg, consider as members all the family wine farms who have put Robertson on the map, from Abrie Bruwer at Springfield (1995) to the Bruwers of Bon Courage (1983), Danie de Wet (1973), Bowen Botha at Robertson Winery (1983) and Lourens and Philip Jonker of Weltevrede (1997). The baton is handed over only once a generation and kept under lock and key in the family chest around here.

Andre van Rensburg (Vergelegen) , Danie de Wet (De Wetshof) and Pieter Ferreira (Graham Beck)

When it comes to winemakers with staying power, family farms rule in the heart of the winelands.

Driving through the outskirts of Stellenbosch, I counted the winemakers I would nominate for the Twenty Club. Take legendary cellar masters and winemakers like Carl Schultz (1993) of Hartenberg,  Jan “Boland”Coetzee of Vriesenhof, Cornelius Dumas of Jacobsdal, Danie Steytler Snr of Kaapzicht (1979), Johan Malan of Simonsig (1981), Jeff Grier (1983) of Villiera, Louis Roos (1983) of Mooiplaas, Gyles Webb (1983) of Thelema, JC Bekker of Boschendal (1986), Beyers Truter (1988) of Beyerskloof, Tinnie Momberg (1992) of Middelvlei, Jeremy Walker (1992) of Grangehurst, Niel Bester of Plaisir de Merle (1993), Gary and Kathy Jordan (1993), ) Ken Forrester (1994), Anthony de Jager (1996) of Fairview, Etienne le Riche (1997), Kevin Arnold of Waterford (1998), David Trafford of de Trafford Wines and Jose Condé (1998) of Stark-Condé. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed sharing their journey too at benchmark tastings.

To round up the other members of the Twenty Club, I’d go further afield to winemakers with whom I’ve enjoyed many tastings with over the years –old hands inter alia like Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson, Danie Malan (1987) of Allesverloren, David Nieuwoudt (1997) of Cederberg Cellar (who pioneered a new wine appellation), Pieter du Toit of Kloovenburg (1997) and Martin Moore of Durbanville Hills (1998). I’d have to travel further afield to invite the likes of Carel Nel (1982) of Boplaas, Boets Nel of De Krans and Alwyn Burger (1990) of Calitzdorp Cellar. I’ve still got this nagging feeling I’ve left out a few – but it’s a start. Feel free to add to the list. The class of 1999 qualify as members this year – as the numbers keep growing and time flies faster and faster for all of us.

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.

Andries Burger from Paul Cluver Wines
Andries Burger from Paul Cluver Wines

more news