All in the family: Fathers and Sons

Monday, 22 April, 2019
Graham Howe
The passing of the baton from father to son – and occasionally, father to daughter - has been one of the themes of recent tastings at family cellars in the winelands.

At recent tastings at Haute Cabrière, Paul Cluver and Thelema, I was struck by the fact that one of the common themes is the role of father and sons in the wine industry.  Keeping it all in the family, wine farms in the Cape pass the proud baton of viticulture from generation to generation over the decades. Wine runs in the blood of the country’s great wine families – ensuring the transfer of knowledge of vineyards, viticulture and winemaking, sometimes by a mystical process of osmosis. During my own journey, I have enjoyed talking to fathers and sons about the inheritance of tradition, legacy of wine culture, longevity of heritage vineyards and the evolution of wine styles.

Looking back, some of the richest wine conversations I’ve enjoyed are with the fathers and sons of old family cellars – with Andre and Jacques Bruwer of Bon Courage, Michael and Simon Back of Backsberg, Spatz Sperling en familie of Delheim, Tienie and Thys Louw of Diemersdal, Danie, Peter and Johann de Wet of De Wetshof, Cornelis and Hannes Dumas of Jacobsdal, Danie (Snr) and Danie (Jnr) of Kaapzicht, Stanley and Attie Louw of Opstal, Braam and David van Velden of Overgaauw, Johnnie and Kobus Burger of Rietvallei and Lourens and Philip Jonker of Weltevrede, and many others. I’ve also tasted with the leading fathers and daughters of wine such as Carel, Margaux and Rozanne Nel of Boplaas in Calitzdorp – and Sakkie and Ivy du Toit of Jason’s Hill in the Breedekloof.

I recall one wonderful wine tasting with a double act of four father-and-son winemakers at Alto, an iconic Cape wine estate where only four winemakers made wines in eight decades: Piet and Hempies du Toit, and Schalk and Bertho van der Westhuizen. Alto released a new flagship blend to mark the occasion – named MPHS, the initials of the first four. That must be a record for the Cape.Other wine dynasties I’ve tasted over time which come to mind are the Melcks of Muratie, the Griers of Villiera, Jordans of Stellenbosch, Myburghs of Meerlust, Bosmans of Wellington and the Finlayson family of Glen Carlou, Bouchard Finlayson and Crystallum. Wine runs as thick as blood around here. Many flagship wines are named after the patriarchs of these first wine families – Simonsig’s Frans Malan Cape Blend, Diemersdal’s MM Louw, Opstal’s Carl Everson and Muratie’s Ronnie Melck, etc.

I started thinking about fathers-and-sons in wine over a recent tasting with Gyles (who has handled over thirty vintages at this family cellar) and Thomas Webb of Thelema atop Helshoogte in Stellenbosch. Over a vertical flight of their two cornerstone varieties with winemaker Rudi Schultz – Chardonnay back to 2007 and Cabernet Sauvignon back to 1995– they demonstrated the longevity and ageability of their wines. They commented, “We don’t want to chop and change styles. Our story is a little different. Chardonnay is not just a brand here, it’s a place where every vineyard has a name” – and a role in building the components of every wine, like the 34 year-old Muscat vines.

Thelema was one of the key pioneers of the Cape wine renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s – and remains a benchmark for modern Cabernet Sauvignon, the hero variety of Stellenbosch today. Gyles passion for viticulture and terroir and the Thelema DNA shows in the distinctive character of the wines: the lean acidity, amazing vibrancy of fruit, texture and concentration of the Cabernet.

The close-knit Thelema team has staying power. Winemaker Rudi Schultz has crafted classic wines from these vineyards since 2000 – and reveals the secret behind Thelema’s The Mint Cabernet Sauvignon – sourced from a specific vineyard “which make a mint!”. He says a tree border of eucalyptus trees during the harvest months releases a vaporised oil compound called cineole – identified by research into the great Cabernet Sauvignons of the Coonawarra in South Australia -which affects the flavours of the fruit.  You’re never too old to learn a new trick in the wine business.

The father-and-son theme ran through my head at a tasting of superb old-vine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at Paul Cluver, another old family fruit and wine farm in Elgin. I spotted patriarch Paul Cluver Snr over lunch with son-and-daughter Paul Jnr and Liesl as well as son-in-law winemaker Andries Burger who has made the wine here since 1996. The old fruit farm founded by the Cluver family 123 years and seven generations ago is renowned for the concentration, delicacy and elegance of its wines. I was told that the Cluver’s flagship Seven Flags label is named after the family’s old Bremen coat of arms which bears the credo of the seven gifts of God – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, righteousness and fear of God. That’s a tall order. 

Talk about keeping it all in the family. At the launch of the new tweaked labels of Haute Cabrière in the Franschhoek Valley in January, I realized I had been tasting wine here with father and son for almost three decades. I first visited the iconic cellar-door restaurant in the 1980 just after it opened. Over a fabulous matching lunch prepared by resident chefs Nic van Wyk and Westley Muller, winemaker Takuan von Arnim (since 2004) told me that his father Achim released the first vintage at this family cellar in 1984 – so father-and-son have handled 38 consecutive vintages here. (I suspect Cornelis and Hannes Dumas of Jacobsdal, with fifty vintages under their belt, hold the Cape record.)

Achim and Takuan von Arnim 

“We were the first to do many things” declares Takuan – like pioneering the first blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, their best-selling wine which has hugged the limelight in the past as well as their Tranquille blend (a rosé-style blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). He concludes, “My task is to fulfill my father’s initial vision – building on the cellar’s reputation as a specialist in classic Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - while overseeing the evolution of both our Pierre Jourdan MCC range and our still wine range”. Taking the next step forward, he’s experimenting with a reserve amphora aged Chardonnay.  

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 possibly 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 the Intrepid Explorer and www.blog.getaway.co.za - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty 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 ."

Takuan and Achim von Arnim
Takuan and Achim von Arnim

Paul Cluver Jnr, Songvay Cluver, Paul Cluver Snr, and Leisl Cluver-Rust
Paul Cluver Jnr, Songvay Cluver, Paul Cluver Snr, and Leisl Cluver-Rust

Johann and Danie de Wet
Johann and Danie de Wet

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