A new winery with a spirited past near Robertson

Tuesday, 23 March, 2004
Myrna Robins
An intriguing balance between nostalgia and modern enterprise
‘Southern Liqueur Co – JP Marais – Licensed to sell Wine & Spirits by Wholesale.’ So reads the inscription above the old cellar door – a wide solid custom-built door - that opens into future tasting-rooms and offices at Major’s Hill winery.

We are standing at the birthplace of Klippies – a South African icon brandy that is, according to its brand manager, our biggest quality brandy ‘by volume.’ Whether fans opt for the three-year-old export, the premium five-year-old or the pricy Klipdrift gold, it’s likely that founder-producer Major Kosie Marais would be astounded at the sheer quantity now made bearing the label he selected for his new product early in the 1930’s.

It’s as tempting to indulge in nostalgic speculation as to what his reaction would be to the contemporary double-storeyed cellar that has arisen next to his art deco building, where a trio of quality wines honouring his memory is produced.

But – back to the beginning - which, in this case is the close of the second decade of the 20th century, a time when the Charleston was revered by flappers, complete with their short flimsy dresses, long cigarette-holders and colourful cocktails made from orange and lemon gin, crème de menthe, advocaat, sweet vermouth – and brandy.

Major Kosie Marais, an entrepeneur, Springbok marksman, inventor and amateur archeologist bought the farm Klipdrif, on the Bonnievale road just outside Robertson, in 1929. He designed and built a spacious cellar between the vineyards and mounted his company’s initials, S L C, on the rooftop.

Soon after, the first bottles of Klipdrift brandy hit the market, and the spirit also spiked the other SLC products - in demand for the glamorous cocktails then in vogue.

Fast forward to the New Age decade of the 1960’s. After Major Marais’s death in 1963, the Klipdrift label was sold to the big boys, later becoming synonomous with that of Distell, present producers and marketers.

The farm went into a decline for some 30 years, until the mid-1990’s when Dewald Louw exchanged a career in his family construction business in Paarl for that of a wine farmer, while setting goals to make the best possible wines from the finest grapes using traditional methods. Together with his wife Anel, they have injected a pleasing cocktail of new life, enthusiasm and determination into Klipdrif farm and winery.

Dewald Louw’s architect was asked to incorporate the SLC cellar into his design for the new complex, as plantings of Chenin and Chardonnay were followed by selected clones of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinotage.

The other members of the winemaking team, Alkie van der Merwe and cellar assistant Nico Renoster, share his passion and ambition and the maiden vintages of an exciting Sauvignon Blanc and citrussy Chardonnay attracted Veritas medals last year even though very recently bottled.

Dewald Louw intends to stay small, affordable and keep 80% of his wine for the local market, and one feels that Major Marais would have approved of these principles. Fans of Klippies with a penchant for nostalgia should also commend the Louw family’s decision to ensure that Kosie Marais’s grave - which occupies a little knoll on the farm overlooking vines alongside the Breede river - remains well tended and visited .

A sturdy spekboom is forming a canopy over the gravestone, but the apt Shakespearian quote that forms the inscription is still legible. It’s a place of tranquillity and contentment, bolstered by respect from the farm’s present custodians.

What better way to conclude this soupcon of spirited and spirituous history than to quote from the back label of Major’s Hill well-balanced Sauvignon Blanc: ‘…the spirit of Major Marais and his endeavour to make the best brandy… in the country is still very tangible. With the building of the new wine cellar… success continues, using modern technology combined with traditional method.’