Have the French discovered a terroir as good as their own? Judging by the number of high-profile names investing in South Africa, it seems that way, says John platter

Slowly and quietly – stealth might be the word had it been co-ordinated – the South African winelands have taken on a slight French leaning. It’s currently an insinuation rather than an invasion of the Cape, but some serious Gallic names have placed their bets. The local line is that it’s a two-way transfer of cachet. But why?

Is it an endorsement of the diverse but still under-exploited viticultural potential? Or is it driven more by frustration with the stifling rigidity of French AC production rules? ‘We’ve tied our own hands, lost opportunities – I’m frustrated,’ says Chablis producer Michel Laroche, one of the latest to buy out a Stellenbosch estate, l’Avenir.

South Africa is not without its risks. Its politics are edgier: anti-government street demonstrations followed the sacking last year of the vice-president amid allegations of corruption, and the 2006 political calendar, and sensational high-profile trials, are proving stern tests for the now 10-year-old democracy.

The aristocracy

So what then, at 81, has enticed May-Eliane de Lencquesaing of Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande to Ida’s Valley on the edge of Stellenbosch, the South African wine capital?

Here, on a secluded, 127ha (hectare) spread named Glenelly, she’s planting 60ha, mainly with Bordeaux varieties, and is also tunnelling four storeys into a hillside (‘because we want to respect the beautiful lines of the mountains’) for a $10 million, 45,000-case, gravity-flow winery. There won’t be a wine nor a return to show for years. Though the property was bought in 2003 for just $3 million, the eventual cost will ensure there’s little change from around $15 million.

‘It’s not for the money,’ insists Mme de Lencquesaing. ‘There are many reasons… excellent terroir; serious people to work with; and I respect what the South African government has achieved since the end of apartheid.’

Sentimental and historical pulls date back to her Filipino mariner-forebears (‘who used to sail to Europe, around Cape Town – long before Suez – with their cows on board for milk…’ she recounts), and stretch into the future: ‘I think my grandchildren will enjoy South Africa!’

She’s spruced up Glenelly, previously muddling along as a fruit farm, filling

its white-washed, gabled Cape-Dutch homestead with hardwood furniture from Madagascar and ancestral portraits. But its crucial asset is its location, just over the hedge from Rustenberg – which, alone among Cape estates, has made wine every vintage for more than a century. This is prime terroir: a bit like finding a vacant lot next to Pichon.

Simon Barlow, Rustenberg’s owner, is enthusiastic. ‘She’s been fabulous, takes nothing for granted,’ he says. ‘They’ve researched meticulously and are doing it properly. Some thought with that name they’d swagger in here; not a bit of it.’

Pichon’s cellarmaster since 1992, Dijon-trained Thomas Do-Chi-Nam, visits Stellenbosch every two months. ‘We are excited to work with people with a huge knowledge of soil and a pragmatic approach,’ he says. ‘The winery will be simple; we will gather the berries and not hurt them in the winery, to create a Glenelly style, using Pichon techniques, especially blending, adapted to respect South African conditions. We will try to lengthen ripening periods, to manage tannins. We want a balanced, approachable wine, to drink – not for competitions.’ Glenelly will be the label; North America and Asia the markets.

Mme de Lencquesaing’s seigneurial world view includes a measure of constructive altruism: ‘I believe we in the rich, developed world should help others; Africa is a mess, South Africa is the one country that can lead the continent out of it. I want to show our support.’

More prosaic, commercial reasons, however, must also apply. How do these stack up against South Africa’s performance in world markets after the apartheid isolation years, when the country’s wine production was left on the sidelines? The Cape’s labels, and prices, have largely stuck in the medium-to-lower end of the market. Total volume exports have climbed an impressive 540% in the past decade – and the ANC government’s benign neglect of the still largely white-run industry has been a tonic, after decades of restrictive over-regulation. But a dramatic lift-off on a broad, Aussie scale still seems a chimera.

The local scene is electric, with innovation and expansion (and glut) but only a few names have cracked the international quality lists – Thelema, Vergelegen, Rustenberg, Hamilton Russell, Fairview/Charles Back, Kanonkop, Boekenhoutskloof. Too few to counter the entry-level image, let alone forge a wine identity. Pinotage, sometimes cited as a possible national saviour, is unlikely ever to match Australia’s synonymity with Shiraz, nor Argentina’s claim on Malbec, Robert Parker’s nomination for the grape of the future.

It’s the top-end gap, obviously, that lured Bordeaux heavyweights Bruno Prats (ex-Cos d’Estournel) and Hubert de Boüard (co-owner of Château Angélus) in 2005. They’ve teamed up with Lowell Jooste of Klein Constantia, internationally known (feted in France) for its Vin de Constance, a replica of the fabled Muscat dessert Constantia of the 1800s. Their joint venture is Anwilka farm, southeast of Stellenbosch, where Jooste began replanting 44ha of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot in 1997. The alliance (French 50%; Jooste 50%) converted a shed into a winery (‘no budget for statues and dribbling fountains’); a bi-national team then made and barrel-matured 3,500 cases of ‘hopefully super premium’ (Prats) 2005, for 2006 release through the Bordeaux trade – a first for a Cape wine. It’s a Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah (63%/37%) blend.

Jooste had been looking to break through the perceived Cape wine price ceiling when ‘by chance’ Jean-Guillame Prats (Bruno’s son, and head of Cos d’Estournel) walked into the Klein Constantia winery. He found Jooste in shorts and sandals and mistook him for the caretaker. But not for long. The French partners – familiar with international premium markets – seem confident the combination of name, experience and quality will overcome misgivings about vine and brand youth. Jooste pitched the local price ex-cellars for about 500 cases at around R175 ($25) a bottle. It sold within weeks. So did the entire export lot after Parker tasted the wine during his annual Bordeaux tastings in early 2006. ‘Fabulous… the finest red I’ve ever had from South Africa… world-class stuff, exceptional,’ he said. In the US it’s now retailing for about $40. ‘It’s been a fairytale start,’ says Jooste.

Midwife to many Franco-Cape deals is French-born, Cape Town-adopted political science graduate Jean-Vincent Ridon, an ex-banker. He visited in 1997, decided to settle, and launched his own boutique winery, Signal Hill, an eclectic range reflecting a penchant for experiment, including a Tokaji lookalike from Furmint grapes.

‘These are serious wine people. Not flashy,’ he comments. ‘They’re interested in their “wine patrimony”, not a quick buck or a re-sale. Not one of these deals has been concluded in under a year; they study and think hard. When they commit, they mean business.’

Why the Cape? ‘Lifestyle, obviously,’ says Ridon. ‘Think congested smog-ridden Europe. As a buyer myself of grapes all over the Cape, I know, and so do these investors, that terroir has meaning here. It’s not a French bullshit term.’

There are some significant practical advantages: same time zones as Europe; no jet lag; an overnight flight (Stellenbosch is 25 minutes from Cape Town airport); vintage reliability (only three marginal ones in the past 20) and convenience: locations in different hemispheres allow for the overseeing of both harvests. Land is relatively cheap; infrastructure, backup suppliers, lab and technical services first rate; the locals welcoming.

Others saw this earlier. The first latter-day punter was Anne Cointreau – of the Cognac family – in 1992. Well established at Morgenhof (‘never change a name’ she says), also in Stellenbosch, she produces 25,000 cases a year of a wide spread of styles.

Alain Moueix of the Pomerol family launched his 18,000-case operation, Ingwe, on the Indian Ocean side of Stellenbosch in 1997; his focus is on a mainly-Merlot blend for export.

In 1998 came the Rupert and Rothschild joint venture between two wealthy, old wine families, the Ruperts of the Cape and Baron Benjamin Rothschild

(Château Clarke). Michel Rolland advised at the 35,000-case winery between Franschhoek and Paarl, and groomed a Bordeaux blend named ‘Baron Edmond’ and a Chardonnay, ‘Baroness Nadine’.

Rolland himself has invested in a supplier farm, Remhoogte at Stellenbosch. That collaboration with owner Murray Boustred (sealed on a hunting safari) is into the second vintage of ‘Bonne Nouvelle’, a blend featuring Pinotage.

L’Avenir is now in the Laroche stable. ‘I’m so impressed with Chenin Blanc and Pinotage, they’ll be my focus,’ says Michel Laroche, puffing at a long Rey del Mundo. Warming to his new international status (which includes a Chilean venture), selling to 80 countries, he travels with his wife Gwenaël around the world.

french force

Franschhoek may mean ‘French corner’ but in Stellenbosch you can now walk from l’Avenir, across to Remhoogte, onto Morgenhof and over the hill into Glenelly without leaving French-held territory. ‘We wanted so badly to be desired by the international – particularly the French – wine world… we can stop cringing now,’ comments local wine entrepreneur Michael Fridjhon.

There might have been a time when a Bordeaux Super Second opening a branch office in South Africa would have been sniffily compared with the grander projects of, say, the Mouton-Rothschild-Robert Mondavi Opus One venture. But within the South African wine community there’s some satisfaction that ‘our French lot’ are ‘down-to-earth, dedicated wine people, rather than mere businesses’.

‘Authentic,’ is how Neil Ellis of Neil Ellis Wines describes the de Lencquesaing project. ‘They realise it’ll be years before they really know the vineyards: it’s a commitment that contrasts with all the changing winemakers and takeovers… you can’t make great wines that way.’

‘These French arrivals are not flash-in-the-pan people,’ says Stellenbosch wine and rugby legend Jan Coetzee of Vriesenhof. ‘They’re obviously in for the long haul – more for prestige than money.’ Mischievously, he adds: ‘They’re acknowledging that only France and the Cape can make classic wines!’

Zelma Long and Phil Freese, the blue-chip California-based husband-and-wife wine team who spend three to four months a year in the Cape, would be more circumspect. They consult globally but chose to buy – and replant – 42ha near Paarl, in 1997. Their Vilafonté label, and new local partner, Warwick Estate’s energetic MD Mike Ratcliffe, came later. Vilafonté is the soil type: old, low-fertility, weathered pebbly clay, it used to be shunned. Not by Freese, for whom ‘dirt matters’. He enthuses: ‘Viticulturally, this has been a dream, beyond expectation.’

In 2005 they released two debut 2003s, targeting North America, at luxury prices; Vilafonté C Series (mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, $70 a bottle) and M Series (mainly Merlot, $50), both including Petit Verdot and Malbec, plus Merlot in the C and Cabernet Sauvignon in the M.

The couple’s pioneering involvement here for more than a decade has been vindication – and inducement – for the French investors. Both are ex-Mondavi, she chief winemaker, he vice president (for viticulture); she later moved to Simi for an 18-year stint, to become CEO.

The easy-going Freese (with a PhD in biophysics from UC Davis) is credited with helping shift Cape viticulture to new levels, introducing clients to satellite data, evotranspiration monitoring, and his philosophy of designing wines and vineyards in tandem.

Freese is working on two major aids, one natural, the other man-induced, to ‘reduce the dissonance’ between sugar accumulation and tannin ripening, for balanced grapes and wines. (An unripe tannin hardness has been a problem in many Cape reds.) Freese is using carefully timed irrigation to manipulate vine stress prior to harvest, and believes the relatively high humidity during the Cape summer (compared with California) are a major natural plus for South Africa. ‘I think we’re on to something,’ he says.

Long, who collects local art and artefacts with the same fastidiousness with which she makes her wines, spends hours in monastic solitude weighing blending options. She’s deadly serious when she says: ‘Our goal is a significant international benchmark.’

Despite the audacious prices, for a maiden vintage from six-year-old vines, the initial take-up (in 22 states in America) has been enthusiastic. According to The New York Times’ RW Apple, both show ‘great promise – the M suppler and fruitier, the C more commanding’.

For a seasoned campaigner, Freese reveals an unexpected hint of trepidation: ‘It’s like taking your kids out for the first time. You hope the wines will behave.’

John Platter is the author (with wife Erica) of Africa Uncorked: Travels in Extreme Wine Territory, £14.99, Kyle Cathie

Written by John Platter