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How to buy a vineyard

Want to make your own wine? The key is in the planning, says Monty Waldin, who shares his insight from several winemaking ventures. Plus, we profile three couples who are now living the dream in South Africa, England and France.

How to buy a vineyard: Case study 1: Seven Springs, Hermanus, South Africa

Hermanus Estate, South Africa

Hermanus Estate, South Africa

Tim Pearson’s commute to his vineyards is a little longer than most owners of wine estates – just shy of 10,000km, as the crow flies.

He and his wife Vaughan, who run a cleaning a company in Warwick, England, also own Seven Springs Vineyards near Hermanus in South Africa’s Western Cape. They visit for six weeks every year, but manage their on-site team from the UK. ‘It’s a unique situation,’ admits Pearson. ‘But with weekly Skype calls and daily emails, it’s surprisingly easy.’

The idea of buying a vineyard was sparked first on camping trips to French wine regions with his family and then cemented 20 years later during a six-month stay in South Africa. The pair were in the Cape for their 25th anniversary in 2005. ‘We did our homework before we left: meeting winemakers at trade fairs and keeping abreast of the industry. Stellenbosch was too pricey for us, but we were very keen on Hermanus,’ Pearson says.

During their stay they visited many wine farms in the area, spoke to the owners and tasted their wines. On their return to the UK they searched extensively on the internet and in December 2005 saw a 12-hectare plot of scrub-land along the Hemel-en-Aarde Road on sale for (then) £192,000.

A few weeks later they were back out again to see it for themselves, taking a local winemaker for independent advice. Six months later in June, following soil analysis, and the usual monetary and legal matters, the deal was agreed. ‘Language and legal barriers made it much easier to buy in South Africa than Europe,’ Pearson said. ‘The legal system is similar to the UK’s and we found an accountant in Stellenbosch allied to the one we use here too.’

Head vs heart

When it came to converting the former cattle farm, the Pearsons had a bit of luck: the son of the vendor was viticulturist and consultant Peter Davison – still the vineyard manager today. Seven Springs has 8.5ha under vine, planted in 2006 with Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. ‘I’d love to have grown Verdicchio or Tempranillo, but in a small vineyard like ours is that a sensible commercial decision?’

Originally the Pearsons had envisaged 2011 as their first commercial vintage, but at the last minute decided on 2010. It made financial sense, but meant they only had a few months to find a winemaker and a winery before the February harvest. After advertising and asking industry contacts, Pearson was recommended Riana van der Merwe. He flew out in January 2010 to meet her and she remains winemaker today. ‘Don’t be afraid to seek advice from industry professionals,’ Pearson said. ‘But you have to back your own judgement.’

Being unable to afford to build a winery, more calls to local winemaker friends proved invaluable. Wine is currently made at neighbouring estates with spare capacity, with construction on a Seven Springs winery set to start in 2015. ‘If you are forced to do things this way, you have to ensure there is consistency with your vineyard manager and the winemaker,’ he advises.

Pearson says that while the venture been a stretch at times, they’ve never over-committed. ‘We’ve used money from our pensions as we wanted to finance it all ourselves, but we weren’t going to sell our cleaning company to do it. It’s easy to follow your passion, but don’t risk too much.’ Next year, nine years after they started, they hope to make a profit.

And the Pearsons’ patience was tried in the 2011 vintage with their second vintage of Syrah. During bottling the wrong filter was used, letting in too much fine sediment. The entire 6,000-bottle production had to be written off, costing £30,000. ‘I used to wake up in the night with the loss you feel when someone close to you has died,’ he recalls.

The upshot was that the 2012 Syrah, which would normally have seen 12 months of oak, had to be rushed to market to meet supplier demands after only six months. Ironically that was the wine that won Gold at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards. ‘It’s testimony to the hard work of the whole team – and that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned: you need a great team to make great wine. Employ the best people you can, and buy the best rootstocks you can. You can’t afford mediocrity in this game.’

DO your homework, seek advice and manage your risks
DON’T cut corners or employ cowboys


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