Mr. Rupert’s vineyards (1)
South Africa is a country of great contrasts. Today the atmosphere there is much better thanks to the process of national pacification led by Nelson Mandela which has improved many things over the past 20 years. For sure, coming out of Cape Town airport, which is named after him, one cannot help but notice the kilometers of townships that can be seen from the road. But then at the crossroads for Stellenbosch everything changes. It all become agricultural with the landscape dominated by vineyards, fruit and even olive groves that almost make you think you are in the Mediterranean. Were it not for the towering mountains, with their jagged profile and red rocks, it could almost be the Maremma part of Tuscany or somewhere in Provence. Instead we are at the other end of the word, around the 34th southern parallel, which in the northern hemisphere would correspond with the one on which Los Angeles and Lampedusa sit. The climate is oceanic but the winter is cool, rainy and windy while the summer is decidedly hot and subtropical. Being in the southern hemisphere, when I came in August it will the middle of winter.
The most important winegrowing areas are to the east and northeast of Cape Town, in the province of Western Cape, and are essentially three: Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek. Each is towered over by a large mountain, respectively Trout Hatcherries, Du Toits and Groot Drakenstein. Stellenbosch is the closest to Cape Town and is also the area that produces the most wine. Paarl is some 20km to the north and Franschhoek (literally the ‘French corner’) is 20km to the east. The winegrowing tradition dates back to the French Huguenot period, towards the middle if the 17th century, and is based mostly on French grapes with farming methods similar to those employed at the time in France. The vine are low-pruned alberello-style for the Chenin Blanc, Mourvedre and slightly modified for the Syrah. The vines are Guyot-trained for Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The vines are also alberello-trained for the Pinotage, a South African grapes created by crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsault. The soils are all quite similar with high percentages of lime and red clay but there are also some schistose areas closer to the mountains or at the higher altitudes which are better for white grapes. There are also other areas that produce some fine wines, like Wellington or Robertson Valley or Costantia, at the beginning of Cape Peninsula, where the Muscat of Alexandria (which on Pantelleria is called Zibibbo) makes one of the world’s most famous sweet dessert wines. Nevertheless, the first three areas remain the most important for the both the quantity and quality of wines produced.
Our decision to visit the Rupert group’s wineries has inspired by the improvement their wines have shown in recent years that have made them among the absolute best in South Africa. This in part was thanks to a favorable winemaking method that has little, if anything, to do with the so-called ‘international style’ and is instead based on a consistent search for flavor balance and territorial characteristics in order to express them in a very precise way, to the extent that the land can be considered a terroir for the more prestigious wines. Johann Rupert is one of South Africa’s leading businessmen and he owns companies in many countries, almost all of them in the luxury sector. Cartier, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin and Panerai are all controlled by him. He is a reserved and kind man, far from the image of a ruthless businessman many of us have. He was a great supporter of Nelson Mandela and a portrait of the late leader hangs in his lodgings at his Ormarins estate near Franschhoek. Above all he is a man of rare sensitivity and culture, one of the founders of WWF who is very good at effective philanthropy.
Johann Rupert has been involved in the family wine business since 2001, the year his younger brother Antonij, who has created it with their father Anton, was killed in a car accident. Some time ago he named the line of their most prestigious wines, Antonij Rupert Wines, after his brother and they come from Franschhoek, although they have vineyards throughout the country. His other wine brands include Cape of Good Hope, Terre Del Capo and Protea. All the wines are made at the central winery at Ormarins, which also hosts the production center. Rupert also has vineyards in Riebeek Creek which have yet to produce a brand but are planted with grapes that are typically found in the Rhone Valley and are located some 150km north of Cape Town. Aside from these family activities, he is also involved with Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons, a joint venture in Paarl with Edmond de Rothschild, which today is in the hands of Benjamin de Rothschield, the owner in Haut-Medoc of Chateau Clarke, and other splendid estates in Argentina and New Zealand, wineries that are ‘cousins’ of his others but are all run independently. Another independent enterprise is La Motte, which is owned by Hanneli Rupert, Johann’s sister, in Franschhoek, less than a kilometer from L’Ormarins.
In the next few days we will be reviewing wines from Antonij Rupert Wines, Cape of Good Hope, Terre Del Capo and Rupert & Rothschield Vignerons. Each day will look at a single brand with a brief, explanatory introduction on each company. Rupert owns a total 370 hectares of vineyards plus the 110 hectares of Rupert & Rothschield Vignerons. Annual production is in the neighborhood of 2.5 million bottles.