Wine is made in the vineyard, as we’re frequently reminded – but somehow we don’t seem to need reminding that the choice of winemaker in the cellar is curiously vital to the revelation, the expression of this truth. There have been some recent winemaker moves in the Cape that testify to a whole range of motives on the part of the producers and the winemakers involved.
I mentioned recently the arrival of Peter-Allan Finlayson at Gabrielskloof, essentially owned by his father-in-law. It’ll give P-A, as well as a lot more work (and a decent monthly pay-cheque, one imagines) a good home cellar in which his excellent Crystallum range can expand range. Where Kobie Viljoen, who made room for him, will go to, is as yet unknown to me.
A less trumpeted move is of Hannes Storm from Hamilton Russell Vineyards after a decade there. That was more or less the same length of time that his predecessor, Kevin Grant, had been there. Hannes is off to do his own thing, which will include (but not be totally limited to, I think) his own label, Storm Wines, as yet producing only a pair of pinot noirs ex Hemel-en-Aarde. Lucky those winemakers – like Hannes, and like Duncan Savage – with moodily romantic surnames to attach to their labels!
The history of HRV winemakers is particularly fascinating. It no doubt involves a more rapid turnover than Anthony Hamilton-Russell would have liked, but the nature of all their departures is something like a compliment to this fine pinot- and chardonnay-producing estate. None have gone off to competitors: rather, they’ve all started up on their own accounts, in the Hemel-en-Aarde, devoted to the same great burgundian grapes. First to go, spreading the Hamilton Russell DNA, as it were, was Peter Finlayson to Bouchard-Finlayson. His successor, Storm Kreusch-Dau left, after about only three years, to found WhaleHaven (long since out of her ownership – does anyone know what has happened to this first HRV Storm?). Kevin Grant came and, like the others, went off to make pinot and chard.
So now we have, replacing Hannes Storm, Emul Ross, who will have picked up some pretty important tips on growing and making pinot and chardonnay from the brilliant Gottfried Mocke at Chamonix. Poor Gotfried has been paid the great compliment of losing two assistant winemakers within a few years to prestigious producers – Werner Muller, Emul’s predecessor, left in 2011 for Iona in Elgin. But there’s no doubt that Gottfried will have been delighted by the success of both of them – no winemaker in the Cape, to my knowledge, has been more generous to his assistants than Gottfried (one of the nicest as well as most brilliant winemakers in the Cape): whenever he was called upon to receive a public award, he’d take his assistant up with him to share it.
But, among a few other minor shuffles, the most interesting recent winemaker move and the one undoubtedly involving the biggest financial stakes (at which I can only guess) is that of Johan Joubert. He’s the cellarmaster involved since 2002 in the spectacular success of Stellenbosch-based producer Kleine Zalze at all level of the market, local and international. Johan originally moved there from Boland Kelder in Paarl – where he’d been a part-player in some of that cellar’s more spectacular successes: oldsters might remember the Veritas gold for Boland’s modest quaffer Bon Vino, and when Boland in 2001 took the International Winemaker of the Year award at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London, not to mention the trophies for the Best South African Producer, the Best Cabernet Sauvignon and the Best Shiraz. (Yes, dear reader, such things happen in the roulette game of big competitions; though there were a few cynical people who even wondered if “special” bottles had been entered – surely not!)
Well, Johan is returning to Boland. I just wonder if the prizes involved are not more substantial than those dished out by the IWSC, which no-one took very seriously for long. Quite apart from the huge salaries that the leading co-ops pay to their leading winemakers (even if the likes of Peter-Allan Finlayson and Emul Ross might – I’m guessing – rather become accountants than that sort of winemaker; and they might not even be any good at that sort of winemaking). I’m pretty sure that Kleine Zalze’s financial crown was, paradoxically, its Foot of Africa range – cheapies that have been spectacularly successful internationally, notably in Sweden. I’ve been told that Boland Kelder was not uninvolved in the origin of those wines. I suppose it’s not impossible that Sweden’s Systembolaget might follow the winemaker to Boland Kelder itself. But this is all big business stuff, and I’m not remotely competent to even wonder at the the ins and outs of it all.
I’ve heard no word yet as to who will be filling Johan’s big shoes at Kleine Zalze.
But good luck to all these moving people.