Short stories

A few bits of gossip, harder news, and feel-good and feel-bad stuff.

Franschhoek consolidation

I heard the rumour first a few weeks back, but couldn’t confirm it; then I heard it again from a different source (but like the first connected to Graham Beck Wines), and then again … and it looks like it’s true: Johann Rupert is in the process of buying the Franschhoek estate of Graham Beck. The latter producer will keep its Robertson estate and operate from there. And no rumours as yet of getting rid of Steenberg.

The only mystery now, really, is why Anthonij Rupert Wines (JR’s wine business) should want to buy the property next door to the L’Ormarins headquarters of the business. The existing vineyards there are not really up to much, by all accounts. And L’Ormarins has yet to translate their own fine vines into commensurately fine wines. Despite the enormous work that’s gone into improving those vineyards (and everyone seems to admire them), and despite the lavish new facilities available to the winemakers, this must surely count as one of the Cape’s more underperforming cellars.

Return to Warwick

Louis Nel has almost returned to Warwick, which he left at the end of 2007 to go to Hidden Valley. “Almost”, because it’s apparently not a completely full-time appointment – he remains committed not only to his own-label wines but also to a little bit of work at Hidden Valley (remember the slight confusion earlier this year when it looked as though Dave Hidden’s cellar was going to be mothballed, and then this was denied and we were told that Louis was remaining, and wines would continue to be produced?). Anyway, it seems that Warwick were unlucky enough to lose their winemaker who had to suddenly return to the USA for family reasons – and lucky enough that Louis was availablable to help out, with harvest looming. It’ll be interesting to see if the temporary becomes permanent. Nothing about it all yet on the Warwick website, strangely enough, given how up to date Mike Ratcliffe’s PR usually is.

Better than terroir

Andre van Rensburg came bubbling up to me at the recent Big Five tasting, where his Vergelegen White was to be compared very satisfactorily (brilliantly, in fact) with that grand-dame of Bordeaux, Château Laville-Haut Brion. He knows how I enjoy the photos he sends me of all the splendid wildlife now being caught by concealed cameras on the huge Vergelegen estate. “They’ve seen a second leopard!” he said. I told him how much better I thought Vergelegen’s wines were all tasting to me these days, now that I knew of the leopards, caracal, honey badgers et al prowling so close to the vines. “Yes,” he agreed – “the French might have terroir, but they they haven’t got leopards!”

Human Rights

The much-respected organisation Human Rights Watch is at present conducting research for a major report on the human rights implications of labour and social conditions in the Western Cape’s wine industry (poor wages, housing problems and evictions, endemic alcoholism, etc). Not difficult to imagine that the report is unlikely to give a smiling thumbs up; I’d guess that Wosa is (or should be) already gnashing its teeth and wondering how it will handle the adverse publicity.

South Africa is immensely vulnerable to international pressure and international and local forces who have long been muttering about how utterly unreformed the Cape wine industry is, especially in connection with the conditions of the workers. (By the way, I wonder what happened to Nosey Pieterse and his noisy threats to take the wine industry to court a  few years back over its essential failure to do anything about alcohol abuse amongst farmworkers?)

This report (which I think will be completed next year sometime) was bound to happen in some form or another, sooner or later. I remember talking about this to a significant figure in Cape wine internationally and wondering at the local complacency and why the lack of real change since 1994 had not already been exposed and exploited and attacked by competitor countries. Because, was the answer, those other countries are equally vulnerable to exposure about the conditions of agricultural labourers – who have a pretty rough time around the world. We’ll see. I think it’ll prove easy to make the South African wine industry look deeply culpable in this respect.

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