Wine-cultural richness in the Cape

It’s perhaps dangerous to visit a wine farm such as Annandale – it’s all too easy to forget the urgent need for all sorts of change in the South African wine industry and to succumb to the unpretentious, rustic charm of the place and it’s all too easy to be convinced that without people such as Hempies du Toit and the sort of wines he makes the Cape wine culture would be much the poorer.

But it’s all real – the need, the charm and the conviction.

Annandale’s atmosphere is that of a simple working farm (rare in Stellenbosch nowadays) though visitors are welcomed with warmth – and sometimes even with ­sausage cooked on the fire in the tasting room.

A crooked sign on the wire gate invites visitors to ring the bell. A visitor with an appointment, I searched for the bell and then for Hempies. I eventually found him behind the outbuildings, off-loading a huge diesel generator (which testified to his expectations of Eskom). We lingered (with me looking mostly at the spectacular view and Hempies at his expensive lump of metal) and then moved to the tasting room in the old farm building.

The cobwebs at Muratie are much more splendid but Annandale is trying hard and they’re gathering impressively on the massive old walls. Slightly more carefully dusted (or less carefully neglected) are reminders of a personal past – of young Hempies when he was a famous Springbok and Western Province rugby forward, of his life on the Alto Estate where his father, Piet, was manager and winemaker (and later co-owner) and where Hempies himself took charge of the cellar in 1976.

He moved to his own part of the historic Annandale farm at the foot of the Helderberg in the mid-1990s. There are pieces of obscure old farm machinery and cellar equipment, and among them a stuffed springbok (of the four-legged kind), about which Hempies has a bittersweet tale.

When he decided to make wine here (first vintage 1996), it was even less the slick sort of operation it now is — “about two years after the Stone Age”, he said, after the initial improvements. Some of his rudimentary solutions to make his cellar operational are still as modern as it gets, including the resourceful cooling system created by diverting water from a nearby stream through the cooling jackets on his tanks.

And the wines? Well, they’re as one might expect, perhaps even better. Most of the farm’s grapes go elsewhere (they’re highly sought after by the likes of Rupert & Rothschild) but Hempies makes small quantities of elegant, classically styled reds – regularly a shiraz and a cabernet sauvignon (he talks of bottling the 2004 “soon”) – but there are occasional others: a port, a merlot, a “heritage blend” of cabernet, shiraz and cinsaut, and even a sauvignon blanc made from West Coast grapes into the sort of wine a rugby-playing red-wine lover would enjoy (and me too, for that matter).

Could there one day be a black former rugby player with wine in his blood, perhaps a descendant of the slaves on whose labour the Cape wine industry was largely built, making wine in the shadows of the Stellenbosch mountains?

It’s a pleasing thought – and if he makes a good, traditional wine, and raises a glass to the persistence of the past in the better present, so much the better for Cape wine culture.

First published in the Mail & Guardian, 22-28 July 2011

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