Passing it on in the family

There’s a particularly interesting aspect to some winemaking changes of recent years: a handing down of duties to the next generation of a family; something that South Africa has seen not too much of over the last century. It’s a very positive development. Of course, for ages – many decades in numerous cases but seldom a century or two – family farms have been passed down from father to (usually) son, but although a number of grape-growing farms have experienced this, there are not too many such wine-producing estates.

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The four-generation winemaker line-up of van Veldens at Overgaauw

A few, perhaps: David van Velden, winemaker at Overgaauw, appears on the back-labels of his bottles alongside pictures of three previous generations of wine-making van Veldens (though the Overgaauw label itself only goes back to 1970). Thys Louw has an even longer past to refer to, where he’s the sixth generation on Diemersdal Estate in Durbanville – but I’m not sure if significant volumes of wine were made by all the forbears: the farm was converted from wheat to mostly vines in the 1920s, and the first wine bottled under the Diemersdal label was a 1987 Dry Red. Diemersdal, like Vergenoegd in Stellenbosch (where John Faure is also the sixth generation – his family have been there nearly 200 years) had agreements with the KWV dating back to 1920.

Meerlust has been owned by the Myburghs since 1757 – but here the wines are made by an outsider (though owner Hannes Myburgh is seriously involved in the estate and its wines), and what I’m talking about here is the passing on of a winemaking tradition in the family, such as has been going on in Europe for many centuries in some cases.

A relevant point in South Africa, of course, is that the “tradition” is, generally, comparatively flexible. In Hermitage, the great Chave domaine has seen a succession of father-to-son vignerons since 1481, and in some ways not a great deal has changed in terms of vineyards and winemaking. That’s an extreme example, of course, but not ridiculously extreme in old Europe. The comparative newness of Cape winemaking traditions and of most Cape winemaking estates means that succession could easily imply revolution.

But it could also imply – even with stirrings and changes by the rising generation – the early sedimentation of a new tradition, and that’s why what we’re starting to see in this regard seems to me positive; even marvellous.

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Christo and Etienne le Riche at their (newish) cellar in Stellenbosch

Let me mention some others where the older generation is gracefully (and probably gratefully!) handing over increasing responsibility to the younger. Christo le Riche is now undoubtedly the main winemaker at the winery his dad Etienne built up over a few decades. Warren Ellis at Neil Ellis Wines. Jean-Pierre Daneel at Jean Daneel Wines. Anri Truter at Beyerskloof – though his famous dad still occupies the “cellarmaster” slot, as Danie Steytler Snr does at Kaapzicht, where Danie Jnr is winemaker, and as Danie de Wet does at DeWetshof where son Peter de Wet is increasingly significant, and as Jacques Borman does at Boschkloof, where son Reenen … ditto.

I’m sure that a bit of diligent research, or even some diligent head-scratching, could make this gratifying list even longer. And time will make it longer still, as the modern Cape wine revolution becomes firmly established and entrenched in vital tradition, and in the soil.

It’ll take a while, but perhaps we’ll soon also get to the point where less and less focus will fall on the winemaker and more on the estate and the tradition. It doesn’t necessarily require a family succession, of course – probably Kanonkop is the closest thing we have to this situation, so far, and there the family significance is not directly in who makes the wine – but it does help.

3 thoughts on “Passing it on in the family

  1. What is especially marvelous is how at Overgaauw and Boschkloof (could be others too but those are the ones where I have first hand knowledge) both of the elders are still involved on a daily basis – shepherding the youngsters, helping them to refine themselves, and being a set of wizened hands to guide while also being truly open to the new generation’s ideas. In both of those estate’s case: the wines made by the new and guided by the old are more than just exemplary but are incomparable to the past, as good as they were.
    This is something that I have taken great note of and love sharing with my American audience as the idea of letting the very young (both at Overgaauw and Boschkloof the new winemakers are under 30, I believe) take the mantel on is never allowed here.

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