The Sands of Wine
On the eve of the 30th birthday of the Cape Winemakers' Guild, Joanne Gibson speaks to the founders
It must have been fairly soul-destroying to be a winemaker in the 1980s. The industry was dominated by the large conglomerates - KWV, Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery and Gilbeys - and those few who grew, made, bottled and marketed their own wines operated in isolation, denied access to international research and technology and unable to export due to sanctions.
Determined to keep innovating, sharing their knowledge, and benchmarking their own wines against the world's best, a group of eight winemakers got together on August 24 1982 at Welgemeend Estate near Paarl with one objective: to pool their resources to craft world-class South African wines.
The outcome was the establishment of the Cape Independent Winemakers' Guild by Welgemeend's Billy Hofmeyr (founding chairman), Kevin Arnold (Waterford), Jan Boland Coetzee (Vriesenhof), Peter Finlayson (Bouchard Finlayson), Walter Finlayson (Edgebaston), Etienne le Riche (Le Riche Wines), Braam van Velden (Overgaauw) and Achim von Arnim (Haute Cabriere). At last these independents had a collective voice and an opportunity to change the status quo in an industry largely focused on bulk production for brandy distillation.
"Strange as it seems, in those days we made wine without Rhine riesling, chardonnay or pinot noir," recalls Le Riche. "Even maturation in small oak barrels was very new."
He says it was an exciting time of experimentation despite being "hounded" by overzealous Wine & Spirit Board inspectors. "We were trying to stay legal but it is well known that some cuttings were smuggled into the country in underclothes, and grapes carted around by moonlight to dodge the archaic rules presiding over a clumsy and outdated hierarchy."
From creating the first Bordeaux-style blends to establishing Méthode Cap Classique bubbly, guild members were at the forefront of innovation. And key to doing so was clubbing together to taste benchmark wines from all over the world. "I have memories of many great bottles, such as Lafite 1874 and Clos de Lamray 1949 in magnum," recalls Coetzee. "The wine prices in those days were also interesting - in 1968 I bought a Latour 1966 for R2.10!"
Needless to say, these great wines were not easy to spit out - but Coetzee fondly remembers that the police were rather less strict about drunk driving in those days. "On our way to Welgemeend in Klapmuts for some great wine and food, we would stop at the police station to tell them we'd be driving back at 11pm - very slowly - if they would be so kind as to leave us alone. And they always did!"
Le Riche adds: "We are proud to have been part of the formation of the modern wine industry we have today."
The industry has changed dramatically since the dawn of democracy, when winemakers and viticulturists became free to study or work abroad again. As trade with South Africa opened up, it was no longer necessary or desirable to be seen as "independent", so in 2000 the guild changed its name to the Cape Winemakers' Guild. The rules were also changed to allow prominent winemakers employed by larger organisations to become members.
However, membership is still by invitation only, extended to winemakers who have been responsible for producing outstanding wines for a minimum of five years. Today there are 45 members, including five of the original founder members - Arnold, Coetzee, Peter Finlayson, Le Riche and Van Velden. The primary objective remains the same: to set world-class benchmarks for South African winemaking, most notably in the wines they create exclusively for the annual Nedbank auction, now in its 28th year.
"The challenge is to meet or improve standards every year," says Van Velden. "Exposure to the rest of the world means we've adapted our wine styles to what foreign markets want. On the one hand it's a good thing; on the other hand it makes it more difficult for us to keep a South African identity."
TASTE FOR YOURSELF
*You can taste all the wines going under the hammer this year at two auction showcases: Thursday August 23, 6pm to 9pm, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, and Thursday August 30, 6pm to 9pm at The Atrium, Nedbank, 135 Rivonia Road, Sandton, Johannesburg. Tickets R170, including a tasting glass. Book at www.webtickets.co.za
*Open to the public as well as the liquor and restaurant trade, this year's auction will be held at the Spier Conference Centre on Saturday October 6 from 9am. Call 0218520408 or visit www.capewinemakersguild.com