Cabrière’s Wine Evolution: Sun, Soil, Vine, Father, Son

Cabrière’s Wine Evolution: Sun, Soil, Vine, Father, Son
Takuan von Arnim, the cellarmaster at Haute Cabrière. Photo: Christi Nortier

The Von Arnim family colours are red and white, and their motto is 'Sun, Soil, Vine, Man'. Perhaps it is a coincidental nod to the red and white wine which runs through their veins. Achim von Arnim built a classic South African vineyard and brand from scratch, and seemingly not much has changed at Haute Cabrière in the six years since his son took over the reins from him. However, ‘it’s an evolution, not a revolution’.

When the Von Arnim family first started visiting Franschhoek, it was for the scones and whipped cream at the Swiss Farm Excelsior Hotel on a Sunday. According to the matriarch of the family, this was the town’s only claim to fame back then.

Years later the patriarch would describe the town as Sleeping Beauty and exclaim that “…someone had to come and kiss her!”. Along with other wine estates in the region, the Von Arnim family contributed to the rise of the Franschhoek wine region at Boschendal and then at Haute Cabrière. Now, 30 years after Achim von Arnim made one of South Africa’s first Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) wines, his eldest son Takuan is at the helm of the ship. He too is waltzing with Sleeping Beauty, tracing the same steps his father did.

Takuan says that when he finally figures out how it happened that he became integrated into the cellar at Haute Cabrière, he should write a novel about it. Perhaps he will then write a sequel about the decade he spent with his father in that cellar. “It has been so much work and passion that I can’t really pinpoint when it all started,” laughs Takuan.

His father, Achim von Arnim, was the cellarmaster at Boschendal when he started Haute Cabrière where he made one of South Africa’s first MCCs, the term used for our take on French Champagne, and the country’s first still blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. To this day, they only grow those two cultivars. Their MCC is sold under the name Pierre Jourdan to pay tribute to the French Huguenot to whom the farm was granted in 1694. Their still wine range is sold under the name Haute Cabrière to pay tribute to the Huguenots’ French home town.

Achim became known for his larger-than-life personality and talents as a cellar aster, poet and artist within the local wine industry. His wife Hildegard has a passion for vine and wine, having grown up on a wine farm in Germany. Their four children are all involved in wine in some way today.

Red and white flowers are grown around the tasting room and deck to symbolise the family colours. Photo: Christi Nortier

I don’t think I ever thought, or dreamt, or wanted to become a cellarmaster, which I am today, for many reasons. Maybe I didn’t believe that I could do it or didn’t want the responsibility, but it just kind of happened,” says Takuan, the eldest child of the Von Arnim family.

He admits that he wasn’t like some of his other family members who “… were probably drinking the top wines of the world in between breastfeeding. I don’t think that was me.”

His mother tells the story of when he was just 16 years old and already making an impression on the farm. A pump had arrived from Italy to be fitted into the original restaurant. Alas, two engineers and Achim could not get it to work. According to Hildegard, Takuan saw this sorry lot and said: “Shouldn’t all this all be the other way around?” Indeed, when the manual was checked the pump was assembled topsy-turvy to ensure it travelled safely from Italy. Within an hour the pump was working.

After matric, he worked on the farm for a year before heading to Germany to pursue further training in the world of wine. Once completed, he travelled to France, America and Australia where he says he did the most important part of his training. He tried some good and some “crazy” wines, all to understand it better. “It fuelled a drive for perfection. It is so important to taste different wines so that you can relate to customers,” he explains.

Six years later, he returned to Franschhoek for the celebration to open the new tasting room. His mother asked him to stay on and help at the farm, and so he did.

He [Achim] had pushed himself as a one man show. It had developed so far, so quickly, so it needed more structure and logistics,” says Takuan.

Hildegard says he brought with him from his travels a sense of modern efficiency and his natural sixth sense of logic. Father and son worked together for 10 years before Takuan became the cellarmaster when his father retired in 2013. Takuan describes that decade as “…crazy, interesting and inspiring”. A novel there for sure, he says.

At one stage it was a huge responsibility and burden. It was a burden in a sense because of the responsibility. You know, your father approaches you and says: ‘Do you realise that one day you will be blending and doing this?’ I wondered how.”

Takuan von Arnim stands beside the family crest in the cellar at Haute Cabrière. Photo: Christi Nortier

In 2016, Takuan revealed a surprise to his father. A Chardonnay Réserve made from 1980s vines. He had wanted to give the grapes a chance to be treated separately, so experimented with them together with Tim Hoek, the assistant cellarmaster.

At the time, Hildegard reminded Achim of something he had once said: “a cellarmaster must have fun in the cellar, otherwise they don’t enjoy their work”. She says letting go of the cellar is like cutting the umbilical cord, but they trust Takuan to experiment and have fun. If it turns out to be good, then she believes it’s a bonus.

Despite having his own subtle way of running the cellar and making wine, Takuan believes in stability.

The most important thing for me here was that I wanted to fulfil whatever his [Achim’s] vision was. As a child, what we went through wasn’t easy because we started off with nothing. I wanted it to come full circle,” he explains.

As his mother says: “Takuan always speaks of an evolution, and not a revolution, in the cellar.”

The sweeping view from the tasting room deck which overlooks some of the vines. Photo: Christi Nortier

So, what has changed? According to Greg de Bruyn, the Platter’s Wine Guide fundi who has reviewed Haute Cabrière wines in the past, the wines have stayed “…remarkably similar over the years… There was a long overlap in the cellar (Takuan started in 2005), so there was never going to be a radical make-over.”

Hildegard has pointed out that whereas Achim preferred an elegant style, Takuan understands that “new world” wine markets want robust, big wines.

Takuan himself says he does not want to change what his father has created, but rather tweak it to improve it.

I looked at my father’s blending styles and refined it into a process flow for stability, continuity and style,” he explains.

The motto stays the same – sun, soil, vine, man.

Haute Cabrière hasn’t put people in boxes. We’ve created wines you can share and enjoy. We haven’t allowed the market to tell us what it wants. If you create something that you believe in and are passionate about, it will be eternal,” says Takuan.

While the ethos is the same, the challenges Takuan faces in the wine industry now are not the same as what his father faced. His father began the estate with very little money and a small team, but that taught them to always re-invest in the company. “What is a company? It’s a good team. Our team is very strong.”

Realising how important a team is, the welfare of that team is important to Takuan. Hildegard has a passion for education so started a centre where the farm workers’ children can be educated and cared for. In addition, staff are up-skilled. The drought has forced the team to work together to save water in creative new ways.

The chandelier made of Dom Perignon bottles which still hangs in the cellar today. Photo: Christi Nortier

Takuan is excited about where the wine industry is headed, especially the rise of African sommeliers and individualism in the cellar.

It’s an amazing world which has so much to give. There is such a drive to it and it doesn’t put you in a box, because there are so many possibilities for learning. There is a drive to learn because no one is right. The guys who think they are right aren’t really passionate about wine. There is such a world of opportunity for wine,” Takuan says, grinning.

When Takuan was born, his father promised his mother that on his first birthday they would drink 30 bottles of Dom Perignon with their friends. They did, and one of them made a glorious chandelier from the bottles which hangs in the cellar today next to the family crest. He was in the cellar before he even realised it. DM


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