The South African wine industry is hardly a homegrown affair. Its first vines came with Jan van Riebeeck. It profited from a foreigner’s (Simon van der Stel) written guidelines for grape-farming as well as the practices he implemented at Constantia. The arrival of the French Huguenots contributed to the overall wine-making competence of the colony; the European settlers of the 18th and 19th centuries added to these skills sets.
Imperial Preference created (and then destroyed) the 19th century export market, while the Anglo-Boer War gave the industry – struggling to recover from the devastation of phylloxera – a new (admittedly temporary) but important consumer market.
The role played by the so-called “flying winemakers” in the immediate post-apartheid era served to fast-track the modernisation of cellar technology, compromised by years of isolation, while the export boom of the past couple of decades has helped the country’s over-enthusiastic growers find markets for their surpluses.
Today foreign investment in the industry is a visible sign that we are part of the international world of wine. The first wave of modern-era buyers dates to the early 1980s, when adventurous speculators who were not put off by South Africa’s pariah status took advantage of the perceived property discount. As it turns out, the money they spent pales in comparison with what is being invested by the more recent crop of French, German, Indian, Czech, American, Ukrainian, British and Italian buyers.
There are so many folk whose deep pockets have made a difference that it is almost impossible to compile a complete list:
Most have been visionaries: Paul Boutinot established Waterkloof high on the Schapenberg, with an extraordinary view over False Bay, building a winery and restaurant which have become iconic statements of place, form and function. With the convenience of an established route to market via his UK-based distribution business, Boutinot was content not to push the brand too hard into the SA market, at least while he was waiting for the vineyards to acquire some age.
Now, with a great winemaking team under Nadia Barnard, he has wines worth showcasing and a restaurant so extraordinary that even Capetonians, spoilt for choice in the Mother City, dutifully undertake the pilgrimage to Greg Czarnecki’s eyrie to rediscover the food and service that Cape Town’s jaded chefs have long forgotten.
The story of Giulio Bertrand at Morgenster is no less impressive, but palpably less rational: in the early 1990s, and aged about 65, he bought the property from the Cloete family (of legendary Vin de Constance fame). At that stage the fabulous 18th century homestead needed some serious investment, while the farm, in Somerset West, alongside Vergelegen, was as neglected as its neighbour had been before Anglo bought it from the Barlows a few years beforehand. It needed a complete planting programme, as well as a winery.
Not frightened off with what this was likely to cost, Bertrand set out to produce olive oil to rival the best of his native Italy. He imported the finest clones and created a nursery from which most of the country’s leading olive producers now source their planting material. His Morgenster oil consistently wins international awards while his wines, made since 2010 by Henry Kotze under the thoughtful but long-distance eye of Pierre Lurton and the team at Chateau Cheval Blanc, have acquired an aesthetic and maturity of their own.
Given Giulio Bertrand’s age when he took on this enterprise, it must be clear that passion and emotion were the driving forces behind his involvement. It’s also taken longer than he could ever have imagined, and this, in turn, has forced him to stay young: late last year he assumed the CEO role. In a few weeks time, he will be celebrating his 90th birthday on the farm.
However, when it comes to the madness of the foreign investors, it’s impossible to outdo May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, erstwhile proprietor of Bordeaux “Supersecond” Chateau Pichon Lalande. In about 2003 she acquired a run-down fruit farm just where Ida’s Valley joins up with the town of Stellenbosch. She then began the slow and laborious process of transforming it into a model wine estate. Roads had to be laid out, vineyards had to be planted from scratch, a winery had to be built and the farm buildings needed to be restored. This is the kind of project which would have proved daunting to even the most youthful landowner – but she took on this challenge just before her 80th birthday, and has continued, into her 90s, to drive it by the sheer force of her personality.
In just over a decade Glenelly has become a successful wine business, exporting roughly 60% of its production at prices which match the returns on domestic sales (a rarity among the country’s producers.) It has a bistro – with a dream view out over the vineyards towards the amphitheatre of the Simonsberg alongside Stellenbosch – serving delicious but not over-complicated food. Madame de Lencquesaing, whose glass collection at Pichon in Bordeaux was a tourist destination in the Medoc, has created a suitably impressive glass museum at Glenelly, open to all visitors to the estate.
In short, what was an ailing fruit farm losing money every year, making no real contribution to the fiscus and forced by its circumstances to keep wages to the minimum, has been transformed into a showpiece wine property. The money spent has created employment across a number of sectors, while the income it produces contributes to the local economy. Revenue from exports, and from foreigners dining at the bistro, adds to the hard currency benefit which the initial investment brought to the country.
There are many who argue that international buyers spoil the game for locals, using their dollars/euros/pounds to tilt the playing fields away from those constrained by rand-based wealth. But here’s the thing: whatever they have spent on acquiring and upgrading estates in South Africa remains forever in the slopes and vineyards of the country’s wine properties. When President Charles De Gaulle was asked to intervene to stop the UK-based consortium led by Viscount Cowdray from acquiring Chateau Latour in 1962 he is said to have dismissed the idea by remarking that the Brits could scarcely remove the soil.
It’s become fashionable in certain circles – which group successful overseas entrepreneurs with the supposed evils of “white monopoly capital” – to decry this kind of investment, to demand state intervention to chase away foreign buyers. Anyone with even a modicum of intelligence knows that this is political grandstanding, playing to an audience which has been kept in ignorance and deprived of formal training in critical thinking by a party and an ideology which cannot afford the scrutiny that knowledge and incisive reasoning would bring.
However, before scoring these cheap points simply to obtain or to stay in power, those muddying the waters should do the basic arithmetic:
Where would the rand be without the capital inflows which cannot leave as easily as investments in the JSE, without the hard currency revenues from wine exports and wine tourism?
Where would employment be without the massive developments that come with the infrastructure and restoration work done on wineland properties?
Those who think that chasing foreign investment away from the winelands is the way forward for the most fragile of the communities in the Western Cape care less for the people they supposedly represent than even the ANC’s Gauteng health department – which blithely sent more than 100 of its most vulnerable charges to their deaths in the Life Esidimeni scandal. DM
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