South Africa is a country of great contrasts. Things have improved today thanks to the crucial national peace accord secured by Nelson Mandela, and a great deal has changed for the better in the past twenty years. However, as you leave Cape Town’s Airport, which has been named after Mandela himself, you cannot ignore the vast stretches of “townships” that are clearly visible from the road. Then, as you get to the Stellenbosch junction, everything changes: you enter an agricultural area and the landscape is now characterised by vineyards, orchards and even olive groves, giving it an almost Mediterranean feel. Were it not for the tall looming mountains, with their jagged forms and reddish colour, this could be a view from the Tuscan Maremma or Provence. But we are at the antipodes, around the 34th parallel of the southern hemisphere, which, in our own hemisphere, corresponds to the areas of Los Angeles and Lampedusa.
The climate here, however, is oceanic, with cool, rainy and windy winters, and hot subtropical summers, and if you come here in August – as I did – you’ll find that it’s the middle of their winter season. The principal wine producing regions are situated to the east and north-east of Cape Town, in the Western Cape State. The three main ones are Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek. Each of these is close to a large mountain, the Trout Hatcherries, Du Toits and Groot Drakenstein respectively. Stellenbosch is the closest to Cape Town and is also the highest wine producing region. Paarl is about twenty kilometres north of Cape Town, while Franschhoek (which literally means “the corner” or “the French hook”) is twenty kilometres to the east. This is an ancient wine producing area, which was founded by the French Huguenots towards the middle of the sixteenth century, using mainly French vine varieties and cultivation systems from their places of origin. So we find the sapling for Grenache, Chenin blanc, Mourvedre and a slightly modified variety for the Syrah. Espaliers with Guyot or spurred cordon pruning for Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon blanc, Cabernet franc and sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There is also a sapling for the Pinotage, the archetypal South African vine, itself a combination between the Pinot noir and Cinsault. The soil is quite similar throughout these regions, with a high percentage of silt and red clay. But there are also areas with shaly soil, closer to the mountains and at higher altitudes, that are more suited for the white berry strain. There are also other areas with good quality viticulture, like Wellington or Robertson Valley. Or even Constantia, at the start of the Cape Peninsula, where Moscato d’Alessandria - which they call Zibibbo in Pantelleria - is used to produce one of the most famous sweet passito wines in the world. There is no question, however, that the first three areas are the most important, both in terms of the quantities they produce and the quality of their wines.
I chose to visit the cellars of the Rupert group because of the impressive growth of their wines in recent years. They are now considered to be amongst the very best in South Africa, thanks also to a very successful wine making style that makes little of no concessions to the so-called “international style”. This approach is instead based on a highly consistent research for a balance in terms of taste and territorial characteristics that are expressed in a very precise manner, thus enabling the most prestigious wines to have a “terroir” definition. Moreover, Johann Rupert is one of the leading South African entrepreneurs and he owns companies all throughout the world, almost all of which are in the luxury sector. Cartier, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, Panerai, are all controlled by him. He is a shy and kind man, very different from the overwhelming entrepreneurial figure many may imagine.
He is a great supporter of Nelson Mandela, and a large oil portrait of the former leader hangs in his apartment in the L’Ormarins estate, near Franschhoek. He is above all a highly cultured and sensitive man, a founding member of the WWF and a highly effective philanthropist. Since 2001, when his younger brother Anthonij – who, along with their father, was the real creator of the wine producing business– was killed in a road accident, he has also managed the family’s wine cellars. Some time ago he even named the most prestigious line after his late brother thus giving rise to Anthonij Rupert Wines, which is based in Franschhoek. He owns many vineyards throughout South Africa, and also owns Cape of Good Hope, Terra del Capo and Protea, whose wines are produced in the central cellar in L’Ormarins, which also serves as the productive centre for all the other wines of the group. In addition to these, although they don’t yet have their own production lines, there are the Riebeek Creek vineyards - which grown typical Rodano varieties - that are about one-hundred and fifty kilometres north of Cape Town. Alongside this is the Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons, “joint-venture” in Paarl with Edmond de Rothschild, that is currently held by Benjamin de Rothschild, the owner in Haut-Medoc of Chateau Clarke and other magnificent wine estates in Argentina and New Zealand, and a “sister” cellar with a completely autonomous management. The management of La Motte is also completely autonomous and is owned exclusively by Hanneli Rupert, Johann’s sister. It is also situated in Franschhoek, less than one kilometre from L’Ormarins.
Questions When did your family first embark on its activities in the winemaking sector?
Answer My father Anton Rupert began in 1966. My brother Anthonij took over the reins of the activity at the end of the Seventies, after his studies at Geisenheim, the famous German university reputed to have one of the world’s best oenology faculties, which is located in Rheinessen. I never wished to compete with him, deeming him very expert and professional, and I looked after the family’s other activities. My sister Hanneli, on the other hand, set up her own company, La Motte, not far from here, which she manages completely independently.
Q. Three wineries, all in the Franschhoeck district, lying to the east of Stellenbosch and Paarl, the two most eminent denominations in South Africa. It is apparently a minor area; yet you have constructed perhaps the three best viticulture businesses in the country. Was this a planned and rational choice or was there a spot of luck involved?
A. You are right. It has to be said that the terrain here in the Franschhoek district is identical to that in Stellenbosch, which incidentally lies not more than twenty kilometres from here. Then, Stellenbosch is a university town and also owes its fame to this. In reality, grape cultivation in Franschhoek is at least as old as the other place, considering that there are testimonies dating back to the mid-Seventeenth century.
Q. The original L’Ormarins has now become Anthonij Rupert Wine, a company that you dedicated to the memory of your brother, who sadly died in 2001, and actually dates from the late 1600s. What is the sense in defining South African winemaking as “New World” when it is at least as old as that in Bordeaux?
A. No sense at all, in fact. From a wine perspective, this part of the world is like a piece of Europe stuck on to the bottom of Africa. The terrains, hence, are among the oldest on Earth.
Q. You are one of the most famous entrepreneurs in the world. How do you consider your adventure in the wine sphere? Is it always a business, or is there also room for sentiment?
A. Wine is not business; it is passion. It is part of the world of emotions, like the sound of a Ferrari engine. The production of alcohol and spirits, though, can be a business, and large global companies are living proof of this. But that is industry, while wine is a craft. And then, the wine world is full of great people, people of quality and noble sentiment such as perhaps would not be found in any other sector of human activity.
Q. You are involved in several luxury companies. Is there affinity between them and your wineries?
A. There is no proximity between luxury and wine. Principally because producing a fine watch or luxury car requires planning and organizing in a structural sense. With wine, this is not possible. We take whatever Nature gives us; our activity takes place in the open air and is subject to the elements. When you buy a luxury item you have precise expectations, and so there must be standards that are exact and always repeatable. This is impossible with wine. It changes every year. It has to represent the diversity that every harvest brings. We are not completely organic, but we try to follow certain practices that are typical of organic viticulture. For example, we use natural, non-selected yeasts. And this can determine quite significant differences in the characteristics of the wine in the various vintages.
Q. Much is spoken of the Far East, and China in particular, as possible new markets for exporting quality wines. What do you think of this?
A. In the Far East, but I would say throughout the world, everything depends on the tastes of the people and their eating and drinking habits. Whether or not spicy food is eaten, for example. Then, I have an idea of my own: I divide people into tea drinkers and coffee drinkers. The former are less used to tannins, and almost instinctively they prefer lighter wines with fewer tannins. In the Far East they mainly drink tea; but so, too, in Great Britain. In America and in the south of Europe more coffee is drunk, so the people appreciate more tannic and full-bodied wines. In general, this is the case, if you look.
Q. Well, that analysis is at least original, and it might even be true. But let us continue our interview. Wine, art and culture are part of the tradition of your family at least as much as, and maybe more than, your various economic and financial activities. Your sister Hanneli is a world-famous mezzo-soprano, and you are among the founding
members of the WWF, just to cite a couple of examples. Do you think it is necessary in the modern world to combine art, ethics and the economy?
A. You are asking me a philosophical question. In reply, I will quote Seneca, who said that modesty and ethics must go further, and represent principles even stricter than those allowed by law.
Q. What you are saying could be completed by the ideas of synthesis between economics, ethics and justice expressed by the great Indian economist Amartya Sen, and your president Nelson Mandela, of whom I spy here a marvellous portrait.
A. I totally agree.
Q. And back to us. You are also a wine enthusiast. Apart from your own, what wines do you prefer? Anything Italian?
A. I like discovering wines before the media starts talking about them. In the Seventies I happened to drink a wonderful Spanish wine, Vega Sicilia from Ribera del Duero. My brother Anthonij discovered Etienne Guigal’s Cote Rotie wines, La Turque and La Landonne, before I did, and he helped me to fall in love with them. Then, a lot depends on the situation. The great Burgundies are undoubtedly excellent, but by now they are so expensive that I am not sure that those who drink them are able to appreciate them, because only extremely rich people, who often know nothing about wine, can afford them, and they drink them only as a status symbol and to show off in restaurants. Recently, Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator, let me taste a Marcassin Pinot Noir, made in Calistoga in the Napa Valley by oenologist Helen Turley. It was fantastic. Maybe also because women pay more attention to the details than we do. Among Italians, I know Piero Antinori well; he is a friend.
Q. I know that you do not particularly like appearing in public and giving interviews, so it only remains for me to thank you, also on behalf of our readers, for your kindness and your time.
A. Thank you.
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