From the November issue of Business Day WANTED: For all Francois van Zyl’s constant wisecracks, he is a committed and highly competent winemaker who has played a key role in not only taking Stellenbosch property Laibach organic but ensuring it can easily hold its own against its conventionally farmed neighbours.
He finished his studies at Elsenburg agricultural college in 1999 where he was a top student and immediately started at Laibach. Since then he has worked international vintages in Rioja (2001), Pomerol (2002), Margaux (2003) while also acting as a winemaking consultant in Serbia from 2006 to 2010.
Aged 39, he is married to Marietjie and they have a daughter called Christine, who he describes as “six going on 16”. They live on Laibach with two dogs: spaniel called Lisa, and SPCA rescue dog, Charlie/ “He’s a cross between fox, squirrel, mongoose…”.
You’re on record that Cabernet Sauvignon needs a bit of leaf-roll virus if it’s going to be good. Are you being serious?
Why not? If the vineyard is planted on the right terroir, I think you can get away with it. Some of the best wines ever made in the 1990ss surely had some virus. Do you think Paul Sauer 1995 was virus free? Best SA wine I’ve ever drunk.
Over the past two decades, alcohol levels on local reds have climbed steadily higher as winemakers chase grape ripeness. What’s your opinion about this? How do we reverse the trend?
We have become obsessed with producing black syrup with lots of wood because of ratings. Veritas and many other competitions as well as judging for Platter’s all take place in winter when wines are cooler and alcohol levels are hidden a bit. Wine with classic firm tannins taste a bit bitter and don’t usually get treated fairly. If more competitions could be judged in Paarl at the height of summer with the wines served at “room” temperature, we would soon see a big stylistic change.
Laibach is certified organic. What are advantages of this?
After a day in the vineyards, I don’t feel like a chemical experiment so that has to be good. More generally, it brings back balance in the vineyard, something which is essential to making good wine.
You made wine in Serbia from 2006 to 2010. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
Through a good friend of mine Thomas Seeger, who is a well-known German winemaker. Best experience was the amount and quality of wine we drank every night. I probably drank more First Growths, Tokai and German Rieslings in this time than anybody in South Africa. Chateau Ausone was on the menu a lot.
What has been your most memorable wine experience?
There have been a couple. My first day at Laibach.Mmeeting my wife at Caroline’s Red Wine Review in 2002. My harvest in Pomerol in 2002…
You say being in the wine business would drive you crazy if you didn’t play golf. What’s the appeal of the sport for you?
Relaxing and meeting great people. I am a bit of a workaholic so being outside and away from the cellar is great for body and soul.
Between one and four, depending on season.
Impossible to pick only one. Pearl Valley, Elements, Humewood, Leopard Creek…
You’re also an outdoors enthusiast. Describe your perfect long weekend.
Camping at Stormsriver mouth, making a paella after a round or two of golf, sipping some German Riesling or some local Chardonnay, ending with a bottle of Laibach Claypot Merlot and a Islay single malt whisky.