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Tim James: SA wine and German aristocrats

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The contribution of Germans to Cape winemaking is extraordinarily large – really, it needs to be properly researched and written up sometime. It started right at the beginning, with numerous Germans employed by the Dutch East India Company as soldiers and servants – many of them among the “free burghers” who were so instrumental in establishing the wine industry at the Cape in the 17th century. Much later, German influence in the 20th century was enormous – not only through the Germans living here (and apparently there were so many in a particular part of Stellenbosch that it became known as Die Deutsche Ecke) and working in the wine industry, but also through the many local winemakers who studied in Germany. Gottfried Mocke of Boekenhoutskloof was one of the latest, but possibly the first was the illustrious viticulturist Abraham von Perold, who went as a postgraduate to the University of Halle in 1904 – while his Germanic proclivities  took a more malignant form during the Nazi era.

Some have even idly speculated that the especial success of white winemaking in South Africa has something to do with the German tradition. And the German name of Lieberstein, the hugely successful off-dry white wine of the 1960s, was presumably not coincidence, based as the wine was on the German-developed modern technology of cold fermentation.

If the first Germans at the Cape were distinctly proletarian or peasant-class, later connections took on a distinctly aristocratic colouring at times. There have been three German barons significantly involved with Cape wine, to my knowledge. The first was Carl Baron von Babo – actually an Austrian – who was the Cape Colony’s government viticulturalist from 1884, and for a few years also manager of Groot Constantia, the government wine farm. He apparently died just a decade later, but had already returned to Europe after, it seems, a short and not notably brilliant career here.

The second I know of was Alexander Baron von Essen, who with his wife Ingrid (an architect, and from the wealthy Miele family) founded the Capaia estate in the late 1990s amongst the Philadelphia wheatfields south of the Swartland. It was a hugely ambitious and costly project with, for example, all the vinestocks imported, and one of the largest arrays of oak fermentation vessels in the world. Capaia never totally met these ambitions, however. It must be said that one of the reasons for that in the earlier years at least was the rapid turnover of local winemakers (held as inherently inferior to the grand European winemakers given charge of the cellar), and that in turn was connected to the aristocratic-feudal tone that pervaded the place. There was much bad luck at Capaia, perhaps, including an egregiously fraudulent accountant. The marriage of the owners broke up, and the Baroness became sole owner – with another aristocrat of German lineage taking an ownership share in 2015: Stephan von Neipperg. A baron too? Decanter magazine called him that, but the family website refers to earl in English, Graf in German, and comte in French (the last especially relevant, as the great Neipperg wine holdings are in Bordeaux, where Comte Stephan von Neipperg is a very important figure).

Ernie Els Wines
Ernie Els Wines. Now under German baronial ownership.

The latest German baronial involvement is at Ernie Els (think of a less aristocratic name than “Ernie” if you can!) and at Stellenzicht. Businessman and major wine-collector Baron Hans von Staff-Reitzenstein (ah, there’s a serious name!) bought his first Stellenbosch property in 2015, the wine-loving baron having, I’m told, looked around the world (Bordeaux and Tokaij were mentioned) for a good investment in wine. He also acquired the overwhelming share of the brand: to give a modicum of credibility to the whole enterprise, the famous golfer kept a quarter share of the latter. Baron Hans visits a few times per year, but sensibly leaves most to his MD Louis Strydom, winemaker at Ernie Els from the start.

Then in 2015 the Baron bought Stellenzicht, the nearby historic Helderberg property where Distell and German financier Hans Schreiber (no aristocrat he, so far as I know) had collaborated in essentially ruining it in the name of quick profit. This purchase was undoubtedly a Good Thing for Stellenzicht, and thus Cape wine. The terribly virused vineyards at Stellenzicht are being progressively replaced; the old cellar is being fixed up and will be under the charge of L’Ré Burger, who’d been assistant winememaker to Louis at Ernie Els for a few years. The two properties will be managed together, with the Ernie Els cellar shrinking to manage just the grander wines bearing that name – everything else will happen at Stellenzicht. The Ernie Els cellar and visitor areas are being closed for a year. The next vintage of the Ernie Els wines to be made at the revamped home cellar will be 2020.

All the above counts as a lengthy digression. Originally I was intending to say something about Ernie Els wines. Given my fascination with the background story, that must now wait till next time.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

3 COMMENTS

  1. There was also Prof Hahn.
    Hahn credited von Babo for introducing the methods of making light (unfortified) wines at the Cape. Hahn wrote in 1910:
    “The making of light natural wines is now firmly rooted in the western coast districts of the Colony, where climate and soil are most favourable for growing grapes suitable for making light wines. It is well to remember that it is now a quarter of a Century ago since Baron von Babo introduced the method of making light wines at the Cape. Our farming population is very conservative and rather inclined to look with distrust on all innovations. It was therefore natural that only a few wine-farmers adopted the new process and that there were many who did their utmost to discredit and to decry the making of light wine, or as they put it “von Babo’s wine.” But when the late Mr. De Waal succeed Baron von Babo as manager of Constantia, and continued to practice and to teach the new method of making light wine, a larger number of wine-farmers and also wine merchants became converted to “von Babo’s principle.” One frequently hears the remark that the late Mr. De Waal was the real reformer of the wine industry of the Gape. No doubt the late Mr. De Waal was an energetic and most intelligent promoter of our viticulture; but it must not be forgotten that Mr. De Waal was a pupil, a most docile pupil, of Baron von Babo and what Mr. De Waal taught and practised as regards to light winemaking was exactly what he had learned from his teacher and friend, Baron von Babo. But Mr. De Waal was an Afrikaner and had the ear of his countrymen, whereas Baron von Babo was a foreigner, and was always considered and treated as such.”

  2. Thanks Hennie. That’s really interesting. I must say that my bet had always been on JP de Waal (about whom I’ve tried without much success to find out more). – Tim

  3. Dear wine lovers,

    I am writing from Germany and am happy about this website here.

    For some years now I have been deepening my knowledge especially for South African wine, and this website helps me tremendously. This article is fantastic, because here in Germany there are very few to none information of the German Influences in the history of South African viticulture.

    Keep it up, I’m an inquisitive reader and looking forward to more background knowledge.

    With my best greetings from Berlin

    Mike

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