Christian Eedes: OD winemakers

By , 28 April 2018



Originally published in March issue of The Old Diocesan: While Bishops (37) runs Grey Bloem (45)and Paul Roos (48) close when it comes to the most Springbok rugby players ever produced, you might think it fanciful to suggest that the school has had quite the same impact when it comes to South African wine. After all, it’s an English-medium place of learning and the industry, traditionally centred on Stellenbosch and surrounds, has always been largely Afrikaans…

That said, South African fine wine has enjoyed a golden era since political transformation occurred in the early 1990s, quality levels on a steep and seemingly endless upward curve, and Old Diocesans have played a prominent role in bringing this about.

Bruce Jack (1987G) is chairman of the ODU but that is not why he is getting first mention here as have been few more innovative figures in the local industry over the last 20 years or so than him. After acquiring a Masters in Literature at St. Andrews, Scotland, he then took himself off to Roseworthy, Australia’s finest oenology faculty before starting Flagstone Winery in 1998, its original location being Cape Town’s Waterfront. 10 years later, he would sell Flagstone to Constellation Brands, which was then world’s largest wine company (later to become Accolade Wines).

Jack’s pet project now is making wines on the family farm called The Drift, situated on the Akkedisberg between Caledon and Napier. Here he works with a number of varieties which are somewhat unusual for South Africa, wines to look out for including Gift Horse Barbera and the exotic red blend under the Moveable Feast label.

Another great success story of the modern era is that of Jordan Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, Gary Jordan (1978G) and wife Kathy celebrating their 25th consecutive harvest last year. The two wines of theirs which arguably attract the most attention are Nine Yards Chardonnay and the Cobblers Hill red blend but all bottlings in the range are more or less accomplished. In addition, the Jordans have proved themselves shrewd operators when it comes to the wine tourism business and the property boasts a restaurant, bakery, luxury suites and conference facilities. In addition, they own High Timber restaurant in London, an important showcase for SA wine.

“We were encouraged to think and analyse rather than just regurgitate information and this is one of the reasons why I have never subscribed to recipe winemaking – to make great wines, you can’t take a standardised approach. Every vintage is different with its own particular challenges none more so than 2018!”

Anthony Hamilton Russell (1979F) is also firmly established as an industry leader. His late father Tim made a break with the establishment when he founded the family farm Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley outside Hermanus in 1975, then the most southerly site in the country and one of the coolest. The son took over in 1991 and finally bought the concern in 1994, and today the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are among the most highly regarded in the country.  He makes wine on two other properties in the valley, Ashbourne and Southern Right.

“As a top school, Bishops inevitably engendered higher expectations for further study and success in general. My ultimate attainment of three degrees may have something to do with having been to Bishops. At least one of these degrees – an MBA from Wharton in the US – has been useful in remaining profitable in a challenging industry. Being profitable enables carrying on in the wine industry. And being regularly profitable enables a greater degree of purism and a greater ability to pursue quality. “

The epitome of boutique, and with a deserved reputation of excellence, is De Trafford in Stellenbosch, owned by David Trafford (1981W) and wife Rita. This mountain property was acquired by the family in 1976 but it was only in 1992, after quota restrictions were lifted, that the cultivation of vineyards began in earnest, Trafford giving up a career in architecture to take on winemaking – the house style has tended to big and bold in recent times but the wines somehow manage to retain balance and are particularly long-lived, the Cabernet Sauvignon perhaps the wine he is best known for.

Trafford, who more recently established vineyards at the mouth of the Breede River near Swellendam, the property called Sijnn, suggests that Bishops inculcated in him “a quiet confidence, discipline (and a resistance to discipline) and an ability to think out the box despite a rather conservative environment”.

Villiera, started by cousins Jeff and Simon Grier (both 1975S) in 1983, emphatically demonstrates that it is possible to be commercially successful and ethically sound – the property includes a 220ha wildlife sanctuary and a large portion of its energy requirements are supplied by solar installation. Villiera makes many wines, all sound and some excellent, and is known in particular for offering good value. The speciality is Methode Cap Classique and the top of the range Monro Brut is well worth seeking out. 

Jeff, who continues to oversee winemaking, says of his time at Bishops:  “While at school, I had no idea I would become a winemaker, but the broad education I received there and the people I met there, sparked a general curiosity to gain knowledge about more than just my own country. I had a desire to travel even when it was difficult for South Africans to travel. My father also played a role in this but then again he was also educated at Bishops. When I did graduate as a winemaker, all I wanted was to visit other wine regions, discover other styles and meet other people with other ideas. This had a massive impact on my approach to wine and winemaking.”

These are just some of the OD stalwarts of the industry, limitations of space precluding mention of all those currently involved. In any event, it is not necessarily how many ODs have chosen a career path in wine but rather the weight of their contribution. And the influence of Bishops on SA wine is only set to continue with a wave of younger ODs starting to assert themselves, the likes of Chris “Butch” Alheit of Alheit Vineyards, James Downes of Shannon Vineyards in Elgin, Alex Starey of Keermont and Justin van Wyk of Beau Constantia  and Constantia Glen making some of the most exciting stuff around.

  • Bishops is an independent boys’ school in Cape Town founded in 1849.


2 comment(s)

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    Charles Withington | 4 May 2018

    Hi there Christian….Would also be an interesting article to dig out some of the previous generations of ODs in wine and who laid some very good foundations, at really tough times in the industry. So for example is Reg Nicholson (I have managed to dig out his obituary in Wynboer). Far less flash in those days. And lucky for the likes of Reg, to have compatriots such as the legendary Fans Malan and Sydney Back, to share the platform, and who came from those great platteland schools Paul Roos and Paarl Boys High.

    houboerehou | 28 April 2018

    great article.
    would love to read a similar article on Elsenburg , though not a school , great winemakers

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