Tim James: Celestina – a fine example of small-scale winemaking

By , 14 May 2024



Celestina Agulhas White 2023.

Back long, long ago when I lived in England for some years, I remember being impressed when I was told that, on any given Saturday afternoon, when crowds flocked to see their football teams in action, there were in fact more people playing soccer than watching it. A lot of school matches I suppose, but also a wealth of small amateur leagues at all levels. A pleasing statistic it seems to me, and I hope it’s still true (and true everywhere, for that matter). To claim to love soccer and then to actually get out there to play the game as well as watch it, seems right to me. It’s good when ordinary people do things and don’t just leave it up to the highly skilled to do it for them.

I’d like to transfer that concept to the wine world, but I don’t think it’s possible. To play a game of soccer you just need – at minimum – a bit of space, something to serve for goalposts, a ball, two teams, and a ref to swear at for being blind and partial. For wine lovers to make wine would require, obviously, such a whole lot more (as well as aspects of it being of dubious legality) as to make the idea prohibitive for most people. But there are other ways of being sometimes involved in ways that go beyond the comparatively passive consumption of the stuff – though I wouldn’t suggest there’s any problem in leaving it at that.

In fact, drinking with a friend and talking about it is an even better positive engagement, I suppose, and belonging to a wine-tasting group even better. I wonder just how many such groups there are around the country. Through them, you can even get involved in winemaking, in a small way. Blaauwklippen has done a signal service to the industry for 40 years now, with their annual Blending Competition and I see that in 2023 there were 64 participating wine clubs. The winner last year was (were?) the Doktors van der Merwe.

There are inevitably those, however, who do want to make their own wine, and some pretty ambitious wineries have grown out of the likes of those who call themselves garagistes, starting off in a very small way in something like a garage and snatching time from their day jobs. I think for example of Pierre Rabie of Giant Periwinkle, which has grown into a highly regarded producer with its own cellar, though still fairly small. Pierre is an advocate and there do seem to be a significant number of lawyers among the few who’ve made something of a go of it. In fact, I’ve suddenly remembered I wrote a whole little article on the subject, back in 2016 – in which I remarked that “I might not understand exactly why there are so many of them (maybe even a few dozen in the Cape), but I do understand how this is the case – lawyers make a lot of money.”

The Garagiste Movement of South Africa has never decisively taken off, however, as far as I can tell, though it has had a few sputters of activity (and Giant Periwinkle was a member). The website looks to have not been attended to recently – if ever. So I have no idea just how many garagistes there are out there, with a few barrels or more for the consumption, mostly, of themselves and their friends. I hope more than I realise.

Caroline Rillema.

I had lunch the other day with a small-scale winemaker, who does things on a pretty professional basis – and makes an excellent wine. In fact, the Celestina estate of Caroline Rillema and Ray Kilian, near Baardskeerdersbos in the Agulhas district on the Cape South Coast, must be at least amongst the tiniest in South Africa. There are just under two hectares of semillon and sauvignon blanc, eight kilometres or so from the sea, and now there is a proper wine-cellar too.

Previously (from the first bottling in 2009, that is), Celestina was made by Dirk Human at Black Oystercatcher, with Caroline’s input. She told me of her very mixed feelings at seeing the loads of grapes being driven away after the harvest off her vines. But in 2023 the truck didn’t come for them and they were vinified by Caroline herself in her new cellar. Pride of place there, perhaps, goes to the Italian clay pot, in which the semillon is now made; the sauvignon is in older barrel. Of course, it’s not a simple matter – and certainly not inexpensive – to set up a new producing cellar, what with the certifications and other paperwork, getting the three-phase electricity installed, and all the stuff that garagistes also discover when they grow and go commercial.

Fittingly, the new vintage has a new label, grand enough, but light and charming too.

Caroline has been a wine professional for decades, now – most notably as a retailer in Cape Town, with two branches of Caroline’s Fine Wines, so this doesn’t qualify as a fine bit of amateurism: Celestina Agulhas White is a first-class wine, and the 2023 perhaps the finest yet. It’s an equal blend of sauvignon and semillon, fresh and vital, textured and deep-flavoured, with a dry stoniness that’s surely emphasised by the amphora, enhancing the cool-climate finesse.

Unlike other small producers, Caroline of course has no immediate problem with distribution, and Celestina is available for R329 from her shops and the Caroline’s Fine Wines website.

  • 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.


5 comment(s)

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    Frik Kirsten | 14 May 2024

    Hi Tim, the Garagiste movement is active and have quite a few members producing interesting and excellent wines. I can set up a get-together and tasting. Maybe you can write something about the wines.

    Caroline | 14 May 2024

    There are many ways to buy wine and many different price strategies that come into play on the part of those selling same to customers. A retailer has the most expenses of all, as overheads are high, not least of which is the rent for the premises. In the shop, we hold stocks of 800+ wines, ready for customers to pop in and pick a few bottles, usually recommended by a staff member who is absolutely passionate about wine and all its intricacies.
    Those who sell wine online only, do not have the abovementioned expenses. I do know, though, that we are 15 – 20% more expensive than other online platforms is an exaggeration.

      Jos | 14 May 2024

      That’s fair, not knocking you but just to prove my point I took 5 random bottles from the first 2 pages of your website and compared them to the average price I found from other retailers:

      Alheit Gone South Chenin Blanc 2022 is 11.2% more expensive
      Anthonij Rupert L’Ormarins Blanc de Blancs 2019 is 22.0% more expensive
      Ataraxia Chardonnay 2023 is 11.0% more expensive
      Babylonstoren Nebukadnesar 2021 is 55.6% more expensive
      Anthonij Rupert Cabernet Franc 2018 is 24.0% more expensive

      So it not everything is at least 15% more expensive but I was hardly being over the top.

    Richard | 14 May 2024

    I wouldn’t know if that is the case, however almost every wine is tasted before making the grade for a “Fine Wine” retailer, so one is rarely disappointed. The store managers are exceptionally knowledgeable, on both local and imported wines. The budget friendly wines are great value.

    Jos | 14 May 2024

    While I would love to support her, she regularly charges 15-20% more than all other retailers on all wines on her website… which is a bit much.

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