Tim James: SA wine and German aristocrats
By Tim James, 21 May 2018
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).
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.