The Huguenots are roundly blamed for the SA wine industry. Perhaps a lesser known fact is that some of their descendents are now returning to make wine in France. The following story appeared in the Financial Mail the week before Christmas last year.
Writing on transformation in the wine industry (or the lack thereof) in the Financial Mail in November, Stephan Hofstätter claimed that “land costs of up to R2 million/ha” are one of the major factors impeding “black entry into SA’s R16 billion wine industry.”
Which must have raised a few “if only” chuckles from farmers not blessed with prime Pam Golding terroir. Down south at Gans Bay, Dave Mostert and Wayne Gabb make benchmark Sauvignon Blanc on 105 hectares of vineyards on Lomond at a per hectare land cost around 1% of this – which you can double if you add in the price of the 110 dam they built on the Uilenkraal River, holding 6 million cubic metres of water. Of course, the price rises sharply if you add in Dave’s all singing, all dancing Agusta AirWolf helicopter with dual turbofan engines and retractrable undercarriage which takes cellar technology to a whole new level.
Johannesburg financial outsourcing mogul Dave King also found a helicopter a handy winemaking tool for his vineyards even further south at Elim. But Stellenbosch winemakers are finding a Jumbo jet does the trick for them as they forge ahead with “plan B” – developing vineyards in the southwest of France. The latest winemaker to react to the Roussillon reveille is Johnny Nel from Camberley Wines in the Banhoek Valley for which Mr. Hofstätter’s R2 million/ha number certainly applies.
E34 000 (R340 000) buys 6 ha of “stuffed vineyards (Carignan and Grenache) and two mid-17th century stone cottages” with French filmstar and celebrity vineyard owner Gerard Depardieu and Jeff Grier of Villiea fame, just 3Km down the road. An SA friend has bought a neighbouring plot with “some decent Syrah” on it and Johnny plans to make his first vintage next year as part of a new 10 year scheme. With his Camberley operation now washing its financial face and celebrating a decade of production in the shape of an elegant Cabernet Franc-led blend called Ten, Johnny is up for a new challenge.
He calls it Plan B: “something for my sons if they battle to set themselves up in SA.” Which can easily happen if SA economic factors really do push vineyard land to the Hofstätter R2 million/ha threshold which will surely be the death of the domestic wine market as consumers switch to better priced Chilean, Spanish and Languedoc wines from the French vineyards of Johnny, Jeff, Etienne (le Riche), Nico (van der Merwe), Tom (Lubbe), Tinus (van Niekerk) and Eben Sadie accross the border in Spain.
Not that Plan B is risk-free. “The mistral can be a bit of a problem” he continues (echoing the wind problems of Dave King, Nick Diemont, Carrie Adams and the Agulhas pioneers) “and the French want out. Inheritance laws have seen family farms become so divided they are no longer economically viable. The kids want to sell up and move away.” But the elephant in the Languedoc tasting room is over production. “The French government would pay be more than my purchase price to rip up the vineyards. But once they’re gone, you can’t plant again.”
But then as Pam Golding will tell you, the three rules of buying property are “location, location and location.” And this Plan B has in abundance. “The Pyranees are right here” says Johnny making a grab with his hand for the Simonsberg which rises up from the bottom of his Banhoek garden “and we’re half a hour from skiiing in Andorra and two hours from tapas in Barcelona. It costs E1 to fly from Stanstead to Perpignan on EasiJet and then its a 45 minute drive.”
But perhaps Johnny’s greatest motivation is a passionate love of wine. “When I was younger, I played Provincial cricket and while the rest of the team sank their beers, I drank wine. Beer makes me gobbledeegook – I love wine. There are helluva few wines I don’t like” and some spicy reds from Roussillon are certainly on the list.