Forty or fifty years ago there were very few independent wine producers in South Africa. Most wine farmers were really grape farmers, selling in bulk to the wholesale merchants. Consumer interest in fine wine was negligible. It was only in the late 1960s that some of what became the founding families started bottling a little of their own production for sale under the farm labels. Three of them – Simonsig, Spier and Delheim – launched the Stellenbosch wine route – which brought them into direct conflict with their bulk clients, who threatened a boycott to bring an end to this initiative.
Others signed up for the death star known as The Bergkelder – a partnership deal from whose orbit very few escaped unscathed. Those who did manage to get away – Meerlust, De Wetshof, Zandvliet, Meerendal to name the obvious ones – paid dearly for it at the time, but remained independent, bringing critical mass to the segment.
There were others who avoided the trap of the “cooperative marketing arrangements,” going it alone from the outset: Rustenberg, Kanonkop, Simonsig, Overgaauw, Spier, Backsberg, Fairview and Delheim come to mind. Mostly they’ve done better than survive, they’ve flourished – though none would claim it’s been plain sailing along the way. When the wine of origin legislation was introduced in 1973, they were among the first properties to seek estate certification. Today, without exception, they are still owned by the same families who made the break half a century ago.
David van Velden hadn’t been born when his grandfather and father launched the fine wine business of Overgaauw almost half a century ago. Now that he has taken over the management from his father Braam, he’s discovered his own challenges. These mostly relate to the difficulties of modernising the cellar and upgrading the vineyards with only the capital which comes from surplus cash flow. “On paper it seemed so much easier to bring in an outside shareholder,” he said. “You can do it all in much less time. Of course, then you’re no longer a family business. There’s another advantage of doing things more slowly though: you spend much longer planning the changes, so you’re forced to be more thoughtful.”
May de Lencquesaing, who inherited an insolvent Chateau Pichon Lalande in Bordeaux in 1978, would agree. “The first ten years were unbelievably hard. During the freezing winters there was no money for any form of heating. I shut off as much of the huge and unrenovated chateau as I could and did my work wrapped in coats and blankets. You couldn’t do everything you knew had to be done to improve the wine all at once. You had to work from the ground up, one stage at a time.”
Van Velden talks about the long slow business of building up his virus-free vineyard blocks, driving the forklift, visiting the export customers, making the wine, and coming home at night and doing the books. But he also glows with satisfaction when he tastes the results, and he shows the latest release of the 2015 DC Classic with something much more than simple pride.
It’s the first of his wines from virus-free vineyards, from older blocks painstakingly saved and newer vineyards acquiring some maturity. Dominated by merlot, but with very fine cabernet franc to give it lift and freshness, it’s a thoroughly modern interpretation of a wine his father first made for the Cape (Independent) Winemakers Guild more than 30 years ago. It conveys a sense of crafted, seamless but not overly polished perfection.
It’s no less than you would expect from a man who walks his vineyards all the time, but also studies satellite imaging to track the relative rate of ripening within single blocks. Any serious producer will repeat, almost as a mantra, the truth which drives this kind of unrelenting focus: you only have one chance a year to get it right, so only a very finite number of chances in a lifetime.