A brand with soul

I have to admit when the word ‘brand’ comes up in conversation, my eyes glaze over. There’s something so calculating about the concept, it suggests brands are only ever boring in their interminable sameness. Coca Cola and McDonalds typify big brand boring (and I’ve no desire to drink the former nor buy a burger from the latter), but the other day I was disabused of my perception of at least one brand.

I’ve long admired the wines of Edmund Terblanche, cellarmaster at La Motte in Franschhoek, particularly as they follow my favoured classic style. It was so many years since I last visited the farm that I’m embarrassed to even think when it was. I was encouraged to right the wrong, firstly as I’m La Motte’s current Platter taster; then Tim James and I had been exceptionally impressed with the latest Hanneli R 2009 when we tasted it late last year.

With Christmas and New Year holidays out of the way, I set up a meeting with Terblanche on the farm last week.

It didn’t take more than turning into the driveway to make me realise time – however long it is – has brought much change to La Motte. Terblanche and Hein Koegelenberg, CEO and married to owner (and acclaimed mezzo-soprano), Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg, greeted me in the tasting room. I could just remember how it used to look – long and narrow with rather-too-large chairs. Now it’s more spacious, more comfortable, more casual and generally more inviting: Koegelenberg tells me that since the upgrade to the whole property, numbers have increased from 700 visitors per month to today’s 10 000.

Some of the top Rhône wines the La Motte team use as reference points.
Some of the top Rhône wines the La Motte team use as reference points.

We settle down in a private tasting area, housing, in a glass-fronted library many tempting bottles of international wines used as reference points.

Koegelenberg proceeds to bring me up to date with brand La Motte. Knowing the wines, I was somewhat taken aback by his description, but as he filled in the history since 1999, my understanding and admiration grew for the planning and execution which today has resulted in a range of elegance and consistency. Of course, wine being a journey rather than a destination, improvements are ongoing.

It all started around 1999, as previous winemaker, Jacques Borman, was leaving to work on his in-laws’ farm. Koegelenberg sat down with Terblanche, Borman’s assistant, who had stepped into the cellarmaster’s seat, to map out the future. Between them, three pivotal points of success were identified: finding a distinctive style, specialising and developing good distribution. Quality and consistency went hand in hand with these.

As far as specialisation was concerned, the range would be centred on sauvignon blanc, shiraz and shiraz blends.

Both men prefer unshowy wines; as Koegelenberg puts it ‘We look for the laid-back style from the Rhône with a dry finish and clever use of wood – not too much American.’

Distribution came with the setting up of Meridian Wines, of which Koegelenberg and his wife, Hanneli, have a 65% share.

‘Consistency,’ Koegelenberg maintains, ‘is vital in building a world brand and can be achieved with fruit from vineyards in different areas specifically identified for the style we want.’ Thus de-registering as an Estate was an early step.

Those different areas include their own BotRiver property, where 80 hectares are planted to sauvignon blanc, semillon, shiraz, grenache, cabernet, merlot and malbec; a co-owned vineyard in Elgin and their own vines in Elim. They also have contracts with other growers. Viognier comes from closer to home, in Franschhoek, with home vineyards supplying merlot, pinot, shiraz, chardonnay and sauvignon.

All provide a broad palette of fruit flavours and structure; by 2005, the team were happy they’d found the style they sought, one that could be maintained but always allowing for vintage variation.

Similar changes were taking place in the cellar, one being dedicated to sauvignon blanc, another to reds. This is no boutique operation; 120 000 cases are produced annually under the La Motte label, sauvignon blanc alone accounting for 85 000.

Major upgrading was the next step for the farm itself with the development of the tasting room, farm shop, exhibition of Pierneef and other SA artists, an historic walk and the Pierneef restaurant specialising in regional food.

Rewards for the La Motte experience have come from Great Wine Capitals Best of Wine Tourism awards as a global winner for Sustainable Wine Tourism Practices as well as one for Art and Culture.

Cellarmaster, Edmund Terblanche with flagship Hanneli R 2009, a shiraz-based wine made only in exceptional vintages
Cellarmaster, Edmund Terblanche with flagship Hanneli R 2009, a shiraz-based wine made only in exceptional vintages

With Koegelenberg leaving for a meeting with a UK customer, Terblanche tells me a little about himself. His father, who worked for a fertiliser company, advised him against going into wine. After starting an agriculture degree at Stellenbosch, he turned to Parks and Recreation, as it carried a much-needed bursary. Wine remained a hobby while he worked in Johannesburg but then drew him back to the Cape and a diploma from Elsenburg from where he joined Borman at La Motte.

Terblanche might be a quiet fellow but he doesn’t lack for strong views, among which is his belief that Swartland shirazes don’t age so nicely. (There’s a challenge, yo’ ‘landers!)

But I’m captivated by 2013 barrel samples of his cool climate versions. From BotRiver, a dark-hued, vivid pepper mouthful supported by broad, firm tannins; the base for Pierneef Shiraz-Viognier. The Elim sample has riper aromas, still peppery with floral notes and exotic black fruit, but the palate is precise, lively with gentle waves of suppleness. Shiraz from much older home vineyard is replete with juicy strawberry flavours and good freshness. All capture the dry finish desired by both Terblanche and Koegelenberg.

As delicious as these samples are, the final wine, as I tasted in the 2012, has more potential complexity from its blend comprising 85% shiraz with 6% grenache, and splashes of tempranillo, petite sirah and cinsaut drawn from mainly La Motte with Bot River, Elim and Faure accounting for just over half. As with so many of the 2012’s I’ve tried, this has wonderful structure; freshness, a caressing supple feel, depth of red fruit and white pepper complete a picture that seems ensured to grow with age. ‘Shiraz grows, becomes heavier in the bottle, the opposite of cabernet, which becomes lighter.’ Now there’s something to think about when drinking older wines.

The Pierneef Shiraz-Viognier 2012 (Terblanche wonders whether they should keep the blend name; I say they should as it is so well established – don’t mess with a successful brand!) reflects its majority Elim, Bot River fruit, with a lifted fragrance of lilies and spice, no suggestion of the clumsy apricot or honeysuckle from over-ripe viognier evident in many. Luxurious, elegant and freshly dry, it epitomises the La Motte style

View from Pierneef La Motte Restaurant
View from Pierneef La Motte Restaurant

Style sums up the Pierneef at La Motte restaurant, where Terblanche and I enjoy a glass of their classy new Méthode Cap Classique before Chris Erasmus’s inventive and delicious dishes – who’d have imagined calamari and biltong would complement each other so well!

Who’d have imagined a brand could offer such an enjoyably individual experience!

Light fittings in Pierneef at La Motte restaurant
Light fittings in Pierneef at La Motte restaurant

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