As far as Wine of Origin demarcations are concerned, Villiera might appear to be in limbo. It was, until around 2002, at the extreme southern edge of Paarl, after which it was incorporated into Stellenbosch, where it lies at the extreme western edge of the district.
Such Origin musical chairs have not deterred winelovers; Villiera was buzzing with a constant stream of visitors during my – long overdue – visit there last week.
I had intended to catch up with Jeff Grier, whose family have owned the farm since the early 1980s, for their 30th vintage, but somehow two further vintages slipped by without commemoration. ‘We actually didn’t do anything to mark that milestone ourselves,’ Jeff admitted.
My visit starts with a walk around the clinic and new Pebbles Project offices. (Pebbles was started in 2004 by Sophie Warner for children with special needs but focusing on those with foetal alcohol syndrome, sadly far too prevalent throughout the Cape winelands.) Much of the funds raised to start the clinic came from Jeff’s cousin, David Grier and his well-publicised Cipla MilesforSmiles Foundation runs. Within its ‘E’ shape container construction, there are individual consulting rooms where help for everything from ordinary bumps and bruises to oncology and psychiatric disorders may be sought. There’s even a learning centre, where workers are told about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse.
Strolling back to the tasting room, Jeff shows me the huge store ‘hangar’ with its 900-and-something solar panels, so effective ‘we could sell electricity back to the grid,’; and, a little further on, the crèche for their workers’ children; a happy, noisy bunch they are! I remember shortly after Pebbles started, Sophie Warner taking me around several farm crèches; Villiera’s was, even back then, held up as a model.
Good worker relationships are an inherent part of the Grier family ethic. Their success can be gauged by the number of workers who have clocked up 20 years’ service. This milestone is acknowledged annually at the farm’s St Vincent’s Day celebration; so far, 15 have received the Long Service Award, with another four due to pick up the same next January.
There has been similar long service and pride from Villiera’s side with Woolworths and sister company in the UK, Marks & Spencer. They have supplied wines to Woolies since wines were introduced in 1985 and are their largest supplier of bubblies. Giving an idea of importance of sparkling wine to Villiera, it accounts for 40% of production and 50% of turnover.
Their loyalty is acknowledged by long-time Woolworths wine selector, Allan Mullins, who tells me Villiera held to their word on allocations and prices when other producers chased more lucrative markets or asked for higher prices in good times.
Wine growing in the 1980s meant having to produce wines for every taste, as South Africa’s pariah status then meant exports were difficult. It might also seem difficult to create a large and varied range yet also specialise; somehow Jeff and his cellar team do.
Frenchman and Champenois, Jean-Louis Denois has played a big role in both Villiera’s success with Cap Classique bubblies and the Grier’s venture in the South of France. He met Jeff whilst working at Boschendal, persuaded him to go into production of MCC and established a 10-year royalty agreement with Villiera. Some years ago he moved to the Limoux area. By the mid-2000s, Jeff felt the need for rejuvenation and the challenge of somewhere new. That ‘somewhere’ was originally going to be Elim, but Jean-Louis found an economically viable plot with many old vines in Roussillon. Beyond being a new challenge, Jeff sees the venture as a hedge against global warming, giving the possibility for his and Lyn’s two children to work on their own and helping with traditional winemaking ideas on Villiera. Happily, it’s also proved a profitable venture since 2012.
The wines have also become more assured since the early vintages; ‘A benefit of getting to know our vineyards,’ Jeff acknowledges, pointing out the ex-owner looks after the vines and they have a good winemaker. Domaine Grier Chardonnay 2011, Grenache 2011, Odyssea a grenache, carignan, syrah blend and the shiraz-grenache blend, Olympus 2009 are individuals with character, balance and natural freshness; ‘We’ve never had acid in the cellar’ Jeff confirms. They, like the Villiera wines, offer value for money, an unchanging Grier objective.
If value is a constant, the Griers are alert to consumer trends, listening to both journalists and winemakers as well. Sauvignon Blanc Bush Vine for instance now includes 15% oaked portion to add interest and temper the green pepper – the latter a style that won Jeff Diners Club Winemaker of the Year with his 1997 Bush Vine Sauvignon Blanc.
On the bubbly side, Jeff is trimming Tradition NV to a lighter, fresher style in tune with the trend for wines such as Prosecco. No fiddling, except to push for better quality, with top-of-the range, Monro Brut, a regular major award winner both locally and internationally. A taste of 2009, a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and a little pinot meunier (‘included in cooler vintages only for extra dimension’), suggests the Griers will have another big winner on their hands after its early 2015 release.
The Grier family were in the chicken business; Jeff’s original intention was to study poultry, but, thankfully soon changed to wine; cousin Simon Grier, Villiera’s engaging viticulturist, followed him a year later. Jeff’s sister, Cathy Brewer with her husband, Julian are also part of the hard-working team, who ensure they really understand the business they’re in.
It’s a team that prefers to make its presence felt through the success of their wines, rather than seeking the spotlight.
Far from being in the ‘indeterminate state’ that is limbo, visitors to Villiera will actually find themselves at one of the Cape’s most forward-thinking producers.