Back in the day (that’d be the 1970s/80s), visitors to the few independent wineries around would have found a wide range of wines to choose from. In their efforts to attract wine lovers away from the then all-dominant big guys like Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and Distillers, these smaller operations had to make sure they had a wine to suit every customer. Some also saw it as an opportunity to experiment with new varieties and see which worked best, both in the vineyard and the marketplace.
For anyone who never experienced this era, it took the independents a great deal of courage to bottle and sell their own wine; the producing wholesalers, on whom most relied to buy the bulk of their grapes or wine, could easily refuse to do so if they thought the independent producer was offering too much competition. In other words, going it alone could be commercial suicide.
This was particularly true of an area like Robertson where the co-operatives dominated and independent wineries were minnows by comparison. Checking through the first 1980 edition of Platter, just four non-co-operative Robertson wineries are mentioned (there may have been others not included): De Wetshof Estate, Mont Blois Estate, Rietvallei Estate and Excelsior. Only Excelsior was open to the public, the others were all marketed by the Bergkelder (part of Distillers), so carefully controlled ‘competition’.
Van Loveren might not have featured in the first guide but plans must’ve been far advanced to launch the first wine, as on 23rd October 1980 Van Loveren Premier Grand Cru, a chenin blanc, was released. Robertson then was better known for jerepigo and brandy, the latter made from chenin blanc and colombar but a dry white wine was considered a curiosity. Chardonnay, pinot noir and other red varieties were still light years away.
Wynand Retief, who made that first Van Loveren Premier Grand Cru, told guests at the 30th anniversary of the launch, it took a year to sell the 500 cases. Undaunted, by the time the farm first appeared in the 1983 Platter, a fernão pires and a hárslevelü, both 1982 had joined the range – remarkably both were firsts in the Cape. There’s confidence for you! The Retiefs were also quick to pick up on fashion. Muscat Blanc de Noir arrived in 1983, following the success of Boschendal’s maiden 1981. Wynand recalled his father’s wise advice, ‘You have to be able to give every consumer who visits what they want,’ so the range continued to grow.
After completing their studies, Wynand and Nico’s four sons joined the farm and in 2000, the Four Cousins range was introduced; the rest is history of this biggest-selling bottled wine brand.
Neither time nor the Retiefs stand still; there are always new consumers and a new generation of wine lovers to satisfy. Enter the Christina van Loveren premium range around the time of the 30th anniversary. No surprise again, then, when earlier this year, the ‘Almost Zero’ range was introduced. As Van Loveren CEO, Phillip Retief reasons: ‘Almost Zero taps into consumer lifestyle changes and especially the growing trend of fitness-focused healthy living that is driving innovation of low-alcohol and alcohol-free products. It caters to the very specific need to have a non-alcoholic drink that still has a distinctive wine character.’
Perhaps the ‘distinctive’ is optimistic but the three – um, de-alcoholised drinks (with just 0.4% alcohol, they cannot legally be called wine) – Wonderful White, Ravishing Rosé and Radiant Red do have a surprising amount of flavour. Briefly, these start as wine before being spun on a cone, where the alcohol evaporates. There’s obviously skill in retaining flavour; these contrast with many, far more insipid low alcohol wines, though the white and rosé are more successful to my taste than the red. Expect to pay around R70 for each.
Heritage and family are very important to the Retiefs. When Wynand and Nico’s parents, Hennie and Jean bought the farm in 1937, they named it after Jean’s ancestor, Christina van Loveren, who, with her husband, sailed from Holland to the Cape in 1699. With her, Christina brought her bridal trousseau chest. Passed down the generations, today it is admired in the Van Loveren tasting room.
They have also inspired the latest release from Van Loveren (although the farm’s name is only mentioned on the back label and in reference to Christina’s arrival in South Africa). Christina Trousseau Pinotage 2017 celebrates the heritage of family and South Africa’s own variety in grand style; in case anyone isn’t immediately aware on sight of its standing, just lift the bottle – sadly, its weight will still impress some wine lovers. Surely the sustainability wineries claim to be practising should extend to packaging? But to the wine, which, when I first read the press release, puzzled me, as I had no idea trousseau, a red variety from the Jura, was available in South Africa, let alone a permitted variety for making wine! Reading further, the true meaning was revealed. So, it’s pure pinotage in modern garb, with plush, ripe mulberries embellished with very good new oak. Rich in texture with the sort of seamless structure that the impatient can enjoy now, that structure is also sound, as it proved after the wine was open for three or four days. The wine should age well and gain in interest as it does so. In terms of prestige pricing, R250 ex-tasting room is hardly excessive.
I was going to end by pondering what the four cousins would be leaving for their children to introduce to Van Loveren but then I received the news that they’ve acquired the Zandvliet wine brand from the current owners of the farm, ANB Investments. According to Phillip Retief, ‘Acquiring the Zandvliet brand is part of Van Loveren’s long-term growth strategy and is an exciting addition to our core portfolio.’ Thinking ahead, thinking smart. I think even my colleague, Tim James, who recently wrote a little cynically about ‘Family Vineyards’, would agree Van Loveren Family Vineyards is indisputably a family affair.