Family matters

The recent 50th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Stellenbosch Wine Route was a reminder of the importance of family wineries. The three involved in this South African pioneering tourism venture were all owned and run by families: Simonsig and Delheim still are, whilst Spier is owned by the Eindhoven family but they are less present than Neil Joubert, then owner and third founding member of the Wine Route. A visit to a family-run winery is a personal affair, especially when one meets and is welcomed by family members, young children too and the obligatory dogs and other animals; such a visit triggers an unforgettable memory and desire to buy the wine in future.

Several wineries have enjoyed ownership by the same family over generations: the van Veldens of Overgaauw are now 4th generation, while the de Waals of Uiterwyk go back nine generations. Then there are descendants from the early Huguenots to arrive here, who are still involved with wine: Bruwer, de Villiers, du Preez, du Toit and Viljoen are all familiar names associated with South African wine.

While some children are absorbed into the family farm, offspring of others branch out, spreading the good family name across the winelands. This is very much the case with the Finlaysons. The first Finlayson on the family tree to make a name for wine, was Dr Maurice Finlayson & his wife, Eleanor, who bought Hartenberg in 1948. Perhaps too long ago for many to remember, but surely his winemaker sons, Walter and Peter are familiar to today’s wine lovers.

I met Peter when he was at Boschendal, which must’ve been in the early 1970s, as he joined Tim Hamilton-Russell when the latter founded Hamilton-Russell Vineyards in 1975. Walter and his wife, Jill, came onto my radar a few years later, when he became winemaker at Blaauwklippen, owned by friends Graham & Trish Boonzaaier. Those late 1970s and early 1980s cabernets were the stuff dreams were made of and would stand with today’s best Stellenbosch cabernets. Walter and I went on to found the Blaauwklippen Blending Competition in 1984. The following year, Walter and a Johannesburg partner founded Glen Carlou; the Finlaysons moved there in 1989 with 1988 the first bottling.

Those who had enjoyed Walter’s wines at Blaauwklippen, followed him to Glen Carlou, which soon became a must-visit cellar. Some ten years’ later, Walter had been joined by and was handing over to the next generation of Finlaysons, son David, who went onto establish his own winery Edgebaston. Meanwhile, at Glen Carlou, a new partner had joined Walter in ownership, Donald Hess of Hess Collection Winery in California. Further down the line, Walter retired, David left to concentrate on his own winery, handing over winemaking to his assistant, Arco Laarman. Hess sold to a local consortium, Arco left to start his own range – and so the personality of the family, the Finlaysons in this case, was lost.

I admit my interest in the farm had dwindled but recently, I was very happy to receive latest vintages of the two single vineyard wines to try: Quartz Stone Chardonnay 2020 and Gravel Quarry Cabernet Sauvignon 2018.

The chardonnay is brilliant; if my increasing enjoyment over five days is any indication as to its potential, it’s worth maturing for five years at least (Selling for R340 ex-cellar, one would hope buyers aren’t in too much of a hurry). The welcome trend to freshness is evident in the tightly-woven corset of steely acidity but even this fails to obscure the plump, tropical citrus flavours and creamy lees with a subtle bush of toasty oak.  

Gravel Quarry Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 does seem to be a victim of the difficult vintage. There is some promising fruit, sound cabernet dark soft berries and tangy blackcurrants but they are pushed aside by alcohol and an intimidating acidity (The R440 price tag is also a little scary). My usual method of trying the wine over several days brought it no closer to harmony, though the flavours did increase to some degree. I’d suggest caution in lengthy ageing.

It took the kindness of Glen Carlou and winemaker, Johnnie Calitz to remind me of two of the farm’s top wines, ones I used to be familiar with under the Finlayson ownership.

What this reminds me is of the importance of wineries having a human face, a link between the winery and its customers, a link which imbues the winery with personality and thus more of a trigger for wine lovers to return and build a long-term relationship.

Family-owned wineries especially, if not exclusively, are in a position to create this important and valuable human face.

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