A Meeting of Minds

By Sylvia McEwan

 It was a sweltering mid-summer’s day in Cape Town when Peter Tempelhoff breezed into the kitchen of the home of Adam Mason and his wife, Louise. Not in his usual chef whites but, perhaps more appropriately considering the weather, in casual shorts and tee shirt. He might have been arriving for a relaxed braai with friends were it not for the fact that he was here, well, to work.

The busy executive chef overseeing all the restaurants in the iconic Collection by Liz McGrath portfolio of hotels, his task on this bright day was to prepare a three-course meal using only what could be foraged from the couple’s fridge, pantry and herb patch. As if not sufficiently challenged, Peter had also to ensure his inventions would pair well with a surprise selection of wines. Adam, now the winemaker at Stellenbosch’s Mulderbosch Vineyards but at the time overseeing the cellar at Klein Constantia, had lined up a selection of whites from the Constantia estate to suit the searing heat. And it was his vertical Riesling offering, in particular, which was to go down quite magnificently with the Asian-fusion flavours conjured up by the chef.

What happened in the kitchen, and later around the fire—this being a day made for a braai—was much more than the convivial cook-off initially envisaged by the team at Good Taste. A friendship was forged between the chef and the winemaker, and, not long afterwards, a collaboration that was to lead to a full-scale business partnership. It’s the fruit of this enterprise that’s being sipped over lunch at Greenhouse, Peter’s fine dining restaurant at the Cellars-Hohenort Hotel in Constantia, some six years later. No surprise you’ll find these wines available by the glass at this restaurant, and on the wine lists of several other top establishments in the country.

What ensues during the meal is a nostalgic mapping of the pair’s journey as co-conspirators in food and wine, punctuated by plenty of jovial quips. It’s indicative of the good-natured and creative spirit of their initiative, and the clever but wholly authentic marketing approach that capitalises on their unique story. From the very beginning, the wines they have made have been crafted with food in mind, and Peter’s tailor-made recipes are readily available for anyone wishing to test the theory.

“I remember thinking, who is this guy and what’s he doing rummaging in my drawers?” Adam recalls of that first meeting, while topping up glasses with the pair’s Yardstick Pinot Noir—the first of the wines to be made under what would be their Burgundy project. Also on the table is the Yardstick Chardonnay, plus the three boldly labelled wines in the Marvelous collection: the Yellow, a robust Chenin-led Cape white; the Red, a predominantly Syrah-Cinsaut blend; and the Blue, driven by Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

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 “It’s a journey, and we’re still learning all the time.” —Peter Tempelhoff

These latter wines might be remembered for their first incarnation under the punchy, and not forgettable names of ‘Shazam’, ‘Kapow’ and ‘Kaboom’. “We were toying with wines that would appeal to the Marvel comics generation, the hipster market,” Adam laughs.

“Yes, the gimmicky aspect did creep in; we were always afraid of that,” he admits. “It grabs people’s attention for a moment, but we never intended to do something fleeting. We started again and I think we’ve got it right,” he says of the new identity and label, which is pleasingly simple, iconic even. “We wanted it to be both modern and enduring.” A tough brief, but which designer Piers Buckle has surely achieved.

Such conceptual journeys are part and parcel of craftsmanship, whether you’re a winemaker or a chef, Adam believes. “It starts with an idea. The challenge is to find the tools and ingredients to bring it to life. And that’s the ultimate process for me, taking something from a thought to an object. The process of formulating an identity for these wines was extremely challenging.”

Two years after that fateful lunch, Adam left Klein Constantia to join Mulderbosch Vineyards, which had recently been taken over by Californian wine investor Charles Banks’ Terroir Capital. While this was to be another auspicious move, the pair had already been collaborating in earnest since meeting. One side project was bottling the hotel’s Vin de Hohenort, an offshoot of Klein Constantia’s famous Vin de Constance, but made with grapes from Cellars-Hohenort’s own tiny vineyard. It was, however, Peter’s desire to find a lighter-style Pinot Noir to include on his tasting menu that took matters to a more serious level: “I approached Adam to see if he was open to making a barrel of wine with me. He said, ‘Hell, yeah’.”

“We realised there were many synergies between what we were doing, from a food and wine science point of view, that there was immense crossover,” Adam notes. Working together as a chef and a winemaker had the potential to create some wonderful opportunities, he says, including “a way of sharing our passion with people”.

Charles Banks picked up on this passion, too. When Adam revealed his interests in the project to his new employer, the investor immediately saw its potential. “That’s what Charles does, he facilitates people’s dreams,” says Adam. “Not only that, but he is a passionate wine person himself. It was a good fit.”

Adam believes the popularity of their wines—on the local and export markets alike—is due in no small measure to the style in which they have been made. “I think it’s helped to have a style that is food friendly. It’s evolved over the past couple of years, and it’s become recognisable as a style that works: low tannins, no new oak. These are not high-octane wines, just elegant, fresh and balanced.” He attributes this widely to the vineyards where their grapes are sourced.

“Our style is food friendly. It’s evolved over the past couple of years, and it’s become recognisable as a style that works: low tannins, no new oak. These are not high-octane wines, just elegant, fresh and balanced.” —Adam Mason 

That they have achieved a degree of success in a relatively short space of time is not taken for granted by the pair. “Globally, wine is a highly overtraded product,” Adam explains. “I glibly used to tell people that overnight success in the wine industry takes 20 years. That’s the reality of it. It’s exceptionally difficult to produce something and then create a presence in the market from scratch.”

“But it’s also been great fun,” Peter concludes. “It’s a journey, and we’re still learning all the time.”

Yardstick Wines: www.yardstickwines.com

Marvelous Wines: www.marvelouswines.com

Make Chef Peter Tempelhoff's 'Four Degrees of Cheese '