Mi Casa Es Su Casa

By Joanne Gibson

In Italy, they’re everywhere. In gardens, in olive groves, in forests. By roads, by railway lines, by themselves. Vines grow everywhere from the Alpine north of the country to the dusty islands closer to Africa than Europe. And, traditionally, everyone has a few plants from which to make a cask or two of vino.

“Wine is our heritage, as much a part of our diet as water,” shruggs Franco Maestroni of ALEXKIA ESTATE in Robertson. For him, as an Italian, it seemed almost natural that he and his wife Carla should have started making wine on the farm where they had intended to retire. “The farm already had a vineyard and we could not let it go to waste.”

IDIOM WINES in Stellenbosch, too, started out in 1998 as a retirement project for Alberto Bottega, a nuclear physicist turned banker who had immigrated to South Africa in 1950 as an eight-year-old. “It is now a family effort,” reveals his son, Roberto. “When my father started making more wine than we could drink, my sister and I left our careers in advertising and finance respectively to help sell it.”  

He points out the family comes from Casarsa della Delizia in the Friuli region of north-east Italy. “It is, in fact, a Città del Vino (wine town) with plenty of vines in the surrounding areas, producing everything from fashionable Pinot Grigio to indigenous varietals such as Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Refosco. Now that I think of it, there is an Italian expression—rimbambito—that means as you get older you become a kid again. To some extent this is true of my father, who is now surrounded by vines, just as he was in his childhood.”

Giulio Bertrand also ‘retired’ to Helderberg estate MORGENSTER in 1992, having started visiting South Africa regularly in 1975 while working for his family’s fifth-generation textile business in Biella, north-west Piedmont. “My father had gone into dairy farming on his retirement and farming seemed like a good idea. I thought I would make some good Italian-styled olive oil for my salad and some nice wine to enjoy with my dinner…”

It was only after restoring the 1771 manor house, with which he’d fallen in love at first sight, that he considered the hill behind it. “It reminded me strongly of Piedmont and Tuscany. After we had done a systematic mapping of the farm’s terroir and all its aspects, we realised this farm had the potential to produce red wine of extraordinary quality.”

Winegrowing seems to come naturally to these Italians in their adopted country, judging by the success of the Bottega family (who also own WHALEHAVEN in Hemel-en-Aarde) and the awards won by Morgenster for its Bordeaux-style blends as well as its olive oils. “While it is part of Italian culture to produce fine wines and olives together, the concept was an innovation in South Africa,” recalls Giulio, who says another challenge was overcoming the misconception, locally and internationally, that South African reds could not age well. “We were among the forerunners of wineries that challenged that belief.” 

While hugely successful with his Bordeaux-style blends—made with Pierre Lurton of Chateau Cheval Blanc as consultant—Giulio dreamt of making wine from the Italian varieties so close to his heart, but virtually unheard of in South Africa. “So I imported specific clones from my professor friends at the University in Italy and began establishing the vineyards in 1999—1,8 hectares of Sangiovese and 1,6 hectares of Nebbiolo.”

Morgenster’s Italian Collection now includes a Sangiovese rosé named Caruso, a Nebbiolo named Nabucco, and a ‘super Tuscan’ blend of Sangiovese with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon named Tosca. “You can see this project combines two symbols of my Italian heritage and two of my passions: wine and opera.”

However, Giulio stresses: “Our philosophy is not to make wine like the Italians but to understand how the Italian winemakers think and to reach the heart of the grapes.” For this reason, he and winemaker Henry Kotze have visited top Italian producers including Angelo Gaja and Bruno Ceretto in Piedmont, famous for their Barbaresco and Barolo, and Nicolo Incisa at Sassicaia in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany. “The experience so gained, in pruning methods for example, has increased output, especially with Nebbiolo, which is a shy bearer.” 

At Idiom’s Da Capo vineyards in the Helderberg basin, the Bottegas have planted no fewer than 17 different grape varieties. “In addition to most of the Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, we’ve also planted Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Primitivo,” says Roberto, adding that Idiom’s new Heritage Series comprises a Bianco di Stellenbosch (Pinot Grigio), Rosso di Stellenbosch (blend of Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Barbera and Primitivo) and Super Rosso di Stellenbosch (blend of Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot).

He stresses the freedom to plant different varieties is one significant advantage South Africa has over Italy. “In a nutshell, we can plant whatever we like, wherever we like, and the market ultimately decides whether the result is viable. In Italy, on the other hand, producers tend to stick with regional varietals so they can get Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita status for their wines.”

What Roberto also loves about the South African wine industry is the friendliness of the people. “Many South African winemakers have given us invaluable advice; they’re happy to share their ‘secrets’ and experiences. We are also fortunate to have fellow Italians such as Giorgio Dalla Cia advising us from time to time. He was a bit reluctant to get involved until he tasted one of the first barrels of our Idiom Sangiovese and it gave his skin goose pimples. Now whenever he gets goose pimples in our barrel cellar, I know we have a winner.”

Giorgio Dalla Cia requires no introduction, having left Italy as a young man in 1977 and pioneered South Africa’s first Bordeaux-style blend at Meerlust in 1980, namely Rubicon. He now makes his own wines under the DALLA CIA label, as well as a range of grappa named G in partnership with his son, George, at their small distillery at Bosman’s Crossing in Stellenbosch. George’s wife Elena, meanwhile, runs Pane e Vino (literally ‘bread and wine’), the Italian-style osteria next door, where people meet for good food, wine, espresso and lively conversation… “Relaxed networking, that’s Italy.”

Wine is clearly not just about what’s in the bottle for these South African Italians; it’s a lifestyle, and there’s also an all-pervasive sense of family—from the Maestronis naming AlexKia after their granddaughters, Alexandra and Chiara, to brothers Orneglio and Francesco De Franchi taking over from pappa Socrate at Stellenbosch estate MONTEROSSO. “Family is important,” agrees Roberto Bottega. “I love the quality time I get to spend with my father, especially our animated barrel tasting and blending sessions. Life doesn’t get much better than that!”

South Africa’s Italian Varietals

As is the case in most of the New World, the South African viticultural landscape is predominantly French. But some of the better-known Italian varieties have been introduced in recent years. 

SANGIOVESE, the Tuscan grape of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino fame, has vibrant plum and raspberry flavours with overtones of coffee and bay leaves. LOCAL PRODUCERS INCLUDE Antonij Rupert (Terra del Capo), Anura, Bovlei, Dragonridge, Fairview, Idiom, Koelenhof, Raka, Spring Grove and The Three Foxes. 

NEBBIOLO, responsible for  the Barolo and Barbaresco wines of Piedmont, is tannic with diverse scents and flavours including plums, violets, roses, tar, tobacco, leather and hints of white truffle.PRODUCERS INCLUDE Awendland, Dagbreek, Du Toitskloof, Idiom and, most notably, Steenberg. 

BARBERA from northern Italy is less tannic than Nebbiolo but with stabbing acidity and pungent raspberry fruit. PRODUCERS INCLUDE Altydgedacht, Bovlei, Fairview, Hidden Valley, Hofstraat, Idiom and Merwida.

PRIMITIVO (aka Zinfandel) is capable of great fruit intensity. PRODUCERS INCLUDE Blaauwklippen, Glen Carlou, Idiom and Zevenwacht.

So far SA’s only Italian white is PINOT GRIGIO, trendy worldwide in recent years despite mostly being a fairly unremarkable, easy-drinking wine. PRODUCERS INCLUDE Antonij Rupert (Terra del Capo), De Grendel, Eagle’s Cliff, Flagstone, Fairview, Flat Roof Manor, Hill & Dale, Idiom, Nederburg, Obikwa, Origin, Spring Grove, Robertson Winery, The Township Winery, Two Oceans, Usana, Van Loveren and Waverley Hills. 

The most important thing about Italian wines is they are meant to be drunk with food, thanks to their naturally high acidity, and nobody demonstrates this better than Antonij Rupert Wines via the antipasto bar at its dedicated TERRA DEL CAPO tasting centre, open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Tel. 021-874-9004.

Our Italian History

Did you know the Cape hosted 10 000 ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR during World War II? Captured by Jan Smuts at Tobruk in December 1940, about 1 500 of them were roped in to help build the Du Toit’s Kloof Pass, but most were employed as farm labourers, builders, gardeners and mechanics in Paarl, Worcester and Robertson. 

By all accounts, they weren’t treated badly (the mural painted at boutique Robertson wine farm Wederom by one Giovanni Salvadori is very cheerful indeed). 

Although all the POWs were sent home in February 1946 in accordance with the Geneva Convention, many of them subsequently returned to South Africa because they felt they had better prospects here than in war-ravaged Italy. Others—such as Roberto Bottega’s grandfather, Luigi—followed after hearing good reports about the Cape’s Mediterranean climate and hospitable people: “Already in his 40s, he never learnt to speak English properly, but he was a brilliant metal worker and set up an engineering workshop in Rose Street with a younger brother who spoke broken and colourful English to the customers.”