Everything Except Vines

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by Joanne Gibson

With all due respect, I have to say that the man who gave his name to Bosman’s Crossing played a relatively minor role in its history. Daniel Ferdinand Bosman acquired a portion of this Stellenbosch property at the intersection of Lower Dorp Street and Distillery Road in 1880, losing it just three years later when he was declared bankrupt. But somehow he managed to get a small railway siding—duly named Bosman’s Siding—built outside his distillery in 1881. The 67-year-old apparently found it too cumbersome to load his vats onto wagons for transport to the old Stellenbosch Station—which was renamed Du Toit Station on 15 January 1913, when the “new” Stellenbosch station was opened and Bosman’s Crossing officially closed.

That his name lives on a century later seems almost inexplicable when you consider some of the site’s other, and far more important, inhabitants. Take René Santhagens, who bought the De Oude Molen portion of Bosman’s Crossing in 1909 and produced South Africa’s first Cognac-style brandy here in 1910—the Oude Molen brand, now based in Elgin, is still going strong. Or American-born William Charles Winshaw, a medical doctor who came to South Africa at the height of the Anglo-Boer War and ended up at Bosman’s Crossing. He first made a wine called Processed Hermitage, then a brandy called Mellow Wood (“It is best for the home; it leaves no spirit fumes on the breath!”), and most famously, a natural light red called Chateau Libertas—produced by Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, which he co-founded at neighbouring Oude Libertas in 1925.

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Given that Bosman’s Crossing was once home to both the father of South African brandy, as Santhagens is fondly remembered, and the father of modern South African wine, in the case of Dr Winshaw, I can’t help wondering whether someone is missing a marketing trick. And that’s without even mentioning the wealth of archaeological artefacts found here—dating from 100 000 to 1,5 million years ago. Or the annual sharpshooting competition that was held here in the late 17th century in honour of Stellenbosch founder, Simon van der Stel, which involved shooting at a painted wooden parrot (hence the name of the nearby Papegaaiberg or Parrot Mountain). Or the various other successful businesses that have operated from here over the years, including an early quarry for clay bricks, a tannery, a flour mill, a jam factory, and a number of distilleries—from Collison’s in the 1850s to KWV over a century later.

But most of the buildings were derelict when IT industry luminary Dave Lello purchased them in 2003 with the idea of turning the site into a business, retail and residential community—as well as a home for his own boutique winery, Stellekaya. Today Melissa’s has its headquarters here, the Aleit Group co-ordinates its weddings and events from here, and antique dealer Pier Rabe has recently opened an antique warehouse and art gallery. Meanwhile, the historic significance of Distillery Road is not lost on the Brandy Foundation, beverage logistics company JF Hillebrand, or wine laboratory VinLAB, all now operating from Bosman’s Crossing.

Most exciting of all, for wine lovers, is that Stellekaya has been joined over the years by three other wine producers: the Dalla Cia family, who are also keeping the site’s proud history of distillation alive with their grappa; Vilafonté, with South African Mike Ratcliffe in partnership with the internationally acclaimed Californian winegrowing duo of Zelma Long and Phil Freese; and The High Road, started by Les Sweiden and Mike Church—both formerly in the insurance business.

“It’s the shortest—walkable—wine route in the world,” quips Dave. “But it’s still quiet because the road ends at the railway line, so we don’t get any through traffic. We just plod along quietly.”
Nonetheless, “plodding along quietly” has seen STELLEKAYA’S range expand to include seven red wines, with exports now accounting for 80 per cent. “We have done particularly well in Sweden and Canada, where wines are sold in catalogues—ours are collector’s wines rather than supermarket wines.”

 

Dave also notes that visitor numbers have swelled since winemaker Ntsiki Bayela was featured on the front page of the New York Times—the story of a girl from rural KwaZulu-Natal overcoming considerable challenges to become the award-winning red wine specialist she is today. “Suddenly we have a lot of Americans coming in with a copy of the newspaper, saying they want to meet this amazing woman.”

It’s the kind of story that wouldn’t have been possible had South Africa not “taken the high road” in the early 1990s, a peaceful transition to democracy that Les and Mike decided to celebrate through the creation of an elegant Bordeaux-style blend duly named THE HIGH ROAD. “We made our maiden 2003 vintage at Yonder Hill, but then they launched their Y label and no longer had space for us,” explains Les.

After hearing about “Dave Lello’s new place”, they moved production to Stellekaya for the 2004, 2005 and 2006 vintages. “And when the opportunity arose to invest in this particular building, we took it. Not having our own vineyards gives us the flexibility to source the best quality fruit, but it also meant we didn’t really have an identity before. Now Bosman’s has become our home.”

This sense of “coming home” is even stronger at VILAFONTÉ. “We always say we didn’t choose South Africa; South Africa chose us,” say Zelma and Phil. “Our first visit was in 1990 and we fell in love with the beauty, the oceanic climate, the ancient soils, and the Cape Floral Kingdom, which so beautifully represents the diversity of the area. We felt—and still do—that the opportunity to make world-class wines here is extraordinary.”

Where so many foreign investors build “statement wineries” without necessarily having the fruit quality to make “statement wines”, they decided to invest in vineyards rather than a winery—to be precise, a 42-hectare site on the northern (Paarl) side of the Simonsberg mountain. From 2003 to 2006 Zelma made the wines at Tokara, which was one of viticultural consultant Phil’s clients. But when Tokara’s vineyards came into full production, Mike was tasked with finding a new cellar. A chance encounter with Dave and Les at Charles de Gaulle airport led to his taking a look at their new building at Bosman’s Crossing. “It wasn’t very pretty,” he recalls. “There were old concrete tanks, holes in the roof, stray dogs and squatters. But I signed the lease and it has turned out to be a wonderful place.”

For starters, Zelma had the opportunity to build her dream, state-of-the-art winery: “Although we didn’t have the resources for a statement winery built into a hill for gravity flow, here we were able to duplicate the effect, with everything we needed to make our own high-end wine from start to finish.”

Secondly, it provided them with a home away from home: “We were here three times a year, for almost three months over harvest. After 10 years we were getting a bit tired of living in B&Bs—so we purchased one of the flats. It’s a five-minute commute by foot!”

Thirdly, it’s an incalculable bonus having a global logistics company and laboratory on the doorstep: “It’s a two-minute walk to take our samples to VinLAB or ask any questions about new techniques,” says Zelma.

And last but by no means least, they have the DALLA CIAS next door—not only because George and Giorgio take all Vilafonté’s pomace for distillation into grappa (“a very nice recycling programme”), but also because their back stairway leads straight into Pane e Vino (literally “bread and wine”), the food and wine bar owned and run by George’s wife Elena. “Good food, good wine and good times,” is how she sums up her Italian-style osteria with its chalkboard menus of old favourites (“people will just ask for them anyway”) and daily specials (“depending on whether we have artichokes, fresh porcini, and unusual pasta”).

What she loves most is how many people have got to know each other here. “They come in for a quick lunch, strike up a conversation with someone at a different table, and now they play golf together. This relaxed networking, for me, that’s Italy. It’s something I like to encourage here: you just raise your voice a bit!”

Bosman’s Crossing Fact File

GPS co-ordinates: S 33° 56’ 25.8”, E 18° 50’ 50.1”

Stellekaya: Open for tastings Mon to Fri from 10am to 4pm, Sat from 11am to 3pm, options include a barrel tasting or cellar tour (R65 each) and they offer a wine and chocolate pairing using DV artisan chocolates (R70). Tel. 021-883-3873, Web: http://www.stellekaya.com./.
 

The High Road: Tastings by appointment. For a special birthday or anniversary, invest in a magnum (1.5l), Jeroboam (3l), Methuselah (6l) or Balthazar (12l) of their flagship Directors Reserve 2010—specially bottled on 11 November 2011 (11/11/11). Tel. 021-425-4209, Web:http://www.thehighroad.co.za/.

Vilafonté: Tastings and tours by appointment. Find out why the rich, concentrated, Cab-led Series C 2008 has been recognised by authoritative US magazine Wine Enthusiast as one of the “Top 100 Wines in the World”. Tel. 021-886-4083, Web: whttp://www.vilafonte.com.

Dalla Cia: Tastings at Pane e Vino, Mon to Fri from 10am to 6pm, Sat from 10am to 5pm. Taste all four food-friendly wines (R40), all four wines, and all four grappas (R60), or order the grappa tasting menu as a decadent dessert (R60). Tel. 021-883-8312, Web: http://www.dallacia.com./.

Fun Fact
Bosman’s Crossing turns into a Cinemuse drive-in every Friday evening, when a cult movie (facilitated by Filmhouse DVDs) is projected onto a wall, with sound via car radio. Come between 7.30pm and 8pm. There’s space for about 30 cars at R50 a car. For more information call Ticketline 021-887-6263 or visit http://www.cinemuse.co.za/.