Generation Games

"Some believe there is a presence of a lady dressed in white occupying the manor house," says John Faure, the fifth generation owner of Stellenbosch estate VERGENOEGD. This estate is one of the Cape's relatively "new" farms, having been established "only" in 1773. Right next door, after all, is MEERLUST, which was established in 1693. The Myburghs moved in on 11 January 1757, with Hannes Myburgh now the eighth-generation owner. And there is another wine estate that has been in the same family for even longer-TWEE JONGE GEZELLEN ESTATE in Tulbagh. It was established in 1710 by the Krones, who evidently didn't remain "two young bachelors" for very long, given that their descendants celebrate the family's 300th anniversary on the estate this year.

You'd expect there to be quite a few ghosts on the old family farms of the Cape, but only that mysterious lady in white at Vergenoegd gets a mention. Nobody admits to too many 'black sheep' or 'skeletons in the closet' either. "The strict Calvinistic upbringing adhered to didn't make provision for those!" joke the fifth-generation Malans of ALLESVERLOREN in the Riebeek Valley.

Nonetheless, there have been characters aplenty on the old family-owned wine farms of the Cape. from the first prime minister of the apartheid government (DF Malan, born on Allesverloren in 1874) to Napoleon Bonaparte's secretary, the Count de las Cases, who spent three months on Durbanville estate ALTYDGEDACHT in 1816, describing it as "the very extremity of the civilised world". Established in 1698, Altydgedacht's cellar is one of the oldest still in use in the country, dating from the early 1700s. In the hands of the Parker family since 1852, it is now sixth-generation winemaker Oliver Parker who has to keep tradition alive while adapting to modern market demands. And this isn't an easy task, yet one mastered by the Cape's oldest family-owned farms over several generations. So how have they done it?

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Strength in Numbers

One thing most of the families appear to have had in common in the early days was lots of children. When the first Myburgh of MEERLUST, Johannes Albertus Myburgh, died in 1788, his eldest son Philippus Albertus already had 11 children (with three more to come). The Burgers of Robertson estate RIETVALLEI, purchased in 1864 by Alewyn Burger for his son Jakobus Francois, provide another good example. "The second-generation owner, Koos, had 20 children and had to baptise a child every year. When they didn't appear [at church] one year, the pastor became very worried. He drove to Rietvallei and enquired if something was wrong."

The downside of these large families in relatively small communities was (and still is) finding suitable marriage partners. Philip Jonker of WELTEVREDE relates how his great-grandfather, Klaas Jonker, bought a vast property in Robertson in 1912. "He had four sons and four daughters, and eventually left a farm to each child. My grandfather, Japie Jonker, inherited the part that kept the original Weltevrede name. Some of my grandfather's sisters' sons (second cousins of mine) are Danie de Wet of DE WETSHOF ESTATE and Johnny Burger of RIETVALLEI ESTATE. The brothers' descendants developed JONKHEER and MOOIUITSIG. My second cousins [on my paternal grandmother's side] are Fanus and Martin Bruwer from QUANDO WINERY. It becomes quite complicated, but what is clear is ... you can't marry in the valley anymore. You have to travel far to find your bride." 

Strength of Character

Travelling far was par for the course in the old days-and not just from the Netherlands. Like the Burgers, who arrived in 1692 from a town called Ludok in Germany, the Steytlers of Stellenbosch estate KAAPZICHT trace their roots back to one Johan Georg Steudle, who arrived from Germany as a soldier in 1766. He became a "burger" in 1772, a butcher by profession. And he married Geertruyda Johanna Herholdt who bore eight children (remember what I said earlier?).

Some 150 years later, David Steytler was farming sheep in the Karoo when World War II came along, whereupon he promptly sold his farm and enlisted in the British army with his two sons. "After the war, they returned with their shrapnel wounds and bought Kaapzicht, then called Rozendal. They farmed cattle, dairy, wheat, tobacco and bulk wine," relates Yngvild Steytler, wife of third-generation owner/winemaker Danie Snr. She says there is no secret to their success; just "hard work, endurance, and God's help in making miracles happen".

The progenitor of the Malan name in South Africa, meanwhile, was French Huguenot Jacques Malan, who came from Merindol, Provence, in 1689 and initially settled in Franschhoek. A vigneron by trade, he would no doubt have been proud of his descendants on ALLESVERLOREN. Current owner Danie is so much the farmer that he once wore shorts, sandals and a khaki shirt to a formal wine tasting in Sweden, earning himself the title of 'Naked Winemaker' in one of the newspapers the following day. 

Allesverloren's port has won every possible trophy in South Africa, so it's fitting that the oldest wine in the family cellar is a 1953 port. Despite modernising the cellar and establishing a restaurant, tasting facility and conference venue for 250 people, the Malans say they do very little differently from their forebears. "You don't change a winning recipe!"

Breaking From Tradition

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An ability to adapt over time, however, has been essential for the survival -and success-of all the family-owned farms. "We are wine farmers and it is the only means of income we have. So we need to adapt to what the industry throws at us," is how the fifth-generation Burgers of RIETVALLEI put it. Bottling their own wine for the first time in 1975 (a Red Muscadel made from SA's oldest vineyard, planted in 1908, which a worker named Jan Vytjie taught Johnny Burger to make using a recipe nailed behind the cellar door!), the Burgers say becoming part of the Bergkelder portfolio allowed them to start their brand. It is now a brand recognised by people all around the world-so much so that they could eventually break away from Distell in 2002. It's all about "being innovative and taking calculated risks, but staying true to who we are and not pretending to be someone or something different". 

The Van Veldens of Stellenbosch estate OVERGAAUW are proud to have blazed many trails since Abraham van Velden acquired this 78ha piece of land from his maternal grandfather in 1905. Fourth-generation winemaker David van Velden tells how his "Oupa David" planted five different port varietals in 1949, namely Tinta Barocca, Tinta Francisca, Cornifesto, Souz_o and Tinta Roriz. And he was the first South African winemaker to harvest and crush them all together in the Portuguese tradition. "Then, in 1963, he planted Sylvaner, a German varietal, of which we are still very proudly the only producer in South Africa."

In 1969, having decided to switch from bulk production to bottling under the Overgaauw label, Oupa David and Frans Malan of SIMONSIG went on a fact-finding mission to Bordeaux. There they visited ChÉteaux Lafite and Mouton Rothschild, an experience, which inspired them to pioneer the ageing of Cape reds in small French oak barrels. "This changed the production of quality red wine in South Africa forever." And then it was father Braam's turn to innovate-by producing SA's first single-varietal Merlot in 1982, at a time when this now popular wine was regarded as suitable for blending only. 

No doubt the first Van Velden, Dirk, who arrived from the Netherlands with his wife Elizabeth (nÇe Overgaauw) in the early 1800s, would have been proud of his enterprising descendants. He was a revered Dutch Reformed minister in Natal, where he commissioned the building of the church at Ladysmith in 1850. "But it is also known that he truly loved his wine," reveals young David, proud to be carrying on in the spirit of his predecessors, and resolved "never to stop dreaming and trying something new and different".

'F' Is for Faith, Not Failure

At WELTEVREDE, too, four generations of Jonkers have seen the industry change dramatically. As Philip Jonker reveals, "In my great-grandfather's time, they used to make sweet wine and sherry, shipping it all over the country in small wooden barrels, receiving the empty ones back weeks later. My grandfather started with drier wines, but it was in my father's generation when the huge quality shift came. He was the first winemaker in South Africa to start fermenting white wine in oak barrels, something he learned in Burgundy. He introduced noble varietals like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and GewÅrztraminer." 

The candlelit underground vinotheca at Weltevrede has some "remarkably youthful" Colombard from 1975. as well as some "amazing" vintages of Rhine Riesling and GewÅrztraminer from the 1980s, with Jonker now specialising in Chardonnay and Cap Classique. He believes his family's sustainability is thanks to having had the wisdom to make the right decisions at the right times: "to take a step of faith when it was needed, to be conservative when things were going well". He says celebrating Weltevrede's centenary in 2012 will be "a great opportunity to reflect on who we were in the first century and who we want to be in the next century. We are secretly crafting very special wines to be released from 2012 onwards for Weltevrede to step up another level. Watch this space."

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Also in Robertson, the Retiefs of VAN LOVEREN have become one of SA's most prominent wine families in a relatively short time. It was "only" in 1937 that Hennie Retief Snr bought the farm Goudmyn F. His young bride Jean van Zyl immediately convinced him to change the name, because "F" stood for fools and failure! Instead, they named the farm after her ancestor, Christina van Loveren, who came to SA in 1699 and whose bridal chest Jean inherited over six generations later. Today Van Loveren is the largest family-owned winery in South Africa.

It was Hennie's sons, Wynand and Nico, who redirected the business from supplying bulk wine to bottling wine under the Van Loveren label. Their sons-the "four cousins"-joined them in the 1990s, with Four Cousins becoming South Africa's most successful bottled brand in 2008. From having been 'lekker stoutgatte' in their time, they are now almost embarrassed to have acquired celebrity status-sometimes even being asked for their autographs! After all this, Phillip, Hennie, Bussell and Neil simply attribute their success to being "hands-on in every aspect of the business" and having a "clear and open mind to continuously improve and adapt in a rapidly changing industry". 

They sum it up as follows-a conclusion no doubt relevant for all the other family-owned farms too: "This is our life."