A passion for wine and vintage cars

NOVEMBER 2010 – The word legacy is defined as something handed down by a predecessor and is derived from the Latin word legatia or legateship. Anthonij Rupert Wines of L‘Ormarins in Franschhoek is enjoying a Phoenix-like rebirth.

No watch aficionado looking at the Calibre de Cartier Flying Tourbillon 9452 MC could fail to marvel at the superb craftsmanship, indeed artistry, that has gone into its making. The polished screw heads and jewels, pinion shanks and faces and bevelled gear train wheels are jaw-dropping in their precision. And what about Jaeger-LeCoultre? Its Reverso Duo and Duometre timepieces are classics, refined over 80 years of existence.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and depending on who is doing the beholding, it can be different things. To lovers of horseflesh it will be in the fluid strides of a racing steed, all thundering hooves, rich chestnut coat and flying mane. To petrol heads, it may be the sleek lines of a Ferrari, the crackle of a supertuned and supercharged engine emitted from twin exhaust pipes or the sheer engineering history behind a Studebaker or Bentley, while to a wine enthusiast it could be the subtle nuances of a Bordeaux-style blend from a particularly unusual terroir. All these things – watches, horses, cars and wine – need not be mutually exclusive but it is unusual to experience the confluence of all these elements in a single place. What is it that draws these disparate strands together? L‘Ormarins in Franschhoek. L‘Ormarins once belonged to Anthonij Rupert, youngest son of Dr Anton Rupert – a South African business tycoon who was simultaneously a visionary entrepreneur and conservationist universally recognised as an exceptional individual: honest, ethical, loyal to a fault, a proud Afrikaner and driven by his personal principled beliefs, something shared equally by his offspring, Anthonij, Johann and Hanneli.

L‘Ormarins has now been in the Rupert family for nearly 40 years. It was Anthonij Rupert‘s baby: he returned to the historic property after studying oenology and viticulture at Geisenheim, the world-renowned wine college in Germany. Anthonij believed that Italian grape varieties were well suited to the South African climate and introduced plantings of, among other things, Sangiovese. L‘Ormarins also bottled and marketed the first Pinot Gris in the country – a wine variety that is currently hugely in vogue internationally. Years later, he adopted his father‘s model of strategic partnership and mutual benefit when he finalised the long-gestated deal that joined the renowned French Rothschild family with that of the Ruperts in the Fredericksburg wine farm, Rupert & Rothschild.

Displaying the Rupert family‘s belief in the quality and heritage of South African wine, his sister Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg recently renovated La Motte. Also located in Franschhoek, the winery now incorporates an art gallery containing the collected works of renowned South African artist Pierneef, many of whose works appear on La Motte‘s premium labels. The newly opened restaurant and farm shop are also rapidly gaining critical acclaim. Sadly Anthonij died in a car crash nearly a decade ago, which was when Johann Rupert, chairman of luxury goods company Richemont and CEO of Compagnie Financiére Richemont, stepped into the breach. He has enhanced his brother‘s legacy and, under his stewardship, L‘Ormarins has been revamped dramatically – and he has created the unique confluence of classic cars, wine and horses.

The attention to detail that goes into making timepieces is legendary – and there is a witty nod to Johann Rupert‘s business in just one element of the purpose-built winery that is the home of Anthonij Rupert Wines. The circular cellar, completed in 2005, was sunk into the mountain slope and incorporates a 360-degree rotating grape delivery system reminiscent of a watch bezel, paying tribute to Rupert‘s involvement in Richemont, owner of internationally renowned brands such as Panerai, Vacherin Constantin, Jaeger- LeCoultre, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier, for example. Cellarmaster Neil Patterson remarks on the practicality and perceived simplicity of the cellar, which utilises modern interpretation of ‘old or traditional‘ techniques – gravity drainage, large wooden vats, spontaneous malolactic ferments – or not. ‘The use of technology has also made a difference. It‘s no longer necessary for a winemaker to walk through the rows of tanks, hour after hour, manually checking the temperatures during fermentation – and becoming sleep-deprived! It‘s all electronically and computer-controlled now. If a temperature on a particular tank rises or falls too much, I receive an automatic SMS on my mobile phone – and can rectify it, day or night from my laptop or computer.‘ The original L‘Ormarins wine cellar was upgraded while simultaneously being downscaled – capacity was reduced from 2 000 tons annually to 650. The cellar master remains a firm believer in minimum intervention in the cellar: ‘Our intention is for the wine to be an ultimate expression of its unique site. For the Anthonij Rupert wines, it is almost left to the vineyard to express what it‘s giving us.’

As with most things, it takes foresight and drive to achieve anything even approaching excellence. Of late, Johann Rupert has been providing the impetus to the process, demanding dedication of a team of talented individuals such as his viticulturist and cellar master – and challenging them to rise to the task. However, he has supported them every step of the way and equipped them with all they have required. In an interview published in the Sunday Times when he was acknowledged as South Africa‘s Businessman of the Year (for the second time) in 1996, Rupert commented that he believed in putting the right person in the right position and not micromanaging. That principle applies equally to the leadership he appoints at Dunhill, Mont Blanc – or at L‘Ormarins. ‘His purpose is to build everything as a legacy to his brother, Anthonij,’ explained Patterson. ‘It‘s quite weird that we‘re here in 2010, having spent so long on the development of the farm – and yet it feels like we are only now starting out.’ The reason for Patterson‘s comment is that it has taken time to crystallise ideas and then action them. And the steps taken have been major. No fewer than 220 hectares of vines were ruthlessly uprooted from the valley floor. ‘They were sadly very virus-infected and planted in sandy soils,’ said viticulturist Rosa Kruger. All L‘Ormarins‘ vineyards are now located on the mountain slopes. It seems simple to rip out old vines and establish vineyard blocks on the slopes – until you consider that hectares of invasive alien vegetation had to be chopped down and the land rehabilitated before planting could take place. ‘It was one of the first things Mr Rupert insisted on: getting rid of the alien blue gum and black wattle trees, along with the Port Jackson,’ Kruger said. It also doesn‘t take account of the fact that some slopes are so steep they cannot be planted ‘normally’ – or neatly trellised. The viticulturist credits amazing teamwork every step of the way – from soil, irrigation and viticultural consultants to Johann Rupert himself. ‘He‘s involved in the decision-making every step of the way – and will often come back from overseas with books on viticulture and ask if we‘re aware of some or other new practice and whether it‘ll work at L‘Ormarins.’

Not one to apply labels to the practices followed at L‘Ormarins, Kruger steers clear of organic or biodynamic typecasting, merely conceding that they farm as closely as possible to nature. Appreciation for nature is something that is very close to Johann Rupert‘s heart, a passion that he shared with his father, Dr Anton Rupert, who was one of the founders of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). Dr Rupert was also a pioneer of the trans frontier parks concept that has seen boundary fences in wildlife parks between South Africa and neighbouring countries dropped in order to allow animals‘ natural transmigration routes to be re-established. ‘We don‘t spray insecticides or herbicides,’ the viticulturist explains, waving to the duck wrangler keeping an eye on his web-footed charges munching snails between the vine rows. Similarly, naturally occurring insects are released in order to control any diseases or plant pests that occur. ‘If the vineyard workers spot mealy bug on a vine they‘ve been trained to yell out and stick their hand up there and then – and they‘re rewarded with R5 on the spot! Our vineyard foreman walks around with a pocketful of R5 coins … but it pays dividends since we‘re able to control things immediately before they spread and cause problems.’

Attention to detail informs everything at L‘Ormarins, including the Franschhoek Motor Museum, which houses a collection of 220 vehicles, the oldest among them an 1898 Beeston Motor Tricycle! Just 80 vehicles can be displayed in the four dehumidified halls covering 2 700 square metres. The collection comprises everything from Volkswagen Beetles to grand names that have peppered the annals of motoring history – Bugatti, De Soto, Packard, Austin-Healey, Jaguar, MG, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Mercedes Benz and Porsche. But the amazing thing about this collection is that it is one which works – literally! The cars are frequently driven and in February 2010 many were given an outing in the Franschhoek Concours and time trial. Legendary South African rally champion Sarel van der Merwe was just one of those who tested their skills against the clock and the course. Rupert‘s fascination with cars – and sport – began at an early age. He was a fiercely competitive cricketer who had to give the sport up because of an injury as well as work commitments. Nowadays he strides the golf course with good friend Ernie Els whenever he can and keenly promotes the game in the form of the annual Alfred Dunhill links championship in Scotland. Something else he believes in with conviction is the unity that sport can bring about in communities and nations. That‘s the principle behind his founding of the Laureus Sport for Good foundation, which awards top performers across the sporting spectrum and uses them as ambassadors to give back to the global community, motivating others to get involved in social initiatives and upliftment.

One thing he has never given up on but rather added to is his acquisition of special vehicles, a passion he shares with his son, Anton, who competed with him in the 2008 Mille Miglia in his 1957 Ferrari Tour de Force. It was announced in April that South Africa would host the inaugural L‘Ormarins 1200, a five-day event to rival the famous Mille Miglia and Tour Auto and the brainchild of Johann Rupert. It was decided that just 50 cars built between 1940 and 1970 would be allowed to participate in the event. Competitors would take on some of the most spectacularly scenic and challenging roads in the world – those of the Western Cape. Chapman‘s Peak Drive is not just famous but is also notorious, having claimed a number of lives since it was opened in 1922. Other routes earmarked for the event included Clarence Drive, Du Toitskloof Pass and the Franschhoek Pass, with its tortuous hairpin bends and sharp drops into rocky ravines. The event was to have taken place in October but has been postponed until September 2011.

The third element is the stud, under the control and supervision of Mrs Gaynor Rupert. The Drakenstein Stud Farm‘s lush green pastures are home to future champions sired by highly sought after stallion Trippi, a winner of multiple races. His South African progeny will be seen at January‘s yearling sales for the first time. The same month sees the 150th running of the L‘Ormarins Queen‘s Plate at Kenilworth racecourse in Cape Town, a highlight on the annual racing calendar and one that is increasingly ranked alongside both the J&B Met and the annual Durban July in terms of prestige and social cachet.

At L‘Ormarins everything is green and lush, clad in a verdant springtime cloak. Linking the stud and pastures where new-born foals frolic, the winery, vineyards and the Motor Museum are the beautiful gardens that have taken years to establish. It‘s an idyllic picture that would have been impossible to attain had it not been for meticulous attention to detail – similar to that of the horologist.

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