Farmer's Weekly (Jun'09)
World-class reds from Mont du Toit
In 2000 the UK Wine Magazine, in its search for the most successful joint ventures in the wine world, unexpectedly announced that a red blend from an unknown winery in an obscure corner of the African continent was the second best joint venture wine in the world. The Mont du Toit 1998 was pipped to the post (even though both wines received 92 points out of a 100) by only one other contender: Opus One, the product of the world-famous joint venture between Robert Mondavi, the legendary American who put the Napa Valley on the map, and the equally famous Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, owner of several world-class wineries in France, amongst them Château Mouton Rothschild.
Soon the Mont du Toit 1998 acquired cult status in Germany. Carolina du Toit, Stephan’s German wife and partner in his wine business, recounts the story with (one senses) characteristic realism and humility. “I am very cautious about the use of the words ‘cult status’ ”, she says, “No-one can produce the best wine every year. There are too many factors that play a role. But yes, this was one of the first German-South African joint ventures that were successful and when I went to Germany in 2000, everyone wanted to have the wine. The fact that a non-German wine magazine praised a half-German wine impressed the German press very much, so if the UK Wine Magazine was happy with the wine, they were even happier. The problem was that we were so small and did not really have enough wine, but that made the wine even more sought-after. “
The Mont du Toit success had its roots in an intuitive decision that Johannesburg-based senior advocate Stephan du Toit made in 1996 when he came home one night and told Carolina that he had bought the farm Mont du Toit in a quiet corner of the Perdeskoen, nestled at the foot of the towering Hawequa Mountains near the Boland town of Wellington. In an historical sense this was a homecoming: his father had owned a vineyard near Stellenbosch, which father and son often visited at the crack of dawn, and some 322 years earlier Francois du Toit (Stephan’s namesake) from Lille in Flanders became the first French Huguenot to settle east of the Berg River, five stones’ throw away from the spot where Mont du Toit lies today.
Stephan du Toit had a clear vision for the winery from the start: he wanted to produce the best red wine in the country from the 28 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, Alicante Bouschet, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot and Tinta Barocca growing against the northerly and northwesterly slopes of the Hawequas. Carolina, also a lawyer and a dyed- in-the-wool realist, wanted to know precisely how he planned to do this when Stephan announced his purchase. Serendipitously, the answer came in the form of a German magazine, "Der Spiegel", which Carolina happened to pick up at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg. The magazine carried an article about the impressive, larger-than-life German winemaker Bernd Philippi. “Contact this guy,” she advised, “He might be able to give you advice on how to make the best red wine in South Africa.”
After a visit to South Africa, Phillipi agreed to become their consultant on the condition that they also took on his friend Breuer. “Bernd and Bernhardt were complete opposites – the one a veritable Obelix and the other his much smaller counterpart, Asterix,” Carolina recalls. The inimitable pair spearheaded all the changes on the farm and suggested that the farm was suitable for premium red wine production. “People were laughing at us,” says Carolina, “because Wellington was considered a white wine area at the time.
Sadly Breuer passed away unexpectedly and Philippi, an international wine consultant, owner of Koehler-Ruprecht in the Pfalz and founder of the Quinta da Carvalhosa estate in the Duoro valley in Portugal, became the man behind Mont du Toit’s sought-after blends. His expertise can be savoured in the flagship Mont du Toit and the Le Sommet, which is only blended and bottled in limited quantities during exceptional vintages and which has consistently been honoured with a four and a half-star Platter for the past six years.
The wine is a unique expression of the terroir at the granite foot of the Hawequas. Mont Du Toit employs a labour-intensive, low-tech approach to ensure top quality. Yields are restricted, green harvesting is done at veraison and the ripe fruit is selected by hand during harvest. The same meticulous personal approach is followed in the cellar - each vineyard block is vinified separately under the careful scrutiny of Bernd Phillipi in a gravity flow cellar that he designed himself.
Carolina, who grew up in Hamburg in the north of Germany, is in charge of the German market to which some 60% of the Mont du Toit wines are exported. Twice a year she travels the length and breadth of Germany to visit restaurants and wine merchants. When asked what it takes to achieve success in the German market she replies forthrightly, “A lot of guts! It helps if your mother tongue is German because you can communicate at a different level with sommeliers and wine buyers. If I tell the stories about the farm in German, people listen. The right distributor is also essential. You can’t be overseas all the time.”
Carolina says niche markets are important in Germany. She recently struck a deal with the most famous wine bar in Germany, "Sansibar", on the North-Sea island Sylt, to produce a wine exclusively for them. Named Louisa’s Vineyards, after Stephan and Carolina’s fourteen-year-old daughter, the wine celebrates a long family connection between Carolina’s family and this well-known holiday island. Carolina’s grandmother already frequented Rantum beach, where the Sansibar is located. Carolina too spent many happy childhood holidays on the wind-swept coast of Sylt and continues the family tradition by annually taking her children along to the island.
Johannesburger Margot Bester was recently entrusted with the job of introducing South Africans to Mont du Toit, in addition to taking responsibility for marketing the winery’s offering in the UK, the Netherlands, China and Canada. She is ably assisted by Leaticia Martin who makes sure that the winery’s administrative and financial wheels are well-oiled.
While Mont du Toit wine is still relatively unknown in South Africa, there is growing demand for it. The character and style of the wine might lean towards a more elegant, classical European expression rather than toward the punchy, boldly fruity character so beloved by many South Africans, but the labels and identity of the wines are unashamedly South African. Stephan, who speaks six languages, has insisted that poems by well-known Afrikaans wordsmiths and poets adorn the back labels in Afrikaans. One of these labels, by Hennie Aucamp, aptly captures the ethos and philosophy underlying this venture:
“die skuins lig wat oor alles speel
verklap ‘n vlek wat rooiwyn was.
Die oomblik, mens, is wat jy het:
hoe vlugtig ook sy ryk boeket.”
Mont du Toit is certainly seizing the moment. At this stage the main focus is Johannesburg, where the cellar’s wines can be found in boutique wine shops. Makro also stocks the wine. “We would like to position the Mont du Toit, which retails at R158 per bottle and the Le Sommet, which sells for R535, as elite wines, while also offering Les Coteaux, which is more accessible both in terms of price and fruitiness,” says Margot. “However, we realise that people are averse to taking a risk on an unknown wine at R80 a bottle, so in the future we plan to create another wine in a lower tier at about R50 per bottle.”
In 2003 German wine writer Stuart Pigott commented in his book Schöne Neue Weinwelt, which deals with the effects of globalisation on the culture of wine, that the Mont du Toit wines had turned his “views of South African wines upside down”. It seems Mont du Toit is set on producing some topsy-turvy in the local market as well!