De Grendel: marrying values with tradition

What motivates a top winemaker at an internationally acclaimed estate, which sells 130 000 cases annually to 14 different countries, to pull up his roots and settle on a fledgling wine farm where no wine has been made for almost three centuries? Sonja Burger gets the answer from Charles Hopkins, who left the Graham Beck estate after nearly a decade to start afresh at De Grendel, the historic stud farm of Sir David Graaff on the slopes of the Tygerberg, next to Plattekloof.
Issue date 17 August 2007

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Charles Hopkins’ blue eyes flash mischievously, “A man turns 40 and then he seeks new challenges.” He leans forward confidentially. “Let me tell you something. Any winemaker dreams of making wine from vineyards that face the sea at least once during his career, and on this farm there are already 104ha that benefit from the ‘blue dam’ down there.” His hand sweeps across the vista of Table Bay, dominated by the bulk of Table Mountain. “People have misconceptions about cool areas,” he says.

“They’ll tell you they have a special cool area block in Wellington, for example, but the truth is true cool-climate vineyards feel the sea breeze on their leaves; they are rooted on hillsides high above sea level. The vineyards at De Grendel benefit from both these growing conditions.” Charles has had enough time to investigate the vineyards that now provide the fruit for his craft. While he worked at the Graham Beck estate they bought grapes each year from De Grendel’s owner Sir David Graaff and the two men became friends. When David decided to expand his pedigree Holstein, Friesland and German Merino studs to include pedigree Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, Chardonnay and a few red cultivars, Charles jokingly offered to make wine for him.

This light-hearted aside was taken seriously, presenting Charles and his wife with a dilemma that kept them awake in the early hours of the morning. The move to De Grendel I n the end three factors convinced Charles to move to De Grendel: he was attracted by the challenge of establishing a new cellar from scratch, by the freedom David granted him to implement his personal winemaking philosophy, and, finally, by their shared values. Charles grew up in Bredasdorp, and his parents believed in the importance of service to others. The three burly, rugby-playing Hopkins boys often saw their Sunday lunch – juicy leg of lamb and golden-brown potatoes – disappear down the street with their father, after the dominee had phoned about a neighbouring family that did not have enough to eat.

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“If you ask me what the CV of a person who is going straight to heaven looks like, I’ll show you my mom’s CV,” Charles says earnestly. “am a traditionalist. believe in the old values, in the importance of the old rituals, in the role of the family. David is the same.” Keeping it simple Charles’s strategy at De Grendel is to focus on six wines (in contrast to the plethora he had to handle at Graham Beck): Sauvignon Blanc, a white blend, Shiraz, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Rosé. His vision is to keep things as simple as possible. “We don’t want to confuse the buyer with reserves and nine rows of this and eight barrels of that and ‘single vineyard’ and ‘winemaker’s choice’ designations,” he explains. That being said, Charles has identified a tank of Sauvignon Blanc this year that is the best he has made in 21 years, which he will bottle separately as Die Koetshuis. One can’t blame him for deviating so soon from his strategy – Die Koetshuis is a distinctive Sauvignon Blanc that reminds one of glaciers and crushed green leaves. For white blends, Charles’s philosophy draws on the principles of winemaking combined with the tenets of a traditional marriage.

“As in a marriage, one of the parties must take the lead. The French have always said one should not blend using equal percentages, for example 50/50 or 40/40,” Charles explains, while I lift my sceptical feminist eyebrow. But when I taste a tank sample of the 2007 harvest, I am able to point out flippantly that his white blend this year is, in fact, not a marriage, but a delicious ménage à trois: 42% Chardonnay, 38% Viognier and 20% Semillon. The fruity peach of the Viognier marries with the full, rich lemon butter aromas of the Chardonnay, with the delicate femininity and lemon grass nose of the third party in the background. The correct approach to Merlot I play a corner shot and declare that most South African Merlots leave me cold. Charles counters effortlessly, “Wait until you have tasted De Grendel’s Merlot with 4% Petit Verdot – it’s a great combination of coffee, blackberries and salty liquorice.” He explains why South African Merlots generally underperform, “In South Africa Merlot has always been neglected.

People treat it as if it were Cabernet – they try to make a big, masculine, broad-shouldered wine rich in tannins, when Merlot should, in fact, be feminine, fruit-driven and velvety. They force the cultivar, specifically with reference to extraction and wooding.” Another problem with South African Merlot today arises from the choice of Merlot clones during the 1960s and 1970s, when South Africans planted Italian clones for their abundant yield. “The more abundant the yield, the less concentrated the flavours,” explains Charles. “If you really want to make a mediocre wine, you should take high-yield Merlot and work it hard. What’s more, the Italian clones tend to have a vegetative, bell-pepper character while the French clones are characterised by dark berry and coffee flavours. Fortunately, David planted French clones at De Grendel 10 years ago.” Charles and David plan to increase current annual production on the farm from 17 000 cases to 35 000 within the next two to three years.

They want to sell one-third of their wine locally, one-third in Europe and one-third in America (see Hazards of selling wine in America). During the 1800s De Grendel was a day’s journey from the Cape. It was the last uitspan before travellers ventured into the wild interior, either over the Tygerberg or around it. De Grendel (meaning a slip-bolt in Dutch) unlocked the gates to the untamed land to the north. Two hundred years later, the De Grendel slip-bolt is unlocking new possibilities for Charles Hopkins, and he is determined to open the gates wide and seize every opportunity that the vineyards growing in the blue shale and the cool sea breezes of the “blue dam” offer him. |fw