Within four years of acquiring an unknown wine farm near Wellington, Stephan and Carolina du Toit, with the help of two eminent German winemakers, Bernd Philippi and the late Bernhard Breuer, took the German wine market by storm. While this lucrative overseas market continues to grow, they are also determined to capture the domestic market with their exceptional reds. Sonja Burger reports.
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.
The Mont du Toit 1998 was pipped to the post by only one other contender – Opus One (even though both wines received 92 points out of a 100). It was the product of the world-famous joint venture between Robert Mondavi, the American who put the Napa Valley on the map, and the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, owner of several world-class wineries in France, among them Château Mouton Rothschild. Soon the Mont du Toit 1998 acquired cult status in Germany.
“I’m very cautious about the phrase ‘cult status’ as no-one can produce the best wine every year,” says Carolina du Toit, Stephan’s German wife and partner in his wine business on the Mont du Toit farm. “There are too many factors playing 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 the wine. We were so small, we didn’t have enough wine, but that made it even more sought-after. “
The beginning of legendary wine
It all started in 1996 when Johannesburg-based senior advocate Stephan du Toit came home one night and told Carolina he’d bought the farm Mont du Toit at the foot of the Hawequa Mountains near the Boland town of Wellington. In an historical sense this was a homecoming – his father had owned a vineyard near Stellenbosch. Some 322 years earlier, Francois du Toit from Lille in Flanders became the first French Huguenot to settle east of the Berg River, near the spot where Mont du Toit lies today.
Stephan had a clear vision for the winery from the start. He wanted to produce the best red wine in the country from the 28ha of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, Alicante Bouschet, Mourvédre, Petit Verdot and Tinta Barocca growing against the northerly and northwesterly slopes of the Hawequas.
Carolina, also a lawyer and a realist, wanted to know how he planned to do this when he wasn’t a winemaker. The answer came in the German magazine, Der Spiegel, where Carolina read about the German winemaker and international wine consultant Bernd Philippi. He owned the Koehler-Ruprecht winery and the Quinta da Carvalhosa wine estate in the Duoro Valley in Portugal.
“Contact this guy,” she told Stephan, “He might be able to advise you how to make the best red wine in South Africa.” After a visit here, Bernd agreed to become their consultant, on condition that they also took on his friend Bernhard Breuer. The pair spearheaded all the changes on the farm and confirmed that it was suitable for premium red wine production. “People were laughing at us because Wellington was considered a white wine area at the time,” Carolina recalls.
Bernhard passed away unexpectedly and Bernd became the man behind Mont du Toit’s sought-after blends – the flagship Mont du Toit and the Le Sommet, which is only blended and bottled in limited quantities during exceptional vintages. The latter’s been consistently honoured with a four-and-a-half-stars by the John Platter South African Wine Guide 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. Yield is restricted and green harvesting is done at véraison (the transition from growth to ripening). The ripe fruit is hand-selected during harvest. The same meticulous approach is followed in the cellar – each vineyard block is vinified separately under the careful scrutiny of Bernd in a gravity flow cellar he designed.
Marketing overseas and locally
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 visits restaurants and wine merchants there. When asked what it takes to achieve success in the German market she replies, “A lot of guts! It also helps if your mother tongue is German because you can communicate at a different level with sommeliers and wine buyers. 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 German wine bar on the island of Sylt called Sansibar, to produce a wine exclusively for them. It’s been named Louisa’s Vineyards, after Stephan and Carolina’s 14-year-old daughter. 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 offerings in the UK, The Netherlands, China and Canada. While Mont du Toit wine is still relatively unknown in South Africa, there’s a growing demand for it.
The character and style of the wine leans towards the elegant, classical European rather than the punchy, boldly fruity character popular here, but the labels and identities of the wines are unashamedly South African. Stephan, who speaks six languages, has insisted that poems by well-known Afrikaans wordsmiths and poets appear on the back labels in Afrikaans.
A Johannesburg focus
At this stage the main local marketing focus is Johannesburg, where the wines can be found in boutique wine shops and Makro. “We’d like to position the Mont du Toit, which retails at R158 a bottle and the Le Sommet, which sells for R535, as elite wines,” says Margot. “But we also offer Les Coteaux, which is more accessible both in terms of price and fruitiness. 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 at about R50 a bottle.”
German wine writer Stuart Pigott commented in his 2003 book about the effects of globalisation on wine culture, Schöne neue Weinwelt, that the Mont du Toit had turned his “view of South African wines upside down”. It seems Mont du Toit is set on producing an exciting reaction in the local market as well. Contact Mont du Toit on
(021) 873 7745 or Carolina du Toit at [email protected]. |fw