History Of Wine On Oak Valley: Part I
Written in a three-part series, my father’s brilliant account of the history of wine on Oak Valley. It’s wonderful story, rich and colourful.
Humble Beginnings & The Experimental Phase
Sir Antonie Viljoen was the first to establish wine grape production on Oak Valley soon after his purchase of the farm in 1898.
By 1904 there were 50,000 vines planted, mainly Green Grape (Semillon), Hermitage (Cinsaut) and white French (Palomino).
In 1907 he built a cellar and pressed his first grapes. The majority of the bulk wine was sold on to E.K. Green & Co., the wholesale wine merchants who had premises in Somerset Road, Cape Town and also in Paarl.
In typical style, and as an example of his creative thinking, Antonie devised a method of cooling down the temperature of the juice during the fermentation process: “Dr Viljoen carried a water pipe outside up the wall, ran it over the roof to the ridge and perforated the ridge pipe. When the water was turned on the pressure was so great that from the ridge there sprung a series of fountains, which pattered on the roof and kept it cool.”
Perhaps the first recorded case of cold fermentation in South Africa?
At the time of Antonie’s death in 1918 there were 100,000 vines on Oak Valley and the cellar was producing “150 to 160 leaguers of wine” (about 90,000 litres).
The winemaking continued under his son-in-law George Rawbone who persuaded Douglas Green, the son of the managing director of E.K. Green & Co, to make the wine in the Oak Valley cellar. Douglas had attended Elsenburg College and had further studied wine and champagne making in France after the First World War.
Some years later Douglas Green told his own son Douglas Jnr, that the most suitable grapes available in South Africa for the making of champagne were “the Hermitage (Cinsaut) grapes grown on Oak Valley and pressed off the husks.”
The sparkling wine which was made from these grapes was branded Dry Imperial and was produced through the bulk fermentation process at E.K. Green’s premises in Cape Town. The sparkling wine was exhibited at the Paris wine show in the 1920’s and won an award.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s followed by the difficult years which marked World War II, the demand for wine fell away and in 1944 George Rawbone decided to mothball the winery in favour of a peach canning factory.
By this stage the wine industry was subject to the statutory powers of the KWV following its formation in 1918. These powers were extended incrementally over the years and the motivation was to “direct, control and regulate the sale and disposal by its members of their produce.”
It was compulsory for a producer of wine grapes to join the KWV and in 1956 a quota system was introduced which limited the tonnage of grapes a farmer could produce.
Equally important, the quota system dictated the areas where vines could be planted. An area such as Elgin was out of bounds for vineyard establishment, as were most of the other “new” production areas in South Africa.
Oak Valley, however, as a result of its previous winemaking history under Antonie followed by George Rawbone, had a residual quota which allowed for 68 tons of wine grape production. This quota was progressively reduced by the KWV authorities as a result of diminishing production following the closure of the Oak Valley cellar.
By the 1980’s there was a small 4 hectare vineyard of Cinsaut bush vines remaining, just enough to sustain the residual quota. It was this self-same quota that enabled Oak Valley to legally reinvent its vineyards in 1985.
Somewhat ironically this project occurred under the auspices of Nietvoorbij, the state-owned research centre for the wine industry. In terms of a joint proposal a decision was taken to establish a vineyard to test the sustainability of new cultivars under Elgin growing conditions.
The Elgin Cultivar Evaluation Trial, as it was called, was established on the same site as the old Cinsaut block under the supervision of Eben Archer, who was later to become the professor of viticulture at Stellenbosch University and the Oak Valley vineyard consultant.
The 2.4 hectare experimental block was located on the top of the hill overlooking the old wine cellar and was planted to eight different cultivars namely Merlot, Pinot Noir, Weisser Riesling, Schönburger, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.
Also in 1985, Gunter Brözel, the legendary SA winemaker of Nederburg fame, approached both Oak Valley and Paul Cluver of the neighbouring De Rust property with a view to forming a joint venture with Nederburg for wine production in Elgin.
Paul Cluver accepted the offer resulting in their first wines being bottled and co-branded under the Nederburg label. Oak Valley decided to pursue its wine interests independent of third parties.
The first Oak Valley grapes were harvested in the summer of 1988 and the Nietvoorbij tasting panel’s score sheet showed that the Sauvignon Blanc came out tops followed by Schönburger, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Interestingly these vineyards were north-facing as it was feared that the later varieties may not achieve proper phenolic ripeness if planted facing south. This concern was proven to be unfounded and today it is the south-facing slopes that are favoured as they offer the grapes a longer time on the vine, thus enhancing flavour profiles.
The collaboration with Nietvoorbij was terminated in 1992 as it was felt that the experimental vineyard had served its purpose in terms of proving Elgin to be a wine growing region of great promise.
The next phase of Oak Valley’s wine history involved a famous collaboration with an iconic winemaker in Hemel en Aarde…to be continued next week in Part II.