By John Ortega
South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, has become a magnet for Russian visitors, who love the weather and the laid-back lifestyle. President Putin made an official visit to Cape Town in September 2006, where he met with President Mbeki, and with representatives of Russian and South African business interests. Russian investors have been buying up real estate, and back at home in Moscow, South African wine has become very popular. John Ortega took a flight to Cape Town, to look at Haskell Vineyards, owned by Preston Haskell, an American businessman based in Moscow.
After receiving an invitation to come to Preston’s New Year’s party in Cape Town, I hopped on a Lufthansa flight via Frankfurt to South Africa, flying on Christmas day; 17.5 hours later I arrived in this fantastic city with the famed Table Top Mountain as a backdrop.
Preston has been a visitor to South Africa for nearly twenty years. In 2002 he bought the Dombeya wine farm. The vineyards lie on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountains, situated in the heart of what is known as the Golden Triangle of the red wine industry in Stellenbosch.
Preston has put in a new cellar, fully equipped with conveyer belts, sorting table and a pneumatic press built to house a capacity of 150 tons of fruit. He also hired famed winemaker Rianie Strydom. As the winemaker at the highly regarded Morgenhof Estate for ten years until 2004, Rianie has been responsible for crafting some of South Africa’s finest wines. It is a great credit to Rianie that the 2001 Morgenhof Premier Selection (made by her) has recently won Best New World Wine in Decanter Magazine, as voted by leading critic Stephen Spurrier.
The 2005 vintage saw Strydom vinifying Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The future focus will be to concentrate on Chardonnay, a varietal Shiraz, in exceptional years a Bordeaux blend and a dry red called Amalgam under Dombeya Wines. Pegged for future releases are a Haskell icon wine – but only after the relatively young vines attain their maturity and offer the right fruit quality.
More than thirty of us descended on Preston’s winery a few days before New Year, and tasted four of the wines. Over a glass of wine I asked Preston how an American businessman, living in Moscow, came to buy a vineyard in South Africa?
When did you first come to Stellenbosch?
My first visit was in 1985, as a young guy travelling the world. Then I returned in 1991 with my parents, a little older and with a burgeoning interest in wine. I remember thinking just how spectacular the Stellenbosch region was, but I also remember very clearly something my father said as we travelled around and sampled wines from various producers. He said, “They’re giving this stuff away”, referring to the ridiculously low prices that were being charged. Being a man with an eye and an ear for a bargain, the words stayed with me.
Why did you decide to buy in Stellenbosch?
I had visited South Africa many times after 1991, and during that time began to formulate a plan to buy a wine property. Towards the end of the 1990’s, I was at a point where my knowledge of the industry had expanded enough for me to begin to make objective decisions about the merits of different sites and locations. I had been looking at a number of potential sites when I heard about the sale of the Dombeya farm, located next door to the legendary Rust en Vrede, which piqued my interest. Once I saw it I knew it was the right place, and very soon after I signed a contract to buy the 23 hectare estate.
Tell us a little about the estate?
It is located in the Helderberg, a region which is known in South Africa as the “Golden Triangle” because of the outstanding quality of fruit that it produces and the roll call of names that reside there; names like Rusten Vrede, Ernie Els, Waterford, Stellenzicht, Alto, the list goes on. There is a great history here of premium wine production.
The estate itself has 15 hectares under vine, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Merlot planted. The soils are perfect for quality wine production with a high stone content that just makes them hard enough for the vine to struggle in, which is what you need to grow great grapes. Fertile soil produces too much vigour and high yields, which is exactly what you don’t want for premium wine.
To top it all off, the view from the estate is truly spectacular. It is like living in a postcard. A truly special place.
What changes have you made so far to the estate?
We are at a very exciting stage of our development. There have been a lot of changes that have been made with a view to turning the estate into the leading producer of super premium wine in South Africa. A new 150 tonne winery has been built. We have contracted one of South Africa’s best wine makers, Rianie Strydom, to work exclusively for us, and brought in a new marketing and viticulture team. I have also asked my partner in D&H Fine Wine Export, Grant Dodd, to take over the running of the enterprise and things have progressed very well since. We have a young, ambitious team in place and already the changes have reaped rewards. Wine quality is right where we want it at this point in time, and we are set for the next step in our evolution.
Preston Haskell, Rianie Strydom,
So what is next?
Well, next is getting ready to produce the first range of “Haskell” wines. We have a three year window for this, and our goals are unashamedly elitist. We want to make the very best wines possible, wines that are judged in an inte rnational context and that are seen as being synonymous with quality of the highest order. We know that we have the grapes and a team capable of doing the job; so the rest is about being a stickler for detail and making sure that no shortcuts are taken. Our Dombeya range has just been released, and a brand launch will be held in Cape Town and Johannesburg in February. We have some exciting wines to show the public and it looks like being a terrific introduction to the market.
You have spoken about your team there, is there anyone we should know about?
Absolutely. First, Rianie Strydom. The Strydom name has great currency in South Africa, with Rianie’s husband Louis being well known as the winemaker for Ernie Els Wines and also Rust en Vrede. Rianie has come to us via ten years as winemaker at the highly regarded Morgenhof Estate and has an outstanding reputation.
Second, Phil Freese. Phil Freese is another part of the jigsaw that we are putting together at the moment, and will be a crucial aspect of our quality orientated push. Phil is our viticultural consultant, coming to us via America where he was Vice President of Viticulture for Mondavi and also a lecturer at UC Davis, one of the worlds leading viticulture educational institutions. He works with a number of leading names in South Africa and is also married to Zelma Long, who was the winemaker for Opus One for many years. Phil brings great experience and expertise to our operation and has great passion for what he does. He will be a big asset.
What is your production at present? In 2006 and 2007 we will be around 4000 cases in the Dombeya range, and will gradually build up from there. Our goal is to push up to a maximum of 10,000 cases across both the Haskell and Dombeya brands over the next 4-6 years.
Where are you selling the wine? Any overseas markets being opened up?
Sales are expanding quite quickly, especially in Cape Town and Stellenbosch. We also distribute in Russia through Palais Royal, and the wines can be found on the wine lists of many of Moscow’s best restaurants. Aside from that we are working on deals with distributors in the U.S.A. and a number of European countries that look very positive for us. The winery has been attracting a lot of attention of late in South Africa.
Anyone of note that has been paying a visit?
In recent times we have had Sam Chelowa, the influential president of Gauteng province at the estate. In addition, Prince Albert of Monaco and Sir Michael Smurfit have paid a visit and have also been very complimentary. It is nice to know that people with good taste appreciate our wines!
The Haskell Vineyards Estate
We also sent our winemaker Rianie and her assistant Wikus over to Australia in July last year for an information-seeking visit. They travelled through all the great wine growing regions of Australia with Grant Dodd, and got to meet many of Australia’s best known winemakers. Rianie has recorded the visit on the blog on our web site: www.haskellvineyards.com. It is a very good read.
You also have a game lodge in South Africa. How did that come about?
I have always had a love for animals. Therefore, it was always on the cards that I would have some involvement with a project like this at some point in time. Monate Game Lodge is located an hour and half north east of Johannesburg and is a beautiful spot. One of the things I am most proud of is our cheetah breeding program which has been very successful. You can find out more about it by visiting the website: www.monatelodge.com.
Preston, it all sounds terrific. We wish you all the best and look forward to seeing and hearing more about Haskell Vineyards in the near future. Thank you for chatting to Passport Magazine.
In 1486 Bartholomew Diaz, a Portuguese explorer, discovered the Cape. The Dutch East India Company was sent to the Cape to establish a halfway station to provide fresh water, vegetables and meat for passing ships traveling to and from the East. Jan van Riebeeck’s party of three vessels landed at the Cape on 6 April 1652.
In 1688 the Huguenots arrived at the Cape. They had fled from anti-Protestant persecution in Catholic France to Holland where they were offered by the Company free passage to the Cape and farmland. The Huguenots made an important contribution to the Cape’s wine industry.
Dombeya Chardonnay 2004
The wine is 100% wood fermented and matured for 10 months. It has a golden yellow colour. The nose shows lime, peach pip, honey and lovely smoky flavours. The palate is smooth and buttery with dried apricots that add to the sweet/sour tang. The acidity is crisp and gives an edge of freshness that would allow the wine for more aging.
The Haskell Vineyards
Dombeya Sauvignon Blanc 2005
This wine was from the oldest block on the farm, which is 22-years-old. The vineyard is planted on a northwestern slope. The wine is 100% tank fermented. Two different yeast strains were used to bring out the best flavours at the different times of picking. The dominant flavours on the nose are granadilla, kiwi and grapefruit, with a touch of tinned peas. The palate is lovely and balanced, crisp and dry with asparagus and tropical fruit sweetness.
Dombeya Shiraz 2003
The wine has a vibrant, deep, red-purple inviting colour. The nose shows nuances of white pepper, violets, and mocha with a touch of dark chocolate. The palate is soft and structured with red cherries and red currant flavours lingering in the aftertaste.
Dombeya Amalgam [Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot]
2003 In 2003 it was the first vintage where the wine was made from the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blocks on the farm. The vineyards were only in their second crop and thus made a very soft, subtle wine. Only 12 x 300 litre barrels of each were made with total time in the barrel 20 months. The majority of this wood was second and third fills French oak.
This is a blend of 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
The colour is a vibrant lively red. The wine has soft tannins and sweet warmth that lingers on the palate. The nose has hints of cinnamon and other fresh spices that finish it off beautifully. The final thought reminds of dark robust berries.
The winery has a restaurant and a wool spinning store were you can buy clothing created by local residents.