A titan has fallen

The late Guilio Bertrand, owner of Morgenster Wine and Olive Estate in Somerset West, engaging with a guest during the annual olive harvest commencement celebration in May last year.

He did in a single generation what usually takes three generations in this industry.

With these words, Giorgio Dalla Cia, speaking last Friday at a memorial gathering at Morgenster Wine and Olive Estate, put into perspective the deep footprints that his long-time friend and countryman, Guilio Bertrand, left in the wine and olive oil industry when he passed away unexpectedly on Sunday May 20.

A native of Piedmont in Italy, Guilio settled in South Africa in 1992, after retiring from a successful career in textiles, running the Bertrand family business.

By his own admission, Guilio did not initially intend to grow olives or make wine, but after buying Morgenster, he realised how much the rolling hills of the Schapenberg reminded him of Piedmont, and he set about building his dream.

A life-long pursuit of excellence, meant that only the very best would do for Morgenster’s planned Bordeaux-style red blends, so in 1997 he visited Bordeaux where he persuaded oenologist Pierre Lurton, president of Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem, to help him.

To this day, Pierre inevitably recounts at the annual Morgenster vintage reveal, that first meeting, and his subsequent decision to become part of Guilio’s dream.

Intent on producing only the finest olive oil, Guilio imported the best cultivars from Italy, as well as the most advanced extraction technology.

Fast forward 20-odd years, and Morgenster is internationally recognised for its fine, long-lived Bordeaux-style red blends, and its extra virgin olive oil.

I met Guilio by accident in 2008. Researching an article on climate change in the wine industry, I’d heard that Pierre Lurton was at Morgenster for the annual vintage reveal of the 2004 Morgenster Reserve and the Lourens River Valley wines.

I arranged with then cellarmaster Marius Lategan to interview Pierre, and it was while we sat and talked in the tasting room, that Guilio came up to me and in characteristically humble yet forthright fashion introduced himself. “Hello, I’m Guilio. Who are you?”

During the ensuing discussion, in which Guilio shared with me his vision for Morgenster, I glimpsed the man I would come to respect, and to know so well, over the next decade.

I had the chutzpah to ask Marius for an inviation to the 2008 vintage reveal two days later, which resulted in my first major wine piece. Thank you, Guilio.

Driven and inspiring, Guilio set standards of performance which ensured that his vision and philosophy of “Where there is quality there is no compromise” became infectious.

Speaking at Friday’s memorial, cellarmaster Henry Kotzé put it thus: “Shortly after starting here (in 2009), I realised that I had to buy in completely to Mr Bertrand’s vision.”

In the years that followed our first meeting, I was fortunate enough to engage with Guilio on so many memorable occassions: the annual vintage reveal, the annual first pressing of olive oil, Morgenster’s 300th birthday celebration, the annual harvest festival pomegranate stomp, a pre-release sampling and discussion of his Italian Collection, produced from Italian clones he journeyed to Italy to source, among others.

Guilio’s trademark humility notwithstanding, he epitomised the patrician gentlemen, imbuing his universe with an old-world charm.

That he wasn’t planning to go anywhere anytime soon, is perhaps best illustrated by him launching a 10-year hospitality project at Morgenster, a short while before his 90th birthday.

Mi mancherai, amico mio.