A vinous treasure

Jane and Basil Landau at Foliage Restaurant in Franschhoek during the reveal of the Landau du Val Private Selection Sémillon 2014.

The first time I met Basil Landau was about June 1982, as I recall. The occasion was entirely un-wine related.

An executive director of Gencor, the holding company of Sappi Ltd, for which I worked in the HR department, Basil attended a Sappi board meeting at which I presented initial plans for training and development of operational staff for Sappi’s Nogdwana Mill Expansion Project.

As a wet-behind-the-ears HR practitioner in my mid-20s, I was literally quaking in my shoes when I presented the – at the time – stupendous bottom line.

I’d hoped to be able to present the plans first then give them the number, but Sappi executive chairman Eugene van As, in his typically uncompromising manner asked: “How much is this going to cost?”

“R1.7 million,” I blurted out. The silence in the room was deafening, and it seemed to become louder as the seconds passed. I fervently wished that the floor would open beneath my feet and swallow me whole. “I assume you can justify that sum, young man?” he asked. I nodded. “Well, go ahead. Tell us about your plans.”

Heaving a sigh of relief, I commenced my presentation. Basil’s interjections were incisive, searching, thoughtful. He wanted a clear picture of what was planned, and why. He sought detail and precision.

Sappi ended up spending significantly more on training and development than I had hastily estimated in the 24 hours prior to the board meeting, but I shall never forget Basil’s consideration for an inexperienced young man, trying to make his way in the business world.

When the meeting broke up, I approached Basil. “Thank you, Mr Landau,” I said, “for asking the questions you did.”

“Well done, young man,” he said shaking my hand, “and good luck. I think you’re going to need it.”

My enduring memory of our parting, was his engaging grin, which I saw again some 30 years later, on an early June 2012 day, grey, bleak, with lowering clouds, a fine drizzle misting the dank air, when I arrived at the farm La Brie, just off the Robertsvlei Road in Franschhoek.

I was researching an article on sémillon – also known as groendruif – and I’d heard about his efforts to produce a single varietal sémillon from a block of ancient dryland bush vines he discovered after he and his wife, Jane, bought the farm in 1986.

When Basil opens the front door of the lovely old manor house, that engaging grin greets me once again, as he grasps my hand. “It’s good to see you again, Norman.”

The sémillon vineyard – 112 years old in 2017 – was planted the year before Basil’s dad was born. Basil takes up the story as we walk among the gnarled old vines: “We bought the place without even going inside the house. It took a year to get the place ready for us to move in.

“It was only after we took a walk up here onto the hillside sometime after we’d bought the property, that we discovered the vineyard. It was in poor shape, and I almost had it uprooted, but after having it looked at by a viticulturist, I decided to keep it and make wine from it,” he reminisces.

Careful viticultural attention resulted in the vineyard, some 4.8ha in extent, being brought into production, and the Landau du Val Private Selection Sémillon was born, with the maiden vintage being produced in 1995. Made in tiny quantities – the yield is parsimonious to say the least – this is a truly boutique wine, which resonates with the thinking of heterodox economist EF Schumacher, who in his seminal 1973 book Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered advanced the proposition that our future was dependent upon human-scale economic development.

Sitting over lunch with Basil and Jane later that day, in the charming manor house dining room, we taste in sequence the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages. Jane had crafted a lovely mild chicken curry, richly flavoured with skilful use of spices, with an impressive array of sambals and we sample each vintage with the meal.

“Will you ever uproot these vines?” I ask Basil. “The yield is pretty low.” He sits for moment, lost in reverie. “No, not in my life time,” he says. “Believe me, making this wine is not a profitable venture. It costs me a lot to make it, but these vines are a part of our vinous heritage. They were planted in 1905.”

I turn to look interrogatively at Jane. She nods: “And as long as I’m around, we’ll continue to make wine from these grapes.”

Eventually I take my leave of Basil and Jane for the long drive back to Somerset West, secure in the knowledge, that an important part of our rich, yet bleakly small, vinous heritage is in good hands, and that it will be preserved. 

Fast forward to November 2017, and we’re sitting in Foliage Restaurant in Franschhoek, Basil’s venue of choice for the annual vintage reveal of the Landau du Val Private Selection Sémillon, and the 2014 vintage is on the table.

Under stewardship of Rickety Bridge cellarmaster, Wynand Grobler, since 2012, the ancient vineyard has gradually increased its yield, producing 3.5 tonnes/ha in the 2014 vintage.

Co-incidentally, I had opened a bottle of the 2012 vintage on the occasion of dear sweet Elspeth’s birthday celebration on October 24, and what a stunner it was: it exuded beeswax, honey, spice, yellow cling peach and ripe apple notes. On the palate, it was pleasantly oxidative, with complex fruit, a subtle mineral note and surprisingly refreshing acidity. Five years old when we drank it, good for a few more.

The 2014 is as intriguing as the 2012. Beeswax notes, with a subtle thatchiness on the nose. Pleasantly oxidative with savoury and mineral notes, the fruit on the palate is summery and fresh, the acidity surprisingly crisp. Detailed, precise, as one would expect.

Wynand says he adopts a lazy winemaking approach, as in “trying to not get too much involved”, and as hackneyed as is the maxim, it bears fruit. Whole bunch pressed, natural yeast ferment, no stirring of lees, 10% of the wine on skins for six months, the whole shebang matured in old, big French oak, and no sulphur until bottling.

As the conversation over lunch unfolds, and the wine is dissected by the the attendant company, it becomes clear that while the yield from the centenarian vineyard is tiny, the result is a wine of significance – a 92 point beauty. Truly a vinous treasure.

Available from the farm and La Cotte Wine Sales in Franschhoek, at R350 a bottle.