Farewell to a beloved visionary

It is with great sadness that we share the news that Giulio Bertrand passed away last Sunday afternoon on 20 May 2018 in the company of loved ones. Visionary owner of Morgenster Estate, he leaves an immense legacy behind and our thoughts go out to his family at this time. To commemorate Bertrand’s great accomplishments, we take a look back at Emile Joubert’s piece in Stellebosch Visio of Spring 2017 where he visited Morgenster and found out more about this beloved pioneer.

Giulio Bertrand holding an award from Flos Olei, the authoritative guide that ranks olive oil internationally.

“He inspires us by always being on the move, mentally and physically. He’s always looking forward. Right now he’s got us working to a 20-year plan.”

Morgenster is a complex place, discovers EMILE JOUBERT. First there are its contrasting classical and wild sides and then its Italian-French dynamic. But blend them together with a touch of Bordeaux finesse and you get wines that are simply great.

There are two distinct aspects to the glorious classical wine estate that is Morgenster and I’m on my way to the wilder one. Farm manager Corius Visser shifts the bakkie into four-wheel drive and heads up the hillside of Schapenberg, the well-known wine-growing region on the Somerset West side of Stellenbosch wine country.

This is rugged, steep and inhospitable vineyard habitat, far removed from the stately Cape Dutch manor house, elegant waterside restaurant and antique-filled tasting room aspect of Morgenster that most visitors are familiar with. The wind is howling from False Bay’s icy winter Atlantic Ocean and the fynbos and young saplings are still showing the black, ashy scales of the wildfires that smoked their way through Schapenberg earlier this year. Atop the hill, workers are pruning Merlot vines rooted in a land covered with layer upon layer of flat, slate-like stones.

This is not how I had pictured the spectacular Schapenberg, which from a distance looks like one green bulk of fertile land rising above a spread of valley-like country that runs into the majestic stony heights of the Helderberg.

“It gets pretty wild up here,” says Corius, who is in charge of the Morgenster vineyards and olive groves. “Wind, especially the southerly, seems born on these slopes. The vines are, as you can see, set in poor soils; layers of slate with clay below.”

Although the wild cannot be tamed completely, you can see that the vines are in immaculate condition as they head into their winter slumber. Leaves are dropping to reveal uniform, evenly sized shoots. The workers are pruning with meticulous precision.

“For the past few seasons we’ve had Italian viticulturists guiding us on alternative pruning methods,” continues Corius. “Just a few adjustments in the cutting of shoots and dead wood have had an amazing effect on balance in terms of the evenness of ripening and managing the yield.”

We drive around a patch of dry, hard, broken rock the size of a rugby field. Here, I am told, new Sangiovese vineyards are to be planted, even though the earth looks more suited to the establishing of a Northern Cape cactus nursery. Lucius Columella, the Roman Empire’s first viticulturist, would have approved, for it was he who wrote that “the vine lives on hills and in rocks”.

At Morgenster the Roman reference is, of course, not without relevance. Everything the estate has become known for – classically elegant wines, South Africa’s finest olive oils and an ethos of originality, perfection and excellence – can be ascribed to Giulio Bertrand. A former tycoon in the Italian textile industry, Giulio bought Morgenster in 1992 and used his eye for detail, his love of food and wine and his eternal quest for perfection to establish one of the leading addresses in the South African wine industry.

The Italian connection is uncanny in that Jacques Malan, who became the first owner of Morgenster when he acquired the farm in 1711, was a French Huguenot who had lived in Piedmont, Italy, before coming to the Cape. As a fellow son of Piedmont, Giulio’s settling on the same farm brought the South African–Italian connection full circle.

During my visit to Morgenster, Giulio was over in Italy for the northern summer. Winemaker Henry Kotzé, like his colleague Corius, was eager to enthuse about the energy and focus of ‘Mr B’.

“There is always something new to do, a new idea to execute,” says Henry. “On the wine labels, in the wine styles, with the olive oil production. He inspires us by always being on the move, mentally and physically. He’s always looking forward. Right now he’s got us working to a 20-year plan.”

The first wine plan for Morgenster began shortly after Giulio took ownership of the farm, where he still resides in the magnificent Cape Dutch manor house that dates back to 1786. Vines, mainly Bordeaux varieties, were planted and even before the first harvest Giulio had decided that if he was going to make good wine he’d best align himself with experts. Enter Pierre Lurton, an icon in Bordeaux wine circles who still presides over the winemaking at Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem. Since his first meeting with Giulio in 1997, Monsieur Lurton has been a close adviser to Morgenster’s winemakers and, besides his annual working visits, he serves on the estate’s board of directors.

With this 20-year partnership and the unique regional terroir, it is no surprise that Morgenster has established itself as the producer of top-rung South African interpretations of Bordeaux-style red wines. These are represented by two in particular: Morgenster Lourens River Valley, a juicy, accessible wine that does not compromise on classic refinement and fruit depth; and the Morgenster Estate Reserve, the flagship wine crafted from the finest fruit parcels with a 60% new French oak component (compared to the Lourens River Valley’s exposure to 20% virgin wood).

The Estate Reserve also contains a greater Cabernet Sauvignon component: 30% in the 2013 vintage compared to the Lourens River Valley’s 7% in 2013. Merlot dominates in both wines, however, with the Estate Reserve 2013 sporting 39% and the Lourens River Valley a hefty 47%. Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot make up the balance.

“There’s no recipe for the two wines in terms of the exact ratios of the various components,” says Henry. “Morgenster has been around for long enough and has garnered a solid enough reputation for us to know what we want for each label and then to blend each year’s vintage offerings until we get there.” The varieties are first aged separately in oak – 12 months in the case of the Estate Reserve – before blending, after which the wines are returned to the barrel.

Morgenster winemaker Henry Kotzé

Henry looks bored at the tired question of why South African Merlot is frowned upon by the wine critics. “The best Merlot ends up in Bordeaux blends,” he explains. “After blending, there’s not a lot of fine Merlot left.”

And it is certainly good Merlot that leads both the Morgenster Bordeaux wines, offering a distinct difference to the robust, tense character of similar blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. The Lourens River Valley 2013 is almost dream-like in its plush silkiness. Red fruit and hints of spice – probably the result of the older barrels used – make a wine that can simply be described as deliciously enticing. Older vintages that I have had the privilege of enjoying broaden out into a denser and more concentrated flavour profile.

In this lifetime, South Africa’s blended red wines will always be dominated by the class of those made with Bordeaux varieties. Here the Morgenster Estate Reserve is at the pinnacle of these offerings. Intense Cabernet Sauvignon thrusts of pine needles and pencil shavings grasp the sensual savour of the Merlot component, offering harmonious flavours of dried fig, mulberry, cigar box and liquorice. They overwhelm the senses, making you pause for deeper thought and clarity of expression, as any magical wine should.

I cannot talk of Morgenster without mentioning one of its newer products: the phenomenal White Reserve. Using the Bordeaux white combination of Sauvignon Blanc (55% for the 2015) and Sémillon (45%), this wine underscores my belief that this, too, is one of South Africa’s greatest offerings. Ten months in wood harnesses the fruit complexity of a match made in vinous heaven as the zippy steeliness of Sauvignon Blanc is filled out with the white winter fruit profiles and honeycomb warmth of Sémillon. It is a fantastically classy white wine which proves that when it comes to elegance and wonderment and beauty in wine, there are no whites or reds, but only truly great wines.

And it is these that make the wilder world one very special and happy place.