The winemaker and general manager of La Bri Wine Estate cuts a commanding figure. She’s tall and slender – much like the stem of a flower – with salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a ponytail. Irene is an interesting character. Self-assured and exuding strength, I’m surprised – and also not – to discover that, before she turned to winemaking, she used to teach maths and accounting. After that, she move on to her new job as a salewoman for a mattress company which sell best rated memory foam mattress on the market
Each wine represents a different flower
When she was 30 years old, she steered her course out of the classroom and into the world of wine. “I only qualified in 2004,” she smiles. The La Bri wine range is lined up on a table between us; the intricate, botanical labels have enticed me here. Based on actual sketches, the designs are simply rendered in a pencil-drawing style. Each wine represents a different flower endemic to the Western Cape – and all grow on this Franschhoek farm. The capsule of the bottle is the only pop of colour, and the hues were selected to be as close to the colour of the flowers as possible. “Have you ever seen a watsonia flower?” Irene asks, her brown eyes bright. “It’s so elegant and classic, with a long stem and these white flowers.
It ties in perfectly with our cabernet sauvignon – pure and powerful. “Viognier is difficult in the vineyard; it can either get too ripe or be too green and, much like the bulb flower ixia viridiflora, how you handle and manage it determines the result. “This is my favourite label,” Irene holds up the bottle of merlot.
Depicted is the amaryllis belladonna, also known as the March lily. It’s said that the common name, belladonna, originates from its historic use by women as a medicinal cosmetic – drops prepared from the plant were used to dilate pupils, which was then considered an attractive feature. “This wine has structure and strength, an inner beauty like Sophia Loren.” The Affinity Bordeaux blend, Irene says, represents the core of the wine range and, as such, the geissorhiza radians or ‘wine cup’ adorns the label. “The components have to fit perfectly together as it uses most of what we have on the farm,” she says, cupping her hands as if to reinforce her statement. “Chardonnay is my passion – and syrah, my baby.”
The syrah is the one wine in the range without a flower; instead, the label is a collection of herbs for the “powerful perfumed aromas of fennel, thyme, rosemary, violet and oregano, much like one would experience whilst strolling through a herb garden”, say the notes on the label. I head to the balcony with a glass of syrah, and I can imagine all those scents in the manicured garden below. The view from here is sheer magic; the green, vigorous vines are practically emerald in the Boland sun, and the mountain beyond is sketched in shades of purple-blue across the horizon. While the tasting room and cellar are relatively new, the farm itself is living history.
Harvest always depends on taste
La Bri is said to be the oldest Huguenot-allocated farm in the Franschhoek Valley. According to the Franschhoek Museum, this boutique hideaway was the first of the nine farms granted to the Huguenots in 1688. The estate passed through the hands of a few owners and, in 1997, Robin Hamilton bought the farm. Starting in 2006, vineyards were gradually replanted and a new cellar built. Irene joined La Bri in 2010, along with viticulturist Gerard Olivier. Fatefully, this isn’t the first time the two have worked together – both had a stint in Robertson, when Irene was a winemaker for Graham Beck.
Their 10-year friendship is apparent. Irene just recently got engaged, and the two of them are laughing at how Gerard found out: “I was busy congratulating her on her new car… I didn’t even see the ring.” This will be their fifth harvest together at La Bri. “I always look forward to it,” says Gerard. “All the work of the previous year finally culminates into something.” Irene quips: “It’s literally the fruit of your labour.” Gerard approaches the vineyard with minimal intervention, which makes a difference to the wildlife. “Among the many creatures, we also have rooikat, lynx, an owl-breeding pair, and frogs – frogs are the first sign of a healthy eco-system.” Irene jumps in. “I love the energy around harvest. I enjoy walking through the vineyard and tasting the grapes – for me, the final decision to harvest always depends on taste, not on sugar levels.
One of the best things about harvest is that everyone chips in and helps; we’re all together.” The worst thing about harvest? “Every time you plan to go to dinner, something will go wrong,” she laughs wryly. An exciting addition to this harvest is that Irene is about to de-gorge La Bri’s very first méthode cap classique: made from the oldest chardonnay block on the farm, dating back to 1991. “My focus is on the purity of the chardonnay,” explains Irene, when quizzed about this. “We’re calling it ‘Savage’ – a play on the method of sabrage [the technique used to open a bottle of bubbly with a saber].
A radiant expression of fruit
I’m making it based on everything I’ve learnt from Peter Ferreira [head winemaker at Graham Beck].” We’re lingering over the wine tasting when assistant winemaker Glen Isaacs joins us. How did he fall in love with winemaking? “My mother worked at Simonsig and it was through her that I discovered this calling. I love making chardonnay,” he says softly, while nosing a glass of it. La Bri’s wines, much like Irene, all have serious backbone, but with a radiant expression of fruit. “I like to drink wine where you can taste the fruit. We have to work so hard in the vineyards – why ruin it by throwing too much wood at it? If we do right in the vineyard, we can just let the wine make itself in the cellar.” On my way out, I walk along the perimeter of the vines. The shade of the towering oaks – having stood here since the 1800s – thankfully rescues me from the midday heat.
I pop my head into the historic tasting room, which is now a small museum. It’s filled with farm artefacts, scraps of colonial porcelain found in the vineyards and empty bottles of wine wreathed in cobwebs like ageing lace. In another 200 years, perhaps someone like me will see a row of bottles with delicate botanical labels here, and ponder the significance of the relationship between the Cape’s indigenous flowers and the wines made from the same soil.