Schoolyard, vineyard

© Cape Times Friday 17th July 2015

“In a cottage ‘neath the mountain was the seed of Wynberg sown.” This is the school song of Wynberg Boys High, one of the oldest boys’ schools in the Western Cape, which is celebrating its 175th birthday next year. The metaphor develops further and is clearly about nurturing young minds and growing fine, upstanding men for the future, but it seems that these are not the only things growing on the Wynberg campus of schools. Because with the release of their Oude Wijnberg Shiraz 2013 it has become (and I would be very interested to know if I’m wrong) probably the only school to actually grow grapes on school premises and turn them into its own wine. Quite apart from the fact that I have an interest in the school (my son is a Wynberg Junior boy at the moment), this alone was enough to intrigue me – I’ve seen wines labelled as school wine before, but never one actually grown and produced with the help of the children themselves.

The newly-released Oude Wijnberg 2013 is the result of a casual conversation back in 2009 between Andre Rousseau, previously winemaker at Constantia Uitsig and now making under his own label, and WBHS Headmaster, Keith Richardson. During a waterpolo match, the chat turned to how many winemakers are ex-Wynberg boys, and it occurred to Keith that making a Wynberg wine might be a good way to mark the 175th anniversary which was coming up in a few years’ time. An area of land commonly referred to as ‘The Cabbage Patch’ might be a suitable site for a vineyard and Andre was enthusiastic, his only stipulation being that the boys themselves must be involved. Buitenverwachting winemaker Brad Paton, himself a Wynberg Old Boy, was roped in to help and finally they, with an overwhelming number of the boys and their families, planted 900 Shiraz vines at the school in June 2010.

One of those boys, Michael Wilkinson, became one of the first members of the newly-formed Viticulture Club and recalls a day of heavy digging culminating with a row of vines named after him. At the time, he had thought of going into winemaking, something he later decided against, but he doesn’t regret his time spent amongst the school’s vines saying “I think it has given me a greater appreciation for the process and sophistication that surrounds winemaking.” He adds “I really do think it’s a great feature to have on the school grounds, as it adds to our school’s rich history as well as giving us a few more bragging rights – I mean, how many schools actually have a vineyard on their grounds?!” How many indeed?

The vineyards owes much to the passion and enthusiasm of Andre but, with the occasional intervention from staff at Constantia Uitsig, most of the management of the vineyard was undertaken by the boys themselves. And when the time came to harvest the first grapes, another winemaking Wynberg Old Boy, Stuart Botha, took over and, along with two combis full of boys, picked and processed the fruit at his workplace winery at Eagles’ Nest. Throughout the whole project, Andre, Stuart and the teachers were careful to make sure that whilst the boys took an active part in making the wine, they of course never actually tried it, allowing them to concentrate on the processes involved and gain greater understanding and respect for wine and alcohol in general.

Now the time has come for the first vintage to hit the shelves. The school has decided to release 175 double magnums (containing 3 litres of wine, each one bottled by hand by the boys themselves), each one in a presentation box with a WBHS flag wrapped around the bottle. They then made a further 990 bottles which they will be releasing onto the market over the coming months. Competition to purchase, particularly the big bottles, is expected to be fierce so if you are keen, you are advised to get in touch with the school as soon as possible. My tasting note on the wine was that it shows lovely black and red berried fruit and whilst it may not be a wine for the long-term, I would buy it anyway, just to feel I owned a piece of history.

And that is really what this is. Whether it actually is the only wine made from grapes grown on school grounds is possibly academic – it is the one grown here, in Wynberg, next to historic Constantia, the home of winemaking in South Africa. Agriculture and the wine industry are major parts of the economy of this province and whether you drink alcohol or not, there is something intrinsically right about any project which connects children back to the land and helps them understand how it should be farmed, conserved and harnessed for future sustainable growth. ‘Rise above adversities’ and ‘Never give up’ are two translations of the school’s motto ‘Supera Moras’ and it hasn’t always been easy to get this project to fruition. But thanks to Andre’s passion, Brad and Stuart’s input and Keith’s support, this unique wine is now available for the first time. I raise a glass to you WBHS and hope that by the time my son gets there, he’ll get to share in those vineyard-owning bragging rights too!