Don’t stop reading this because you can’t afford the wine.
Yes, 4G wines are expensive, and if you have some time to read up on it, the articles you might find are quite vitriolic in reference to price. But I think, mostly by people who don’t understand. I most certainly cannot afford a bottle, but then it’s not aimed at me. It’s aimed at a much loftier target: the world. It’s aimed at being THE BEST in the world. Which given its roots, I do understand the consternation. Why would a management consultant from Germany, strike up a friendship with Giorgio Dalla Cia (previously of Meerlust and now Dalla Cia),and then when Giorgio fell ill, cold call one of THE oenological minds in the world (Prof. Denis Dubourdieu), convince him to come to South Africa and in essence, pour his life savings into making world-class South African wines from meticulously sourced plots throughout the Western Cape. WHAT could drive such ambition, or moreover, WHAT could make it succeed?
Have you ever listened to the NPR podcast ‘How I built this’ (if you haven’t you should)? It’s a series of interviews with some of the most famous entrepreneurs of our time: the guy who started Linkedin, Airbnb, Richard Branson, Ben & Jerry’s, the couple who started Lonely Planet, even the lady who started Spanx. It offers an intriguing look into the entrepreneurial mind, and to a man/woman the golden thread is HEART. It’s also hard work, luck, resilience, financial acumen, leadership… and many other things. But they all, at some point needed heart, the courage to see it through, even when faced with bankruptcy, insolvency or team revolt. Guy Raz, the host of the show, always ends an episode by asking them: How much of your success can you attribute to hard work, and how much do you attribute to luck? Some reject the idea of luck completely, but the honest ones (I think) acknowledge it. Philipp G. Axt, CEO of 4G wines, when asked the same question said: “In terms of time, 98% hard work and 2% luck. In terms of importance: 100% as that 2% comes just at the end, right before you’re unable to make the last payment, THEN it comes.” And when it does, well, then your fate is sealed I suppose.
Philipp is an intriguing man. German by birth, currently residing in Zug, Switzerland. He has travelled the world as a management consultant, more a citizen of the world than anything else. As luck would have it (the first 1% at least), somewhere in 2009 he became acquainted with Giorgio Dalla Cia who had already set his mind to making something extraordinary with only the best South Africa had to offer - he only needed the funding to do so. In 2009 they made Vintage Zero of what was to become G., a Bordeaux-Hermitage inspired blend. ‘Hermitage’ meaning ’Syrah’ - and may very well be South Africa’s Blend, given our terroir’s proclivity for the opulent Syrah and what it brings to the traditional Bordeaux blend varietals. Soon after however, Giorgio fell ill, leaving Philipp to his own devices. Though Philipp’s ‘devices’ might be slightly different from yours. As a prolific wine lover with a cellar of French wines, he did what… well what HE would do. Which was to find the proverbial phonebook of flying Bordeaux Winemakers and settle on the very first, very BEST one he could find. Professor Denis Dubourdieu, a prolific wine professor at the University of Bordeaux, consultant to the stars (Château d’Yquem, Cheval Blanc and Margaux among them), Château owner (his own estates include Château Reynon, Doisy-Däene and Clos Floridène) and Decanter’s 2016 Man of the Year. In true entrepreneurial fashion Philipp didn’t give him a chance to refuse, after he waylaid Professor Dubourdieu at the airport in Bordeaux for their first meeting, their next meeting was promptly set a few weeks later in South Africa. Dubourdieu’s interest apparently peaked given some of his peers’ involvement in South African projects. Once he’d visited and extensively explored the vines, the Professor’s only comment was: “The one thing I regret, is not coming sooner.” That’s the thing about heart, you can only HAVE it, if you believe that what you’re doing is FUNDAMENTAL.
Together Dubourdieu, Axt and their South African team established a network of vineyard plots, in the style of Bordeaux, identifying key rows within a vineyard and leasing them. Once found, 4G’s viticultural team, which oscillates between 6 and 10 people, travel to each plot and take over the day-to-day viticultural duties. Today they manage around 20 parcels of land from Stellenbosch, Paarl, Swartland, Hemel-en-Aarde and next year even Elgin. I ask Philipp, given that each one of these areas are known for very specific varietals ie. Swartland = Chenin, Stellenbosch = Cabernet, Hemel-en-Aarde = Pinot Noir & Chardonnay, why not branch out and experiment with THESE varietals? His answer was a disinterested no. You see, the diversity of our terroir offers an avid oenologist, like Professor Dubourdieu, the opportunity to experiment with the expression of his PREFERRED grapes in a variety of terroir. Once again speaking to the concept of luxury and the refinement of something you KNOW, making it, year on year, in a new and wholly unique way. One of their most interesting parcels is a 25-year old Cabernet Sauvignon plot in the Swartland - old by red varietal standards and unique by Swartland standards. The G. then, each year a representation of a kaleidoscope of Cape terroir.
As Philipp explains their harvesting processes, his Swiss precision begins to show. Plots are harvested in groups of three, wearing white gloves. One is made to hold a small lugbox, while the other TENDERLY cuts off each bunch of grapes with what looks like precision scissors. The third person is made to hold an empty lugbox, the purpose being that when one box is full, THAT person runs to the air-conditioned truck to protect the flavour of the freshly picked grapes. Once PICKED the grapes are then transported for sorting, HAND sorting, not digital sorting, I’m talking a table of white-gloved ladies working their way through the bunches. My mom always told me that box wine most probably has some trace of chameleon and other reptiles that tend to live in the vines because they just SHOOK the vines and took whatever fell out to be pressed… I don’t know how accurate that is, but it certainly put me off box wine. Philipp’s description seems much more in line with what I had in mind. In fact, you’ll find that 4G has recently produced a Grappa, or a Marc du Cap, made by an anonymous distiller from Europe; I am told one of the TOP distillers in Europe, though I wouldn’t know WHERE to start. He basically took the selection of grapes from the G. 2016 and distilled it into what they have now bottled and named The Spirit of G. What he found was the absolute quality of the grapes. Apparently when distilling, the first resulting liquid is called the ‘Head Note’, which is discarded, it is followed by what they call the ‘Heart’, this is the liquid you WANT, and finally followed by the ‘Tail’, which is also discarded. The grapes they distilled from the 2016 vintage had so much HEART, they simply had to bottle it.
The Swiss precision continues in the cellar, and especially in the blend. Nowhere more apparent than at the incredible blind tastings Philipp hosts every year to launch his latest vintage. In a Judgment of Paris type setting, eschewing the normal channels of wine criticism, he takes it on himself. Sourcing 100 point Parker rated wines and hosting a blind tasting with some of the most celebrated sommeliers in the world. The G.2014 - 67 IMIZUZU in the New York tasting hosted at Eleven Madison Park in September 2018, was rated second against wine colossus such as Screaming Eagle 2015(1st), Pétrus 2010 (3rd), Pingus 2014 (4th), Harlan 2013 (5th), Scarecrow 2014 (6th), Château Latour 2010 (7th) and Grange 2013 (8th). And the G.2015 first in Zurich, March this year. Of the G.- VENETIA'S HEART, the 2015 vintage, the critics write: “Incredible aromas, some black currant, Valrhona chocolate, a little bit of Tahitian vanilla, blueberries, mixed with cloves and mint. A lot of power on the palate, dense body, smooth acidity, unbelievably elegant and playful, aromas are developing beautifully, extremely long finish. 2022-2040”* When I ask about the maturation potential, Philipp says the wines might outlive us still…
There are so many things that I love about this brand, but chief among them the meticulous care taken with their labels and packaging, and the stories behind each vintage. Resident artist, Sebastian Blinde, is the man behind the art. Each label is printed in Switzerland, with an incredible 13 layers of print. If you shine a black light on the G. labels a hidden message will present itself. There are so many stories to tell, that I will limit myself to the G. 2013 Waldweben. The word - Waldweben - a made-up word by maestro Richard Wagner for the second act of his opera ‘Siegfried’ - describing a scene in which Siegfried stands amongst the cacophony of the forest and through the noise suddenly understands what the birds are saying. A moment of “Forest Weaving” if you will, and in this instance, perhaps the blend itself.
Professor Dubourdieu sadly passed away in 2016, but his longtime assistant Dr. Valérie Lavigne fills his shoes effortlessly. His legacy is something that may just have contributed to South Africa’s FIRST First Growth. Building a First Growth from scratch, without the prerequisite history and clout of the original First Growths of Bordeaux, seems almost impossible. And yet, if there is the right amount of meticulous quality, rarity and HEART it can be done. Look at what the Americans achieved at the Judgment of Paris.
Perhaps we, as a South African public, having been TAUGHT out of sheer necessity to be suspicious, perhaps we might just believe that we can stand amongst the best of them? And more importantly, be valued just the same.
*As reported in the Swiss publication Schweizerische Weinzeitung.