Lunch with Francois van Zyl from Laibach
If it wasn’t for the incredible success of the organic Laibach Ladybird red blend, you would be forgiven for driving past the low profile Laibach estate. It’s in the hallowed Simonsberg ward of the Stellenbosch Valley next to Kanonkop, the biggest name in South African wine, and another highly esteemed estate, family-owned farm Warwick Wine Estate.
“That’s our intention,” says Laibach winemaker Francois van Zyl. The colourful Van Zyl, who started his winemaking career at Laibach in 1999, and partner GM Michael Malherbe head up a small team of passionate people. The two have converted the entire farm to organic farming over an eight-year period. They believed that this conversion was only sustainable if implemented in manageable increments over a carefully considered timeframe. It’s worth noting here that the Winelands are littered with the casualties of those who went the Big Bang route of trying to convert vineyards to organic farming all at once.
There’s no doubt that terroir plays a big role in the superior quality of Laibach wines. The soil is deep clay and some of the coolest in South Africa, so no irrigation is needed. This naturally leads to smaller berries and greater concentration, says van Zyl. But it’s the people behind the wine that also make it a success.
As you may have gathered, this is not some over the top monument to someone’s ego, but rather a group who are working together as a team, driven primarily by Francois, who modestly says: “I only play a small but creative role on the farm making the wines, and Michael is in the complimentary, more structured role of overseeing the vineyards.”
Sitting down in their small but state of the art cellar, the first thing that Francois says that gets my attention is: “Everything they teach you at Elsenberg, you do the opposite. Do the opposite of your neighbour. Add minimal chemicals. Do not work from a recipe. Use your gut feel when necessary and then we might not fall into the same trap as Australia, where all wines start looking and tasting the same. It’s time we become innovators rather than followers.”
Even though Francois doesn’t look to his neighbours for guidance, he is inspired by and respects what some of them have achieved, particularly the Krige family of Kanonkop and the Malans of Simonsig. So when a decision needed to be taken about where to go for a late lunch – did I mention that Francois is not short of words and opinions — the obvious choice was the stylish Cuvèe Restaurant at Simonsig. Arriving just before 3 pm, we were lucky to get our orders in for rump steaks, which paired beautifully with the Laibach Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (one of this month’s Reserve Selections).
As for the benefits of making wine organically, Francois says: “You drink wine to relax and feel good, so why would you want to put chemicals and other poisons in your body?” The afternoon ended with a feeling of well-being, and confidence that these are not the last words we’ll hear from Francois.
FRANCOIS IN A NUTSHELL
Why did you decide to become a winemaker?
Well, I wanted to become a dentist, but coming from a poor family did not help. My father in Robertson sent me to my very first wine tasting in 1996 presented by Beyers Truter (then at Kanonkop): five very good wines from Kanonkop and five from Rust en Vrede. I really appreciated the very passionate way Beyers talked about wine, and I fell in love with it that evening.
Highlights in your career?
Seeing Laibach grow over the years has been great. Winning your first medal is always nice but being part of a successful operation should be any winemaker’s ambition.
Previous winemaking experience?
None, but I have had eight European vintages while working at Laibach.
The Laibach philosophy?
Be creative, be humble, be natural and don’t try to be an individual bigger than the brand.
Challenges for South African wine producers?
To be sustainable, especially the farmers who sell grapes.
Your favourite white and red wines – to drink?
Red – good Merlot, which unfortunately there is not too much of in South Africa. White – local Chardonnay and German Riesling.
Your favourite white and red wines – to make?
Red – Merlot. It is very challenging but I think through my working experience in Pomerol, I know about the detail of this grape more than most. White – Chardonnay. It’s very open to a wide variety of styles and is probably the easiest varietal to do organically.