What happens when two of the richest men on Earth -- both well-established vintners -- commit themselves to creating a new brand of world-class wines from scratch?
Three years ago, billionaires Anton Rupert of South Africa and the late Baron Edmond de Rothschild put their reputations on the line when they announced their partnership in a new premium winery in South Africa.
On May 18, the initial results of their joint venture -- now headed by Anton's son, Anthonij, and Edmond's son, Benjamin -- were unveiled in London. The octogenarian Rupert, Anthonij and Baroness Ariane de Rothschild, Benjamin's wife, were on hand to introduce the first three wines from Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons.
"It's our ambition to make the greatest wine in South Africa," said Bertrand Otto, who oversees the Rothschild family's wine properties and other assets. "We want to be the Opus One of South Africa."
Rupert & Rothschild kicked off with two reds and a white from the 1998 vintage, all of which carry the Coastal Region appellation. Though the winery has not yet chosen an American importer, the wines are expected to be shipped to the United States within the next few months.
The premium red, called Baron Edmond, is a blend of 60 percent Merlot and 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Neither filtered nor fined, it spent two years in new oak barrels. About 3,200 cases were made, and the wine will retail for about $37 per bottle. Another 12,000 cases were made of a less-expensive Merlot-Cabernet blend, called Classique, which is priced at about $15.
The white, a Chardonnay called Baroness Nadine, after Edmond's widow, was barrel-fermented and aged for 14 months in new oak. It was fined but not filtered. This wine, of which 4,500 cases were made, will sell for about $30.
Like the partnership itself, the Baron Edmond red and the Baroness Nadine Chardonnay are a blend of the New World and the Old; they showed delicious, ripe fruit but also a subtle restraint. The white was fat and rich, with a subtle toast aroma and a silky finish. The Baron Edmond red was elegant, with ripe currant and blackberry flavors and tender tannins. (The Classique was not tasted.)
Both the Rupert and Rothschild families have deep interests in wine. Their joint venture, which was signed in May 1997, capped a long friendship between the self-made South African and the French banker, who died in November 1997.
The Rupert family owns two wine estates in the Cape region's Franschhoek area: L'Ormarins and La Motte. The Rupert Group also shares control of two of South Africa's largest nigociant firms. In addition, the Ruperts control the luxury-goods firm Vendtme, which owns brands such as Cartier, Alfred Dunhill, Piaget, Baume & Mercier and Mont Blanc.
The Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons winemaking facility is located between Paarl and Franschhoek, on the Fredericksburg estate, a historic French Huguenot farm that dates back to the late 17th century.
Before the '98 harvest, the partners built a new winery, which 32-year-old winemaker Schalk-Willem Joubert helped design. The winery encompasses three levels so that the juice and wine can flow by gravity. "I'm really going for a very natural way," Joubert said.
Michel Rolland, a well-known Bordeaux enologist, consults for the winery and travels four or five times a year to South Africa. Joubert credited Rolland with helping to fashion reds with supple tannins, a Rolland specialty. The winery has also implemented green harvesting (trimming unripe grape bunches) to cut down yields.
The Ruperts and Rothschilds co-own the winery and its 222 acres of vineyards, which were planted in the 1980s. The Ruperts own another 740 acres of land that the winery can draw from as vines come into production. The winery started with 20,000 cases in 1998, but its goal is to reach a capacity of 65,000 cases per year.
Learn more about the Rothschild and Rupert families: