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Family Ties

Hand-produced in Hout Bay, Ambeloui is one of the best-kept secrets in the wine industry

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Family Ties
Family Ties

Ambeloui is one of the best-kept secrets in the wine industry, says House & Garden‘s contributing travel writer Ivan Fallon. Hand-produced in Hout Bay, its reputation has grown among oenophiles who prize it as their favourite local bubbly.

On ‘sale day’, the first Saturday in November, wine-lovers queue down a suburban road in Hout Bay just to sample the new vintage Ambeloui Méthode Cap Classique, or MCC (South Africa’s equivalent of French Champagne). Carefully rationed, each case is much prized by locals who often prefer it to the real thing. One Cape Town resident, throwing a lavish 70th birthday party for his wife last summer, cancelled his Champagne order after he tasted his first bottle of Ambeloui.

The story of Ambeloui, which means ‘little vineyard’ in Greek, is one which is both strange and romantic. It starts with a second-generation Greek Cypriot called Nick Christodoulou, who grew up in Pretoria – where his father ran a radio shop – and qualified as an engineer, but made a decent living in the world of banking and finance. A keen sailor, he purchased half a hectare of land in the early 1990s next to the Disa River on the lower slopes of Table Mountain, a kilometre from the Atlantic coast and Hout Bay harbour. There he built a comfortable farmhouse with a cellar underneath, accessed via a spiral staircase in the corner of the spacious open-plan kitchen and guarded by a large Byzantine icon of St Nicholas. He and his wife Ann had gardened in Pretoria, but for their place in the south they decided they would plant a vineyard. And they would make Méthode Cap Classique.

The Byzantine icon of St Nicholas keeps guard over the cellar

‘I didn’t much like the idea of making a still white or red wine,’ says Nick. ‘Everyone was doing that. But I was always tickled by the mystique of Champagne.’ He knew nothing about winemaking and even less about Champagne, much trickier to make – and almost impossible to make very well. ‘My first intention was to make something that was good and handcrafted and that I could be proud of,’ he says. ‘Today our customers tell us that our bubbly is better than the non-premium brands of Champagne – and it’s a third of the price.’

Nick insists that he never saw winemaking as a hobby, but planned it as a business in which all the family would be involved. In 1995, he began by planting his plot of land – really nothing more than a large garden in a residential area – with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes – the grapes traditionally used for Champagne, usually blended 50/50. Vineyards in Cape Town are normally associated with the Constantia Valley and there was no tradition of wine-growing in Hout Bay. Yet, more by luck than judgement, it turned out to be ideal. ‘Here we pick up the maritime influence, the sea breezes,’ he says. ‘When the Cap Classique producers get together they say my base wine is different. I’m not sure how, but they say it is.’

Nick learned as he went along and found plenty of generous souls willing to help and advise him, particularly Hermann Kirschbaum, the cellar master from Buitenverwachting, who was an early mentor (alas, all Buitenverwachting’s excellent sparkling wine is exported) and Beyers Truter of Beyerskloof. He went to Épernay to see how they did it in real Champagne country and returned with a container full of discarded machinery, which was all he needed. Everything, from picking, crushing, bottling, de-gorging, corking and labelling.

Don’t miss Ambeloui’s 2017 release date in November. For more information about the winery and the Christodoulou family, visit ambeloui.co.za.

Nick Christodoulou with his son, Alexis

Nick with twin sons, Christo and Alexis

The Christodoulou family

Photography Greg Cox; Diane Heirli