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New World Wine Maker Blog - winemaker interviews

Meet Pierre Wahl – Winemaker Rijks

Q. When and where were you born ? 

“Port Elizabeth on 24th March 1974.”

Q. Rather  unique place for a winemaker to come from ?

“Yea, I know that Bruwer Raats was born there but did his schooling in Bloemfontein.”

Q. What made you go for wine ?

“I always had a passion for nature and my Dad was in citrus so as a youngster I spent hours in orchards. However I wanted something more creative and wine seem to tick all the boxes. Outdoors, creative, natural and potential to offer lots of satisfaction”

Q. Where did you study and what qualifications did you have ?

“I received my diploma in Oenology in 1995 at Elsenberg Agricultural College .”

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“I work on gut feel most of the time. I think this is something you master  only with experience. I want to show purity of fruit and bring out the terroir in the wines .”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“I get involved from budburst until harvest.  The viticultural guys  and I work together as a team to achieve the quality of grapes needed to achieve the quality of wines we make.”

Q. Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ?

He answers with a smile:  “I love Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. Chenin because it is such a forgiving cultivar and Pinotage  because it understands me! You want the variety to understand the winemakers thoughts, not the other way round. That’s why winemaking starts in the vineyard.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker  or by a region ?

“I have never worked under any winemaker so created my own signature of wine styles. If I think back to a time that may have influenced my way of thinking, it must have been the two weeks I spent in Napa and Sonoma in 1999. I learnt how they go about picking at tannin ripeness and also how they made Pinot Noir. A lot of that I implement today in making my Pinotage.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?

“No doubt that being accepted as a Cape Winemakers Guild member.  To be seen as one of the elite  winemakers in my country. For me it is more important to be consistent than being remembered for one trophy or a couple of double gold medals.”

Q. That is quite a statement from a guy who has just won the Diner’s Club Winemaker of the Year for 2016 ?

“Well, that is undoubtedly a great honour but being invited by your peers to be a member of the Guild is still the greatest.”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ?

Again with that infectious smile “If I tell you it won’t be a secret anymore ! No secrets but basically just making wine with minimum interference in the cellar. Minimum fining and filtration. pH management is of utmost importance, especially with pinotage.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ?

“ Not really important. To have whatever equipment in working condition and to have all equipment sterilised after working is more important. And, of course, adequate cooling for cooler fermentations.”

Q. You say you never really worked under a winemaker. How come ?

“When I graduated in 1995 I commenced my winemaking career at Niel Joubert Wines in Paarl as Chief Winemaker !”

Q And then ?

“I accepted a challenging appointment in 1998 at Moreson in Franschhoek. It was here I that I gained most of my winemaking experience and began to travel the world.”

Q. When did you move to Rijks ?

“After experience in Paarl and Franschhoek I headed for Rijks in Tulbagh and into totally unknown territory in 2002.”

Q. You have helped other cellars ?

“Yes , during the past 14 years at Rijk’s I have consulted for various wineries in the Tulbagh area in an effort to improve all the wines of the area.  During this time I won  numerous awards  and then in 2007  I went to the Northern Rhone in France  to work for a vintage to gain a different perspective.” He carried on “Despite the French visit I believe to this day that my wines have a unique signature which is a direct result of never being an assistant and working under prescribed winemaking conditions.”

Q. To wrap up ?”

“When Rijks started out in 2000 we made wine from10 different cultivars. In 2006 we took out all but Chenin Blanc, Pinotage and Shiraz. We believe that by doing that we can keep on being consistent in making quality wines and become one of the icons in the South African wine industry.”

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Meet Peter de Wet – Winemaker at De Wetshof

Q.  Where were you born ?

“I was born in Cape Town. On 17th  August 1984. I did my schooling at Bishops.”

Q.  How come Cape Town when the family lived in Robertson ?

“Not really surprising as  we are direct desendants of the De Wets of Koopmans Dewet house in Strand Street Cape Town. The façade of our offices on the farm is  a replica of the building in Strand Street. Our new red blend is called  Thibault as he was the architect of the Strand Street building.”

Q. Where did you study ? 

“I Followed my Father’s footsteps and went to Geisenheim on the Rhine in Germany and studied Weinbou Engineer. (Engineering in viticulture and oenology. )

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“I try to keep the purity of the varietal and site. This was pretty much instilled into me at Geisenheim and at various places I subsequently worked at.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“ I get very involved . We have a full time viticulturist and get some of the world’s best advice from Phil Freese from California, and also our own  Francois Viljoen. However I still get into the vineyard as often as I can and I allocate Monday’s to be in the vineyards. It is essential to know what is going on with your raw material.”  He then adds “I also have a father who was a pioneer of various varieties in the Robertson area.”

Q. Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ?

“Obviously Chardonnay. De Wetshof is famous for  it’s Chardonnay. But also Pinot Noir and Merlot.”

Q. Have you been influenced  by any particular winemaker or by a wine    region ? 

“I have got two great mentors. The chief winemaker  of Dr Dienhart in Germany and Peter Ferreira of Graham Beck. I worked with both for six months each.”  “In 2006 I also worked in St Emillion with Vignoble Despagne in Bordeaux. In 2007 and 2008 I spent time in Burgundy with Domaine Bertagne and Chablis with  Domaine Laroche. In 2009 I spent time in Champagne with Nicolas Maillart and 2010 in Napa and Sonoma.  Of course, most of my experience has been hard  earned on De Wetshof with my father and the De Wetshof team.” “As you know my father registered De Wetshof as the first wine estate in the  Robertson area and pioneered the role that  chardonnay  has played in high quality wine not only here but in the world.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?

With a coy smile “I am still working on it !”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines  different to others ?  

“No secrets. Just try and preserve what we get from nature.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ?

“Most winemaking equipment is there to make life easier. There is not much that actually improves quality.

Q. What has given you most satisfaction recently ? 

“The production of our Methode Cap Classique and the Thibault Red Blend. “ and continues somewhat shyly “….and being a runner up in The Diner’s Club Young Winemaker of the year Awards .”

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ESTELLE LOURENS – WINEMAKER AT UITKYK

Q. When and where were you born ? 

“1974 in Somerset West”.

Q. Where did you study ?

“I did a BSc in Winemaking and Viticulture at the Stellenbosch University.”

Q. Your entry into wine was a bit different to others ?

“Yes, winemaking wasn’t something I dreamt about when I was younger.I happened to stumble onto it by chance. I studied Biophysics at US until it became boring. Winemaking sounded interesting. I had always loved chemistry and the idea of being outdoors in the vineyards would enable me to fulfil two passions.”

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“I think every winemaker  has a different approach and it changes  through the years as you gain more experience and become more at ease with your own style.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“Not as much as I would like. I run a 1100 ton winery without an assistant so that makes more than a full time job !!”

Q. Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ?

“Yes. I have always loved to work with Cabernet sauvignon and Sauvignon blanc, but Chenin blanc is a real passion for me.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or region ?

“No one in particular but many conversations with  many different winemakers tend to stick somewhere…”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ? 

“There have been many wonderful awards  throughout the years, but I think through all my years at Uitkyk I proved that this place can produce unique and powerful wines throughout the spectrum. You need to get to know where to plant what.”

Q What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ? 

“I try not to fiddle too much ! There are so many different products and techniques on the market to enhance and “change” your wines, it is unbelieveable !! I try to respect the fruit and structure that come from our grapes themselves. At time of blending I have learnt not to make the perfect wine for now, but to see the wine in 4-5 years down the road, because that is the beauty of Uitkyk reds, their longevity.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ?

“It is always nice to have modern equipment, but budget constraints don’t always allow for that. I have learned to work with what I have. It is always interesting to hear conversations about techniques changing  to what we used to do in earlier years…”

Q. You joined Uitkyk in 2000. What happened before that ?

“In my final tear at Stellenbosch I received the award for the best student in oenology and viticulture. This encouraged me to travel and gain international experience. I visited New Zealand, Australia , Tasmania and the USA. I returned to South Africa 1997 and was first appointed as an assistant at Neethlingshof. My “boss’ was the legendary Schalk van Westhuizen. I then worked on two sister cellars before being given the keys to Uitkyk.”

Q. …and once at Uitkyk ?

“Soon after I settled in at Uitkyk I married Ian Lourens and we have two children. We enjoy hiking and the outdoors and we seldom venture into the city. Our love for nature is very apparent at Uitkyk where various sustainability initiatives and Uitkyk was recently awarded championship status with the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI)”

“Winemaking is certainly not a job but a lifestyle. One for which I am very grateful.”

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Danielle Le Roux – Winemaker at Asara

Q. When and where were you born ? 

“I  was born in Caledon (Overberg) in June 1977. A family of five siblings and 5th generation wheat and sheep farmers.”

Q. Where did you study ? 

“I did a Bsc in Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Stellenbosch and graduated in 1999. I also did my Cape Wine Master and managed to get that in 2009.”

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“Winemaking is not a recipe. We might get fantastic guidelines from our lectors and mentors but after that it is a combination  of knowledge, gut feel, personality and phone a friend !” After some thought “There are times when it is sensible to contact a fellow winemaker.”

Q. How involved do you  get in the vineyard ?

“At Asara we have a fabulous viticulture team, Alan Cockcroft and William (alias Tokkie) Bussell and we have a common love for coffee and wine, so we make time to discuss ideas and strategies, often in the vineyard  under discussion. I try to get into the vineyards as often as I can during the growing season and obviously during the harvest.  I think every winemaker  has the ideal to be even more in the vineyard, but after every day winemaking, cellar hygiene, sawis*, ipw*, wieta*, workshops, bottling and tastings it is challenging !”

Q. Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ?

“ I love to work with Chenin. The range of flavours and styles are just legion. Of course Pinotage. It is just out of the box and flamboyant. I guess my patriotic side shows here ! I also like merlot. Contrary to many views , I believe there are some fabulous  merlots in the Cape. I strive for a style of merlot that is plush, elegant and poised.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular or by a wine region ?

“I did a harvest in Tuscany and I was really  inspired by  the integration of the lifestyle, love for wine and food and the overall quality of life.  During my harvest in Sonoma at Verite, I was inspired by Pierre Seillan’s absolute focus on quality  and purity of the wine. In South Africa , every individual colleague taught me something different – apart from the day to day winemaking actions. Also decision making during all steps from making to bottling and marketing, to ethics in the industry, to appreciation and respect for all wines.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?

“As every phase of my career has passed, it was accompanied by, what some might consider small achievements but for me have been major events. For example : completing my  BSc (Agric) was great and my Cape Wine Masters was a highlight and then being gifted  with a four yesr old that I am sure will love wine !” Then continues “Awards come and go but they but they are not the sole definition of success. I get greater value from the appreciation of my wines by consumers and fellow wine lovers.  In the end our wines can only be as good as the building blocks we are presented with but a little bit of ourselves goes into each bottle.”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ?

“A difficult question, but real secret to making your wine unique is to : 1 LOVE WHAT YOU DO ! Love coming to work , it’s a privilege of having your job as your hobby. 2 Never stop reading/learning /asking . 3 A second opinion is very valuable but also trust your gut-feel.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ? 

“The quality of your wine  firstly starts with the quality of your building  blocks e.g. the grapes. However equipment does add quality . Just to mention a few factors like the cooling of your grapes, sorting, soft destemming, soft pressing, temperature control during fermentation. All these add to the final quality and finesse.”

Q.  What of the future ?

“Born as one of five siblings in a 5th generation farming family (Wheat and sheep) in the Overberg studying agriculture was just a natural extension of what I am and where my heart lies.  The decision to go oenology is another story. I did a few harvests abroad in Tuscany, Sonoma and Bergerac. The rest is history. After South African jobs at Fort Simon, Sentinel and Lyngrove, I started at Asara . Asara has fantastic terroir and an impressive history. Our aim is to build on the foundation and continue to make wines that mirror our unique terroir and style.”

* Sawis = SA Wine Industry Information and Systems

Ipw = Integrated Wine Production

Wieta = The Agricultural Ethical Trade Initiative  Of SA

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Wim Truter Chief Winemaker at KWV

Q. Where do you originate from ? 

“I was born in the Strand in 1981.”

Q. Where did you study ? 

“I studied initially at University of Stellenbosch from 2000 to 2003 where I obtained a Bsc. Agric.  Then I went to France and 2009 to 2011 studied a Masters Vintage program.

Q. Do you consider  your approach to winemaking  different to others ?

“Fundamentally, not really.  I try to keep things simple. I believe in doing the basics well and understanding  the technical details of decision and then letting the vineyard do the talking.”

Q. You mention the vineyard. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“As much as possible. Working with our viticulturist to a common goal is critical. A right decision in the vineyard is worth ten in the cellar.”

Q. Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ?

“I have always loved cabernet sauvignon, but recently I am more drawn to  the lighter bodied  and styled  varieties such as Pinot Noir , Grenache and Cinsault.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or wine region ?

“I was impressed by the generosity and open minded approach of the winemakers  of Sancerre.  The impressive  and almost extreme  wines of Priorat and the elegance and refinement of Burgundy.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?

“I’m still working on it !”

Q. What “secrets “ have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ?

“Unfortunately the word secret doesn’t exist in this business. You have got to know your vineyards, pay attention to detail and work hard at it all the time !”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment  in your winemaking ?

“With the very  special small batches  we are  very hands-on”  and it is not that critical. However, with the bigger volume blends it helps with managing of quality, consistency and efficiency.”

Q. I know you are  fit fellow. What do you do for fitness ?

“You have got to be fit to work in a winery and most of those I have worked in were big so you covered a lot of ground not to mention climbing up steel steps to get to tank tops and so on. I also do trail running and mountain biking and blessed that we have such great mountains at hand to do both. I love scuba diving and the reefs in Australia was great for that.”

Q.  You have packed a lot of quality experience into a short space of time. Please give a brief run-down of what you have done ?

“Well you know I studied first at Stellenbosch. Once qualified I couldn’t wait to travel where I worked for Hardy’s in McLaren Vale in South Australia , also with them in Margaret River  in Western Australia. I then spent a harvest in a small Southern Rhone cellar in France and another with Jordan Vineyard and Winery in California. I started at Nederburg in 2005  and was there until 2009 when I was accepted to do a Masters, jointly hosted in France, Italy and Spain. I returned to Nederburg in 2011 and joined the Bergkelder team  in 2013.

While in Europe doing the degree , which consisted of the study  of viticulture, wine, terroir and marketing  in the Groupe Ecole Superieurs d’Agriculture  (Groupe ESA).  I was appointed Chief Winemaker at the KWV in September 2016. I am looking forward to working with a young dynamic team with access to some of the best vineyards in the country.  I also look forward to continuing with the KWV’s pioneering legacy in creating wonderful wines that delight our consumers.”

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PHILIP VILJOEN – BON COURAGE WINEMAKER

Q. Where were you born ?

“I was  born in Robertson on 1st April 1991.”

Q. Do you get teased about being born on 1st April ?

The answer comes with that charming , trade mark grin. “There was a time I was constantly teased about being an April Fool but I think I have proved otherwise !”

Q. Where did you study ?

“I went to Elsenburg and received my bachelor’s degree in Oenology and Viticulture.”

Q, Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“Not really. There is only so much that you can do with wine.  I do think winemakers distinguish themselves from other winemakers by the way he or she  pays attention to the finer detail. I’m a strong believer in doing  the ten small things perfectly.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

All of a sudden, very serious. “The truth be told, not enough. If I get a chance to see what the vineyard team is busy with, I’ll take it but unfortunately it happens seldom. The cellar keeps me really busy but it id definitely on my priority list to get out more.”

Q. Do you have any varieties that you prefer to work with ?

“At this stage, not really. What I really love about Bon Courage is the opportunity to work with a big variety of cultivars from MCC, Desset wines, Dry white and reds and even Mampoer !” Then continues “We have a big collection  of cultivars on the farm so I’m patiently trying to see what each vineyard  block has to offer. So far  I’m really spoiled with great vineyards with amazing character. It makes it difficult to pick a favourite, but eventually I will have to narrow it down. I don’t want to look like a jack of all trades but master of none.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or region ? 

“Winemaker – yes. Wine region – not at this stage. I think every wine region can make any type of wine and has something unique to offer.  Lourens van der Westhuizen , winemaker at Arensig Winery, once described it correctly saying we have so many terroir pockets, for instance, Robertson. Pockets where you find ideal climate for whichever cultivar you want to grow. I also admire Charles Hopkins at DFe Grendel for his attention to detail and Bartho Eksteen for his originality. Not to mention  Jacques at Oom Andre Bruwer of Bon Courage.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?  

With a great deal of modesty.  “ I am still young, my hall of fame is pretty empty, but luckily last year I was in the right place at the right time and I received the Diner’s Club Young Winemaker of the Year award and only then realised what a big deal it was. I can honestly say after that night I do know how it feels to be in the life of Brad Pitt for one day with all the cameras flicking !! “

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make our wines different to others ?

“I would not really say “secrets” but one of the main aspects that probably  differentiate  one from another  is how well you manage to extract your varietal’s character for that specific vineyard and to balance it out with the correct oak. I do think it is very important to use the right oak  with the right varietal and also  to determine the right amount of it. I personally love to smell the vineyard  in the wine and believe that oak must be used carefully and only to add some complexity to the wine.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ?

“Technology has made our lives much easier, especially when you harvest a few hundred tonnes. The two types of machinery which I am most thankful for is probably a destemmer and a wine pump, without those two you can still manage. I also have to admit I still enjoy  a good old punch down. I like to see it as an early  morning gym session and have a good work out !! During modern winemaking you still tend  to go back to the old ways  for instance picking by hand ! I like using a mixture of the two worlds.”

Q. What of the future ?

“ I grew up in Robertson with a typical countryside living style where everyone knows everybody. It is a friendly town where the majority still greet each other in the town.  My parents farm about 4 km from  Bon Courage  and I am spoiled  to still enjoy daily  lunch with my parents. If Robertson should ever host a master chef competition my mother would , without doubt, be the champion !” In a different tack “After school I got the opportunity to go to Johannesburg for a year to play rugby and became a full blooded Lions rugby supporter. I then returned to the Cape to go to Elsenburg where I received a great education. I had a very influential lecturer in the form of Lorraine Geldenhuys. After that I did few vintages overseas.” “My main challenge is to get to know the vineyards I am working with. I am very pleased with the 2016 reds  and I can’t wait to see the process through.”

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