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New World Wine Maker Blog - winemaker interviews

NIC VAN AARDE – Winemaker at Warwick

Nic van Aarde has such a youthful, boyish, smiley face that it is hard to believe he has all the experience he has.  Considered by many to be an absolute wizard with Sauvignon Blanc and certainly no slouch with a whole stack of other varieties as his wines at Warwick have shown.

Q : Where were you born?

With the ever present smile the reply “I was born in Paarl  at very early age !” and continues “So was in  the Winelands so wine was always a part of me and on top of that my Mom worked  at Nederburg which simply strengthened my life with wine.”

Q : How come you have two degrees ?

“Well…..I had wanted to study medicine but was not accepted so I decided to do a B. Com as this was a good foundation while I figured out what career choice to follow. I found the marketing side very interesting and majored in Marketing. As a student at Stellenbosch I became involved in the student wine club and ended up doing wine tours instead of attending business class ! I aso worked in winery tasting rooms during my holidays and this is where my love for wine really developed. On completing my B. Com I enrolled for a B.SC in Oenology and Viticulture. I have never looked back !”

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

“Yes, I think I always have the market  in my mind when I make my wine. I try to balance my Science brain with my Creative side.”  He adds “My B.Com helps me on a daily basis to make strategic business decisions. It is easy to make wine but a real challenge to sell it.”

Q : How involved do you get with  the vineyard?

“I  work closely with our viticulturist to align my winemaking goals with his farming practice.”

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

In a more serious mode “Sauvignon Blanc could be my fatal attraction ! There is a lot one can do with the varietal with  my science background.  However Cabernet Franc, the female version of Cabernet Sauvignon. In typical female manner it’s  beautiful perfume and spice I find very alluring !”

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

“My love for cabernet franc started at Chateau Angelus in St Emillion where I worked a vintage in 2004” Then continues “I spent two years at Nashik in India where I learnt how to fix any problem in winemaking !! I was there as a Consultant and  I had a  stack of problems present themselves. From water contamination to spray residues and exploding sparkling wine bottles !

Q : How on earth did you get to India?

“Nick Davis of Franschhoek Mountain Vineyards heard from a friend who imported furniture from India that there was a winery looking for a consultant.” Ten with that flashing smile “I jumped at the opportunity as I love travelling  and looked forward to the challenges and the spicy food.”

Q : How did you get to the position of applying for a Consultancy job?

“Well I have had a lot of varied experience. When I finished varsity I worked as an intern attempting to work in three different harvests a year to gain as much experience I could in the shortest time !  I did harvests in Margaret River, Marlborough, St   Emillion and Sonoma.”

Q : What do you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker?

Serious  “Getting the privilege to work with the dynamic team at Warwick.”

Q : Have you any secrets that makes  your wines different to others?

“No secrets but I have enough experience to trust my gut and go with it.”

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

“ I make use of not only equipment but I also love experiment  with various fining agents and the like which has helped me bring out  the best in Sauvignon Blanc.  I also have a new crusher/ destemmer  that works so gently on the grapes and prevents any unwanted MOG ending up in the tanks.”

Q : What thoughts for the future?

Again in serious mode “I have been in the South African Wine Industry for 13 years and I see so much potential. We need to stand together and not be shy of asking each other for help”

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Once described as “Enfant Terrible’ but now looking more like your kind, friendly and wise uncle.

Q : Do you think you deserved the title ? 

“If you look at the definition of being terrifyingly candid and so embarrassing people, then “yes”.  I was simply direct and honest” he continues “Some people considered me “outspoken and in your face” but that is just how I am.”

Q : Have you changed ?

He says : “I might have aged but I’ve not really grown up !” and continues “I am heading to my mid-fifties but still feel like a 19 year old boy but I am not the guy  who started at Vergelegen in 1997.”

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

A serious reply “Not really. My wines reflect their terroir. I try to avoid any techniques that diminish the perception of terroir.” And continues in the same vein “As a large volume producer I am dependent on technology but I use it intelligently. I am a scientific winemaker. I think about what I am doing.”

Q : How involved are you in the vineyard ?

“When I was at University I told my professor that I wanted to make the best wine in the world. He replied that I really have to select the site as it all has to do with the vineyard. So, “yes” I am very involved with the vineyard”.

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

“I seem to have my best results with red Bordeaux varieties but I enjoy the challenge different varieties present. “ Then with some defiance   “ I definitely do not like pinotage !”

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

“Regions are interesting but winemakers  have a greater influence.  My region of influence is Vergelegen. It is surrounded by mountains,  close to the ocean and gives me a 1000 micro climates to work with.” Then after some reflection  “I have some winemaking heroes but a number have died. Diedier Daqueneau, Gerard Jaboulet and Haut Brion’s winemaker Jean-Bernard Dalmas. His son, Jean Phillipe, succeeded him and the knowledge was passed on, almost like genetic material.”

Q : What was your best experience in the wine industry ? 

“My visit to Vinexpo in 2001  when I personally met Madame May-Eliane de Lencquesaing of Chateau Pichon Longueville, Robert Mondavi and Warren Winiarski of Stags Leap and was presented with The  Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande Trophy for the Best Blended Red Wine World Wide  for my 1998 Vergelegen  Flagship.”

Q : What was your greatest winemaking achievement ?

“Producing consistently elegant and ageworthy wines”

Q : How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winery ? 

With a lot of thought “ I have a very modern winery  sunk into the top of a hill. People are impressed that it is gravity fed  and people say the wines are more gentle because of minimal handling but  it also s means there are a lot of steps to go up and down all the time and I am not as young as I was. There really isn’t much scientific evidence that this plays any significant role.”

Q : What of the future ?

“I believe my best is still to come because the more recently planted vineyards will come into production and deliver  better fruit than we ever thought possible. I want to experience that.” And he smiles.

Q : Who is the greatest love in your life?

“My wife, Maritza.”

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Christiaan Groenewald  founded New Cape Wines in 2000 and produces wines under various names including “Eagle’s Cliff”. In Afrikaans “Arendskloof”. A pair of rare black eagles which have made their nest in the cliffs overlooking the vineyards served as inspiration for the name and label design.

Q : How did you get into winemaking ?

“I am a student of University of Stellenbosch where I studied viticulture and economics with some winemaking.  At first I entered the business world and then in 1997 I became involved in the export of wine.  In the same year my Dad died and I had to take over the farming and winemaking”

Q : What then ?

“Quickly discovered that i needed a more  modern cellar so in 2005 I built one !”

Q : You were hardly qualified to do that ?

With a steely look and firm face he replied “When you have to do something you do it. I had learned a lot from winemakers and the SFW wine-buyer Jeff Wedgwood. In fact Jeff was a saviour at the start with his enormous knowledge especially of the area. When I was involved with exports I learned a lot with my eyes and in discussions.  Once I was producing in my own cellar Jan Boland Coetzee was a great help. He didn’t teach but rather instructed ! He is so deliberate and sincere that you can’t help but to take it in. You just know he is correct.” He adds with a grin “ With him there is no argument !”

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

With that disarming smile “Yes, I think I am different. I am not a trained winemaker but had to get into it so I am not held by any particular convention but I am professional in what I do.”

Q : How involved are you in the vineyards ?

With a serious face “I am very involved in my vineyards. This is where you start to make wine. In every aspect. Clones, soil types, row direction, canopy management, water supply. Everything counts.”

Q : What about region ?

With obvious affection “I love my region, Worcester, because we don’t have bad years just  some years better than others and some years fabulous. In the main, very consistent.  I still think we have yet to make our best red wines while I can almost guarantee good value for white wines with the occasional great whites. With Chenin blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot grigio.  I love my area but get my sauvignon blanc from Elgin !”

Q: What has been your greatest achievement ?

With a big grin “Being the 2013 Diners Club Winemaker of the year. It is the most saught  after award a winemaker can get and only one per year ! That has been tremendous for business.  Then, of course the 2011 blend of Tannat and Syrah is a tremendous wine now and will still develop  very well.”

Q : How important is having modern equipment in your success ?

Serious again “You need a clean cellar and modern equipment  makes that easier. There is modern equipment I will get when I can afford such as computer controlled cooling.”

Q : Do you have any “secrets” ?

Still serious “I use good grapes and try to make natural wines. I do not interfere but  correct yeast and keen temperature control is essential.”

Christiaan is in excellent physical condition as he has to be as he competes each Year in the great cycle event “The Cape Epic”

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William Wilkinson says he is a citizen of Hermanus ! He moved into the area when his dad took up the position as Vineyard Manager at Hamilton Russell Vineyards. My granddad was also in the business so it was a natural development that I went that route.

Q : How did you become the winemaker at Wildekrans ?

“ I did stints at Backsberg and Hamilton Russell and was just very lucky to land the job !”

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

“I don’t really suppose so.  The emphasis in the cellar, as in the vineyards, is on meticulous attention to detail with the most gentle of winemaking techniques. We strive to deliver elegant, well balanced, fruit driven wines.”

Q  : How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“Whether in the cellar or vineyards the winemaking and viticultural team  follow low intervention approach and we share everything. We are in an eco-friendly area and we use snail gobbling ducks that rid our vineyards of those tiresome and destructive pests. So, yes I do get involved with all the farming but Braam Cericke is an excellent farmer.”

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

“I am a huge supporter of Pinotage and Pinotage driven blends. Our  pinot noir vineyards are coming into production and this might have an influence towards my favourite !” On reflection “Pinotage is proudly South African and so am I….well sometimes” and naughty laugh follows. As an after thought “I love barrel fermented  Chenin.”

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

With great enthusiasm “Wow, I am tremendously influenced by the Hermanus region. Its one of the world’s  newest wine producing areas.” He continues seemingly without taking a breath”…and now producing some of the World’s best wines. The cool from the Atlantic and with Overberg warmth it has ideal summer , perfect for phenolic ripening of grapes.”

Q  : And people ?

“ When I first started at Wildekrans the previous owner Dr Bruce Elkin gave me a great start and I worked very closely with him . Others who I learned from were Mark Carmichael-Green, Niels Verberg, Eleonor Visser, Nicolas Follet and Francois Naude senior.”

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

With some serious thought “I don’t think I have got there yet but all the accolades I have had for my pinotage make me very proud. Then the nomination in 2013 as a finalist in the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year with my 2011 Wildekrans Cape Blend Barrel  Select Reserve.” He continues with a twinkle in his eye “ The way it is developing it would probably win today !” Then , “Being awarded the “Novare” trophy for the top wine estate in 2012”.

Q  :  Do you have any secrets or methods you have developed ?

“Not really, as I mentioned it is tremendous  attention to detail and working as  close as we can in concert with nature.”

Q  :  What about the future ?

Very serious “ Our goal is to become a cellar of international distinction and a world class wine destination and we are well on track to achieve this !” He ponders awhile and continues seriously “This must all happen with my wife Belinda and son, Turner  and myself being a very happy family “

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Mike Dobrovic is a product of the university of Stellenbosch . For almost two decades he was the winemaker at Mulderbosch.  In 2009 he moved to do his own thing including making the wine for Havana Hills and consulting to others. Mike  was considered as “The Mad Professor” while at varsity and is very well read in science. He is also well versed in philosophy and psychology. Mike was founding partner with Dr Larry Jacobs of Mulderbosch in 1991. He had previously been at Delaire. Mike is still the gangling, amiable, untidy somewhat nervous with a penchant to tell outrageous  jokes with the odd bits of Rumi thrown in.

Q : Do you think your approach to winemaking is different to others ? 

“I didn’t think so but then my results seem to show otherwise. “

Q : How involved do you get with the vineyard ? 

“ Absolutely fundamental to get involved in the vineyard. Where ever I have worked I have been fully involved with the farming. The vines up at Delaire  on Bothma’s kop produced characters very different to those at Mulderbosch. So it is imperative to be involved with the vines.”

Q : Do you have any variety you prefer to work with ?

The comedian had to eventually show “I have no preference in the variety I work with but it really is the vine that must do the work !” Then back to being serious “I made my reputation with Sauvignon blanc so I guess that is my preferred variety but I have tremendous satisfaction from the red Bordeaux varieties from which I made Faithful Hound and eventually chenin blanc which I preferred by it’s local name Steen.” He continued with an almost embarrassed note “I also planted hundreds of indigenous trees, many endemic to  Stellenbosch but becoming rare. These trees had been ripped out to make place for the vine mono-culture.  I used to escape into the trees for regular ten minute chill-sessions !”

Q : What was your most memorable wine experience ?

“It was when I was working with the late Graham Ried of Anchor Yeast. It was a time when literally thousands of wines were experiencing stuck fermentations . This is when a fermentation becomes sluggish or stops altogether.  Graham allowed me some input on developing a yeast nutrient. He had the  ability to understand fermentation like few other yeast producers and would listen rather than dictate. His nutrient has saved the industry many millions of rand and at the same time improved quality. I feel I contributed to that.”

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

“A visit to New Zealand before the 1994  vintage fired me up and also helped to confirm a lot of the ideas I had and give me confidence to do what I believed.”

Q : What do you think was your greatest achievement in winemaking?

“I guess the  phenomenal reception of my early sauvignon blanc which had the  New York Observer saying our favourite from anywhere in the world ! Not bad for a fellow with  a degree in agriculture and a doctorate in humour !” Mike ends rather drily.

No mention of Mike would be complete with out a reference to Rumi especially with his work on preserving the Cape’s Floral Kingdom …

The cloud weeps, and the garden sprouts.

The baby cries, and the mother’s milk flows.

The Nurse of Creation has said, let them cry a lot

This rain-sweeping and sun-burning twine together

To make us grow. Keep your intelligence white-hot

And your grief glistening, so your life will stay fresh.

Cry easily like a little child.

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Introducing Linley Schultz – Alvi’s Drift Wines

In July 2001 Distell appointed Australian winemaker, Linley Schultz, as their chief winemaker as part of their preparation to assault the world market. Linley arrived in South Africa with his wife and children and has now become one of our leading winemakers with a very keen mind on marketing and the international market. In December 2009 he moved to Alvi’s Drift not only with the charge of the production of the wines for Alvi’s Drift but also to determine the winemaking style and direction liaising with the sales teams and development of the brand  and creative development of new products.

Q : How did you get into wine ?

“Well first of all after leaving school I did not have the qualifications to study winemaking ant university so I had to attend night school to get my Matric. Then I went on to Roseworthy  Agricultural College which became part of University of Adelaide. Here I obtained a Bachelor of Applied Science and Oenology.

Q : Do you consider your winemaking approach is different to others ?

With a fairly serious frown “No, I see things in ultimate quality like most winemakers. Making the best wine you can is an easy goal. However, where I seem to differ from many is that I find the final quality at a price point to be of considerable interest.” He continues after some more thought “No point making it if no one will buy it ! “

Q : How involved do you get with the vineyard ? 

“I also don’t hold great importance in soil. You need good soil, but the idea that you can taste the soil in the wine simply doesn’t work for me. Climate is more important than soil.” “Having said that I would like to be more involved with the vineyard but we have very good folk doing that. “

Q : Do you have any variety you prefer to work with ?

With relish “Riesling is an old favourite. Then I guess Chardonnay and Shiraz”

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

Immediate and definite reply “Barossa and Eden Valleys.”  “ Phew, people ? Pat Tocaciu, John Bird, Steve Lienert, Neville Falkenberg, John Duval, Moss Kaesler, Philip John, Ian McKenzie, John Vickery. All different  winemakers who made great wines and all passed on information to me in a very generous manner.”

Q : What do you consider your greatest winemaking achievement ? 

With obvious pride “ Making the winner of the Adelaide Trophy with the first vintage of Yatarna chardonnay. The first time a white wine had won the award.”

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

With genuine expression “Modern equipment makes life easier, improves juice yield, speed things up which helps to balance the books and so on.” Then with genuine belief “You don’t need fancy equipment  to make great wine.”

Q : Do you have an ideas about the future of South African wine ?

“The future of South African is still not clear to me.  I see chardonnay and pinotage playing important roles. It is vital we build a great South African brand that is world acclaimed but produced in sufficient volume to allow wide distribution and therefore the ability to convert significant numbers of wine lovers to South African Wine.” He adds with some reservation “That is still some way off.”


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