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New World Wine Maker Blog - winemaker interviews


Q.  Where do you originate ? 

“I was born in a small town in Northern KwaZulu Natal called Empangeni without a grapevine in sight !”

Q.  How did a smiley young girl from Zululand become a winemaker ?

“I enjoyed science at school and was lucky enough to secure a bursary  to study in the fields of Food Science, Food Technology, Food Nutrition and Winemaking. I had never tasted wine but the sponsors provided speakers  to talk about the subjects the bursary covered.  One was  Ntsiki  Biyela one of the first black female winemakers in the country. I took in every word she uttered including including the various challenges like the languages used in the various  teaching institutions.  I was so fired up by Ntsiki it just had to be wine !”

Q. So where did you go to study ? 

“I went to Elsenburg College outside Stellenbosch and obtained my B Agric degree in Cellar Technology. This covered Oenology and Viticulture.

Q. How did you find the massive change in your life ?

“ To be honest after three months I packed up for the Easter Holiday and went home with no intention of returning. I was 17 years old , away from  home in a totally foreign environment.   Then my mother talked me into getting back onto the bus to Stellenbosch. She told me not to squander the opportunity. So I returned.”

Q. How difficult did you find it ?

“It was tough. Although the textbooks were in English the lectures were mostly in Afrikaans. The breakthrough came when I realized I could ask my professors and fellow-students for support. It took a lot of guts, focus and discipline to familiarise myself  with something so removed from my own experience until then. I had had absolutely no wine background when growing up.”

Q. What then happened ? 

“I graduated in 2007 and was taken into the Cape Winemakers’ Guild Protégé programme. Amongst  my mentors were Philip Costandius, David Finlayson, Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira and Irene Waller. After completing that programme I joined the Brgkelder under Andrea Freeborough and then appointed to the Zonnebloem  team in 2013. Under Deon Boshoff I am learning  even more. I am with just a  quality-focussed , thriving brand which is an incredible privilege.”

Q. With such a big brand, what chance do you get to be involved with the vineyard ?

“We have full time top class viticulturists who get us involved  out in the vineyards monitoring ripeness and quality and deciding when to pick.”

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

With that ever present smile “I am an all-rounder. I believe every variety has its own unique characteristics which makes harvesting fascinating but having said that I can work with Shiraz any time of the day.

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker ?

“When I was in my Protégé years Pieter Ferreira played a big role in my development and I got to appreciate how the terroir of the Robertson Valley was expressed in his MCC wines.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker in such a short career ? 

“Wow, when I first made my own wine and the wine sold at the CWG Auction to generate funds for future protégés.”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” ? 

“ No secrets but listening to nature and let it make the wine for you.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment to you ? 

“Modern technology improves efficiency especially when you have a big crop but equipment must not dictate your skill.”

Q. What do you think when you look back and then think of the future ? 

“When I started I had no wine knowledge at all now I am very proud to be working for an Historic brand. I know the sky is the limit and my passion for winemaking  motivates me to make good quality wines into the future.”

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Q : Where were you born ?

“I was born in Cape Town.”

Q : What made you want to make wine ? 

“Although I was born in Cape Town I spent most holidays on farms in the Northern Cape. That determined that I would eventually want to work with Agriculture. When I started at University of Stellenbosch I realised that winemaking would be the most relevant in the Boland area.”

Q : Where did you study ? 

“I did two years oenology and viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch the transferred to the Elsenburg Agricultural College where I completed my Higher Certificate in Agriculture and a Diploma in Cellar Technology in 1997”

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

“No, not really. Like others I believe a winemaker must select the best grapes from which the best possibly quality wine can be made.”

Q : Having said that how involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“Within our company we have the privilege to work with a team of the best viticulturists who make it their business to know the vineyards we harvest from and work with them throughout the  year.  I work closely with them to select the best grapes for sparkling wine. During the year we visit and monitor the progress in the vineyards and advise on changes and improvements.”

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

“Well, due to the nature of my product, MCC, I work  with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. ”

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

“Yes. Champagne still remains the pinnacle of quality and image when it comes to bottle fermented sparkling wines across the world.  While the people who have had greatest influence in shaping my career have been Charles Hopkins who taught that a passion for wine equals a passion for life  which equals happiness.  My seven years at Nederburg I learned from Razvan Macici  to appreciate the artistry and enjoyment of making beautiful wine.”

Q : What was the route that brought you to where you are ?

“Very interesting. I started off working harvests as assistant winemaker at Rickety Bridge Vineyards in Franschhoek with David Lockley then with Boela Gerber. I had a vintage at Dry Creek in Sonoma. Then I began  at Nederburg as assistant winemaker with Hennie Huskisson and then I was appointed red wine maker in 2001.”

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

With that charming smile “If I told you they wouldn’t be secret any more !! No, no secrets,  just dedication and a focus on passion !!!”

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

“Seeing people enjoy my product still remains my biggest affirmation as to why I do what I do ! Happy customers are my biggest achievement “ She continues “I believe the winemaker is the vehicle through which the product of the vine  is transformed into a product of pure enjoyment,”

Q :  What about all the awards you and your wines have collected over the years ?

Somewhat reluctant “If you are making some of the best wines in South Africa , then the awards come with the territory.”

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

“The equipment required for the making of Cap Classique is very specialised. I could not do my job at the scale we do  without the technology behind remuage and disgorgement. These modern machines are a top priority as is there maintenance. We keep up with the very latest with modern technology in our industry and in the world of Champagne.”

Q : Is there life outside bubbles ?

“Oh yes, I am very happily married and we have two children and I am  as passionate about nature as I am about winemaking.  We live in one of the most  beautiful parts of the world and  my work allows me to appreciate and enjoy some of the greatest pleasures in life on a daily basis. Good food, good wine and great company.”…after a pause “Throw in a bit of travel, Oh, and things Italian !”

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Introducing New World Winemaker Danie Steytler (Junior)

Danie Steytler Junior  was born in Stellenbosch 14th July 1980 and has put a lot of vintages into his short winemaking life.

Q : I gather you were a reluctant scholar ?

“My folks say so. I had this idea as a kid I was going to be a farmer and I have a job waiting for me ! Little did I appreciate what a farming winemaker needs to know !”

Q : So what happened ?

“I was coaxed by my Mom to go to Rhenish and then on to Paul Roos with the warning  from my Dad that I would only have a job on the farm when I returned with a degree in viticulture and  oenology.”

Q : ….and then ?

“It turned out I enjoyed varsity and the rugger so much that proposed to my Dad I should take a year longer in  getting my degree ! He responded by raising the bar by stipulating that I would have to go and work for other bosses elsewhere in the world before you can come home and work on the farm !”

Q : Where did you begin ?

“I did my first practical at Waterford and was impressed by their high quality standards  so did my next vintage there. That high quality approach has stayed with me ever since.”

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

“I have moved around to get a whole range of experience and learned from so many people and the different jobs that I do not have any single person or place that had a single effect. Except for my Dad and, of course, my Mom !

Q : You say you moved widely, tell me ?

“Well after Waterford I went to Bordeaux  to Chateau Grand Mayne  in St Emilion and was there from September through to December as a Cellar Rat so went through the build up to the vintage and then experienced a vintage of basically one variety, Merlot. Then I returned to South Africa where I was lucky enough to work January, February and March with Gary Jordan which couldn’t have been better and just over the hill from our place. Then jetted off to New Zealand to catch their vintage with Allan Scott at Blenheim where again a single varietal, Sauvignon Blanc in a cool climate. Then I went to do a Northern hemisphere vintage at Stags Leap in Napa.

Q: I  thought you had some northern European experience ?

“yes I changed course to get some different experience and worked two years with one of the biggest  suppliers to the Swedish system. I became a Flying winemaker and experienced winemaking in Northern Italy and in Greece and putting blends together and learning more about consumer preferences.”

Q : What about South Africa ?

“I looked after Escapades the South African venture with Greek influence Evangelos Gerovassiliou and Vassilis Tsaktsarilis.”

Q :  When were you allowed back to Kaapzicht ?

“It was a special occasion that coincided with South Africa’s 350th anniversary of winemaking. I began on the farm on 2nd February, 2009 ! I  became only the 4th winemaker in the family business since my grandfather began Kaapzicht in 1946 when he returned from the War.” (WW II)

Q : I  gather that was not the end of European  experience?

“ No, I was asked to help out for six weeks as an assistant at Chateau Negly in the Lanquedoc during their 2009 vintage.”

Q : Do you have a favourite variety ?

“That’s a difficult one. Kaapzicht is essentially a red wine farm and we are very proud of our reds. We do great Pinotage but perhaps Cabernet Sauvignon is still king. However, I am incredibly proud of our red blends. On the other hand I am delighted  with our whites that we are producing now. Our 1947 Chenin from a vineyard planted in that year is amazing. Then our wood aged white blend Kaleidoscope is a whole new direction for Kaapzicht”

Q: Besides wine ?

“Obviously my family and of course food and wine . I love to braai for other people and a night at our lapa with good food, fine company and great wine is tough  to beat !”

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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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