* This aricle originally appeared in Sawubona Magazine here.
Last year South Africa celebrated 333 years of winemaking, with the Western Cape proudly laying claim to the birthplace of winemaking in the Southern Hemisphere. These centuries of wine production have born rich traditions and a deep heritage – but are also matched with a wave of emerging winemakers who are not afraid to push boundaries or accept and rise above the challenges that face them.
Over the past years, I’ve had the privilege of writing (and tasting) my way through many of our wineries and would love to introduce you to three of these young wine producers.
1. Rudger van Wyk, Starke-Condé Wines
Sitting in the luxury environs of the La Residence in Franschhoek, Rudger couldn’t believe his ears. He had just been announced the Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year 2018 – one of the most prestigious titles in the industry – and in an instant his dream had become reality. Rudger Van Wyk grew up in George, and a brother in the industry encouraged the journey to discover his love for winemaking.
Tell us a little about your journey…
After graduating I was part of the Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme. I was then under the tutelage of Abrie Beeslaar at Kanonkop – many of my winemaker practices are still influenced by him. Wanting to broaden my white winemaking skills I then moved to Nitida. In that year I did a harvest in Burgundy, France… That’s where the romance, the love, the passion and the inspiration completely overtook me. In mid-2015 I started at Stark-Condé and have never looked back.
What was the Diners Club Journey like?
We were on our honeymoon when I got the call from the office saying that the competition needed samples and I discovered that I was a finalist. I was ecstatic – you can picture it – we were sitting in a pool drinking MCC with a great view and then getting that message. We also discovered shortly before the awards that my wife was pregnant so it was a double celebration. My name was called and I got up; I was totally unprepared and never expected to win! A moment after the announcement, I called my parents and brother and everyone was going crazy.
What’s your advice to emerging wine drinkers?
Don’t be influenced by others – each person has unique preferences in wine. If you’re starting out, Chenin Blanc is a great choice, and with the reds, Merlot is soft and not too tannic. The only way you’re going to learn more is by drinking more and visiting new farms and listening to their stories.
Rudger’s closing words to me were: “Anyone can make wine, but it takes a wine-lover, patience, love, and experience to make good wine.” Our interview included a wine tasting and I can vouch for the ‘good wine’ he so proudly speaks of.
2. Elmarie Botes, Nederburg
Elmaries Botes has no small responsibility. As white winemaker at Nederburg she’s at the helm of one of the most awarded names in the country. A daughter of Stellenbosch, Elmarie worked at several wineries before also becoming part of the Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme. A harvest in France and then an assistant winemaker position at Fleur du Cap followed, before her 2016 appointment at Nederburg.
How did you feel on your first day at Nederburg?
I was super excited, but cautious too. At the end of my first day, I definitely felt overwhelmed, but I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be and there was nothing that some extra hours at work couldn’t fix.
Your motto is “Be brave. Be resilient. Be hungry for success”. Tell us more about this.
I reckon that not much in life that’s worthwhile comes easy. The South African wine industry can be challenging at times. It has certainly not been easy being a woman, and one of colour, in terms of settling into this industry. But I truly believe that if you are brave, have resilience and a real hunger for success, you can achieve a lot!
What’s your advice to up-and-coming female winemakers?
To all aspiring and up-and-coming female winemakers my advice is: if wine is your passion and you are willing to work hard, go for it! We need to take hands and break through perceived boundaries that are often not even real, just a construct in our minds. If I can do it, you can too.
Your suggestions to new wine drinkers?
Many still believe that you need to be a wine expert or connoisseur to enjoy and appreciate wine, but I think wine is for everyone. It is absolutely fine if you prefer wine styles or varietals that are different from what your friends or family might drink. The key is to explore and discover what you like.
3. Joseph Dhafana, Mosi Wines
Joesph’s journey is a rather remarkable one. A decade ago he arrived in the country as a refugee. Ten years later he has gone from being a gardener, to the head Sommelier at La Colombe, one of the country’s top restaurants, and now also has his own wine brand under his belt. Joseph was the captain of Team Zimbabwe at the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships in Burgundy in 2017 and one of the founding members of the Black Cellar Club (BLACC).
Tell as about Mosi Wines?
I started making wine in Swartland and my maiden vintage was 2014. My heart almost melted when I had the first sip of my wine – I couldn’t believe it was my work of art. I currently have 2017 vintages of Merlot, Syrah and Chenin blanc.
What has the establishment of BLACC meant to you?
As a founding member of BLACC I think we have achieved our goal, which was to make wine less intimidating to the general populace. In our African culture, we are not prone to have wine on the table when having lunch or dinner, but that’s what we wanted to cultivate.
What trends are you noticing in the wine industry?
I love that this wonderful world of wine is changing daily. We are seeing more female winemakers and wine drinkers. When I started my career, I could see maybe less than five black people in a tasting but now they can be the majority which means there has been a huge change.
Joseph’s dramatic rise to wine-stardom in such a short time demonstrates that there is indeed space in the industry for everyone. It starts merely with a sip of wine and a humble thirst to know more.