You might know Laurie Cooper as the winner of the Moët & Chandon Best Young Sommelier 2019. But did you know that Laurie is the founder and head lecturer of the KZN School of Wine, but together with her father Ian Smorthwaite, she’s the viticulturist and winemaker at Abingdon – KwaZulu-Natal’s first family-owned wine estate. By Anton Pretorius.
Laurie Cooper was crowned Moët & Chandon Best Young Sommelier 2019 at the Vineyard Hotel and Spa in Cape Town. At age 28, Laurie is the winemaker and sommelier at Abingdon Wine Estate in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Together with her father, she runs all the viticulture and viniculture on the four-hectare estate.
Laurie’s résumé is impressive: A WSET diploma graduate, Laurie founded the KZN School of Wine in 2015 where she’s the head lecturer. She’s a South African Sommelier Association (SASA) level 2 certified sommelier and a first year Master of Wine student.
She’s also a distinction graduate from the Michael Fridjhon Wine Judging Academy and has served as a judge for the SAA wine selection panel as well as the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show and London-based IWSC. She works alongside the South African Sommeliers Association and Department of Tourism in training up young sommeliers across South Africa, overseeing the KZN division.
By claiming the title, Laurie has secured a coveted all-expenses paid trip to France to visit the Moët & Chandon Maison in Champagne, followed by a week-long visit to Barolo in Italy next year.
We catch up with Laurie about her new title and her experiences working in the wine industry:
Q: Congrats on winning the Moët & Chandon Best Young Sommelier 2019. What does this award mean to you?
LC: It has been a huge honour to take on the title of Moët & Chandon Best Young Sommelier 2019 and to represent KwaZulu-Natal. I think it’s important to push myself in the hopes of inspiring others in KZN to take on a career in wine and see the opportunities it can bring. I am proud to take it home to a region that’s still so young in its wine culture.
Q: Being hands-on on a working wine farm, do you think that set you apart from the rest of the competitors?
LC: I have been extremely fortunate to be exposed to all aspects of wine. The hands-on side of working in a vineyard and cellar has given me a far greater understanding of technical winemaking, as well as the growing environment and it influences a style of wine. Through teaching wine qualifications, I have learnt composure and the ability to present myself to an audience. I definitely feel that this has given me a slight advantage.
Q: Are you optimistic about the future of South African wine?
LC: Absolutely! We have one of the most dynamic wine industries in the world and are at the forefront of innovation and adaption. I think it’s extremely exciting to see the growth in new varieties being planted and water usage optimisation in the wake of global warming ,as well as the establishment of new regions across South Africa.
Q: How different is life on a wine farm in KZN compared to the Cape? Does the different climate and terroir bring rare challenges or opportunities?
LC: The climate here is very different. We’re situated at 1 140 m altitude and have a strong continental influence. We’re a summer rainfall area and can have four seasons in a day. On any given day during summer, we can go from 36 °C heat to hail and downpours and you might even see snow fall the following day. All our vines are covered with hail netting. We’re constantly trying to keep the vervet monkeys at bay and we meticulously monitor the vineyard to maintain the canopy to avoid the risk of mildew and rot in light of our summer rainfall. We do, however, get an Old World influence in our wines because of our climate. Altitude, hail storms and summer rainfall is common in Europe. But all in all, it’s a wonderful microclimate to work in if you’re willing to put in the hours.
Q: These sommelier competitions can be very rigorous. Which aspects of the competition was the most challenging for you?
LC: My WSET background together with running the KZN School of Wine has prepared me well on the theory and blind tasting challenges. I felt confident with both these sections. The service tasks are fairly new to me and with it being my first Moët & Chandon Best Young Sommelier competition, I didn’t quite know what to expect …
Q: Your favourite A) wine (local or international) and B) grape cultivar?
LC: I couldn’t possibly answer anything other than Abingdon Estate. I’m a huge fan of the Northern Italian reds like Nebbiolo and Dolcetto and would love to work towards getting Dolcetto certified in South Africa.
Q: What’s your wine philosophy?
LC: Integrity. Stay true to your site, the grapes and the wine. Minimise the manipulation and intervention of the wine and find ways to positively work the vineyard rather than working the juice.
Q: What’s next for Laurie Cooper?
LC: I’m currently embarking on a long journey to obtain my Master of Wine this year, so I will have my head in the books and the cellar stocked. Besides that, I’ll be making great KZN wine, teaching the world of wine at the school and enjoying a trip to both Champagne to visit the Moët & Chandon Maison and to Barolo.