Samuel Viljoen has been a member of Nederburg’s stellar winemaking team since 2007, first as an assistant, then as winemaker for Nederburg’s red wines. In May 2021, he took on the responsibility of managing the entire cellar’s operations. As cellar master he oversees the production of the Paarl cellar’s multi-tiered range, which are distributed in more than 80 countries worldwide and features among Drinks International‘s Top 50 World’s Most Admired Wine Brands. Samuel will ensure the cellar keeps functioning like a well-oiled machine, focusing on the singular goal of producing superior wines for enjoyment by a worldwide consumer base.
How did you get into wine?
Although my father grew up on a wine farm, I only really got to know wine when I worked as a student at Klein Constantia, during my varsity holidays. My older brother, Kobie, also became a winemaker, so he also stimulated my interest. My father always served wine at Sunday lunch, although as kids we weren’t allowed any. We were given grape juice in wine glasses. He established a ritual and it gave wine a context and relevance for us.
Does it feel as if your career has prepared you for this role?
Yes, most definitely. I joined the Nederburg winemaking team way back in 2007, first as an assistant and from 2014 as fully-fledged winemaker of reds. Previously, I worked for a mix of small and large wineries, from the American boutique cellar Domaine Serene in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to the large volume Goudini Winery in Rawsonville. My obsession with detail probably springs from those days in Oregon, where every tiny barrel of wine was treated as something truly precious, but then so was every larger tank. Big or small, everything was regarded as important. That emphasis has never left me, and has served me well at Nederburg over the years.
I enjoy the countervailing forces of working in wine. You have to be very analytical but also learn to trust your intuition and your taste buds. You need structure but flexibility to work with as many as 23 different varieties at any given time. You must be able to enjoy making minute quantities of special collectible wines and on the same day, switch to making popular wines for global markets, and you must feel at home creating classical but also original, very different wines.
Will you be doing anything different under the new branding?
When it comes to our new core range of wines, these have been styled to deliver greater freshness and fruit concentration, beautiful balance and appealingly generous and soft textures with just the right palate-weight. Our guiding principle has always been to deliver a top-quality product – this philosophy has not changed for a second – whether we’re making Baronne, our popular red blend, or Private Bin Two Centuries Cabernet Sauvignon, or a Platter’s South African Wine Guide five-star wine. But now we pay even more attention to detail to guarantee that the styles of wines we make are what our customers are after. Vintage conditions play a major role and consumer preferences change. One must be very adept at being open to these changes by pivoting different winemaking or viticultural techniques. It’s also important that our growers clearly understand for which product their grapes are meant for, so that together with our viticulturist, they can ensure that grapes are of the desired quality. We work as closely with our barrel suppliers in providing them with an intimate understanding of our needs. At the end of the day, we want to stay true to our commitment of making refreshing, well-balanced wines with prominent fruit flavours and refined structure – wines that have the vibrancy of the New World and the elegance of the Old World.
What are the challenges to managing such a wide portfolio of wines and new markets?
In a nutshell, you have to focus both on detail and the bigger picture. It takes immense discipline and consistency. It also involves a real openness to listening to our markets and consumers and adapting our offering accordingly whilst continuing to surprise and delight wine lovers with innovative new tastes. In our favour is a very special cellar team, if I may say so myself. Our team comprises a mix of seasoned and new-generation men and women, infusing expertise and erudition with youthful dynamism and an appetite for pushing boundaries. Winemaking is not a solo pursuit. It’s totally a team effort and you need everyone’s buy-in.
What people and technologies make your job easier?
We can’t achieve what we set out to without outstanding viticultural input. It ensures us access to superb quality, well-sited vineyards and an intimate understanding of their potential.
How would you characterise the 2021 vintage?
According to our viticulturist, Isabel Teubes, you could say that cool to moderate temperatures were the hallmark of this vintage. It was one of the latest to start and one of the longest, but has been great for flavour concentration.
We’ve observed lower alcohol levels in the 2021 wines, with rich, deep colour amongst the reds and beautiful fruit/acid/sugar balance and intense flavours all round have contributed to lively, refreshing, layered wines, with softer, more approachable tannins.
We’re particularly excited about this year’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, harvested mainly from Paarl and Stellenbosch, as well as Darling, Elgin and the Swartland.
What is your biggest source of joy?
My family, without a doubt! But when it comes to my career, I would say what I love most, is contributing to some of the most meaningful moments in other people’s lives. It gives me such a great feeling when wine lovers tell me about the Nederburg wine they served to announce an engagement, to toast a birthday, to honour old friends or new ones, to celebrate a new job or a rite of passage. I feel proud and humbled at the same time.
What’s your favourite way to relax?
Some downtime eating, laughing and having fun with my family, or taking some time for myself and relaxing with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and the latest Clive Cussler novel (I’m an avid collector).