The right stuff: Q&A with Debbie Thompson

by | Jan 31, 2022 | Article, Business and Marketing

Debbie Thompson hit the ground running after being appointed winemaker at Le Grand Domaine in 2020. She’s been raking in the honours ever since. From the dry Namaqualand to the lush vineyards of Devon Valley, it’s clear she’s made of the right stuff. 

Stellenzicht winemaker Debbie Thompson

Le Grande Domaine winemaker Debbie Thompson

Debbie grew up in the dry Namaqualand region in the north-western part of South Africa. When her father, a foreman at a small diamond town, passed away at an early age, the family moved to Springbok just south of the Namibian border. “Initially I planned to study veterinary science, but that meant going far away to the interior city of Pretoria,” she says. “All my friends were headed for the University of Stellenbosch, so following them I enrolled in a Bachelor of Science degree.”

And then the wine bug bit. “You know how it goes, here you are at Stellenbosch in the Cape winelands and you start going out, partying and you’re exposed to lots of wine. And as my interest in wine grew, I thought, well, since I’m doing a science degree, I might as well extend it to the viticulture and oenology degree Stellenbosch offered. I have being one of those lucky people who has enjoyed every moment of my studies and professional life.”

Debbie’s career began in earnest at Simonsig, where she made red wine for 18 years before becoming cellar master. She took a new turn as winemaker at le Grande Domaine early in 2020.

Q: You were the first female winemaker at Simonsig and are one of three women in the cellar at Le Grande Domaine. Is there more acceptance of women in the industry now than when you first started?

When I began working in the wine industry, it was definitely a man’s world and I admit that trying to prove myself motivated me in those early days.

These days there isn’t that much difference between the challenges women and men face. In the past, the industry was dominated by men because of established old traditions but today the wine industry in South Africa is definitely New World and the times of men running the show are far gone. We’re a dynamic industry, and in order to get the job done we need the most qualified people. We all have to create a product of outstanding quality.

I’m happy to say over the years the perception has changed and female winemakers are now a force to be reckoned with.

Q: Who were your mentors and your greatest inspiration?

My most important mentor was Johan Malan, owner and chief winemaker of Simonsig. I wouldn’t have been where I am today if it wasn’t for him. His work ethic, wine knowledge and charisma are admirable and inspiring.

One of my biggest inspirations is wine industry legend Norma Ratcliffe. She’s a strong woman who believes in herself and who stands up for herself and others. She is a hard working woman who shows incredible perseverance and ambition yet still remains humble!

Q: What was the most important lesson that you’ll always take with you?

No mistake is a small mistake in the cellar and hard work does not kill you.

Q: What are you working on at Le Grande Domaine and what can we look forward to?

Working for owner and founder of Origin Wine, Bernard Fontannaz, is exciting. He definitely gives me the freedom to challenge myself and push boundaries to create new and exciting products for Le Grand Domaine.

For this coming season I will be back in the saddle with Pinotage; we’re also busy with other varietals to extend our portfolio.

Soon we’ll release our own MCC and I’m definitely looking forward to making a toast with that to the Le Grand Domaine Enoteca, our Wine bar that recently open its doors in Church Street, Stellenbosch.

Q: Your favourite wine-tasting experience of any wine, anywhere?

I have many fond memories, but one that stood out was when my husband and I were in Saint Romain, France in 2005. Owner of Francois Freres Cooperage, Jean Francois and his wife Noëlle invited us for a home cooked meal. We were spoiled with some of the finest vintages from his private cellar. With one particular wine he asked that my husband, Simon, and I guess the vintage and appellation. Unbelievably, my husband took a wild but accurate guess – a 1995 Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

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