In February this year I came to the unnerving realisation it was exactly 20 years since this young upstart rocked up to work in a winery for the first time. Unbeknown to me I was about to get hooked on a new kind of obsession.
Twenty years ago I had two priorities in life: surfing and having a good time. Sure, I was lucky enough to have grown up in the wine industry, but it was never an obvious career choice for me. But after my first harvest I was insatiable. Armed with a cocksure attitude and dubious forklifting skills, I wanted to know more.
As a family we’d never made wine before and it was just as I was starting out that we bought a small piece of land in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and embarked on this journey of growing and making wine. Our first destemmer made a donkiekar look positively cutting edge. The Sauvignon
boom was well under way and I was thinking how odd the millennium vintage was going to look on the label.
Many times I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but luckily I had the ear of many of my dad’s esteemed winemaker friends to rely on for guidance. Fast forward 20 years and I see the changes in the industry and the up and downs I’ve been through personally, trying to figure out where “making wine” is taking me.
There was never a master plan in the beginning and it all seems to have followed a very natural process. I’ve been guilty (in my eyes) in the past of dogmatic winemaking, butchering any chance of unique vineyard expression in the wines. The wines were mostly good, but they were anonymous. It was only when we started working with our own vineyards over time that the wines started to make sense. Spending so much time figuring out our own vineyards is quite an insular approach and ironically I doubt we’d be good at making wines from any other vineyards.
Taking vineyard experience to the extreme, last year we had a tasting with Michel Lafarge of Volnay, one of Burgundy’s greatest domaines. Frédéric, Michel’s son, was in our group, tasting through the barrels. We were suitably amazed when we found Michel busy tasting with the next group. He’s deep into his eighties with over 65 vintages at the domaine. He once said, with the help of a translator, “It’s better to spend my time on the wine rather than studying English.” Between him and Frédéric I guess they have about 100 years of living experience of their vineyards. You can’t buy that and it shows in their wines.
That said, it’s encouraging to see the level of articulation in South African wines that’s grabbing the attention at home and abroad. The Cape has such a diverse and rich heritage of soil for vine growing. The Cape’s wines are back in the spotlight. The industry needs more of these ambassadors and they need to filter down to the base level of wine value. For that value surely should be higher. We can’t all be the Lafarge family, but if we keep up the momentum of specialising in and understanding our vineyards, and adapting where necessary, it would be all the better for our wines and the world’s perception of us.