We profile three young winemakers who are making a name for themselves.
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 gave rise to rich traditions and a deep heritage – but now there is a wave of emerging winemakers who are not afraid to push boundaries and who will rise above the challenges that they are facing.
Rudger Van Wyk – Starke-Condé Wines
Sitting in the luxury environs of La Residence Hotel in Franschhoek last year, Rudger couldn’t believe his ears.
He had just been announced as the Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year 2018 – one of the most prestigious titles in the industry.
In an instant, his dream had become a reality. Rudger grew up in George in the Western Cape, and a brother in the industry encouraged him to follow 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 in Stellenbosch, and many of my winemaker practices are still influenced by him.
Wanting to broaden my skills in the making of white wines, I then moved to Nitida in Durbanville. I also took part in a harvest in Burgundy, France…”
That is 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?
“I was on my honeymoon with my wife when I got a call from the office saying that samples were needed for the competition, and I discovered that I was a finalist.
I was ecstatic. You can picture it… We were sitting in a pool with a great view, drinking MCC, and then I got that message. Also, shortly before the awards, we discovered that my wife was pregnant, so it was a double celebration.”
When my name was called, I was totally unprepared – I never expected to win! A moment after the announcement, I called my parents and brother, and everyone was going crazy.”
What is your advice to emerging wine drinkers?
“Don’t be influenced by others – each person has unique preferences in wine. If you are starting out, chenin blanc is a great choice for white wines, and with the reds, merlot is soft and not too tannic. The only way you are going to learn more, is by tasting more and visiting new farms and listening to their stories.
“Anyone can make wine, but it takes patience, love, and experience to make good wine.”
Elmarie Botes – Nederburg
Elmarie has no small responsibility. As white-wine maker at Nederburg in Paarl, she is at the helm of one of the most awarded names in South Africa.
Growing up in Stellenbosch, Elmarie has worked at several wineries before also becoming part of the Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme.
A harvest in France followed, and then a position as assistant winemaker at Fleur du Cap before she was appointed at Nederburg in 2016.
How did you feel on your first day at Nederburg?
“I was super-excited, but also cautious. At the end of my first day, I 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 that.
“I believe that not much in life that is worthwhile, comes easily. 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 the resilience and a real hunger for success, you can achieve a lot!”
What is 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 breakthrough perceived boundaries that are often not even real; just a construct in our minds. If I can do it, you can too.”
What are your suggestions to new wine drinkers?
“Many people 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 your friends’ or family’s. The key is to explore and discover what you like.”
Joseph Dhafana – Mosi Wines
Joseph’s journey is a rather remarkable one. A decade ago, he arrived in the country as a refugee. First working as a gardener, he is now head sommelier at La Colombe, one of the country’s top restaurants, and has his own wine brand.
Joseph was the captain of Team Zimbabwe at the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships in Burgundy in 2017, and he is one of the founder members of the Black Cellar Club (BLACC).
Tell us about Mosi Wines.
“I started making wine in the Swartland, and my maiden vintage was 2014. My heart almost melted when I had the first sip of my wine – I could not believe it was my work of art. I currently have 2017 vintages of merlot, syrah and chenin blanc.”
What has the establishment of the BLACC meant to you?
“The goal of the BLACC is to make wine-drinking less intimidating to the general populace. In the African culture, having wine on the table for lunch or dinner is not a regular thing, but that is what we wanted to cultivate. As a founder member, I think we have achieved our goal.”
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.
Words by Jared Ruttenberg