I get the feeling that Jurgen Gouws is pretty much always smiling. Winemaker of his own Swartland label, Intellego, he moves through the world on instinct. He’s all of 35-years-old, and aside from the face-splitting grin, he’s got an even tan that points to a life spent outdoors in the vineyard, and in his downtime, surfing.
Some of his sunshine-filled nature must surely stem from his childhood spent growing up in the Eastern Cape in a citrus farming community.
“It’s crazy how people in big cities can live next door to each other for decades and not know each others names,” he says ruefully shaking his head. Jurgen gets to know all his neighbours. “Well, that’s what the Swartland is like. The bigger wine regions aren’t the same. Swartland stands together as a region, and at the end of the day it’s all about brand South Africa: the stronger we are together, the stronger we are as a country.
“In the Swartland we share blocks, vineyards. There’s always someone around the corner to help you or to chat to.” Jurgen is drawn to the sense of community, plus he says,“It’s fun. It took me a few years to realise that there needs to be a fun part to winemaking too.
“I’ve spent the last few years trying to bring that out in my labels. Why does a good wine have to have a picture of a manor house on it? Who decided that?”
Jurgen knew from age 14 he wanted to be a winemaker. “My grandfather used to have a fruit farm in Stellenbosch, with some wine grapes, which he sold to KWV. We spent every summer on that farm. That’s where I really started to get intrigued, and I knew from a young age in which direction I wanted to go. If I commit to something I give it 100 per cent.”
Though it wasn’t quite a direct path to Intellego. After the usual stint at Elsenburg, he went to go work on Annnadale with wine industry titan Hempies du Toit for his Diploma in Vineyard Management.
“Those were tough times,” he says laughing. “But seriously, Hempies taught me never to back off when it comes to hard work.
From there it was to Anura, where he says he learnt most of the aspects of the winemaking process.
He bounced around for a bit working harvests in France and New Zealand, before joining Eben Sadie in Priorat. “My outlook changed completely after that.
“For the first time I was in the presence of people drinking top quality wines. It was amazing to give my palate a reference point of what truly great wines were all about.”
After many Spanish adventures it was time to head home. He secured a job at a winery in Tulbagh, a time that was interspersed with a winemaking project in Russia. It was a challenging period. “I couldn’t speak Russian, they couldn’t speak English.”
After spending some more time at the Tulbagh winery feeling stuck in the co-op system, he sought a friend’s advice: Do I stick it out for a bit longer for financial gain? The advice was simple: If you don’t see yourself in it for the long term, get out now.
Taking the advice to heart, he got back on an airplane for a harvest in Côte-Rôtie. “I learnt there that it’s not always the most perfect-looking grapes that make good wine – in sorting, you need to trust the vineyard and your gut.”
When it was time to come back home, he knew what he needed to do. “I always wanted to go back to Swartland.” So he picked up the phone and called Craig Hawkins at Lammershoek. “I loved my time there from day one. Everyone was so supportive.” It was here he started his own brand, Intellego, in 2009—with just one barrel.
These days things have got slightly larger. He rents a cellar at Annexkloof as well as sourcing grapes from around 12 different vineyards. “Some I farm myself and for the others, I work closely with the farmers. I’ve been lucky to work with the farmers I do, they see the bigger picture when it comes to organic farming. And that’s not something easy to find.
“I follow the simple model of getting it right in the vineyard. I don’t want to handle the grapes too much.”
Jurgen is known for doing things a little differently. He laughs. “I’m not trying to make wines that push the boundaries. It just so happens that every year I want to try something new. Like the skin-contact viognier I’m working on now. I poured some juice over some skins this morning—you won’t believe the aromatics!”
The word ‘Intellego’, Jurgen explains is the Latin word for ‘understanding’.
“I like wines that make you think, that have a story—and if you have a better understanding of what you’re drinking, you appreciate it more.”
Reviews on Intellego’s new releases here.
- Malu Lambert is a freelance food and wine journalist who has written for numerous titles including Food & Home, Good Taste and The Sunday Times. She has achieved Level 3 via WSET and won the title of Veritas Young Wine Writer 2015. She also owns story-telling agency, Fable, which works with high-end food, wine and hospitality brands, telling their unique stories in a variety of digital formats. Follow her on Twitter: @MaluLambert