New World wine producers used to be lashed by lovers of the Old for being mere winemakers (there’s not even a French translation for that dreadful word, we were sneeringly informed). These soulless creatures believed that terroir, if it wasn’t just a French marketing ploy, came a long way behind scientific dexterity in churning out industrial dross. New World winemakers responded with their own contempt (though still hanging on to some cultural cringe), for dirt-ridden European wineries breeding brettanomyces, with old and inbred families relying more on dubious tradition than scientific understanding, and fearful of flavour.
Happily the world wine terrain is pretty much common ground these days, and it’s seldom useful to invoke those old antipathies. And while the younger wine-producing countries still tend to fetishise the winemaker as hero, the role is implicitly recognised everywhere. If you think, for example, that the skill of the individual winegrower is not recognised as vital in hallowed Burgundy, consider the radically different prices consistently received by the five producers making wine off their essentially identical strips of the famous Clos St Jacques in Gevrey-Chambertin. That’s not different terroir being paid for; it’s different winemaking, with some admixture of different viticulture and splashes of history and snobbery.
But while it would be easy to list the qualities that a competent winemaker should have, what makes a great one? And who are the best current South African examples? One thing that makes it difficult to answer the question (and even suggests that it is a misplaced one) is that the boundaries are not clear. It’s not hard to consider Eben Sadie as a candidate. But Eben has declared that most of his time is now spent in the vineyards, having done what he can in the cellar, where Paul Jordaan is now the main actor. So can he no longer be in the running?
And what about Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof? Can we consider him, though it’s many years since he was the person responsible for vinification there? But it’s Marc who developed Boekenhoutskloof’s aesthetic, whose vision has guided and built one of the most formidably successful of modern Cape wine businesses, and who still is crucially involved in blending the wines – none of which leaves without his signing it out. He’s not really a winemaker, that is – but can’t we include his whole achievement? Boekenhoutskloof’s current cellarmaster, Gottfried Mocke, is of course another plausible candidate for a top place in the ranks of Cape winemakers. Based on the decade-plus work he did at Chamonix, Gottfried gives excellent grounds for establishing one criterion: remarkable improvement in a range of wines over a comparatively short period from OK to brilliant.
There are other at least complementary criteria, but both Mocke and Sadie (though not Kent) point to a genuinely important truth: that most of the Cape’s finest winemakers work, at the very least, in close and harmonious partnership with those who supply their grapes; sometimes they are the same person. The pairs behind, for example, Mullineux and David & Nadia wines – which are also at least partly vineyard-winery partnerships (Chris and Nadia skoffeling among the vines, Andrea and David in the cellar – add a new twist to the idea of marital “one flesh”. Meanwhile Kallie Louw of Porseleinberg I think of as a vineyard worker whose wine somehow magically emerges….
While Andrea Mullineux, for one, reminds me that technical excellence in the cellar – rigour and precision and scientific understanding of the highest order – are vital, if ultimately insufficient, ingredients of much top winemaking. I don’t wish to suggest that it’s at all lacking in any of the other names I’ve mentioned, but in some cases it is a particularly obvious part of the mix that goes into being a great winemaker – in Richard Kershaw, perhaps, and Rudiger Gretschel of Reyneke.
And what of sheer, instinctive talent? (Sadly, one can also see its direct opposite now and then.) Again, it’s in no short supply amongst the others, but I have never felt quite so convinced of it as with Chris Alheit. He demonstrates other vital criteria of great winemaking – hard work, awareness of the unity of vineyards and cellar, and infinite (and highly intelligent and well-informed) attention to detail. But somehow he has always seemed to me to have a magical touch, an unequalled flair and instinct.
I’ve no doubt been rambling here, even floundering, but what else to do when even the criteria are tough to decide on, let alone the candidates. What about the earliest of the modern cult winemakers of the Cape (post Beyers Truter, let’s say), André van Rensberg of Vergelegen – I nearly wrote André van der Merwe, but I was understandably also thinking of Carl van der Merwe of DeMorgenzon. There are others, and other great teams (including teams of winemakers, amongst which I’d mention Adi Badenhorst and Jasper Wickens). I’m pretty sure I shall awake sweating tonight wondering how I could possibly have forgotten to even mention, well – you supply the names, and I shall probably agree.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.