Tim James: How much do (and should) winemakers matter?

By , 15 August 2022

We all – winemakers too – seem to blithely agree that great wines are made in the vineyard. So why so much attention to what happens in the cellar?

When winemakers move – as the better ones tend to do if they’re not on their family’s own estate – we notice it, especially when an important winery is involved. There are media releases and occasional comments, like mine last week wondering just why they move. We notice, that is, here in the “New World”, maybe particularly in our corner of it. In classic Europe, not so much – simply because such things matter less where a style of winemaking is established (even inevitable) and, even more, where it’s the vineyards that genuinely matter most.

Vineyards ultimately matter most here too, but we are still largely at a time when we are still trying to see exactly what the vineyards can and will do. Even on a large scale: just 25 years ago we knew that many parts of Stellenbosch could produce good wine, and we could already discern that it would be a good move to make more wines in the Hemel-en-Aarde, but who’d have guessed back then that some of the country’s most reputed wines would soon come from the Swartland or Olifants River? We needed some great winemaking energies to prove that point. Pretty soon, however, those energies taking things forward were needed in the vineyards – I’ll come back to that.

It’s not difficult to find examples of where a new winemaker has made a great difference to a producer’s output and reputation. Two particularly radical shifts, more than a decade apart, occur to me immediately. When Gottfried Mocke took over the vineyards and cellar at Chamonix in 2001, its wines achieved one four-star rating in the Platter’s guide (in those pre-inflationary times four stars was a big deal). Four years later there were six such ratings, and the numbers and stars continued to multiply. (Let’s not unkindly wonder what’s been happening since Gottfried was poached by Boekenhoutskloof in 2015.) My second obvious example is when Peter-Allan Finlayson became winemaker at Gabrielskloof: within scarcely a few vintages the reputation of the winery was transformed.

Reputational moves in the opposite direction are more than possible too. There’s a bit of ambiguity, perhaps, about Lammershoek after Craig Hawkins became winemaker in 2010 and set about bringing more “naturalness” to both vineyards and cellar, all in a rush. His practice of early picking had a positive influence on the whole of the Cape’s new-wave winemaking, but the unreliability of his Lammershoek wines cost the winery dearly (despite some instances of excellence).

Examples of slower, more gradual transformations brought about by winemaking revolutions are more plentiful but, by definition, less obvious. (A motive for gradualness is obviously to avoid scaring away established customers.) And of course many transformations happen away from the glare that picks out the most prominent wineries. A favourite example of mine would be Noble Hill in Simonsberg-Paarl, where Kristoffer Tillery (self-taught, but clearly by a talented teacher) has combined hard work among the vines with slowly bringing a new elegance and refinement and character to his range since taking full responsibility for the wines at the family estate (see my article of 2020).

Kanonkop in Stellenbosch – where winemaking changes have been “pretty seamless”.

And what of places where, as in the European ideal, a change in winemaker has had no great effect (for good or ill)? The changing of the generational guard at Neil Ellis is a prestigious one to mention. And we can arguably instance one of the Cape’s greatest estates, Kanonkop, where the transition, 20 years ago, from Beyers Truter to Abrie Beeslaar, was pretty seamless (which isn’t to deny that there hasn’t been subtle development since then). Few people would doubt, I think, that if another change were to come again to Kanonkop it would be equally so – partly because of the continuity of the vineyards and of the cellar’s established way of using their grapes, partly because the Krige’s superb management of the business would ensure that the more things changed the more they’d remain the same. That’s an important reminder of the potential role of the estate owner in retarding or advancing change, to good or bad effect.

But here’s a sobering thought: how many of us wine lovers could name the viticulturists at Kanonkop this century? Part of the price paid for the New World’s hero-worship of winemakers has been the comparative lack of recognition for the contribution of viticulturists – a contribution that is huge, if we accept what many winemakers like to say (whether or not they believe it) about their job being basically to not stuff up the grapes and to guide the terroir into the bottle. Things are changing in that regard, happily, and the centrality of the vineyard and its nurturing is becoming ever clearer to more serious wine lovers. Perhaps even to a rare employer who might even pay a viticulturist at almost the same sort of rate as their fancy winemakers. And perhaps what few wine journalists there still are will want to go more into the vineyards than the cellars and tasting rooms in order to get some understanding.

The great wine revolution in the Cape was at least partly driven by ambitious, intelligent winemakers seeking out fine vineyards to supply them with fine grapes. It has been taken forward by more and more informed work going into improving viticulture, by all the best producers. As for those new wave heroes, we still tend to think of them as winemakers, but they are pretty well all spending the vast majority of their time working in the vineyards they now own or have leases or agreements on, or are establishing with farmers. At the best estates, too, I reckon that often enough the “winemaker” is also responsible for the vineyards – or, at least, the viticulturist and winemaker work very closely together.

For a good while still there’ll be more media releases about getting a great new winemaker than getting a great new viticulturist. But we are starting to shift our perceptions and starting to really believe what we say about where great (and lesser) wines are made.

  • 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.


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