A nature lover with a knack for creating elegant wine, Pierre Wahl of Rijk’s Private Cellar in Tulbagh is the 2016 Diners Club Winemaker of the Year. By Jayne Nankivell
What inspired you to become a winemaker?
I have always been an outdoor person and dreamt of working in a natural environment. As a child, I accompanied my father, who was a consultant in the citrus industry, on many farm visits. I tasted loads of fruit from the orchards, but fruit farming never interested me in the long run. I knew I wanted to work in agriculture, but I also wanted to be creative. Having grown up in Paarl, surrounded by vineyards, I was exposed to wine in small sips from a young age. But it was only when I went to do my military service that I decided to go into winemaking. Back in 1995, when I received my diploma in winemaking at Elsenburg Agricultural College, there was a huge demand for winemakers – the world was my oyster!
Describe your career path.
I studied at Elsenburg from 1993 until 1995, under my lecturer and friend Eugene van Zyl. The first winery I worked for was Niel Joubert Wines in Paarl, and this was also where I first worked with Chenin Blanc. Two years later, I took a job at Môreson in Franschhoek, where I worked closely with Eugene van Zyl, who helped me to fine-tune my wines and winemaking skills. After four years there, I knew it was time to seek out greater challenges, and I was offered a position at Rijk’s Private Cellar in Tulbagh. I have been here since 2002 and have learnt so much – most importantly, that the making of wine starts in the vineyards, and not in a wine tank.
Which other winemakers do you admire?
My fellow peers, from the magical class of 1995, who made a name for themselves by starting their own wineries from scratch or helping existing wineries to become leaders in the South African wine industry. The likes of John Loubser (Steenberg), Frans Smit (Spier), Bruwer Raats (Raats Family Wines), Dewaldt Heyns (Saronsberg), David Nieuwoudt (Cederberg), Carmen Stevens (Carmen Stevens Wines) and Lizelle Gerber (Boschendal).
What makes Rijk’s unique?
Our people, especially the owner Neville Dorrington, who constantly thinks outside the box and keeps us all on our toes. And, most importantly, our soil, which gives us small berries and concentrated fruit. We have wines with extremely low pH levels, and this helps with ageing. The longevity of our wines is exceptional.
Tell us about the farm’s history.
After working in Cape Town for 20 years, Neville Dorrington and his family decided it was time to move to the countryside. Being lovers of good food and collectors of fine wine, the search for a wine farm began. Many months and kilometres later, Neville decided to buy an undeveloped farm and to ‘do it all from scratch’. He fell in love with the Tulbagh valley, surrounded by the gorgeous Winterhoek, Witzenberg and Saronsberg mountains, its splendour and scenic beauty is hard to beat.
The town was named after Rijk Tulbagh, Governor of the Cape from 1751 to 1771, and was his holiday retreat from the busy port of Cape Town. The farm was named Rijk’s in his honour.
What is the secret to the farm’s success?
Back in 1997, when we planted our first vineyards, we started with 10 cultivars. In 2006, we decided to focus on three only: Chenin Blanc, Pinotage and Shiraz. We put all our focus and effort into these three cultivars, which assists in increasing the understanding and quality of each one, year after year. We harvest all our grapes by hand at night. The cooler it is when the grapes are picked, the slower the process of oxidation that takes place before the fruit gets to the cellar. This means that you lose less flavour and colour and there is less chance of bacterial problems.
What is your winemaking philosophy?
Making wines with both power and elegance: wines that show purity of fruit and complement food beautifully, and wines with great ageing potential.
What are your thoughts on Chenin Blanc?
I’ve always loved the diversity of this intriguing cultivar. It is definitely the white variety that’s best suited to the South African climate and still will be in 50 years from now, when the effects of global warming have become more evident. Chenin Blanc is also the cultivar that best complements South African food.
Tell us about your entry: Rijk’s Private Cellar Chenin Blanc 2014.
The 2014 harvest was one of our wettest to date, which leads to wines with loads of fruit and elegance. It’s a wine with a low pH of just above 3.1, which means it will last for many years to come (at present it’s still an embryo). It shows great integration of oak and fruit.
Suggest a food pairing for this wine.
Seafood such as scallops, Thai green curry and Vietnamese-style foods.
What have been some of your greatest achievements to date?
To hold the record for receiving the most Absa Pinotage Top 10 trophies – 11 since 2000.
Winning the top honours in the Michelangelo International Wine & Spirit Awards in 2003 for our Rijk’s Private Cellar Chardonnay 2002, and in 2009 for our Rijk’s Private Cellar Shiraz 2004. And also being a member of the Cape Winemakers Guild.
What does winning the Winemaker of the Year award mean to you?
I think that winning this title is on every winemaker’s bucket list.
Winning has proven to me that one can make superior wines in difficult vintages. It has given me the confirmation that Tulbagh has terroir that is superior and can compete with most other winemaking regions of the world.
Which winemaking region would you most like to visit?
The Loire Valley in France, where Chenin Blanc is from originally.
Any other passions, besides wine?
I love being at one with nature. I can spend weeks in the bushveld, and I love game drives and fly-fishing for trout.
What is your motto in life?
Balance. Work hard, play hard.
Tell us something about yourself that few people know.
At school I wanted to become a marine biologist or a game ranger. I’ve also got the need for speed and I love flying, but I’m scared of heights!
Which wine best describes your personality, and why?
Definitely Rijk’s Reserve Chenin Blanc.
It has loads more to offer than just the aroma on the nose – it has got a heart of gold (pale gold on the rim). It is well integrated and balanced, and it loves the open air – decant it and see how the flavours just keep changing. It is also slightly sweet, just as I am.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Making even better wines at Rijk’s.
Photography: Andreas Eiselen & Gareth van Nelson/HSMimages.co.za