Passionate, talented and bubbling with can-do attitude, these runners-up in the Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year competition are making waves in the South African wine scene. With their infectious energy and innovative thinking, Anné van Heerden, Murray Barlow and RJ Botha are most definitely winemakers to watch. By Lisa van Aswegen
Anné van Heerden, Alvi’s Drift, Worcester
Anné van Heerden almost became an artist, but, luckily for us, she decided to pursue a career in winemaking, which she believes is an art form in itself. After her studies, van Heerden was lucky enough to spend two harvests at Vilafonté here in Stellenbosch, followed by time in California, at Perdeberg in Paarl, and later in Turkey. In 2013, she joined Alvi’s Drift, situated on the banks of the Breede River outside Worcester. Her work here has garnered her attention as a rising force in the industry.
Van Heerden’s excitement regarding the local world of winemaking is palpable. She ardently feels that South African wines show a character and complexity that is missing in some New World wines. ‘The endless variations in terroir formed by our unique relationship to the southern Atlantic Ocean and the mountainous terrain create sites which no winemaker could ever fully explore,’ van Heerden enthuses. ‘Terroir smiles on South African vineyards. These conditions seem to allow much better fruit expression in our white wines; something which South African winemakers have used to their collective advantage. This will allow us to improve our reputation in the international wine community for decades to come.’
A quest for elegance and balance in winemaking is one of her chief pursuits, especially when she’s working with her favourite varieties of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. She explains: ‘Both these varieties are so diverse, they allow you to express yourself in many ways. Be it single-cultivar wines, wooded or unwooded, or as blends – they can produce wines with complexity and great flavour. They can age extremely well and complement a range of culinary styles.’
Alvi’s Drift estate is enjoying renewed commercial success, but with that, van Heerden admits, come great challenges to maintain quality, consistency and style. ‘Given our control of the vineyards, recent cellar upgrades and our commitment to quality, I am confident that this can be achieved,’ she says.
It’s clear that van Heerden is dedicated to putting her personality into the wines she creates: ‘Making that award-winning blend, the whole winemaking process, the harvest; it all takes a little part of you, and in a sense becomes an expression
of who you are.’
And her ultimate goal: to be a part of the progression of the South African wine industry and to advance the development of new, iconic South African wines. We’ll drink to that!
Murray Barlow, Rustenberg Wines, Stellenbosch
Winemaking is in Murray Barlow’s blood. Rustenberg has been in his family since it was bought by his grandfather, Peter Barlow, back in 1941. By the age of 16, Barlow had realised that his passion was to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in social science at Rhodes University, Barlow gained hands-on winemaking experience, working for two harvests at Rustenberg while studying chemistry at the University of Stellenbosch. In 2011, he went down under and completed his masters in oenology with distinction at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Returning home at the end of that year, Barlow took over running the cellar and marketing sales. He was named Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year in 2013 for Rustenberg’s 2012 Stellenbosch Chardonnay, an accomplishment he calls ‘a major highlight of the start to my career’.
On his success, Barlow is quick to share the praise: ‘To get the job done, you need a dedicated team that is willing to put in the extra hours and not take shortcuts. No winemaker does it on their own. Behind them is an army in the vineyards and the winery. The soil, the plants, the climate and the people involved in the operation are greater than the individual – the brand and estate should get the credit.’
Although Barlow sees himself as fairly traditional in what he seeks out in wine, he adds that he is not afraid to use oak wisely or employ technology in the cellar to complement Rustenberg’s traditional winemaking style when producing the estate’s clean, pure, expressive wines. As for the local industry, he explains: ‘I think that we are beginning to mature in our understanding of which varieties are best suited to the various terroirs we are blessed with here in South Africa.’
‘The most exciting aspect of the South African wine scene is that there is a place in the sun for everyone,’ he adds.
‘Stylistically, both the modern polished wines and the more artisanal winemaking styles are flourishing and consumers have never had more choice. There is also a greater awareness of regionality, which should be celebrated.’
Barlow has a clear passion for a variety of cultivars, which he treats with the utmost respect. ‘I enjoy the challenge of working with Chardonnay, as it can be versatile and forgiving but will also highlight any clumsy decisions made in the vineyard and winery. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most humbling red to work with as it is truly a varietal forged in the vineyard. I also really enjoy working with Grenache; when it is made properly I believe it is the most drinkable and delicious of all the red varietals.’
His favourite wine to produce is the John X Merriman blend. ‘It’s also our biggest challenge,’ Barlow says.
What he enjoys most about his work at Rustenberg Wines is what he calls the culture of experimentation in the winery and in the vineyards. This will, without a shadow of a doubt, present us with even more delicious fruits of Barlow’s (and his team’s) labour.
RJ Botha, Kleine Zalze, Stellenbosch
RJ Botha always knew that he would work with the earth. From a young age, he planted vegetables in his mother’s garden, but it was only after completing his viticulture degree at the University of Stellenbosch that he really fell in love with winemaking.
For him, the combination of working closely with nature and socialising around his products brings him the greatest joy. ‘I am most proud of making wines that everyone from a wine connoisseur to a newbie can enjoy drinking,’ he says.
After working in France for a few years, Botha returned to South Africa to work at Nitída before eventually joining Kleine Zalze in 2012 – a place he calls ‘a wine-maker’s dream’.
Then, of course, there’s the recognition of being Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year 2010 and being part of the team to make one of the best white wines in the world at Concours Mondial des Bruxelles 2015.
‘It excites me that in South Africa we make world-class white wines. We have such a diverse climate and regions that suit many different wine styles. We just need to find the right site for the right wine and we will be making the best wines in the world. We are improving and it shows in the recognition that our wines are getting from judges abroad,’ Botha enthuses.
Botha has a clear vision and is excited about winemaking in South Africa today. He believes: ‘The younger generation of winemakers see things a bit differently and are working together to promote SA as a premium winemaking country. I also think we are more involved in research and are always trying to improve.’
It’s these constant improvements that he loves to apply to his favourite cultivar of Sauvignon Blanc. ‘I’m a bit of a Sauvignon Blanc freak – ask anyone who’s worked with me on it!’ he admits. ‘Attention to the smallest detail is paramount. With this varietal, what you taste in the glass is an outright portrayal of all the work that went into it and where it came from – there is nowhere to hide impurities. If you treat it right, it will be worth your efforts for years to come.’
In fact, Sauvignon Blanc best describes Botha’s personality: ‘What you see is what you get. I am dedicated, goal-driven, loyal and sincere.’
This approach is in keeping with Kleine Zalze’s philosophy: success starts in the vineyards. Botha explains restraint and elegance are preferred, with the wines offering fresh flavours and subtle fruit expression. As far as trends go, he specifically likes the fact that more fruit-driven wines are being made; elegant with fewer oak influences. ‘We make wines that represent the fruit from the vineyard and only use oak as a tool in the process,’ he says.
Not surprisingly, his favourite person to share a glass of wine with is his wife, Natalee, who is also a winemaker. And, who knows, maybe his two year-old son James will one day follow in the footsteps of his parents.
Photography: Juliette Bisset/HSMimages.co.za, iStockphoto