Murray Barlow of Rustenberg is the Young Winemaker of the Year once again, this time with three red wines in the final six. By Pia Briscoe
Some would say you were destined to become a winemaker.
My family has owned and run Rustenberg since 1941, so wine has always been a part of my life. My father took over the running of the estate in 1987 and I joined the business after finishing my studies. I completed my undergraduate studies at Rhodes University, then came back home to work on two vintages in the cellar, before completing my master’s in oenology at The University of Adelaide in Australia. Since then, I’ve been running the Rustenberg cellar for five years full-time. Alongside the winery, I also run the sales and marketing side of Rustenberg.
Did you always picture yourself becoming a winemaker?
When I was 16, my brother Peter decided not to pursue a career in farming, which meant the family business had no one to take it over. This decision triggered my initial interest, which later grew into a passion.
What is your favourite part of your job?
My favourite part is blending wines and putting our various products together. It is an intricate and creative process that not only puts all our hard work in the winery to the test, but also requires us to be commercially minded in our decisions.
What is the most important lesson you have learnt?
Stay humble, don’t believe your own press and avoid getting a cellar palate (falling in love with your own wines to the point that you become completely blind to any of their faults and shortcomings).
Tell us a bit about Rustenberg’s approach to winemaking.
We aim to make wines that express the best that Stellenbosch has to offer. Our approach is fairly modern and conventional, our wines contemporary, clean and agreeable. We don’t need a winemaker standing next to the bottle explaining the wine to the drinker.
Our primary focus is on processing fruit of the highest quality. The winery and vineyard teams work very closely, ensuring we make the right picking decisions, and the fruit arriving at the winery has already been thoroughly sorted and is of the highest quality. That way, we don’t need to fix vineyard issues in the winery. From here and throughout the winemaking process, we keep our final product in mind and treat each batch on its merits.
Why is South African wine unique?
While the majority of wine grapes are grown in a very concentrated part of the country geographically, the diversity in climate, soil, style and winemaking approaches makes South Africa a very exciting part of the world to drink wine from. We have not been typecast as being a specialist in a single varietal, as many parts of the New World wine regions have. For example, Rustenberg does not produce a Chenin Blanc or Pinotage, two grapes most synonymous with our country, but that doesn’t make us any less of a South African winery to be taken seriously.
What makes Rustenberg special?
Spanning 880 ha, Rustenberg is a sizeable property for the Stellenbosch region. The best eighth has been selected for vineyard propagation and the rest is made up of pastures, forestry and land set aside for conservation. We have a direct line of sight with False Bay and enjoy the cooling and moderating effects of being near the ocean. Our soils are incredible – mainly rich, decomposed granite and darker soils with a high loam content, which give our wines power and richness. Lastly, we have a number of different aspects, altitudes and slopes to plant on, allowing us to farm 12 different varieties of grapes.
What do you like most about this year’s Young Winemaker category, red wine?
Red wine rewards patience. We tend to release and consume our red wines too young. Letting our wines bottle-age makes them incredibly rewarding to drink, and reminds us that while we seek hedonism in modern times through increasingly instantaneous forms, some things are worth waiting for.
Do you have a favourite Rustenberg red wine?
That’s a difficult question! It’s like asking if you have a favourite child. To answer this question I need to look at the three types of wine we make. Single-site wines that don’t allow you to blend, and as a result are very expressive of their site and vintage, offer a snapshot in time and place. On the other hand, the goal of varietal wines is to express the truest varietal style possible for the region we work with, which in itself is a challenge. Lastly, we have great multi-varietal blends which offer us the freedom to create a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts.
All three of these styles can be rewarding, enjoyable and challenging to work with, but also to drink. They all invoke different feelings when you reflect on the decisions you took to produce the wine that is in your glass.
Tell us about your winning entry, the Rustenberg RM Nicholson 2015.
RM Nicholson was one of Rustenberg’s previous winemakers, a pioneer in blending wine unconventionally. This wine is a New World-style blend combining Rhône and Bordeaux varietals together (50% Shiraz, 30% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon). All of the fruit comes from the estate and the wine is aged for 15 months in 20% new French oak barriques.
The wine’s blackcurrant aromas are complemented by scents of dried herbs and notes of black pepper and spice, which is followed by a palate with serious structure (from the Bordeaux varieties) and finished off with softness from the Shiraz. The 2015 vintage is a real standout and probably the best since 2009. Definitely a vintage to put in the cellar.
And the other two which made it to the finals?
The Buzzard Kloof Syrah 2013 and 2014 were sourced from a three-block vineyard that grows on a steep south-facing slope in a ravine. Above it, steppe and jackal buzzards ride thermals that rise from the bottom of the valley. This vineyard is the last to receive direct sunshine in the mornings and the first to lose it in the afternoon. As a result, the cool climate ripens the Syrah planted on this site very late, producing a very structured and spicy wine. We age the Buzzard Kloof for 20 months in 40 to 50% new oak, and use predominantly French oak and a small amount of American oak in its production. Both 2013 and 2014 were tough, with us experiencing early autumn rain, which meant we only made a small amount of both vintages. The wine exhibits an enticing nose of pepper, violets and ripe berry fruits, which follow through to a well-structured and lengthy palate containing some fine-grained tannins.
This is the third time you have been shortlisted for the Young Winemaker of the Year Award and the second time you’ve won. What does this mean to you?
Until now, no one has won the award twice, so it’s a great accomplishment in itself and I think it dispels the slightest element of luck from how your wines are showing on the day of the judging.
What has changed since you first won the award?
Besides marrying my wife in 2015, I would say that I have grown hugely in my understanding of the various elements that make up the production of our wines, and in exploring what new projects we can work towards while still being true to our classic styles.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully still loving what I do and producing fantastic wine.
What do you do to unwind?
Apart from drinking great wine, I am fascinated by how the world’s economy, stock markets and successful multinational companies work. Studying these elements of the world around us is a great hobby and interest of mine.
Photography: Andreas Eiselen & Gareth van Nelson/HSMimages.co.za