“Genius,” according to Thomas Edison, “is one per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration.” To which I would suggest: add ice, shake well and serve with a twist of lemon, just to make the whole thing relevant to a story on beverages. I am fully aware of where the “perspiration” part originates. In my case, it often stems from a situation similar to the one I’m in now: being three weeks overdue on a deadline; forgetting I had a deadline, and just basically screwing up. Welcome to my world. Where that one per cent inspiration comes from, however, is trickier. But if it is the sin qua non of genius, I figure it’s a topic worth exploring, particularly if we are talking genius of the oenophilic variety. (Actually, if you ask any winemaker they’ll tell you, straight-faced, that winemaking genius is one per cent inspiration, 99 per cent beer.)As much as I often ponder what particular disorder “inspires” an otherwise sane individual to be a writer, I also wonder what possesses a person to attempt to eke out something vaguely resembling a living by making wine. I mean, it’s pretty much a truism that if you want to make a small fortune in the wine business you’d best start off with a large one.
Dealing with the vagaries of nature, the temperamental attitude of vines (and wine writers) and the often-surreal demands of the marketing department could easily drive one to drink. But surely just buying the stuff is way easier than making it. Yet many, many people — a goodly percentage of which appear to not be bonkers (at least to start) — choose to pursue the “art” of winemaking. What inspires that choice and what, in turn, gives winemakers the inspiration to follow a certain direction? Perhaps it was a need for nutrition that inspired Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of South Africa’s Cape Peninsula region, to plant a vineyard in 1655. After all, the Dutch East India Company established a station in the area to supply fresh foodstuffs to its merchant fleet as it sailed to India and beyond. And being Dutch (and probably a beer drinker), van Riebeeck wasn’t exactly raised in a family of vignerons, so it’s not like he was inspired to carry on a family tradition. But whatever the reason, he stuck to his guns, inspiring other (initially rather sceptical) farmers to take up the cause and plant vines.
Though it certainly wasn’t part of the original mandate handed down from his superiors, van Riebeeck’s inspiration led to the establishment of one of the world’s most important wine industries.Sticking with South Africa, it may be easier to see what inspired Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University, to develop a new grape variety in 1925. Perold reasoned (not unreasonably) that crossing a high quality, difficult-to-grow strain (Pinot Noir) with a more robust variety (Cinsaut) might result in a grape that combined the best qualities of both. The new baby — Pinotage — may not quite have turned out to be a more robust yet elegant Pinot Noir (detractors, of which there are many, might claim that this is the kind of nasty mutant you end up with when you fool with Mother Nature), but it did become to South Africa what Zinfandel is to California.Okay, well so much for history; what about South African winemakers today? What’s inspiring them, and what are they ultimately striving to achieve? Luckily for me, a gaggle of them alighted in Toronto this summer, and I was fortunate enough to raise a glass or two with a few.the lure of the loire, the grapes of rhône
Name: Niël Groenewald
Occupation: WinemakerWinery: Bellingham
Region: Franschhoek Valley
“Keep it simple, let nature do its work, and never overpower fruit with wood,” says Bellingham winemaker Niël Groenewald, when asked to comment on what guides his winemaking philosophy. He cites a skilled agricultural teacher and a combined passion for art and chemistry as keys to unlocking a career in winemaking. And for inspiration?“I am very fond of two regions in France, he admits. “The Loire and the Rhône Valley. The styles of wine made in these regions have had an influence on my production techniques. I fell in love with Rhône varietals and Chenin Blanc.”[In South Africa,] Chenin Blanc was referred to as “Steen” up until the mid-1960s, when it was correctly identified. It is the most widely planted variety in South Africa, and, in the hands of someone as talented as Groenewald, it can scale impressive heights. “I am trying to show innovation, thinking out of the box and setting the benchmark for South African Chenin Blanc,” he states. “Ultimately I am striving towards complexity with a balance of elegance and texture on the palate. It is also very important for me to shift consumers’ impression of South African wines from cheap and cheerful, to wines with complexity and individuality at sustainable price points for both producer and consumer.”
The fact that his efforts have twice garnered the title of “Best Chenin Blanc in the World” in the International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC) suggests that perhaps Groenewald knows what he’s doing.
But his love of the Loire’s flagship grape is balanced by an equal reverence for the fruits of the Rhône. “I want to craft the ultimate South African blends of Rhône varietals, both red and white. I’m also looking forward to making the first Marsanne in the future, and am experimenting with co-fermenting Grenache Blanc and Shiraz as well as Roussane and Shiraz.”
When all’s said and done, Groenewald ultimately sees himself as a spokesperson for South African wines: someone who can combine the technical knowledge of producing outstanding wines from this region with the analytical, market-based intelligence that will help build “brand South Africa.”
Name: Wilhelm Pienaar
Occupation: Winemaker – RedWinery: Nederberg
“Winemaking is not just a job,” confesses Wilhelm Pienaar, “it is a passion and a lifestyle. And for me, the essence is to remain true to your intuitions while creating memorable wines that stand out for wine lovers.”
Having joined the family in October 2009, Pienaar may be a relatively new addition to the Nederburg lineup, but he’s hardly new to wine. The son of a winemaker, he never really thought of following those footsteps. That changed, however, during a stint with a Danish wine-importing firm where exposure to some of the finest wines in the world sparked an interest that soon grew into a passion. For Pienaar, inspiration came to him via the southern edge of the northern wine-producing belt.
“I am very fond of the Mediterranean basin and the wines that originate from there,” he reveals. “During my time in the south of France … I had a lot of exposure to wines from places like the Rhône, Rioja and Tuscany. But I also have a soft spot for Champagne, having made wines in this style for four years at the start of my career.”
Much like Groenewald, Pienaar admits to seeing beauty in the blend and feels that as a winemaker, the art of blending widens his palette of possibilities. “We work with various varieties in the cellar and trying new blends is an ongoing process.”
“Blending has become a positive trend,” he confirms. But he also notes that “traditional” blends (for example, those typically involving Bordeaux-based varieties) are giving way to those featuring less likely combinations, such as whites crafted from Chenin Blanc and Semillon, and reds crafted from a stew of Pinotage, Shiraz and Grenache.
A believer in what he calls “small victories” — a particularly successful experiment in blending or realizing the potential of a yet untested variety — Pienaar sees achievements happening each day he works in the cellar. When asked where he sees himself in five years’ time, he simply replies, “Still crafting wines that create a positive and enduring memory for wine lovers.” The fruits of his labours will no doubt be ours to savour.
Name: Kevin Grant
Occupation: Winemaker/ProprietorWinery: Ataraxia
Region: Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
Considering Kevin Grant’s background, a career in winemaking seems unlikely. But as he explains, there are some definite real-world advantages to knowing what he knows. “I have an honours degree in animal behaviour, which, I have to tell you, does come in pretty handy in the last hour or so of any wine show.”
In a classic case of a career becoming a hobby and a hobby becoming a career, Grant’s love of wine — particularly that made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir — led to a successful run as winemaker at several top South African estates, including the acclaimed Chardonnay/Pinot specialist Hamilton-Russell. He sums up his decision to have a go at it on his own (along with his wife and the with the support of a few friends) thusly: “For anybody mildly ambitious, being a good jockey on someone else’s horse is okay, but it’s not the ultimate. Jockeying your own thoroughbred successfully is the prize.” And so, in 2004, Grant left his old stable to jockey his own thoroughbred — the Ataraxia winery.
Though he studied winemaking in Australia, New Zealand and Oregon, it was Burgundy, France, that captured his heart and inspired his winemaking direction. “I like the ingrained lifestyle I encountered in Burgundy,” Grant explains. “I love how they integrate their lifestyle into their winemaking. It’s a part of everything you do there, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep.”
Grant chose the Hemel-en-Aarde area of the Walker Bay appellation to bring his quest for Burgundian greatness to South Africa. An admitted terroiriste, he is a firm believer in the marriage of vine to soil, and feels his role as a winemaker is more akin to that of a guide who helps form the final expression of what nature has already laid the grounds for.
“I’m always trying to get better at expressing terroir. I don’t want to enforce my own thumbprint. We are the custodians of very ancient soils, and what I’d like to get better at is expressing the dirt we have into the bottle. It’s easy to impose technological prowess — creating alchemy rather than translating what you have.”
In fact, Grant believes the future success of the entire South African wine industry ultimately rests on a better understanding of which grapes should be planted where — and sticking with the combination once you’ve discovered it. “Not everything works everywhere,” he affirms. “There’s a growing realization that to up our game we have to understand the varietals that work best within the proper regions. If Cab isn’t going to work, you have to either change varieties or move.”
As for the name Ataraxia: “It’s a term used to describe emotional tranquillity,” Grant explains, adding that it amounts to a freedom from disturbance that results in a balanced mind and constitutes the first step towards the achievement of pleasure. “It’s really about conveying the very essence of what drinking good wine does for us, and not to us, as human beings.” Now riding his own thoroughbred, Grant holds Ataraxia by the reins.
Though they come from different backgrounds and have followed different paths leading into the world of winemaking, Groenewald, Pienaar and Grant all share a vision and a passion for creating memorable wines. All three would no doubt firmly consider themselves to be New World winemakers, so it is somewhat ironic — though very fortunate — that they found their inspiration in the Old.