“How’d he get the job? He married my sister!” laughs Paul Cluver.
It’s not exactly your typical answer to a rather ordinary question of how a winemaker was appointed at a wine farm. Then again, nothing about this evening turned out to be very ordinary. One bitterly cold Monday evening, I find myself invited for a ‘glass or two of wine’ hosted by Paul Cluver Wines. As part of an intimate group of wine enthusiasts, we cosy up on one of Publik Wine Bar’s benches alongside Paul Cluver Wines Cellar master Andries Burger and Mr. Cluver himself, as well as Paul Cluver Wines Marketing Manager Andrea Erwee, and Publik Wine Bar owner, David Cope (with his 4-month old Vizsla puppy Frida, who expresses little to no interest in the wine but a great fondness for the tapas).
After finding out that Andries is married to Paul’s sister, Paul adds: “In all seriousness, to give you perspective, Andries worked at the likes of esteemed wine farms like Thelema and Nederburg before joining Paul Cluver. He even worked a harvest at Château Margaux in the mid-1990s, while he was still finishing his studies! So my sister married well, and we were (and are) very lucky to have him,” he states.
This year marks 23 years that Andries and Paul have worked alongside each other at Paul Cluver Wines. The Elgin Valley of then and now has seen considerable change in that time. When Andries first started, Paul Cluver Wines, Oak Valley Wines and South Hill Wines were the only vineyards in the area, with Paul Cluver being the first commercial vineyard. According to Paul, wines produced with a ‘Wine of Origin Elgin’ were practically unheard of.
“For 6 or 7 years, there was nobody other than us making wine in Elgin. So being pioneers in the area, we wanted to try everything. We had Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer - we had a large varietal spectrum,” adds Andries. “Today, there are more than 30 brands coming out of the Elgin Valley.”
This should come as little surprise. As a cool climate region, Elgin offers winemakers geographical and topographical diversity, with valleys within valleys and the difference between day and night temperatures being noticeably bigger than other cool climate wine regions, such as the Hemel-en-Aarde. The famed South-Easter also delivers an air-con style effect, providing welcome cloud cover and softening the sunlight the vineyards receive. Add to this the lifting of the embargo post-Apartheid, renewed interest in the South African wine market and economic growth, and hey presto, 3 become 30.
Yet, 25 years later, the wine landscape is in a continual state of flux, with new challenges facing winemakers that require a fresh approach to stand out in the red ocean that has formed.
As it turns out, the evening did have a goal: to compare a few vintage Paul Cluver Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with some vintage Burgundy bottlings. Having studied wine business in Burgundy, I have a soft spot (although I don’t know who would turn their nose up at this level of amazing!) for Burgundy wines. Like I said, it wasn’t an ordinary night. But why did Paul, Andries and Andrea want to share such prized wines with such a small group of wine writers and sommeliers?
“Firstly, so you can enjoy the wines with us. Because why should we drink them alone? We know how great they are already! Secondly, to show you the high-quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that we are able to produce. Did you know that in the last year, there have been more Decanter awards coming out of Elgin for Chardonnay than anywhere else in South Africa?” reflects Andries.
As we sip and compare, the small group is quiet as each glass is poured, wowed by the practically heavenly level of goodness that stand up so well alongside their Burgundian counterparts. There is no doubt that Elgin can deliver on quality. However, their next challenge is to make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir synonymous with Paul Cluver Wines.
“We have always placed major focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as we know Elgin is capable of producing world-class offerings of these special varieties,” ends Paul.
And fair enough, in a world where the buzzwords of the moment include slow fashion, capsule wardrobes and mindfulness, it should come as no surprise that trends to refocus and centralise are infiltrating the winelands as well. In fact, in an industry where so many are trying to be jacks of all trades, Paul Cluver is refining their offering with the goal to be master of one (or two).