Marthélize Tredoux talks to Paul Cluver Wines’ cellar master Andries Burger on 20 years at the helm of the pioneering Elgin winery his role in taking Paul Cluver to top echelon of South African wine.
I like words. I’m probably as much a word geek as I am a wine geek. I like finding new words and trying them out. I sip them, rolling them around in my mouth before I decide whether or not I want more. Like a good wine, a good word can be savoured and explored. And it can make you think. Last week, I sipped on the word ‘luminary’. It popped into my head as I was chatting to Andries Burger. Luminary. Leading light. One who has achieved success in his chosen field.
Paul Cluver Wines celebrated their 20th harvest this year, with all vintages overseen by the watchful eye of Andries, who has been cellar master since the maiden vintage. Widely acknowledged as the pioneers of winemaking in the Elgin Valley, they were the first commercial wine producer in the region.
Over the years, Paul Cluver Wines (and Andries in particular) have been guided by a number of true industry icons: Günter Brözel (former cellar master at Nederburg) had a hand in the first vineyard plantings on the estate, specifically advising on sites for Riesling and Gewürtztraminer, Burgundian producer Martin Prieur visits the estate twice a year, and the late Paul Pontallier consulted him on winemaking since Andries worked a harvest at Château Margaux in the mid-1990s, while he was still finishing his studies.
Not many winemakers spend 20 years at the same estate. There are unique advantages to completing 20 harvests with the same vineyards. For one, you gain intimate knowledge of the vineyard blocks, even to the point of knowing which block’s wine should go in which specific barrels. You learn through trial and error which varietals are successful, not just to making passable wines but rather wines that capture the essence of the region.
Mostly though, Andries has learned custodianship - that he is merely responsible for taking care of the vineyards. He mentions the French and that the great domaines come before the individuals behind them, for example, only a handful of people are able to name the winemakers at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
While it is clear that Andries is heavily influenced by Burgundy, he has a simple yet refreshing insight on comparisons: we are not in Burgundy, so we should not try to make Burgundy. A no-brainer on the surface, but a sentiment many South African producers could do well to heed. Of course certain aspects of our climate are comparable, which is why Burgundy varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grow so successfully here. That being said, understanding the nuances in the difference between the regions seems to be part of Andries’ secret to crafting world-class, yet still original and uniquely South African wines.
I say ‘secret’, but in truth, his approach is as genuine as it is philosophical. For him, truly great wines have a distinct sense of place about them; an identity expressing their origins with integrity. Inevitably, I asked him about terroir - and how he would describe Elgin’s. He tells me he believes terroir is the interaction between the soil, the climate, how the vineyard grows and how the vineyard is managed (the human influence). All these aspects come together in how terroir is expressed.
Elgin is so much more than just a cool climate region; there are valleys within valleys and the difference between day and night temperatures is noticeably bigger than other cool climate wine regions, such as the Hemel-en-Aarde. The South-Easter brings plentiful cloud cover over the area, createing a cooling effect and diminishing the amount of sunlight the vineyards receive. These are just some of the factors contributing to a naturally slow and even ripening which he believes allows the region to produce wines with elegance and a greater expression of fruit.
Nearly all the Paul Cluver wines have garnered acclaim in some shape or form; from Decanter trophies for Riesling (both the off-dry and noble late harvest) and Sauvignon Blanc to gold medals and high scores for the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewürtztraminer. It’s clear that international and local critics all recognise that there is something exceptional about this producer.
Finally, I steered the conversation to my personal obsession, asking him what his thoughts on Pinot Noir are, specifically in the context of the varietal and how South Africa is doing in terms of quality and style. He tells me that Pinot Noir is usually made in one of three ways: easy drinking, elegant or extracted. Clonal influence and climate can both play a large part in dictating which style you end up with but he notes that when it comes to Pinot Noir there should be less talk about tannins and extraction and more about purity of fruit, freshness and elegance.
By now, were sipping on his Chardonnay and I was curious about how our local Chardonnays compared to the rest of the world. He believes that 10 years ago it was easy to spot a South African Chardonnay amongst other New World examples. He thinks that even back then, our wines were far more elegant than the contemporaries and that while today the styles have grown much closer, South African Chardonnays still stand out in terms of quality and refinement.
Spending time with Andries was an enlightening, thoroughly enjoyable chat more than typical Q&A-style interview, so I ended it off with a more typical question: where do you want to see Paul Cluver in 20 years? “As one of the best producers in South Africa, and one of the best producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the world”. He believes we’re finally shrugging off the ‘step-child’ image of cheap and cheerful and that (notably, with our white blends) we are knocking on the door of the international wine world, ready to be taken serious notice of.
Luminary. Custodian. These were the words rolling around in my head as I drove home that afternoon. We have many undisputed legends of industry; winemakers associated with iconic estates: Jan Boland Coetzee and Vriesenhof, or Danie de Wet and De Wetshof - their reputations decades in the making. After two decades - and certainly with many more to come - I am convinced that Andries Burger and Paul Cluver are well on their way to carving out a venerated legacy.