Category Archives: Paul Cluver Winery

Q&A with Paul Cluver Winery in Elgin, South Africa

Paul Cluver and Winemaker Andries Burger

Paul Cluver and Winemaker Andries Burger

Yesterday’s post posited the argument that wine writers should join a harvest at some point in their careers in order to better grasp the fundamentals behind the bottle. I’ve decided to take that challenge and have joined the winemaking team at Paul Cluver Winery for a short, but hopefully illuminating, two week stint over February and March.

The Cluvers pioneered winemaking in the Elgin Valley, touted as South Africa’s answer to the global call for “cool-climate” wines. A review of their line-up confirms it: they produce Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurztraminer. The family has owned the property since 1896, but came from Bremen, Germany originally. The vast farm boasts a renowned mountain biking track, and an amphitheater employed for summer concerts, in addition to commercial pear and apple orchards (and two zebras).

Prior to my arrival, Paul Cluver, managing director of the family business, answered a few questions about the farm, his best memories in 20 years at the winery, and the wines he likes to drink (other than his own Seven Flags).

Striped Donkeys or Zebras?

Striped Donkeys or Zebras?

When were the first vines planted and how have the vineyards/winery evolved since inception?

My father planted the first vineyards in 1987, and in 1990 Paul Cluver Wines became the first wines bottled as wine of origin in Elgin. We planted a wide variety of grapes in the beginning, including varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz.  Over time we have focused more on the varietals which we found we excel at: cool climate white varietals and Pinot Noir.   Our winery was founded after apartheid, so the dissolution of it did not affect our business.

How many wines do you currently produce? How did you decide on those varieties?

We produce a total of 10 wines from five different varietals.  Sauvignon blanc, two Chardonnays, three Rieslings, three Pinot Noirs, and a Gewürztraminer. Our focus is to produce the best wine we can within South Africa for each wine we make given the area we are in and what our terroir can produce.  Over the last 20 years we have started to better understand our terroir and which varietals do well here.

What are some of your best memories at the winery?

Being rated in the top ten wineries of South Africa, our winemaker joining the Cape Winemakers Guild, the release of our first Seven Flags Pinot Noir, and being recognized for our contribution to sustainable production.

Has keeping the winery a family operation been difficult?

We have an amazing family that has worked well together through the generations. Sure there have been challenges, but those challenges have helped us become better at what we do.

Has climate change impacted your region yet?

No, although it is something that we are very conscious about.

How has Elgin changed in the last decade?

The fruit industry in Elgin experienced a very negative cycle from the mid-nineties to about 2005. During this time, the wine industry took off in Elgin Valley.  Luckily, the fortunes of the fruit industry have improved in the last couple of years.

How has the South African wine industry changed in the last decade?

One of the major changes has been the fact that the world has opened up for South Africa.  This has given us the opportunity to travel and learn. Most South African winemakers end up working at least one season overseas, learning and experiencing the quality of what the world has to offer. At the same time, we have been privileged to be visited by some of the most passionate wine personalities in the world.

What excites you most about South Africa’s vinous future?

Our ability to pursue excellence without being limited by legislation like in European wine growing regions.

What frustrates you most about South Africa’s wine industry? What could be improved?

The fact that we have such a low image overseas.  I believe our wines offer exceptional quality but they are not recognized for the quality they offer.  We all need to work together to improve our image overseas.

Do you ever visit the U.S.? 

Yes.  I have been there every year for the last several years.  I usually go to the East Coast (New York, Boston, Richmond and Florida), Chicago and recently have also been to Seattle and Dallas.  I love New York City

Where do you like to go for a holiday?

My wife and I love going on safaris, although we also love travelling in general.  We have our favourites like New York, Paris and Burgundy although we also love discovering new places.

What non-S.A. wines do you like to drink?

I try to drink as many different wines from as many different places as I can in order to learn as much as possible.  My favourite areas are Burgundy, German Rieslings and Pinot Noir, and Loire wines.

 

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Should Wine Writers Join a Harvest?

 

Drew'sHandsRiesling

Cradling Riesling Grapes

The fundamental physicality and mechanics of winemaking have eluded me until now. Raised in the uniformity of America’s Midwestern suburbs, and seeking their antithesis for the last fifteen years living and working in New York City, neither locale has afforded any opportunity for immersion in vineyard life.

As a wine journalist, I’ve often wondered if it’s fair to producers of this highly romanticized elixir, to proffer opinions, particularly harsh criticism, without having learnt in situ how it’s made. I’ve studied books, and taken courses in viticulture and vinification (and earned my WSET Diploma doing so); I’ve traveled to vineyards as close to home as Long Island and far-flung as New Zealand and Namibia. The countless tank and barrel room tours, and long repasts with winemakers discussing the trials of a particularly tough vintage, have been illuminating, but knowing and doing sit on two different planes of experience. I’ve never beheld firsthand the hand-wringing over picking in the face of inclement weather, or witnessed the minutiae of decisions, as they occur, that lead to a wine’s final expression in the bottle; decisions that culminate with the consumer’s delight or dissatisfaction, and a critic’s reputation-making or -breaking score.

TrimmingRiesling

Trimming Riesling Grapes

A deeper understanding of a subject always leads to a greater appreciation of it (e.g., oft bewildering modern art, with context, can become less so), so should participation in a harvest, then, be a prerequisite for a wine writer? What about a wine critic who calculates scores? Will knowing firsthand, for example, the struggle to grow healthy, sustainable grapes, while fighting pests and a changing climate, cultivate greater compassion, forgiveness even, towards the end product, especially a wine that might otherwise be determined unremarkable? Could it abrade objectivity? Conversely, a behind the scenes experience might dispense with part of the “backstory” illusion employed as a marketing tool (sometimes genuine, sometimes deceptive), and result in a more informed, and thus critical eye at tastings.

With these questions in mind, I arrived in South Africa last Saturday, to join the team at Paul Cluver Winery in Elgin, for two weeks of harvest.

My internship at Paul Cluver Winery came about after I learned of a global search for female interns by the PIWOSA group (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa). In an effort to encourage women to explore careers in the wine industry, the member wineries accepted applicants holding either a winemaking or WSET Diploma certification. The Cluvers, including longtime winemaker Andries Burger (married into the family) selected my application, and invited me to their winery and into their homes.

AndriesBurger

Winemaker Andries Burger

Prior to departing, I emailed a few questions about the farm, the region, and South Africa in general, to Paul Cluver, the managing director of the family business. To read that interview, click here.

I hope the culmination of my time at the farm will conclude with clarity on the winemaking process, and lend a deeper respect for the people who get grapes from the vine, into a bottle, and to our tables. But as is often the case with learning, it rarely settles curiosity and questions, but rather drives deeper inquiry.

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