The mother vine: Meet the moms of the Breedekloof Wine Valley


File image of a wine grape harvest

CAPE TOWN - Barely an hour’s drive from Cape Town lies the picturesque Breedekloof Wine Valley, Africa’s most generous wine route and the home of Chenin Blanc, award-winning wines and the mothers who make them.

The female collective

Maritte Coetzee from Stofberg Family Vineyards (whose Mia Chenin Blanc 2016 was the garagiste trophy winner at last year’s Michelangelo Awards and the recipient of four Platter’s stars for the Maritte Chenin Blanc 2016), says: “We can be extremely proud of the current women winemakers in our industry, especially considering most of them are juggling a family along with the long working hours.

“I am fortunate to have a great support base on the farm with my husband and dad supporting me all the way (as well as my grandfather when he was around).

"When I started, it was difficult to convince the industry a woman winemaker could step up and do the same physical work as our male counterparts. Hopefully, with more successful women winemakers emerging, this perception will change.”

Annamarie van Niekerk of Botha Cellar – one of the region’s largest producer cellars – says she set her mind early in her career on success.

"The day I registered for my BSc in viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch I decided I’d not only survive in a man’s world but thrive. The wine industry, Breedekloof and Botha Cellar, in particular, welcomed me as a young woman with open arms, which was incredibly motivating.”

Karen le Roux from the boutique Kirabo Private cellar entered the family business: “I studied marketing and then I had my four children, two boys and two girls. I’ve been a winemaker since 2002. When people ask what my blood group is, I say wine.

“I’ve done all the courses, worked at Nederburg and KWV, and came from a wine farming family.

"The new generation of winemakers who are coming into the industry are brilliant and a lot of women have entered. They go overseas and harvest everywhere. It’s wonderful.

“My husband Pieter and I are both winemakers. I do the blending and he focuses on the cultivars.”

As more women enter the industry, change is apparent.

Ivy du Toit from Jason’s Hill Private Cellar, who won the Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year Award in 2003 – two years after they started producing wine – adds: “In the Breedekloof, I never felt like I was the only lady around the guys…  In this small valley all of us are friends, so the talks around dinner tables most of the time lead to vine-ing and wine-ing.”

Olifantsberg Wines’ Elizma Visser, whose elegant Rhne-style 2013 Syrah-driven Silhouette was the most popular with consumers at the 2015 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show public tastings, says: “I am fortunate enough to have experienced a lot of the old-school winemaking, which gave me a great platform.

"This is an amazing era within the South African wine industry, which inspires me to experiment, to learn and to grow as a winemaker. We have so many wonderful opportunities in the wine industry today. The women winemakers have definitely made their mark on South African wine history, with their hard work and dedication to the finer details.”

The ‘Mother Variety’

Dubbed the “Home of Chenin Blanc”, the Breedekloof’s diverse microclimate, long hanging time and slow-ripening vines favour the production of full-flavoured wines.

Maritte explains: “Chenin offers such great variety of styles and especially the older vineyards perform extremely well. Lately, the use of barrels and wild fermentation opened up a totally new world of flavours and as a winemaker, it gives us great flexibility.”

But while Chenin thrives in the Breedekloof, winemakers are enthusiastic about other cultivars too. Karen focuses exclusively on the noble red varieties.

“Our flagship wine is Petit Verdot – it does incredibly well on our farm,” Karen says. “We are thinking of making Chenin Blanc (a wooded one). Our sons’ beer – Broers Brew – is doing very well and we’ve just put whiskey into barrels, which will take five years. We prefer something different. “

Sense of belonging

More than 80 percent families in the Breedekloof have been there for at least three generations.

Maritte, whose family have been on Stofberg for six generations, says it’s about the ties that bind.

“It is very special to see my kids live and play on the farm where I grew up. A few weeks ago, my four-year-old daughter, Ma (also the name of our first wine), rode her bike for the first time at the same spot as I did. Our son, Danil is also the first boy on the farm and in my family, so living next to our parents and being able to share all of this with them is great. I grew up riding with my grandfather in his bakkie and now my kids are doing the same with their Oupa Piet and that is absolutely priceless.

"The fresh air, nature and farm-style life is something that is in our blood and I would not be able to exchange the mountain views for anything.”

Annamarie, who was promoted this year from assistant winemaker to head of white wines, worked two pressings while heavily pregnant: “That wasn’t easy, but it was also fantastic. You know you’re never alone: when you’re exhausted in the cellar and you feel your tiny baby kicking, it’s so special.”

Of fun-days and fresh air

It is an idyllic, picturesque setting in which to raise young children, Ivy says.

“We have three children and are so privileged to raise them in a farm environment, with plenty of fresh air and space. My house is a short walk from the winery so the children often stop by for a quick chat or just for a hug, which is great. During harvest time I don’t get to see them a lot, but they can walk and come visit me in the winery every evening.  Jason’s Hill is closed on Sundays, so that’s our fun day – just being a family on the farm.”

Annamarie says: “I love the peace and freedom our children have on the farm. The value system, caring for your fellow man, love of plants and animals that we’re nurturing here. Our children are able to play outside – they have the space to be children. I’m truly grateful for that.”

The Rawsonville community is a relaxed space to raise children, Elizma says. “We are blessed to be able to give them the farm life we love after all.”