Winemaker of the (past) year

As I grumpily wake up from what passes for year-end festivities (actually that’s unfair – I’ve drunk well, in good company, but that’s all something of a blur), I wonder if, before 2015 entirely slips from sight, could I nominate a Winemaker of the (past) Year? I’ve avoided listing my favourite wines of the year and still have in mind something about favourite vineyard visits of the year, so let me indulge myself here.

Not that I couldn’t find others equally deserving of the title – it’s a capricious venture, and who wants to give more kudos to the likes of Eben Sadie and Andrea Mullineux? Well, I wouldn’t mind, but let’s find someone else. Last year, I remember, I named a grape variety of the year, just for a change. Syrah it was, and syrah I reckon it would have to be again in 2015, so let me revert to the maker of a few brilliant syrahs, and only one of them comes from the Swartland.

Rudiger_gretschelTa-dah! Rudiger Gretschel! Is that a name that has you saying – huh? Rudiger Who? Well, isn’t it nice that it’s not all about hype and relentless publicity?

Rudiger is the chief winemaker for wine company Vinimark, and therefore has a lot to do with the wines of Robertson Winery, for example, in a way that perhaps wouldn’t interest the likes of you and me very much (though we would care more about the wines of Vinimark-owned Krone). But Reyneke, the Stellenbosch farm biodynamically farmed by the truly estimable Johan Reyneke and where Vinimark has an interest in the brand, not the farm) is another matter entirely, and for the past five years Rudiger has been making the wines and has taken them to the highest level. (I’ve stolen the pic of him from Jamie Goode’s

This evening I’ve been sipping very happily at the Reserve White 2013, the superbly elegant oaked sauvignon blanc that combines austere grandeur with lingering deliciousness, just to remind me of the validity of my esteem. The Reserve Red – now made entirely from syrah – is a wine that is at least as fine. (It was, though, the very good, extraordinary value Syrah which got five stars from Platter this year – but that says more about the methodology that Platter uses to award its highest accolades than the relative merits of the wines).

Rudiger has made another syrah for the past few vintages, with the same non-interventionist restraint and superb technical control that characterises his work at Reyneke: the Heritage Syrah of Leeuwenkuil, from the slopes of the Riebeekberg in the Swartland (which will soon, surely, be fully acknowledged as one of the Cape’s great syrah terroirs, as expressed in wines from Mullineux, Boekenhoutskloof and, hopefully, Anthonij Rupert too). Alert Roland Peens, of the dynamic Wine Cellars in cape Town, named the 2012 vintage of this wine as his wine of the year for 2014, but I think the 2013 vintage is much better – it’s a great wine, worthy to stand alongside the likes of Porseleinberg, the Mullineux single-soil syrahs – and Reyneke.

I must say that the first wine I had of Rudiger Gretschel left me disappointed – it was, many years back, a solo effort that that he put together when he was chief winemaker at Boekenhoutskloof, and it was altogether trying too hard to impress. But now, if Rudiger is one of the least-known of the winemakers that are helping to make the Cape wine revolution the triumph it is, he is also one of its brightest stars – if you know where to look in the firmament to see the glow. Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof has always told me of Rudiger’s great intellectual gifts, and his technical mastery. But there’s more than that involved in these wines from Reyneke and Leeuwenkuil – there’s the restraint and modesty and vision, as well as the skill, that’s needed to express something greater and more enduring than mere winemaking skills can achieve. The best winemakers know how to defer to the soil, and Rudiger is undoubtedly one of the best.

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