Meet the SA winemaker who's won Winemaker Of The Year – twice!

By admin
16 December 2015

He wasn't that great an agricultural student and sometimes got marks in the fifties. “You’ll have to study harder,” a lecturer said in passing back then. “My knowledge will become obvious once I’m in the industry,” came his flippant response.

Fortunately Abrie Beeslaar followed through on that comment – he’s been awarded the world’s greatest winemaker award for the second time.

The 41-year-old was chosen from 20 finalists at the International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC) in London as the International Winemaker Of The Year and also won the trophy for the best Pinotage (Kanonkop 2012).

About 5 500 products from 50 countries were entered in the competition. A South African has been named Winemaker Of The Year six times in the competition’s 46-year history and Abrie has won twice.

“The reaction has been overwhelming – letters, calls and interviews,” he says when we meet at the Paul Sauer cellar at the Kanonkop Wine Estate near Stellenbosch. “The moment I received the trophy I was so proud of South Africa,” recalls Abrie, who won the coveted award in 2008 too. “I wish the whole estate could have been there to share it with me.”

Some days Abrie gets up at 5 am to be in the cellar at 6 am to taste from up to 200 of the 4 500 casks before breakfast. PHOTO: Misha Jordaan Some days Abrie gets up at 5 am to be in the cellar at 6 am to taste from up to 200 of the 4 500 casks before breakfast. PHOTO: Misha Jordaan

The smell of must fills the air on our way to the historic cellar. This is where he creates his magic. Some days Abrie gets up at 5 am to be in the cellar at 6 am to taste from up to 200 of the 4 500 casks before breakfast to check on quality. “That’s when your senses are still clean and fresh and you get the best idea of the wine,” Abrie says. He spits out the wine between mouthfuls but the alcohol still gets absorbed. “Ag, then I take a break,” he says.

'Every bottle of wine is a reward for the hard work'

At harvest and pressing time he gets about three hours’ sleep a night. “But I like this lifestyle. Every bottle of wine is a reward for the hard work.”

Abrie became a winemaker by accident. In 1993 he wanted to study medicine at the University of Stellenbosch but wasn’t accepted. “They decided I wasn’t doctor material,” he jokes.

He did well at maths and chemistry at school and advisers at the university suggested he study agriculture because it had many of the subjects he’d need for medical studies if he applied again.

When he had to choose subjects winemaking appealed to him. The chemistry he studied to make wine is the same as that studied by engineers.

He spent five years on a four-year degree. “For the first year I acclimatised,” he says. “In my first year of agriculture I was gutted. ‘What would I do with it?’ I wondered.”

But when the winemaking bug bit in his second year he knew that was his future.

His mother, Maria (68), was initially shocked because she believed wine was unholy. “She had a fear of alcohol,” Abrie says. His dad, Alex (71), was in the refrigeration business before his retirement. “He thought it was great.”

When Abrie successfully completed his studies he joined Swartland Cellars as a winemaker and it’s here he met his wife, Jeanne (40), with whom he has son Ben (7) and daughter Emma (5). Her parents owned a nearby farm and she did the administration at the cellars.

Abrie, who was appointed cellar master at Kanonkop three years after joining Swartland Cellars, says he’s happy his children are growing up on a wine farm. “It’s a healthy environment away from the rush and close to nature. We can go walking.”

Abrie has his own wine range under the name Beeslaar.This is the third year of harvest of this Pinotage, of which he produces only 5 000 bottles at a time. They’re exported to eight countries, and sold locally to top restaurants and a handful of private clients.

Abrie's Pinotage is exported to eight countries, and sold locally to top restaurants and a handful of private clients. PHOTO: Misha Jordaan Abrie's Pinotage is exported to eight countries, and sold locally to top restaurants and a handful of private clients. PHOTO: Misha Jordaan

The biggest challenge is capturing the vintage in the bottle, getting the chemical composition right, he says. “I want to help establish Pinotage as a high-quality cultivar in the world. I think this variety is respected but not really understood.”

He wants to encourage local wine drinkers to buy a more expensive wine – costing R50 and more – at least once a week so more money can be ploughed back for the workers.

Drinking wine shouldn’t be intimidating, he says. There’s no right or wrong way of turning the glass. And yes, he puts ice in his red wine if it’s too hot. He also puts it in the fridge to cool it and to unlock the depth of the flavour.

You don’t have to always drink red wine with red meat – you can have an ice-cold Pinotage with oysters, he says. “Wine is there to enjoy.”

-- Pieter van Zyl

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