Petite but feisty, with an incredible will backed by a good measure of brain power, 31-year-old Elmarie Botes is the newest member of the Nederburg winemaking team. Responsible for its white wines, she is currently completing her first harvest for this famous Paarl winery, one of South Africa’s most pedigreed.
“I have big boots to fill, having to match and continue the immense standard in winemaking so firmly in place at Nederburg,” she explains, referring to her predecessor Natasha Boks who was intimately involved with the making of some of Nederburg’s most awarded white and dessert wines over the past five years, such as The Anchorman Chenin Blanc 2016, an interesting expression of the variety that won it a place in the 2017 Standard Bank Top 10 Chenin Blanc Challenge, as well as the title of best South African Chenin blanc priced at over ₤15 at the 2017 Decanter World Wine Awards.
Elmarie says she’s having the time of her life, despite having to work 16-hour days during harvest-time, alongside cellar-master Andrea Freeborough, red-wine maker Samuel Viljoen, as well as assistant white- and red-wine makers Chandré Petersen and Heinrich Kulsen.
“There’s nothing more exciting than seeing the first grapes come into the cellar for a new vintage of wine to be made. The anticipation is palpable. And seeing a wine evolve from soil to bottle is just incredible!
“I’m cautiously excited about what the 2018 harvest will deliver in eventual wine quality, despite challenges mainly presented by the ongoing drought. Yet, every vintage comes with its own unique set of problems requiring solutions – and that’s something I welcome. I find the uncertainty strangely invigorating. It’s literally like a thirst for discovery and knowing more.”
What does she enjoy most? “Worthwhile challenges, nature that sustains us all, and a really good wine.” It’s no wonder she fell in love with the idea of winemaking while on a cellar tour as a grade 11 learner. “My senses were instantly awakened and that was it. Then and there I decided to enrol for the BSc Viticulture and Oenology degree programme offered at Stellenbosch University.”
Elmarie, who grew up in the Cape Winelands and completed her secondary schooling at the prestigious Hoër Meisieskool Bloemhof in Stellenbosch, knew that it would be a demanding industry. But what she might lack in physical strength, she makes up in determination and drive. Her parents are her inspiration. “They worked very hard to ensure that my engineer brother and I could reach our dreams.”
After completing her studies, her journey into winemaking took off with a short harvest at Lanzerac Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, followed by stints at Groot Constantia, Steenberg, Kanonkop and Jordan as an intern.
Showing great promise, in 2011 she was chosen to complete a three-year internship with the Cape Winemakers Guild (CWG) as part of its Protégé Programme. “I was privileged to work alongside exceptional winemakers and had the opportunity to taste some remarkable local and international wines.”
The 43 Bush Pinotage is the name of the wine she made during her time as a protégé – the first wine she could call her own, and a highlight of her career thus far. “I loved making this wine! It provided me with the opportunity to handle every step of the winemaking process myself, from sampling and picking of the grapes, to receiving it in the cellar and processing it, punch-downs, bottling, and labelling. This gave me a real appreciation for the role that each and every person in the vineyard and the cellar plays in the process.”
In 2013, Elmarie embraced an opportunity to experience a harvest in France, where she assisted with making Chardonnay at Domain Pattes Loup in Courgis, Chablis. “This unforgettable experience showed me just how fascinating the process of winemaking can be. It piqued a new level of curiosity in me. While in France, I was also very fortunate to visit the world-famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy. It was fabulous – they made me feel so welcome, despite the language barrier! I’d still like to travel to the Mosel wine region in Germany, and the Rhône wine region in France, as well as experience the whole of Italy. One can never stop learning and exploring.”
She joined Fleur du Cap in Stellenbosch as assistant white-wine maker in 2013, and was appointed white-wine maker in 2016, a position she held until assuming the role of white-wine maker at Nederburg in late 2017.
Elmarie believes less is more. “I try to interfere as little as possible in the winemaking process. In my opinion, a wine needs to express its true character and terroir. And as a winemaker, I see my job as guiding the grapes to their full individual potential. When a wine is made with passion, it really shows! This means learning about each and every vineyard that provides the grapes from which wines are made, and ongoing experimentation to hone our skills and ensure wine lovers are provided with only the best in the bottle.”
Her love of wine permeates her whole life. “While you drink a glass of wine, it takes you to a specific place, at a specific time and makes you part of the story. I enjoy the way wine brings different people together, making them friends, and the way that one can pair wine with food. I consider this to be more art than science.
“I particularly enjoy working with Chenin blanc, one of South Africa’s earliest and most widely planted grape varieties, since it’s so versatile. International wine critics, writers and tastemakers have in recent years come to recognise Chenin blanc as South Africa’s calling card. I believe our country’s strongest suit is its ability to make this wine in a variety of different styles.”
Elmarie admires the females in the wine industry who went before her to forge a path and place for women winemakers in the country. “This has made it far easier for us, the next generation, to take up positions in the South African winemaking industry and make our mark.”
Over weekends one might catch a glimpse of this feisty winemaker in the gym, hiking in the mountains, laying on the beach, or catching up with friends over a good pasta and wine. Elmarie is passionate about nature and South Africa. So much so that she has set herself goals to learn to speak Xhosa fluently, and to complete her MBA in the next 10 years.
“There is so much potential in our country, but we need to work together to achieve greatness. Be brave. Be resilient. Be hungry for success.”
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