KWV South AfricaPortrait of a winemaker

Anna Caidan is in conversation with Izele Van Blerk, Mentors winemaker at KWV in South Africa.
Wine Story

What could you tell me about yourself, and the history of KWV?

‘So KWV was established in 1980, and we are more than 100 years old now, 102 to be exact. KWV was created to get rid of all the bulk wines in the South African wine industry, because it struggled to export wines and so KWV was established as this body that could actually get all the bulk wines from all over the country and then export it. The only thing we couldn’t do, as KWV, was to sell our wines in South Africa, so we had to sign a contract and say we will export all our wines, and all our brandies internationally, but we are not allowed to sell in South Africa. That changed when we changed from a cooperative to a company in 2003, so then we could start selling our wines in South Africa. We are actually very new in the South African wine industry, so there is still a lot of low hanging fruit that we can still get, because a lot of people couldn’t get KWV wines and Brandies in South Africa. The only way you could get KWV wines and Brandies in South Africa, was if you were producers or you worked for the government, or you actually worked for KWV, then you got a quota. KWV is situated in Paarl, but we export to more than 100 countries, our export market is about 65%. When I started at KWV 10 years ago, we still exporting about 95%, but it has changed a bit over the past few years, so we export 65% and 35% is for the local market, just because we don’t export a lot of our Brandies. We have one winery in Paarl which is about 24 hectares, in terms of football fields, its about 48 football fields, that’s how big the site is. At KWV we have six winemakers, responsible for different brands. We have our chief winemaker, Justin Corrans, whose been with us for several months, and then all the assistants helping us, along with three viticulturists that works just in the vineyards. We buy grapes from 54 different wine growers in the Western Cape. The Western Cape is the southern point of Africa and South Africa and is the only place we grow grapes. The nice thing about buying from the 54 growers, is that we have the opportunity to play around with different varietals, different areas, different climates. South Africa is so diverse, not just in culture and languages, but we are so diverse in soils, climate, we can produce a Shiraz the same as Barossa can, we can do a Rhone Shiraz, just because our climate is so different. If you go to the Northern side of the Country, it’s a lot hotter, you get that very ripe plums and dark cherries, but when your close to the coast, you get that more peppery spice, I always say it’s the salt and pepper of the wine. A bit about myself, I was actually a tennis player, I grew up in Paarl, went to school here, got a scholarship in De Moines, Iowa, in America, and was there for a year, and in the first three months I tore my ACL and everything in my knee, so my whole tennis career was done within three months. But I had a four-year scholarship, so they asked if I wanted to stay, so I stayed a year, before coming back. I applied to study in Stellenbosch for a BSc in Viticulture and Oenology, but first I did a bit of psychology, because I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I already had a background with wine, because my father was a Viticulturist, so I grew up with wine in the house. So, after four years of study, I did a three-month internship at KWV, in 2008, and in 2009 I started as assistant winemaker. I started by doing all the white wines, and the Mentors range, then about five years ago, we divided the cellars into three different senior winemakers so everyone can focus on their niche. So now I’m only doing Mentors focusing on the premium range and just playing around with experimenting. The Mentor cellar was created in 2006 as an experimental cellar. It’s a place where we, as winemakers, have the opportunity to play around on a small scale with all the different region’s grapes, and all the different niche varietals, trial different coopers, trial anything we want to trial as winemakers and anything that works in this small little lab of ours, we take to the bigger cellars. I love the innovation and experimentation side, pushing the boundaries, especially with niche varietals.’

How would you describe your wines in three words?

‘Elegance, integration of oak and fruit purity.

My main focus when producing these wines is the small attention to detail. I always tell the team in the cellar, always take 10 hours than 1, because we need to take our time and every single berry needs to be selected, so we focus a lot on picking dates, optimum ripeness, getting into the vineyards with the viticulturists, and its about understanding each other. I go to each block three to four times to taste the grapes to make sure we have the right picking decision and acid management. Barrel selection is very important to us, we are constantly changing our barrels to make sure we have the right one suitable for each wine varietal, this means we have to also have a great relationship with our coopers.’

How do your wines differ from those in the region?

‘Nowadays there’s a big younger generation of winemakers currently in South Africa that are driven by innovation and passion, who understand the vineyards. But what sets us apart, at KWV, is that we get grapes from all over the Western Cape, we get grapes from different regions. A lot of the winemakers in South Africa are currently getting their grapes from an estate from one region, so they know how to make really good Shiraz from Swartland or a Chenin Blanc or a Cabernet from Stellenbosch, but they don’t often have the opportunity like we do to become experts on all the regions in South Africa and all the varietals. A lot of winemakers don’t get the opportunity to work with Carménère, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Nebbiolo, but we do and have hectares dedicated to these varietals, and that makes us a bit different from other winemakers currently in South Africa.’

What are your favourite food and wine pairings?

‘I love food and wine pairings, but spicy food like a really hot Indian Curry with either a Grenache Blanc or Chenin Blanc as it's got a lot of oak, but it needs to be a bit aged. With red wines I like steak on an open fire, like a barbecue with a Bordeaux Blend style or any Bordeaux varietals like Petit Verdot, but not with a creamy sauce on it, eat the meat as it is, as it has a lot of flavour and the tannin structures of the wine is going to hold up! You can eat matured meat as well, like venison which is always good with all the red wines. Pinotage with Crème Brulée is my favourite as it has a lot of ripe fruits, but all of the wines have a different story. I'm not one of those people that drinks wine for a certain reason, I open a bottle of wine anytime of the day and I drink what I want! If I feel like Cabernet Sauvignon on a sunny afternoon, I will open it! I usually drink wine to try and understand the niche varietals.’

What is your favourite varietal to work with, and why?

‘My favourite varietal is Petit Verdot just because it's different and you don't often get it as a single bottling. In France you get it in Bordeaux but they often struggle to get it to optimum ripeness, so they don't sell it as a single varietal. But in South Africa, we have the climate and the very hot summers, so we get the Petit Verdot to optimal rightness. It is my favourite varietal, but it's also the worst to work with, just because it's got these small little berries in between the pitch blackberries and what we do in the Mentor Cellars is we will go in and say in this block I want to do morning sun side picking of or afternoon sun side picking of these rows so we do different pickings in different blocks and when the grapes arrives at winery we put it in a container so we cool it down so we don't do this sorting immediately, so when we pick grapes the next day we will tip it and then it will go on a vibrating table taking out all the leaves the green berries then it goes through the de-stemmer onto the long conveyor belt where people will sort and take out the raisins, green berries, bitter stems, snails or the protein that comes along, so we make sure only the best berries would go into the wine! On top of the tanks, we have a mobile crusher so we can adjust every single morning and we'll catch the berries in the hands to make sure we get maximum extraction without getting the harsh tannins of the seeds. If you break the seeds you get the harsh tannins. So why I said it's one of the most difficult grape varieties to work with it's because I can't even write it on the board that it's arriving in the winery because then the people don't show up for work! A normal 500 kilos of grapes takes us about 15 minutes to sort, but Petit Verdot takes 45 minutes to an hour just because the conveyor belt is so slow because we need to take out all those little green berries. I also really like Cabernet franc just because it is so diverse you get so many different styles.’

How were you affected by the global pandemic?

‘I think you probably know that we had quite a big intense lockdown. On the 26th of March we were still in harvest, the Monday before the 26th the president announced that we're going to go into a national lockdown and you won't be able to leave your house and it was very strict and it was going to be for three to four weeks and we had to apply to the government to get permission to actually go to work, because it's only the essential workers that were allowed to work. So, we actually applied but only four winemakers and six cellar assistants. So, from 70 people we were only 13 people on the whole site that were allowed so in the winery during harvest time. We got about 80 people during harvest which got down to nine people, and we had to make it work, and we had a week to get all the wines off the skins into barrels that we wanted and to get everything into the tanks make sure that all the sulphur is adjusted, and the fermentations are done as far as possible and that everything was healthy and safe. But we ran like crazy, and I must say every single one of us on the site pulled their weight, it was amazing! People were working until 12:00 o'clock at night just to make sure that everything was done. We only had one chance to produce wine and this was the only chance we weren't going to get it back, we weren't going to get the grapes back if we messed up. So it was amazing how the teams just pulled together and everyone was helping each other and then when the lockdown came I remember it was a Thursday evening so we couldn't come to work on the Friday but the Monday we came in and it was amazing what you can do when people are stressed! All the winemakers jumped in where they could adding sulphur and doing all the last things that we had to do! The white winemakers were helping red winemakers and everyone was just helping everywhere, so we actually worked through the whole pandemic the whole time after lockdown. It was difficult, it still is difficult! I think we won't recover within the next 4-5 years, there's a lot of people in South Africa that got salary cuts; companies had to make sure that they can be sustainable, and a lot of people changed their terms of payment. Fortunately for us, we are still floating! We were lucky our management executive team were exceptional! They really grabbed the bull by the horns! They actually had meetings every single day, planning how we were going to adjust to this. Fortunately for us, we were allowed to export but one of our trucks got hijacked on the way to the Harbour so they stopped exports for two weeks and then they reopened again but we weren't allowed to sell any of the wines in South Africa, so the whole of South Africa couldn't buy alcohol. So, it will take another two to three years just to recover. We have amazing CEOs they really focus on the livelihood of the workers, and not just on making money. It was really appreciated from everyone and it made us all positive and to work even harder, and that's why KWV has been around forever, as they have great leaders! There are so many companies that change leaders every three to four years and some company could go under, but a brand like KWV which is over 100 years old and I think the biggest reason for me, is the leadership and history that has been well maintained, and good quality wines!!’

And finally, what is your best memory since working at KWV?

‘Recently we won the best wine in South Africa. We don't make wine to win awards, it's really to see the consumers face enjoying the wines, but winning that award was a big deal, it was a big privilege because it's the first time ever in the history that a red wine has won the award so that was quite good for us! But travelling the world and seeing the consumers enjoying our wines is one of my highlights of my wine making career. Last year when we went to the UK at Shakespeare's globe, we launched our new vintage and our first limited edition, so we did a launch in the UK and that was the first international launch that KWV did, so that was amazing, just being there and presenting it. Working with an incredible team is amazing.’

‘Situated in the heart of Paarl in South-Africa KWV was set up as a co-operative in 1918. In 1988 KWV was converted from a co-operative to a company, which was then sold off as a private concern. Today KWV boasts a team of bright, enthusiastic winemakers producing an impressive range of wines. Special shout out for The Mentors Canvas 2018; impressive aromatic expression. The nose opens with notes of ripe black fruit, blackcurrant and blackberry, evolving on beautiful peppery notes. Revealing ampleness and great depth, the palate is stirred by the richness of the fruit and a perfectly balanced salivating mouth. A wine of great purity & elegance.’ Anna Caidan

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