Berene Sauls is putting Tesselaarsdal on the map with her wine

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TESSELAARSDAL Wines – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – have earned awards, accolades and praise since the maiden vintage (Pinot) in 2015. Whatever their personal differences, Tim Atkin and Christian Eedes both scored the 2018 94 points out of 100, while Atkin bestowed 95/100 on the 2017.

Master of Wine Greg Sherwood, who propelled the first Pinot Noir into the social media spotlight, rated the 2019 Chardonnay 93/100.

The story behind the wines is quite remarkable. It is wholly owned by Berene Sauls, single mother of two sons, who grew up in Tesselaarsdal, a village 24km north east of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Hermanus in the Overberg region (and who knows how to make an entrance, see above). The unique history of Tesselaarsdal is that it was owned by Dutch settler Johannes Tesselaar, who left his land to his freed slaves to farm when he died in 1810 – the first people of colour to have their own land in South Africa. “I’m a descendent of those slaves and my family still lives there,” says Sauls. “My grandmother used to farm with livestock – goats – and traded with Stanford, for fruit and sugar and flour from the ships.”

The route is still there, and called the Barber’s Route, on account of him living in Tesselaarsdaal and going over the mountain on the weekends, down to Stanford to cut hair.

“On this route is a big flat rock. My grandma, she used to drink a lot – the whole community did – so my mother would tell me when I was little, they walked an hour to Stanford but they walked about two and a half hours back,” laughs Sauls. “They would rest at that rock, then they played dominoes and waited to sober up. The rock was called Die Rusklip.”

Sauls’s history and heritage is depicted on the labels of her wines, drawn from photographs she took. “That’s all on the label, and I inserted my grandmother and mother walking over the mountain,” she says. “The Anglican church is still there, and the oak tree below mother’s house, and the Groenewald’s warehouse – you see it when drive through the village to the Hermanus side.”

After matriculating in 2000, Sauls took up a position as au pair to Anthony Hamilton Russell’s – of Hamilton Russell Vineyards – four daughters the following year. It was a three-month contract but after one, it was clear things weren’t working out. Hamilton Russell saw Sauls’s potential, however, and suggested she assist the marketing manageress in the office. “He didn’t really know what to do with me,” says Sauls.

There, her curiosity prompted her to wonder why the wines were so expensive, and why people would pay those kinds of prices.

“I come from a beer drinking background – and Oom Tas, mos throw away wine – which cost R5 or R10 a beverage. I was intrigued,” says Sauls. “Anthony said ask the winemaker – at the time it was Kevin Grant – and the vineyard manager but it was March and the harvest had passed.

“I thought I’d just make myself very useful so I started operating the fork lift, helping with bottling, admin…in that year I worked all the departments and when the tasting room manager quit, I went in there. Then I assisted with wine shows, and logistics for export. Later I did a few courses through Cape Wine Academy to get an idea of wine. Anthony included me in all the tastings and whatnot but some of the comparisons with certain fruits I wasn’t familiar with. I did everything not to look stupid.”

All because of one question.

In 2003, Wines of South Africa (WOSA) allowed farms to nominate a POC to attend an international wine and spirits fair in the UK. Hamilton Russell nominated Sauls, she got picked, and made her first international trip to London.  “It was an eye opener for me! There were a lot of producers, probably the biggest show I’ve ever seen in my life. That was amazing to see,” she says.

Finally, in 2014 when Hamilton Russell saw she could grow no further in the company, he suggested she get together with current winemaker Emul Ross and do a barrel in the cellar. She would have to source her own grapes, and register her business but she did get the use of a farm building for her liquor licence, and Hamilton Russell fronted the startup costs. “Are you up for it?” he asked.

For that first vintage, Sauls, Ross and two others, picked their own grapes from La Vierge. “We were all so stoked and excited, but it had been a long time since I’d picked,” says Sauls. “We thought 90 crates, start at half past five, finish by seven…I had no hat. 12 o’clock came, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock – and we were only at 45 crates!” she laughs.

“Emul is the brain and the mastermind; I do the stomping in the tank, I get the crates there, arrange transport, clean the equipment. What was special is that Emul doesn’t get paid, he does this for the love of the game,” says Sauls. “He basically takes me through the process, and his personality shows in the wine: he’s very patient and explains in detail and you don’t feel stupid.”

Sauls showed her 2015 Pinot Noir to the Hemel-en-Aarde Wine Growers Association, which does a Pinot Noir celebration every year. “Greg Sherwood posted on social media and by the afternoon I was inundated with emails,” she recalls.

“It was a very proud, surreal moment which impacted and changed my life in so many ways,” she says. “It’s a legacy for my sons; it’s more than a brand, it’s our livelihood.”

As if this isn’t fabulous enough up till this point, five vintages into the Pinot Noir, Sauls added the Chardonnay in 2019. Her wines are listed at restaurants like La Colombe, La Petite Colombe, The Test Kitchen and Overture. They can be bought through Port 2 Port and other online portals. All this while maintaining a full time day job at Hamilton Russell in logistics and operations.

Hamilton Russell Vineyards

Sauls saved all the monies generated from her wines sales, as well as the cash prizes garnered from Department of Agriculture competitions, added them to the funding she applied for in 2018 – and bought 16.6 hectares of land in Tesselaarsdal. “It’s bare land. I had no personal assets, and the business had no assets other than barrels, so I couldn’t get a loan,” she explains. The purchase of the land fulfils a dream Sauls has had since beginning her business.

Farming isn’t for sissies. The first borehole was empty, and the second hit water at 126 metres – “the money ran out at 120m!” says Sauls. “I almost did the woman thing and cried on the phone but I knew that wouldn’t work. We found water and while I was dancing under it, this guy who operated the thing said wait, taste it – salty.”

Various experts were called in, and soil analysis has to be done as well; there are ways and means to make this work – the water is actually better than the municipal supply. For now, Sauls will plant a hectare each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. If, after three years, the grapes are not of high enough quality, at least it’s not such a big loss, she reasons.

In the five year plan are a small cellar, tasting room and open storage area. “And behind, that my residential house,” smiles Sauls.

To answer Anthony Hamilton Russell’s question from so long ago: yes, Berene Sauls is most definitely up for it.

For more information, click here.

PHOTO CREDIT: BIANCA COLEMAN ©

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