WHEN Nitida’s award-winning winemaker Danie Keulder announced to the wine estate’s owner Bernhard Veller that he was leaving to pursue opportunities overseas, Veller was rightly concerned that he was going to struggle to find a replacement winemaker who could fill Keulder’s enormous viniculturist’s shoes. Keulder was not only named Diners Club Winemaker of the Year in 2019 for his 2017 Pinot Noir but has also produced three award-winning Nitida wines – the Golden Orb Sauvignon Blanc, the Tinkery (an experimental label) and the Grande Matriarch MCC – all of which have picked up gold medals and high praise from local and international judges and wine experts.
So Veller turned to the only winemaker he knew who would be up for the challenge, and that was Etienne Louw, who until recently has been making acclaimed wines for Altydgedacht, Groot Phesantekraal and Maastricht.
Louw started with Nitida at the beginning of August 2020 and with the ban on the sale and transportation of wine firmly in place until recently, found himself with the opportunity to do some strategic planning, something which he says “sometimes falls by the wayside during the height of production.” He also found some time to sit down and chat about his winemaking career, his philosophy on winemaking and his secret passion …
Can you tell us where you are from and where you live now
I was born and bred in Port Elizabeth, but have lived in Aurora, Durbanville for the past 11 years.
How did your interest in winemaking start?
Growing up I had no interest in going into agriculture. But my arrival in Stellenbosch changed all that. My interest in wine definitely started with consumption, not tasting and spitting! I joined the Wine Culture Society in Stellenbosch, which used to arrange visits to wineries and I became fascinated by the blend of art and science involved in the winemaking process.
Has your chemical engineering degree helped at all with winemaking?
It is not so much the chemistry that has been of assistance, since winemaking is predominantly bio-chemistry, which is not covered in the chemical engineering curriculum. Engineering gives you a good understanding of processes – from inception to completion and all the little steps in-between. But it is surprising how one’s grasp of mathematics stand you in good stead in my line of work.
Tell us about your winemaking career.
I was fortunate to be given a fair share of responsibility from very early on, and that helped me to get to know various aspects of the wine business from the get-go. I did my first harvest while I was still a final-year engineering student at Muratie. After graduating, I did two years of pyp-sleep (an Afrikaans expression for dragging winery pipes) in Durbanville and California before returning to university in 2003 to study viticulture and oenology. In 2006, I stepped into the winemaker position at Altydgedacht.
I also did a harvest in New Zealand in 2009 and in 2015 started my own wine company, The Vinoneers, with my business partner. In 2017 I added Maastricht and Groot Phesantekraal to my winemaking responsibilities. But I am extremely excited to start a new chapter at Nitida – being an estate winemaker who wants to stay in Durbanville, the opportunity was such that I could not let it pass.
What is your philosophy on winemaking?
In conversations with me, the listener will quickly realise that I am obsessed with music. One of the most memorable quotes I’ve heard was from a world-famous rock producer who said “ I love to make records that people love to hear.” I don’t believe winemaking should be a self-indulgent pursuit for the winemaker. I love to make wines that people love to drink, and it can be done without sacrificing the integrity of the wine. That is where the skill of the winemaker comes into play.
What would you consider your greatest achievement to date as a winemaker?
I love a good underdog story. My favourite was being awarded the Grand Prix trophy at the 2015 Amorim Cap Classique challenge for a 2013 Blanc de Blanc MCC.
Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or wine region?
I have tremendous respect for winemakers whose involvement in the wine industry stretches further than their own brand. I do have a special affinity for Durbanville – it has taken years to come to grips with what can stylistically be achieved here, and I find it interesting how we can be competitive on such a wide variety of cultivars and styles.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I like the versatility of my job. Although a lot of people associate winemaking with primary production, the role of the winemaker in marketing and strategic planning is becoming more and more important in a crowded marketplace.
What is your personal choice when it comes to having a glass of wine?
I love the “book-ends” of the wine world; a dry MCC on the one side, and a Noble Late Harvest on the other. I also savour a good glass of Riesling.
What is you favourite food and wine pairing?
A hot Indian curry with an ice, ice cold glass of off-dry Weisser Riesling.
What are your thoughts on the future of the SA wine industry given the recent draconian lockdown regulations?
Well, if there is one fact in life – no matter the scale of a disaster – people will always drink and they will always smoke. What this lockdown has shown us is that you need to be agile in your marketing approach in future, now more than ever. Online sales and engagement has become critically important, but I do believe people are also starved for personal interaction. The only long-term survival for any South African wine business is brand, brand, brand…
How do you feel about joining the Nitida team?
I have been going to Nitida for over 20 years and have always had a friendly relationship with Bernhard, Jacus Marais (sales and marketing manager) and the winemaking team on the farm. In recent years, my role has shifted to to management to a certain degree, so I am actually excited to get stuck in to hands-on winemaking again. After all, that is why I made the career change in my life. I am also quite familiar with the range of cultivars, so that made it a good fit. I am passionate about making wine in Durbanville and at Nitida the whole business is wine-centric. And you know what they say about change…
You are familiar with the Durbanville Wine Valley so what do you believe makes the it so special?
Being such a small wine valley compared to other regions, I do believe that Durbanville punches way above its weight. We are a small winemaking community, so we all get along well and there is good camaraderie. On a personal note, although my office is a beautiful wine farm, one has all the luxuries of city living. My wife is happy, my kids go to good schools, Tyger Valley is just down the road and yet there is a calm rural-ness to Durbanville which I have always found charming!
And what makes Nitida stand out?
Nitida’s track record speaks for itself. I am going to repeat that Nitida, as a destination, is built around the wine. A great deal of goodwill was built over the years with the customer base, so there is a strong loyalty towards the brand. I am also excited to re-visit some cultivars and styles which I have had to bid farewell to in recent ventures.
Is there something people might not know about you?
I love guitars. I have played in bands for most of my life since varsity days. I like listening to any music where the guitar features – from classical guitar to some really loud heavy metal. And I know it is not very rock and roll to admit – but I have a real soft spot for good old ’80s pop! Besides finishing the harvest and doing some straregic planning during the lockdown, I have also been using the time to play a lot – and I mean a lot – of guitar, rehearsing some new tunes and getting the guitar chops back in shape.
Now, with the resumption of wine sales, it’s time for Louw to put down his guitar and get back to what he does best – make wine for all of us to enjoy.
The Nitida competition runs until the end of September, whereby anyone ordering 12 bottles or more of Nitida wine, via the farm’s website or by emailing [email protected], will automatically be entered into a draw to win one of five fabulous prizes. For more information and full Ts and Cs, click here.