20 vintages and going strong at Paul Cluver
01 January 1970
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Brad Brown: Welcome back to another addition of Old Mutual Live. Great things start here, great things start now. Talking wine once again and it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome someone who is no stranger to the podcast.
We’ve had him on a few times to talk about the Cape Winemakers Guild, and the showcase and auction that has concluded, but I wanted to find out a little bit more about the man behind the Cape Winemakers Guild. He’s the Chairman at the moment. He’s also the winemaker and cellar master at the Paul Cluver Estate, Andries Burger.
Andries, welcome back onto Old Mutual Live. Nice to catch up and I hope you’re well.
Andries Burger: Thanks Brad. It’s good to be back.
BB: Andries, I wanted to chat to you just a little bit about your journey into wine and what you’re up to now and sort of your hopes and ambitions for you, personally, within the industry but let’s start, before we chat about what you’re up to now. Let’s talk about where it all began for Andries Burger. Where did your journey into wine start?
Growing up in Paarl, wine was always about
AB: Well I grew up in Paarl. My father is a medical doctor, but I grew up at home. As a child, we were allowed to have a small sip of wine with Sunday meals. So I grew up in a wine friendly home, and from there the interest started. Then when I was a teenager, whenever we entertained people my dad asked me to go and select the wines, so there was sort of an interest there.
I also had quite a strong interest in viticulture and eventually, after doing National Service I went to study in viticulture with the aim of actually specialising in viticulture but in our first year at university, we were introduced to formal wine tastings. Where we’d taste wine formally, and look at it from a more analytical point of view.
Then the penny dropped and I actually still remember, I phoned my dad and I said to him, “I’ve got good news and bad news.” He said, “What’s the good news?” I said, “I’m going to specialise in Oenology. He said, “Well, what’s the bad news?” I said, “Well the bad news is I’ll have to have chemistry up until my third year.”
At the end of the day, I managed to get through the course and, I’m a winemaker and the great thing about winemaking is that there’s an artistic side to it, but at the end of the day, it’s also science. It’s great to actually, be able to combine the two. To create something, but understanding the science behind winemaking is great.
Then I had the opportunity, as a student, to go and work at Chateau Margaux in France and sort of all those experiences, travelling overseas and making wine there. It actually adds to your career and, sort of the interest in winemaking.
Then I was fortunate enough to be asked by Doctor Cluver, who is also my father-in-law, to start up the winery here at Paul Cluver Estate, back in November 1996, so next year will be my 20th vintage year at Paul Cluver Estate.
BB: Wow, so you’ve been there a while. I want to touch on your travels a bit, and what you’ve learnt overseas, and what you’ve been able to bring back and apply here because it is often a case of you end up doing something almost in a silo, where you’re isolated but having that experience.
How much has that changed, well not necessarily changed, but impressed the way your career has moved from there? Was it a great experience and would you advise young, up and coming winemakers to go and, possibly go and work in Europe and try and gain some experience there?
Expanding your knowledge adds so much value
AB: Absolutely, you know because it just broadens your horizons, not only from a winemaking point of view, but also from a personal and a life experience point of view. You learn a lot. Not everything is applicable and a lot of the times, especially in France they will give you the answers ‘we do things like this because it’s tradition’ but I always went from the point of view ‘why did it become a tradition’, so ask why it became a tradition. Yes, a lot of things are done because it’s tradition but why did it become a tradition?
Also experiencing how they harness the differences in sight and making wines that’s absolutely unique to that region is amazing. Just by going out and tasting those vines from all the…whether they’re good or bad, they’re all part of the experience, and I think, for any young winemaker that’s definitely the way to go.
I still try to go to Burgundy as often as I can. Just go and refresh the palate because if we look at Pinot and Chardonnay, which is two of the varieties that we are quite strong in. If you want to look at benchmarks, we tend to go back to the old world. We tend to go back to Burgundy, and it’s amazing.
I’ve also travelled to Germany to look at Rieslings, and it’s amazing how that in both of those areas, where I’ve worked with people – I was fortunate enough to work with people that are passionate. Passionate not only about wine but the whole culture around wine. I think that’s just an amazing experience, so not only from a technical point of view but from a life experience point of view as well.
BB: Andries, you mentioned the things being done on tradition and it’s done because it’s always been done that way. How important is it for you, as a winemaker, to challenge the status quo and push the boundaries to try and see if you can improve what you’re doing?
Making wine is about adapting and balance
AB: You know, as a winemaker, if you’re going to stagnate and do things like you’ve done it last year. You’re going to make less quality – you’re not going to make the same quality of wine because every vintage changes and it’s about adapting the vintage conditions to your winemaking. At the end of the day, what I’m looking for in wine is balance.
As a young winemaker, when I went on my first trip overseas, I worked at Chateau Margaux. I spoke to Paul Pontallier and I said to him, “You know,” I was 21 years old at the time. I said to him, “If I go out into the industry what is the three most important things to look in a wine?” His answer was the first one, is balance, the second one is balance, and the third one is balance.
I think you can do whatever you want but at the end of the day, your wine must be balanced. If you’ve got the balance between fruit and alcohol, or fruit and acidity, you will always have a great wine, and that’s what I’m aiming for. Yes, we’ll push the boundaries in winemaking but at the end of the day, we’re looking towards a complete product that’s balanced and, I think for me, that’s my motto.
Then also, what’s really important for us here, at Paul Cluver Wines, is establishing a showcase with a distinctive uniqueness of our cool climate here, in our wines as well. That’s also quite important, so you can throw everything out the book, but you’ve got to be true to your nature and where you come from, and that is important in winemaking.
BB: Let’s talk about the Estate and Paul Cluver Wines. You’ve been there a while now. Do you, I know it’s difficult because it’s obviously family now as well, and you are involved there. But do you find that being there that long that you almost feel like you would like to maybe move on, and go somewhere else, or are you happy and this is where you’re going to be for the rest of your career?
20 vintages at one farm – an honour
AB: Well, being with family business is different. I think my wife would divorce me if I say I would like to move, but there’s no reason for me to move because here, there’s very few winemakers that gets the opportunity to work at a single estate for more than 20 vintages.
I always maintain, young winemakers – I remember Beyers Truter, when I was a student, visiting Kanonkop, when he was still a winemaker at Kanonkop. He actually gave very wise words back then. He said, “When you’re a young winemaker try and move and experience as much as possible in your first couple of years, in your new career. But when you get onto a good thing, latch on, stay there because it takes at least 10 years, before you get to know a vineyard.” Vintage conditions change.
The vineyards age, and very few winemakers actually know their vineyards very intimately. Being at the same estate for, going on 20 vintages next year, gave me the opportunity to learn the vintages, the different vintage conditions, and how those vineyards react in different situations. That actually gives you an opportunity to make even better wine, and I think that’s really important.
Challenges of the South African wine industry
BB: Andries, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing the South African wine industry right now?
AB: Well I think, obviously the energy crisis, Eskom has got a huge effect on the industry, and also getting wines out there. The industry is, we’re a small industry, but we’re slightly inward focussed. I think we should look at America. It is probably one of the most important markets to go to. There’s the article on drinks business, and I think the top four, if I remember correctly, is America, Germany, Japan, and the U.K. are the most important wine markets in the world.
Fortunately, these are the markets that we are quite strong in. Although only about 45% of our wines are exported but I do think not having a strong link with Government is problematic, and then also, unfortunately Eskom has got a huge affect on business, currently.
BB: Let’s talk about the farm that you’re on and a little bit about the history of it. Tell us, for someone who is not aware or doesn’t know too much about the Paul Cluver Estate. Tell us about how it all started and you mentioned that it’s a family farm – how far does it go back?
A pioneer in the Elgin valley
AB: Well, it actually goes back to 1896. The farm has been in the family since 1896. Doctor Cluver was the first to pioneer commercial vineyards in Elgin in the mid-80s. In the mid-80s, there was a drive towards cool climate viticulture worldwide. People moved away from California to Washington State in America, and in New Zealand they moved from the North Island to the South Island.
Then there was research done to see where this, cool climate areas in South Africa, and they came across Elgin. Unfortunately, we because of the size of my property, we had spare land, so in the late 80s we ventured into viticulture. We started planting vineyards and, as I said earlier, in 1997, we started making wine.
The farm was sort of fruit and apples. We are also now involved in making craft cider. That’s in conjunction with Bruce Jack, Cluver, and Jack Cider but at the end of the day the focus of the business is wine and then also fruits.
As my father-in-law and my brother-in-law will always say, “You never go to your neighbour at 23h00 and ask him to taste your apples, but you can sit around the table at 23h00 and ask your neighbour what do you think of my wine?”
BB: I love that. Andries, I’m going to leave it at that. If people want to come and visit, I’m sure you welcome visitors and they can come and taste some of your fantastic wines. How can they find out more about you online and that sort of thing? How can they reach out and touch base?
AB: Absolutely, everything is online at www.cluver.com and if you’re keen mountain biker, we’ve got a lot of mountain bike trails as well, and come and enjoy the wines.
BB: Fantastic. Andries, thank you so much for your time here, on Old Mutual Live. Much appreciated. We look forward to catching up again soon.
AB: No problem. Thank you very much.