It’s a magnificent autumn day in the Cape winelands. The vineyards are gilded in burnt orange, rusted leaves and golden brown hues, but I’m struggling to fully enjoy the moment. It shouldn’t be this warm. It hasn’t rained for weeks and the Cape is in the grips of a severe drought. Still, the vines and I guiltily bask in the sun’s mild rays – awaiting Murray Barlow.
He arrives for lunch armed with a bottle of Rustenberg Five Soldiers Chardonnay and the Buzzard Kloof Syrah. Immediately commenting on the spectacular weather, he quickly adds that “when a farmer stops complaining, it’s time to start worrying.” Right then, I know that today’s winemaker lunch, a tradition I started over 12 years ago (making this the 74th), is going to be a good one.
Rustenberg, a quintessentially Stellenbosch family-run farm, was founded in 1682. With wine having been bottled here since 1892, its unbroken 125 years of continuous vintages is unmatched by any other producer in South Africa. It’s one of Mzansi’s unequivocal ‘first growths’.
Having long been revered in SA wine circles, Rustenberg underwent a renaissance of sorts at the turn of the new millennium. Simon Barlow, who had been running the farm since 1987, felt it was time to involve his son Murray upon his return from completing his Masters in Oenology at The University of Adelaide in 2011. Murray was more than ready to take the helm in reimagining Rustenberg’s marketing and overseeing winemaking, while Simon continues to focus on the substantial 110 hectares of vineyards.
The success of this revitalisation has been significant, with the youngest Barlow progeny having gone on to win the coveted Diners Club title of Young Winemaker of the Year not once, but twice (in 2013 and again in 2016).
Savouring the last drops of delicious Chardonnay late into the afternoon, I ask Murray about his winemaking philosophy, the estate he now co-champions and what he sees for its future.
What do you enjoy most about winemaking? It’s an incredibly rewarding job that brings together such a diverse range of skills and tasks. I love that I have to use my hands, my brain, and my sense of taste and smell to get the job done. I love that it combines blue collar and white collar aspects into one role that’s at once pushing toward innovation and yet also leaning on centuries of tradition.
Your winemaking philosophy? My philosophy and Rustenberg’s philosophy is very much the same – we focus on the estate being bigger than any individual. Together, we want to create classic wines that speak about where they’re made and are varietally correct and stylistically true.
What do you regard as the main secrets behind Rustenberg’s success? I think the fact that we’re family-owned plays a huge part in our story. It means that we’re able to take a long-term view on success.
What makes Rustenberg’s terroir special? This is an incredible property to grow wine on. It overlooks False Bay, so we have the influence of the ocean. It’s got an amazing range of slopes – facing south, north and west, enabling us to successfully plant and grow so many varieties. We also have a lot of pristine water that comes from the mountainside and, on top of all that, decomposed granite soils that are perfect for growing wine.
What do you perceive as some of the current opportunities in the South African wine industry? I’m excited about seeing more of Africa drinking wine. It’s happening slowly with the rising middle-class, I suspect it could really take off in the future. I look forward to one day exporting only to Africa.
And its greatest challenges? Our industry faces so many challenges. I think transformation is front and center the biggest. We need to transform the wine industry to be more inclusive.
Grape growers are also not being paid enough. Big companies are really hurting them and putting them out of business.
The leafroll virus is another big challenge. I don’t think we talk about it enough – we need to spend more time and money replanting vineyards and preventing it from spreading.
What do you envisage for the future of Rustenberg? We prefer to keep things understated. Although it’s our intention to keep innovating, our priority is to continue to strengthen the established relationships we have with our agents and customers all around the world.
Your favourite wines - to make and drink? I love making (and drinking) all kinds of wine. I love the diversity within wine, but I have a particularly soft spot for Chardonnay, fortified dessert wines and Grenache.
Reflecting on our time together, it would seem to me that Murray, the farm he was raised on, and the wine they together produce, is unquestionably, the real deal.