I thought it was time to pay this artisanal winery in the Jonkershoek Valley, near Stellenbosch, a visit. And what a pleasant and enlightening experience it turned out to be. Sitting out there on the deck overlooking the beautiful Oude Nektar farm and its undulating vineyards, chatting with winemaker José Conde, I once again realised: every winery in the Cape has its own charming story, every winemaker his or her own inimitable personality!
Conde, of course, is not your conventional winemaker. In fact, he is quick to point out that he has no formal training. To which he adds: “I remember standing on the corner of 8th Street and Broadway in Manhattan 20 years ago, thinking that I was standing in the centre of the world. If you had told me that 20 years on I would be a winemaker in Stellenbosch, I would have thought you were nuts – besides, I had never even heard of Stellenbosch!”
Casting his eyes over the Oude Nektar vineyards, he recalls: “I started here, in a rundown farm shed, de-stemming and crushing the grapes by hand and pressing them by foot, using a makeshift press. That wine went on to win a Platter five-star, a trophy for best cabernet in the Trophy Wine Show, scored 92 points in Wine Spectator and was named one of the top 20 wines of the year by Oz Clarke.”
Asked what he enjoys most about winemaking, Conde’s reply is enthusiastic: “It never ceases to fascinate me that you can take fresh grapes and crush them and, with little other intervention, a week later you will have wine. But I also like the fact that it encompasses many fields. It requires a lot of practical skills, on one hand, but is also intellectually demanding. Besides the actual winemaking, it involves farming, marketing and business skills. It is not for the timid!”
According to Conde, the best winemaker advice he ever received came from David Trafford of De Trafford Wines: “Keep it simple.” He expands: “With good grapes, wine will make itself - all you need to do is coax it into the bottle. I have also learned over the years that there is seldom one answer to a winemaking issue. If you ask 100 winemakers for their opinion, you will get 105 answers. It is most important to have a good idea of what is right for your vineyards.”
Talking about the highlights in his career, Conde says: “Let’s face it, I love it when people tell me that my wine was the best they ever drank.”
What does Conde regard as the secret behind Stark-Condé’s success? “I think we have a very hard-working and dedicated team. Our viticulturist planted every vine on the farm from the beginning. You can’t make wine on your own. I may be the face of the wine but making wine always involves a good team.”
CONDE IN A NUTSHELL
Why did you decide to become a winemaker? Becoming a winemaker was one of those things that crept up on me but later, looking back, seemed inevitable. I was an avid wine drinker as a student and young professional but it never occurred to me that it could be a career. After marrying someone whose family was involved in the wine trade, I started getting even more interested in wine, drinking it more regularly and even studying a bit. I am the type of person who is never satisfied and, after I came to South Africa and started to market wine, I very soon started to think that it would be interesting to try making wine.
Highlights in your career? I love it when people tell me that my wine was the best they ever drank and that has happened on numerous occasions.
Your favourite pastimes/hobbies? I am a pretty avid reader and a sucker for stupid comedies.