STELLENBOSCH, South Africa – A light haze caresses the Helderberg Mountain, which looms behind Louis Strydom's right shoulder as he pours one of his creations into a long-stemmed crystal glass. Shade from the oversized umbrella provides much-needed relief from a challenging hot summer day in South Africa’s Cape Winelands region. The cool False Bay breeze that extends the ripening period has yet to announce its presence.
In Afrikaans, Helderberg means “clear mountain" and now, while sitting in its foothills, you understand why. The setting on the back patio at the Ernie Els Winery is spectacular, one of those life-is-good moments.
On the table in front of Strydom are a variety of wine bottles, a mid-afternoon taste testing ready to begin. It’s not unlike the scene 16 years earlier when Strydom – an award-winning winemaker – first explored the palate of his country’s top professional golfer.
When Els decided in 1999 to enter the wine business, he asked Strydom to join his project. Priority No. 1 was choosing the wine they wanted to make. Potentially, this was a problem, since Els was no wine expert. He grew up in Johannesburg, in the Highveld, a grassy plateau through South Africa’s interior. Big city. No vineyards.
“They only drink brandy and Coke there,” Strydom says with a laugh. “They don’t drink any wine.”
Els’ dad, in fact, didn’t drink alcohol at all, and didn’t allow any in the house. Els’ interest in wine only took off in the early ‘90s after he met his future wife Liesl, who grew up in Stellenbosch. But while he now enjoyed a glass, he couldn’t tell you why. And that’s what he told Strydom that day.
No worries, replied Strydom. “You don’t have to know anything about wines to know what you enjoy.”
He then set aside five bottles, each one placed inside an unmarked bottle-store paper bag. This would be a blind taste test. Strydom didn’t want anything – the grape, the color, the label -- to influence Els. The only thing that mattered was taste.
“What the hell am I tasting here?” Els asked, still feeling out of his element.
“Just tell me. Just talk to me,” responded Strydom.
Els remained unsure. These guys with the oakey and the smokey and all this, he laughed to himself.
“Listen,” he told Strydom. “I’m not gonna tell you what I’m smelling or tasting. I’m just gonna tell you what I like."
So he did. A sip from the first bottle. The second. Third. Fourth. Fifth. It was that fifth and final bottle he enjoyed the most -- a classic Bordeaux-style blend with five varietals.
Strydom then went to work.
Ernie Els Winery, Stellenbosch
A year later, the Ernie Els Signature wine was introduced, utilizing those five varietals – 62 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot, 5 percent Petit Verdot, 4 percent Cabernet Franc and 4 percent Malbec. It was an immediate success, akin to a golfer making his pro debut by winning The Open Championship. Wine Spectator gave it 93 out of 100 – no South African red wine had ever been rated that high.
Since then, the Ernie Els Signature has annually received 90-plus points for every vintage. Platter’s Wine Guide, the country’s top wine annual, has given it 5 stars on four occasions. It continues to set the tone for all of Els’ wines each year – a high-end product that consumers will appreciate and enjoy.
“I trust him – and I did trust him back then – so I knew he would come up with a good product,” Els says of Strydom. “He just wanted to see what I liked. I’m glad that first meeting went well.”
When it was released, the 2000 Signature sold for R450 in South Africa. At the current exchange rate, that’s just over $31 in U.S. dollars. If you’re a wine connoisseur, you’re probably not flinching at that price. But 16 years ago ...
“It was the most expensive wine in South Africa,” Strydom says. “And it came out of a brown paper bag.”
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