This is the first installment of the Meridian Prime Winemaker Series. Before the end of the year, we will introduce you to each of the winemakers that we have the honor of representing. For our first interview we chose Nico Grobler, the winemaker from Eikendal Vineyards in Stellenbosch and the mind behind La Brune Pinot Noir from Elgin. Eikendal has been the foundation of our portfolio since day 1 and I couldn’t imagine starting this series with anyone else. Nico, at 33, a baby by winemaker standards, is already crafting some of South Africa’s finest wines. More than that, he is a wonderful father, husband, and friend. Enjoy!
Sam Timberg (ST): How old are you?
Nico Grobler (NG): It depends, when I’m making wine I’m a strong 19 year old, playing with my 5 year old and 1 year old daughters? Well let’s just say I feel a bit older than 33 that I am. They just have so much energy!
ST: Where did you grow up?
NG: I grew up in the Mpummalanga province in South Africa. We were normal farmers in that area -corn, livestock etc. So growing something, smelling fresh ploughed soil, feeling terroir, working with what is given to you from above is in my blood.
ST: Did you study winemaking or viticulture and how did that decision influence your approach to making wine?
NG: I studied Law to begin with…yes…law…was pretty good at law school…I would’ve made a pretty cool Will Gardner. But, I have the need to create something from the land, so it was a pretty easy move from studying law at the University of Stellenbosch to studying viticulture and winemaking. I ended up getting an MSc in viticulture. For me, making wine is a simple approach, if you want to become a great winemaker you need to grow your own grapes and you need to learn how to shape flavours in your vineyards according to your terroir. To do that you have to have a great understanding of how the physiology of how the vine works and how to use these processes to create the flavours you want. Viticulture is the science. Winemaking is the philosophy, it’s what you feel in your veins. The key is to adapt the philosophy to the science. Not the other way around. Viticulture for me is technical, all about timing, using light at just the correct time etc., winemaking is having processes in place to preserve those flavours you created in the vineyard.
ST: How did you first come to Eikendal? What year?
NG: I did my practical as a student in my final year at university at Eikendal. That was 2005. I started in 2006 as assistant winemaker and took over the winemaking and viticulture seat in 2009. In the middle of 2015 I became the Cellar Master of Eikendal. I also overlook the business side as well, which I quite enjoy.
ST: What is your approach to making wines at Eikendal?
NG: Great wines are created from a lot of small complexities. So, keep it natural, keep it simple, if you do something with the wine it needs to make sense. The best winemaker is the one who does the least. It is all about allowing the terroir do the talking.
ST: What is your favorite varietal to work with? What is your least favorite?
NG: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are on top of my list. I do enjoy producing Bordeaux Cultivars, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are all about terroir and what is in your veins. I WILL NEVER EVER PRODUCE CHENIN BLANC!
ST: When people talk about Eikendal Wines in 15 years what do you want them to say?
ST: Tell me about La Brune - what inspired this project?
NG: I have been privileged enough to travel the world but specifically to Burgundy numerous times. I have made a very good friend and mentor named Bruno Lorenzon who is a producer in Mercurey a small village. I fell in love with the philosophy of Burgundy - elegance, finesse, purity, freshness, tightness and length. And, there is only one wine you can do that with and that is Pinot Noir. Bruno planted the seed in my mind that every winemaker needs to have a ‘secret’ wine, the wine that is just his and no one else’s. It keeps you creative, inspired and it fills your veins with passion. I am lucky enough that Eikendal has an understanding towards that and allowed me to pursue my passion off making Pinot Noir.
ST: Why did you choose Elgin for La Brune?
NG: Simple answer – Terrior. Elgin is cool climate, has long slow ripening, and great soil which is perfect for Pinot Noir.
ST: What wine are you most proud of?
NG: That’s like asking me to pick between my kids! Every wine at Eikendal has a story to tell and that includes La Brune. My challenge is to produce wines that tell the story of the terroir. I am proud when I manage to install that into the wines that I produce.
ST: On your Chardonnay you use a portion of bush vines - I’ve never seen that before. Why did you make that decision and what does it add to your wine?
NG: Going back to the land, it is the most natural way of growing a vine. It will show terroir and terroir only, diffused sunlight into the canopy, low growth and small yield with NO irrigation.
ST: How has climate change affected the vines at Eikendal?
NG: We have experienced how gutsy our vines are. We are very technical about irrigation and have been preparing our vines for several years to adapt to receiving less water. 2016 has been the driest vintage on record. It is also the least we have irrigated and our vines were in superb condition.
ST: Who is your mentor?
NG: I am lucky to know Bruno, he has played and is still playing a big part in my winemaking philosophy and career. My wife, who is the actual La Brune, plays a big part as well, she needs to listen to all my moans and groans but we also get to share those special little moments in wine.
ST: If you weren’t making wine what would you do? -ST
NG: I would’ve won more green jackets than Jordan Spieth!