Legend of SA wine – Beyers Truter
Like Abraham Izak Perold who created Pinotage, Beyers Truter is synonymous with the grape thanks to his pioneering contributions in focusing the world’s attention on the variety. He came to prominence at Kanonkop before establishing Beyerskloof.
On the early days
Beyers would have studied medicine but diverted to wine.
“I started at Kanonkop when I think I was 25-years-old. Prior to that I’d been at the Soft Fruit Board; I had to work off a study loan. Straight after, I got work at Kanonkop, so I was young when I started there.
“Esme and I lived in town in an apartment near Dorp Street. At one of the café’s, I went to buy bread and I bumped into a colleague. He asked if I would be interested in the work at Kanonkop because he felt he didn’t have enough experience. I said I have no experience, but I needed to do something!
“I had always wanted the job at Kanonkop. I asked him to pass on my interest. The next day I was sitting at my little desk at the Soft Fruit Board, looking out at Table Mountain and I get this call from Oom Jannie [Krige]. He said if I’m available for an interview that same night at nine o’clock, he’d pick me up. That’s where it started.”
Beyers found himself drawn into an enterprise famous for its legendary winemakers. His predecessor was Jan Boland Coetzee; his, successor, Abrie Beeslaar.
“The soil draws the people that fit with it. I think Jan is absolutely an earthy person, and Abrie too. He’s a wonderful winemaker, but a guy must have both feet on the ground and its fantastic to know people like that. You can say the same for Neil Ellis, Duimpie, Etienne le Riche. There are many of them.”
On the rise of Beyerskloof
Ever since 1991 when he’d started at Kanonkop, Beyers had thought of his own vineyard. In fact, he’d planted the first grapes at Beyerskloof in 1988 already.
When the Truters purchased the Beyerskloof property – 7.4ha at the time – it cost R250 000.
“At today’s cost, you will have to pay a lot more because smallholdings are more in demand today. People want little parcels of land and want to make unique wines.
“I often think about the good times, and all the hard times too; who did it with me: my wife, Esme, who isn’t with us anymore. I would have liked her to see where we are.”
When I was at Kanonkop, and when I started this small farm, it’s difficult for owners to tell you just do what you want. They allowed me, but said: try just to move a little away from Pinotage. I planted a bit of Cabernet and Merlot, a field blend that we’ve had on the market for years. They said, leave the Pinotage; just do this. But they knew me. At Eersterivier Cellar I bought a 9 000-litre tank and exported it to England, because I thought it was far enough from South Africa and no-one would know that I’ve made a Beyerskloof Pinotage. The first year, Esme did the books and when I looked at the wine sales, she said I had a loss of R7 000. I tried it again the next year, only to lose R12 000.
“She was pretty angry with me. I said, let’s just stay calm because…you know what a loss leader is? This is a loss leader. Eventually I offered Kanonkop shares in Beyerskloof, which got them thinking about their own Pinotage. We eventually sold a tremendous amount, but the price was around R25, if that much.”
He tells the story of his first planting at Beyerskloof.
“You’ll see photographs of an Easter weekend where I stood on this piece of land, where the winery stands today. With me is Kevin Arnold of Waterford. Kevin arrived with a bottle of sparkling wine. It was easter Monday and he knew I was still harvesting. But they were the only grapes I could get. He brought me a bottle to celebrate the first harvest. People like Wynand Retief of Van Loveren arranged my first press. The late Sakkie Kotze of Distell, who worked at Uitkyk, sold me Rototanks at a very reasonable price. Arthur Stevens who had engineering works in town, sold all the steel for this store for just R15 000. I put it together with nothing, but it was all contributed by the industry.
“We now have almost 200ha of which 150 is under vine and 75% is Pinotage. We’re concentrating absolutely on Pinotage. We have other red varieties, such as Cabernet, Merlot, Cinsault, Pinot noir and Syrah. We have blends we do, but we concentrate on Pinotage and Pinotage blends.”
On making wine
“The question I get most is what makes a good wine and there are two things: soil and climate. Both are God-given things. If you understand that, then your life should always be the same. Likewise, we go through high points and low points, but you should always be the same to people.”
On Pinotage royalty
The title King of Pinotage was given to him by wine writers, he thinks.
“When I first heard it, I thought it’s wrong. Maybe it’s because I started the Pinotage Association in 1995 and because I’ve had a passion for Pinotage since I started working with it. Or maybe because we won the International Wine and Spirit award in 1995 with a Pinotage.
“But, there are many kings and princes of Pinotage. I can name them all. There are people like Frans Malan. Oom Frans was a campaigner for Pinotage; and, there’s Abraham Izak Perold too. Many people who fight for it every day, who put in hours and hours.”
Regions will always be biting at each other. It’s not a bad thing because it brings competition and allows everyone to improve. If I tell you today, wow, I’ve made the best wine – I strive every day, even though I’m not the winemaker anymore. Anri my son is the winemaker, since 2007. I still strive with him to make the best wine. I think a winemaker will never be the best or make the best wine, although Stellenbosch is the best region!”
“Terroir is one of those terms many people see and hear about, but don’t know what it is. It’s about where you are, to know where you are, and know what’s going on and where you’re on your way to.
“When it comes to the young winemakers, it makes me excited that they know where they are, what’s going on around them and where they’re headed. They’re not afraid to let the area’s character emerge in the wines.
“In the old days, there was a specific style, and everyone tried to keep to it. I see it in Pinotage these days. The area’s character really comes out. Winemakers aren’t afraid of fynbos character or pinot noir character in cooler areas.”
“I think that it’s easy to go overboard with things, like chemistry, although you must know your chemistry. You can go overboard with terroir, to explain how you make wine in the must natural way. It’s almost like a magical cloud from which the winemaker emerges. But hard work is also part of it, along with passion.
“If you don’t have passion, then winemaking doesn’t work.”
Beyers often experimented as a winemaker. A few of those experiments stand out for him as having been defining.
“After I arrived at Kanonkop, I went back to my university books to read up about extraction of colour and flavour. The process changed completely at Kanonkop. The temperature was always around 25 degrees Celsius on the skins, but every two hours I would punch down continuously for 24 hours. Towards the end, we’d do it a little less because there was a lot more alcohol that helped with the extraction process and more tannin.
“That was one of the things I changed with Pinotage. I just felt, I’d read up. The first 72 hours, if you punch down every two hours, just for a quarter of an hour, then you extract the best tannin.
“The other thing was malic acid. Our wines, especially Pinotage, have a lot of malic acids. In South Africa we add acid because we have a lot of sunlight. Overseas they add sugar. I asked Prof Joel van Wyk about it and he reminded me that he’d taught it to us and of the formula. I worked it out and applied it on three 20 000 litre tanks at Kanonkop – adding acid. It turned out perfectly.
“I realised how important those formulae are. It had an enormous effect on my own winemaking, and I think, the industry too.”
On Kanonkop and rugby
“[When I arrived] Kanonkop basically had Cabernet. I made the first Paul Sauer. Jan [Boland] had also planted a block. But I planted the first commercial one for the bottle.
“At the time, Pinotage seemed like black sheep to me. People in the western cape, people drank it, but under the table. I started working on it to give it a little more wood after I’d tasted a wine by Frans Malan. That put me on the Pinotage road. I knew the history about Professor Abraham Izak Perold crossed it in the 1920s and CP de Waal’s making in 1941 of the first wine at Elsenburg in new oak barrels. That’s as it stands in the history books.
“Rugby also played a role in Pinotage. Paul Sauer played front row for Western Province. CP de Waal played centre for the team, and PK Morkel was the Springbok wing. The story goes that they had a pinotage instead of beer after a practice game. It was CP’s wine from Uiterwyk, from one of the oldest blocks of Pinotage that still stands across those three farms.”
On inspiring people
“Prof Joel van Wyk taught me a lot, as did my other professors. There are the late Profs Goussard and Archer, and Jan Boland Coetzee; Jeff Wedgewood from Farmer’s Winery. There are guys like Neil Ellis, Kevin Arnold…Old Kevvie and I were neighbours. He started at Delheim in 1980. A year later than me. We spent a lot of time together. I’ve learnt a lot from Jannie Engelbrecht. There’s also Etienne le Riche and De Wet Viljoen, and many others. My brother Riaan also had an incredible influence on my life. He’s a guy that gets you fired up…
And I haven’t even started talking about farmworkers and agriculturists like Frikkie Elias, who was the real winemaker. On that day when I opened the door at Kanonkop, I was too scared. He said don’t worry, I know this cellar beginning to end. Even if you don’t know anything, I’ll take you around and we’ll make wine together. Then, there are the people here and the people who sell my wine, Jacques and people in the cellar, like Pastoor. There are so many that have built into your life. They are the people who wash my clothes, who ask about my brother’s health and offer to pray for him. These are people you can’t live without. The Beyers that is here, is built of 200 people who’ve added bits.
On the wine that God made
A few years ago, illness kept Beyers at home for months at a time. It was so bad that a couple of vintages spent 29 months in barrel. Friends jumped in to complete the harvests. To Beyers, it meant that God was telling him something about his pace of life.
“We still bottled the wine, but some time later I was telling this story at a wine evening at the KKNK festival. There was a man, I think as old as me, who put up his hand and asked: ‘Boetie, that wine that God made, how much is it?’
At that time, the wine was around R125, and he said, “No, no. The one you made yourself. The other one!” It cost around R20/bottle at the time. He said: “Me and the tannie take a little sip every evening, so give me two cases!”
Beyers entered local politics for a time.
“I started the Tractor Party! We beat the ANC and what was the NP at the time. We partied until six in the morning at the farmer’s association… it was good to get workers and farmers together.”
On Beyerskloof’s logo
Beyers’ late wife, Esme, came up with the leaf design on the label.
“After two years I said to her: do you realise that it’s a Cabernet leaf? I’d also realised it for the first time, but she said: How should I have known? I know nothing about wine. She had taken a leaf and pressed it and that’s from the leaf that she sketched.”
“The real highlight is that my son and daughter Anri and Corné are in the business with me. The other things aren’t really relevant.
Anri is the Beyerskloof winemaker and started in 2007. “The other day I was counting how long it was, and he said: the first five years I listen to dad, the second five we work together, and thereafter dad listens to me!
“You know me, I want to do everything. There’s a lot I still want to do. I’m an experimental winemaker. Many of the stories around the wines, such as Faith; like Trail Dust, like Louis L’Amour….; Diesel, my dog that died, which I also cried a lot about. When I’m finished crying, I sit down and write two pages. If I have a speech to make, then I’ll sit at four in the morning and quickly write 10 pages.
Beyers has even written a song, the Pinotage song that is sung by Koos Kombuis.
“Koos added other words, which makes it feel a little boastful to say. But it’s not me, it’s Koos who sings it.”
On the future
“We’ve acquired a new farm called Kriekbult, which I farmed when I was at Kanonkop, 1981 to 1984. It’s excellent and low-lying, with Southern slopes and Malmesbury shale. It’s good for Pinotage and Cabernet and any red.
“Stellenbosch should actually write its name in red, but those older bushvines we want to use a Kriekbult Pinotage. So, Kriekbult is fantastic. Jan Boland also farmed in those days, and he said of Kriekbult that there were so many crickets that you couldn’t move without stepping on them. It was a heap of crickets.
“I’d like to stay involved with things like that. Maybe we’ll get more land that’s affordable in the Stellenbosch area. We believe in Stellenbosch even though there are many other areas, especially with changing weather patterns. You’ll be able to plant in many areas and the higher lying areas will become even more sought-after. But we are Stellenbosch locals to our marrow. I started my studies here in ‘74, so I’ve left tracks, and lekker tracks. We’ve had great times here!”
This feature was derived from a series of interviews conducted by radio personality Martelize Brink. The interviews were compiled in co-operation with Wineland Media, part of the Vinpro Family that celebrated its 90th birthday in 2021.