Interview with Rianie Strydom of Haskell Vineyards

On top of the world: Rianie Strydom of Haskell Vineyards. (Photograph: Penny Haw.)

RIANIE STRYDOM is on the top of the world. Not only is she rapidly filling the shelves of the trophy cabinet on the farm but she is also in her element in her role as both winemaker and general manager at Haskell Vineyards high on the slopes of the Helderberg between Stellenbosch and Somerset West.

“It has been a wonderful learning curve,” she says, referring to the dual responsibility, which she took on in 2005. “I am experiencing what it means to combine the romance of winemaking and all the practical demands of running a business. It has opened my eyes to many new aspects of winemaking, particularly in terms of marketing and learning about what consumers want, as opposed to considering only what a winemaker wants to make. It has also confirmed to me that my best skill and greatest love in this business is making wine.”

The notion of making wine was an early love for Strydom who, growing up in Cape Town and barely in her teens, decided that winemaking would make a suitable career.

“I liked the idea of combining science and nature, and I love being outdoors,” she says, gazing down across the budding vineyards from the veranda of the cellar, which was built by owner Preston Haskell in 2004 just in time for Strydom’s maiden vintage on the farm the next year. “I was also rather keen on the travel opportunities promised by the profession.”

She studied at the University of Stellenbosch from 1989 to 1993, completing a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, with viticulture and oenology as her majors. As a student, Strydom worked part-time at the Morgenhof Wine Estate, which is situated on the slopes of the Simonsberg outside Stellenbosch. Once she had written her final exams, the estate offered her a position as assistant winemaker. Thus began an association that lasted for more than a decade.

Strydom assisted Morgenhof cellarmaster Jean Daneel – himself a venerated force in winemaking circles and a former Diners Club Winemaker of the Year – until the end of 1997, at which time she was promoted to winemaker.

It was at Morgenhof that she first attracted attention as one of the country’s top young winemakers and began collecting awards. In 2006, the 2001 Morgenhof Premier Selection – made by Strydom – was named Decanter magazine’s Best New World Red. Her name also began appearing on the list of finalists of the Woman Winemaker of the Year competition regularly.

“And my dream of travel materialised too,” she points out.

In 1996 she spent some time in Mersault in Burgundy. The next year Strydom visited the Languedoc and spent 17 days in Italy with her then freshly-acquired husband, Louis Strydom, who is these days the head winemaker at neighbouring Ernie Els Wines: “It was meant to be a holiday but we lost count of how many Italian wineries we visited.” In 1998, she spent the vintage at Chateau de Franc in Bordeaux.

Her experiences in France and Italy – coupled with years of producing Morgenhof wines that were created “against the background of Bordeaux” – are indelible to her approach and classic European styling characterises Strydom’s wines, which, she says, are vastly different from those created by her spouse.

“Louis brought some of his reds over yesterday and we had an informal comparison tasting. Even after all this time I am surprised at how much we differ in approach and style,” she chuckles. “His style is more new world, while mine is classic. And whose wines are best? Well, let me warn you, I am a highly competitive person so it is probably better not to go down that road.”

She does however, digress for a minute to reveal that, while for many years she got her competitive fix on the hockey field, these days she takes on the lycra-brigade on her mountain bike whenever occasion presents. She and her family are also keen hikers who regularly take to the paths of the Jonkershoek near Stellenbosch.

After ten vintages at Morgenhof – during which she barely paused to also produce two sons and a daughter and, together with Louis, purchase 8,3 hectares of orchards in Stellenbosch to plough and replant with Merlot, Cabernet and Shiraz, with the idea of producing a range of “his”, “hers” and “ours” wines sometime in the future – Strydom left to take the reins at Haskell Vineyards.

American entrepreneur Preston Haskell, who lives in Moscow and is the founder and majority owner of one of Russia’s leading property development companies, Colliers International, bought the 23-hectare farm – then called Dombeya – in 2002.

A modern new cellar, perched regally on the slopes of the Helderberg and fully equipped with conveyer belts, sorting table and a pneumatic press, was built with the capacity of handling 150 tons of fruit.

The idea, says Strydom, is to make small volumes of “super premium wine that express the true fruit flavours of the varietals and the vineyards, and have great balance and persistence”.

“We are a small, hands on team of four who work happily together in this beautiful setting,” she says, looking up at the craggy mountain peak that looms behind the cellar. “With Preston in Russia and his business partner, Grant Dodd in Australia, we are essentially responsible for keeping everything running smoothly and do so without any hierarchical hang ups. It is hard work but also very rewarding to be able to try different processes to make wine that best expresses the area and our philosophy.”

Wines are produced under two labels, Haskell and Dombeya. The Dombeya range (Dombeya is the Latin name for the wild pear or ‘drolpeer’ tree that is native to the area) is what the winemaker calls “the foundation range”.

“The idea with Dombeya is to produce wines of excellent value and to demonstrate our ability to make stylish, distinctive wines that are not hugely expensive,” she says.

The range includes the Dombeya Samara, which is a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend; the Dombeya Boulder Road Shiraz; and a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Despite the fact that the label is little over four years old, the reds in particular already boast a long list of international and local wine awards. In 2007 Dombeya Boulder Road Shiraz won Double Gold at the Veritas Awards. It won Top Gold (Best in Class) at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge in London last year, and recently finished in Top 10 in the 2009 Shiraz Challenge. Dombeya Samara was a Double Gold Medal winner at the 2008 Michelangelo International Wine Awards and was also named among the Top 10 Bordeaux Blends in South Africa in 2008.

Wines produced under the Haskell label, says Strydom, “represent the very best of what Haskell Vineyards is capable of”. The goal in this regard is unashamedly elitist. No shortcuts are taken and no grape is left unturned. The idea is to establish a Haskell Platinum Club, which will give members first option on the limited quantities – “just 100 cases of each” – available.

(First published in The Weekender in 2009.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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