Brett Rightford: 'Every day you learn about wine. If you stop learning you are probably dead'

Peter Bills
Monday 20 April 2009 12:30 BST

Out in the Western Cape valley near Wellington recently, summer was still blazing on at 33 degrees. But nature cannot be fooled: the leaves on the vines were starting to transform into those familiar golden hues of autumn.

Not that the coming autumn and winter dismays Brett Rightford. The chief winemaker for Diemersfontein vineyard was quietly offering a prayer of thanks for the kind of stroke of good fortune that all winemakers need. It is as essential a part of their job as oak barrels and stainless steel tanks.

They began picking their harvest in January, out at Diemersfontein. When the process begins each year, it’s rather like opening Christmas presents: you never quite know what to expect. Last year, for example, they had no problems with rot; this year, rot was a widespread difficulty.

But then came the luck. They decided to pick the white grapes and had just about completed the job when, two days later, rain came. Diemersfontein’s harvest was unaffected, not so with many others. Divine assistance ? Rightford smiles. "Never forget that we are always at the mercy of the big man upstairs. But for me, that makes it all the more exciting. I don’t get freaked out about rain coming. I try to plan as best I can and turn any apparent negative into a positive."

Banish from your mind images of a gnarled old veteran of his trade, perhaps the nose turned a promising purple by lifelong devotion to his trade. Brett Rightford is a clean faced, enthusiastic, curly haired, boyish-looking 30 year-old who discusses his job with the excitement of a schoolboy contemplating opening the batting for the 1st XI. He doesn’t look 30 and he certainly isn’t gnarled and ancient, like some old vine.

Young South Africans like Rightford are making a considerable impact in the world of oenology. He learned the business at the Department of Agriculture, Stellenbosch University and did the three year course in two years, having previously studied horticulture and applied botany. We’re talking about a highly talented young man, an expert already respected by his peers.

When David Sonnenberg, the owner of Diemersfontein, needed a winemaker, he was introduced to the young man by his lecturer at Stellenbosch. Bizarrely, it turned out that Sonnenberg used to sleep in the next bunk to Rightford's father whilst they were doing their national service, back in 1965.

Perhaps inevitably, wine had featured large in Brett Rightford's family down the years. His grandfather used to collect it, Brett's father, too. But young men generally have a rebellious streak and this one was no exception. "When I was 18, Dad gave me a 1977 Cabernet from Nederberg. He waxed lyrical about it but I thought all that was absolute bollocks ! However, we sat down and drank it and I did think that was something."

But the "bollocks"? "That was the way people used to sit and sniff and say ‘Oooo, cherries’. I thought that was an absolute load of rubbish, I just didn’t get it."

Wine snobs ? Don’t get Brett started on that. He has a down to earth philosophy that is as refreshing as a good glass of Chardonnay or Sauvignon compared to the stuffy wine types of the UK and France. "There is still too much snobbery in wine" he says, emphatically. "But maybe it is historical. The people that have always been drinking wine have been the upper crust of society. Perhaps that’s either because they could afford it or because of where they came from. So perhaps it’s a cultural thing.

"There is so much smoke around wine appreciation. People feel a little insecure: they are afraid not to understand what they are drinking. Maybe that’s the snobbish element. But that has been a major motivation in the wines we make here, I don’t get caught up in the pomp. We try to take a little of the snootiness out, to de-mystify the wines. That has certainly been the success of the Pinotage. People can smell coffee and chocolate, and that has helped them de-mystify the whole thing.

"More and more indigenous people are drinking wine and there is a massive drive to expose a wider segment of the South African public to wine."

The life of a chief winemaker is seldom predictable. From the end of December to just about now, he spends almost every working hour in the winery. Occasionally, Brett Rightford has a weekend off. The young Mrs Rightford is delighted. But only when the grapes have been picked and processed, the wine safely stored in the tanks or oak barrels.

Diemersfontein is place of considerable beauty and tranquillity for the visitor enjoying a relaxing lunch after some wine tasting. But the wine making facilities are simple, basic. "No chandeliers hanging here" joked Rightford. "We don’t have the most technologically advanced cellar. But what we have is a working cellar. We have all the tools to get the job done and we use a lot of labour in the harvest."

When the "vendange" (harvest) as the French call it, is coming in, Brett and his colleagues often sleep in the wine cellar. It’s like the impending arrival of a new foal or baby lambs at springtime: the experts must be on hand, close by, to see the process is safely negotiated. It is the most intense 8-week period of the working year.

Wine making, Rightford suspects, is one of the most extraordinary, unpredictable and contrary businesses it is possible to find. The facts support his view. Diemersfontein alone has 12 different soil types in its 180 hectares. There are three different soil types that produce Shiraz alone. They harvest different patches of soils and try to keep them as separate as possible. There is a massive difference in the grapes.

The beautiful thing about wine, he says, is that you are dealing with a product that has a very scientific basis. There are so many variables: the general climate, soil, grape varieties, the weather when you pick, the timing of the pick. There is no predictability, no hard and fast recipe to winemaking. But the fact that each year is different, you are dealt a totally different set of circumstances, is the essence of the challenge to him. "Another factor is that South Africa has so many micro-climates," he says. "They help when we understand them and they have possibly hindered us until we have understood them."

Fears? "In the wine cellar, you can never be too much of a control freak, there are things that go wrong. You are dealing with little bugs, live bacteria and I have no control over those bugs. You try for the best possible outcome but sometimes things go wrong. Some years, for no apparent reason, the yeast may stop fermenting. Then the wine can go off and you have to decide on remedial action and do it quickly. You have to be quite decisive."

What of the wines in other parts of the world? Rightford's parents and brother live in New Zealand and he enjoys especially some of the renowned Sauvignon blancs they produce in that cooler climate. The wines of California don't interest him as much but he sees great potential in Chile and Argentina.

And the French? "A lot of French people rely on the fact that they are French to sell their wine. From my own personal experience, I have found 85 per cent of their wines to be exceptionally ordinary and 15 per cent to be extraordinary. But the cost of that 15 per cent is beyond most people. I went to a tasting in Bordeaux and was served a bottle of wine that cost €3,000. I thought it was really nice, a fantastic emotional experience to be part of. But was it so much better than a bottle of wine you can buy in South Africa for R180? I couldn’t see how the price difference could be justified."

And the South African wines? "Maybe the industry here was influenced by the Co-operative mentality. When the large cooperatives like KWV dominated the scene, very good grapes were getting thrown in with mass produced, high density, low quality grapes. But the dynamic has changed from that mass produced style to being divided up into smaller estates."

With concomitant results in terms of elegance, quality and style, we should add.

Brett Rightford has a certain philosophy about his job. "Every day you learn about wine. If you stop learning you are probably dead. But wine making is a wonderful way to make a good living. It’s a part of who I am but it isn’t everything I am."

If he ever finds some spare time, he loves nothing better than climbing mountains. He’s an outdoor person and loves travelling in Africa. "Just as in my wines, I strive to create a balance in my own life," he smiles.

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