Sometimes, when it is time to harvest the grapes, you can’t come near the man. A ball of nerves. He doesn’t shave. Doesn’t cut or comb his hair. Before sunrise he rushes to the farm to taste and test the grapes, rushes back to the cellar, runs around with a deep look in his eyes and everybody stays out of his way because that’s the way it is, as always, when he turns into an artist. Like an alchemist of old, making magic with tastes, smells and compounds. You can always hear Bartho Eksteen from afar. The big man with the big voice. You also see him from afar. The man with the big soul. And the big heart. The man with the many nicknames: Monsieur Sauvignon blanc, The Sage of Sauvignon Blanc, The Sultan of Savvy, and now also the proud recipient of the South African wine Oscar: Diners Club’s Winemaker of the Year.
Bartho grew up in Franschoek and lived with wine in his head and his veins from early on.
After his training as a winemaker he turned here and there the way young winemakers do, but found a place to land in Hermanus. At first, he cultivated wine under his own name, but it was only after Johan and Mariëtte Pretorius approached him to make wine on their vineyard near Stanford that Hermanuspietersfontein Wine Cellar was born and the Pretoriuses built the cellar there in the Pass in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in Hermanus. This is where Bartho gets the opportunity to live his dream.
And when you ask Bartho why exactly a wooded Sauvignon Blanc? Then he immediately answers in his forthright manner: “There are only a few top quality Sauvignon Blancs on the market and the tendency is away from excessive flavours. My goal was to create a full-bodied, well-balanced food wine that would complement classical dishes that are usually associated with white wines.”
Bartho’s passion for this cultivar dates back many years. When he was a young winemaker at Wildekranz he worked with a diversity of white varieties. That is where he realized that Sauvignon Blanc “shows well” in the Walker Bay area with its cool maritime climate. Then along came the challenge of how to create a wine in the right district, in the right terrior and climate that is equal to the wines of the Sancere area in France or Marlborough, New Zealand, or anywhere else. The seed for this venture fell into fertile land. Nowadays for Bartho the creation of good Sauvignon Blancs is all about balance, balance and balance. Depending on the different styles, it is about balance in flavours, intensity, complexity, body, consistency, structure, length, finish, acidity…
Terrior, the comprehensive word for climate, ground types and topography, is for Bartho an inseparable part of the whole process. Hermanuspietersfontein’s vineyard near Stanford is one of only a few BWI-champion conservation farms in South Africa. Here they live up to the farm’s motto: Good Land Makes Good Wine. Blessed with a moderate climate, high slopes on the mountains, fynbos-corridors among the vineyards, and an approach to healthy farming, this is where he produces winning wines.
With the Diners Club award, Bartho’s status as the Master of Sauvignon Blanc is now attested. The spotlight was on this fresh green cultivar, and Hermanuspietersfontein’s wooded No 5 stood head and shoulders above the other entries. It is described as a rich and full-bodied wine with flavours of apricot. Because it has been wooded for 10 months, it has a full bodied and complex structure and it has even been described as an enchantingly rich wine.
“When it comes to red wines, my passion lies with red blends. Now see here, I like all of them. It’s like cooking. You cook everything to go together. Why not do the same with wine?”
If you ask Bartho exactly how he blends the varieties he quickly provides an answer: “During harvest time I spend more time in the vineyard than in the cellar. That’s where you see a good harvest coming. Other winemakers then become very technical, but for me the creative process begins there in the vineyard. I make use of my basic knowledge of chemistry, but it is as if my instinct takes over. Time is not my boss. Patience is my most prominent characteristic.”
But still, there must be a secret somewhere. Is it in the dark corridors of the wine barrel cellar where things develop? Where Bartho walks around with a pipette, taking wine samples, counting barrels, calculating? Here where he becomes quiet, walking around to and fro, thinking and dreaming?
Then one day, his eyes become brighter than usual, the laughter is loud and clear. Then you know, Bartho has once again turned wine into gold.
Soon the Diners Club Bartho Eksteen Wine Academy will be erected at his alma mater, Boland School for Agriculture, where young winemakers will be schooled very early at the hand of a master, Master Bartho. With his free spirit he will open minds, cultivate passion and guide the youngsters into the secrets of a winemaker.