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Meet the winemaker: Tania Kleintjes

Tania Kleintjes joined Spier in 2007 as assistant red wine winemaker, and has been responsible for crafting Spier’s range of organic wines since 2016.

“To me organic wine gives a very honest and true reflection of the terroir of the grapes and the winemaking technique in the cellar,” she explains.

What did you study and how did you get started in the wine business?
I graduated with BSc(Agric) Viticulture & Oenology with Chemistry in 2006. The following year I started my MSc(Agric) Oenology and began working at Spier as assistant red wine winemaker. I eventually completed my MSc(Agric) Oenology while working at Spier.

What is your winemaking style?
Minimum intervention. I want the wine to be expressive of its terroir.

In what respect is making organic wine more challenging or different to making conventional wine?
Organic wine is made from organically grown grapes – meaning no fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Similarly to the vineyard, in the cellar you have a very limited list of inputs and actions you are allowed to use and do in the cellar. With organic winemaking there are not many hiding places or a buffer when making the wine. If you make a mistake, it shows in the wine. 

Everything that can possibly touch organic wine is highly regulated and all inputs must be approved by a certification body; conformance with those rules is strictly audited. In our cellar, we try to manipulate other factors around the wine, such as harvest times, temperature of the grapes, fermentation temperature, the temperature the wine ages at, cleanliness of equipment and cellar, timing of certain actions, type of fermentation, aging vessels, etc. Great care is taken to ensure clean work without leaving chemical residues, which can be a difficult task as we need to save water with the current drought.

Who in the wine world do you admire and how have they influenced you?
Definitely our Cellar Master, Frans Smit, with his calm demeanour, sharing boundless knowledge. I still learn from him every day. Also, the rockstar women in the wine industry, like Wendy Appelbaum and Norma Ratcliffe, from whom I learnt to kick ass now, ask questions later.
Which is your favourite variety to work with and why?
It has to be Chenin Blanc. It is so versatile and expressive.

Any advice for budding winemakers?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Get as much experience in different areas of the industry to broaden your understanding. Join a tasting group or start one yourself. Tasting wine is an art you cannot learn off pages of a book.

What factors make a great vintage?
It is all about the terroir. And we all know that you can’t make great wine with bad grapes, so the winemaker in the cellar is very much dependent on what happens with the vineyards and terroir surrounding it. A great vintage is usually preceded by a cold, wet winter – enough rainfall in winter to carry the vineyard and supply additional water for irrigation if needed during early ripening. There should also be no frost in late winter or early spring (when the vineyard starts to bud and the shoots and leaves are delicate). And then, a warm and dry summer would result in optimal ripening without any diseases or fungi breaking out.

What have been some of the challenges facing this year’s harvest?
The drought! For some farms the drought has caused a decline of 30% in yields. In addition to the lower yields, the effects on the berries that were harvested are seen in the cellar. Grapes had to be harvested at lower sugar levels, because the vine is under so much water stress that it just can’t ripen the grapes to phenolic ripeness. Grapes that don’t reach phenolic ripeness result in their characteristic flavours being less forthright – and they may become thin and flat or quiet on the nose.
Do you have a go-to wine and food pairing?
Spier Signature Sauvignon Blanc with goat's cheese and cucumber. The freshness of the cucumber and crisp acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc marries well with the acidity in the goat’s cheese while the creaminess of the cheese leaves you wanting more without overwhelming the senses with all the acidic components.

21 Gables Chenin Blanc with butter chicken curry. This wooded Chenin has aromas of apricots, sweet vanilla and white peaches which complement the fruity, sweet and spicy character of the butter chicken. The smooth round palate of the Chenin, a result of the ageing in oak barrels, pairs exceptionally well with the curry’s buttery qualities.

What is one of the most rewarding things about your job?
Being there, from when the grapes get harvested in the vineyard, through to the cellar, to the tasting with clients – and seeing the happiness on their faces, knowing that you created that.

What do you find to be the hardest part of harvest?
Missing out on precious family time.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
In 2008 I did a harvest in California. Myself and a few other interns from all over the world went on cellar tours and tastings around California. The best and most impressive tour was that of the Opus One, but the best tasting experience was tasting the Goldeneye Pinot Noir out of the barrel (as well as previously bottled vintages) with its winemaker. I was so in love with the wine that I bought a few bottles and paid an exorbitant amount of tax at the airport to bring it home. Two years ago, I opened a bottle of 2007 Goldeneye Pinot Noir and it was even more mouth-watering than what I remembered. Luckily, I could share it with like-minded oenophiles who appreciated the wine as much as I did.
If you had to describe yourself in 3 words, what would they be?
Diligent, good-humoured and persistent.

Favourite place in the world you’ve visited?
I haven’t travelled around the world a lot, which I hope to change in the near future, but to date, San Diego. The beautiful beaches, eclectic group of people and mouth-watering food won my heart. Locally, my favourite place has always been Wilderness on the Garden Route.

The Spier Farm House range of organic wines is available exclusively from the Spier Tasting Room.

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