Philosophising Wine with Matthew van Heerden

South Africa’s wine industry is one of its claims to fame. Its history in the rainbow nation stretches from 1659 until today. These days there are countless stars in this winemaking industry. Matthew van Heerden is one of them.

After studying, Matthew worked as a winemaker on Stellenbosch wine farm Uva Mira for a few years, making his name there. In 2007, he began making wine for Webersburg. This boutique winery, also in Stellenbosch, was founded in 1796.

Matthew van Heerden, a winner of numerous winemaking awards such as the Diners Club Young Winemaker of Year, is currently making wines under his own MVH Signature label.

He believes in making authentic wines that reflect their environment of origin, making the most of whatever Mother Earth brings his way.

I met Matthew at Webersburg and he shared his journey and his wine philosophy with me.

Why are you a winemaker?

One of the reasons why I became a winemaker is that I always had a passion for agriculture. One thing about making wine is that you can take the agricultural product from the beginning and you can see people enjoy it right up to the end.

What drives me is my passion.

That is important in life: to find something you are passionate about doing.

Do you have a mentor in the wine industry?

No. When I started, the industry was very competitive. The other new winemakers and I were seen as the next generation; a kind of schlep to the older generation. I had to learn the hard way to get myself to the top, educating myself. I said to myself that I wanted to make some of the best wines in the world. As a young adult, I spent a lot of time visiting some of the best winemakers around the world.

If you want to be best at something, go and see what the best are doing, learn from them and then develop your own way of doing things.

My first boss had a big influence on me, however. He lived in Johannesburg and a developed a farm in Stellenbosch where I had to make the wine. I got thrown into the deep end. At a young age, I was taught to challenge myself.

What is your personal wine philosophy?

For me, it’s about perfecting authenticity.

My wine represents the terroir where it comes from. It’s important for me to reflect that in a natural way. I do natural winemaking: no added yeast, no enzymes, no funny things. I want the consumer to taste where the vineyards are situated.

My philosophy is that the wine I make reflects the vintage, the environment and the terroir.

Speaking of “terroir”… How do you think about the terroir effect?

Terroir” is a fantastic french word: it’s the human, the soil, the climate and all those aspects. The concept reflects my passion, but also the science of where the wine comes from. We humans can’t replicate terroir. We can only make wine that’s true to the identity of the terroir.

Wine is made in the vineyards. You have to focus on how you farm there. You farm with nature. If you farm with nature, you win. Work with the environment; not against it. When it comes to vintage, you’re working with nature. You’ll never have the same vintage every year.

Look at this year – spring has come earlier. You have to farm with that.

You got to make wine that reflects the terroir, and in that is the human. It’s about how I interpret the process. I don’t work very consistently as a winemaker. I work more with the feel of flavour and taste. If you make wine too scientifically, I feel, it becomes clinical. People want to drink flavour.

What is the hardest part of being a winemaker in South Africa?

The biggest challenge is the weather element.

Take a look at the drought we’ve had in the country this past year. You can have a great year and make a lot of money, and then the next year you can almost go bankrupt. That’s the risk that comes with what I do.

As a farmer, you need to have an appetite for risk. That’s why you need to have a passion because when it’s really bad, your passion keeps you motivated.

What I have learned over the years is that when you are working with nature, you don’t stress about it. You stress about the things you can control.

You have got to adapt to change.

What are your signature wines?

I would say it’s my Chardonnay and my Pinot Noir.

Oh yes, I have heard of your Chardonnay. You are very famous for it… So how would you describe the personalities of these two wines?

The Chardonnay is elegant, but above that, it has a lot of richness, a lot of intensity.

The Pinot Noir is more elegant. I always compare Pinot Noir to women, you know: very elegant, very dainty. Great Pinot Noir is about elegance.

With Chardonnay you can get more intensity: you can get nice ripe stone fruit flavours as well as fresh mineral aspects.

In short, Pinot Noir is more feminine, and Chardonnay is bolder. I like concentration that is elegant in all my wine. For me, it is about elegance in power.

It is said that natural wine is excellent for one’s health. Do you agree?

Yes, definitely. I use very low amounts of sulphur. If you farm sustainably and naturally, the wine is healthy.

The art of good vineyards is all about balance. Once you get vineyards into a natural cycle, they are easy.

According to Jacky Rigaux, wine is one of the major symbols of civilization. Do you agree?

Yes, I think so. If you look at society in general, three most important: Good wine, good food and good company.

If you look at those three things, wine intertwines all of that. Wine has always been a cultured, sophisticated beverage.

Wine has been around forever. Right in the beginning, only the monks were allowed to drink wine. That’s how wine grew. It went from Persia to England to Europe. Now everyone can drink it.

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