Yvonne Lester from Rupert & Rothschild: The Merlot Play-Maker

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Yvonne Lester, committee member of the Merlot Forum – also known as Hallo Merlot! – and head winemaker at Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons, talks about her career and Merlot.

Where did you study wine-making and why did you choose this career?

I did a BSc. with Oenology and Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch. My foray into winemaking can be attributed to passion as well as it being a part of my DNA. My German Grandfather, Gerhard Schröder, came from a family of distillers in Germany. He relocated to South Africa in the early 1940’s and in 1946 became the first Technical Director of Bergkelder/Distillers (Today known as Distell).

Ernst Bruwer, my late grandfather from my mother’s side at Mont Blois Wine Estate in Robertson, was the 5th generation Bruwer to farm on this estate and a prominent grape-grower in the Robertson region – as well as being a true legend of the South African wine industry.

What was your work experience before joining Rupert & Rothschild?

As part of my studies I was fortunate to do internships at two very prominent wineries, namely De Wetshof Wine Estate under Danie De Wet, where I wanted to gain experience of Chardonnay and Springfield Estate under Abrie Bruwer where I gained insight into the production of Sauvignon Blanc.

After the completion of my studies I travelled to Chile where I completed a harvest at Château Los Boldos under Stephane Geneste. Here my experience working with red cultivars came to the fore.

Later, while employed by Rupert & Rothschild, I was also given the opportunity to harvest at the Rothschild Bordeaux property, Chateau Clarke. In later years I also harvested at Weingut Staffelter Hof in the Mosel region, where I worked with Riesling.

Research visits have included visits to California, Bordeaux, New Zealand, Sicily, Portugal and Spain.   

When did you begin at Rupert & Rothschild?

On 1 September 2001 as Assistant Winemaker, as appointed by the late Anthonij Rupert. I was then made Winemaker in 2005 and later Head Winemaker in 2012.

Why have you selected Merlot as being the variety you wish to be involved with on an official level i.e. Merlot Forum? What do you like about Merlot, in other words?

It’s been one of the noble grape varieties that I’ve worked with the longest throughout my career. I have gained true respect for this grape as it tends to play a harmonising role in a blend. You can count on it to bring fresh red fruit and elegance to the gathering of grapes. It’s for these reasons that Merlot has remained a focus for us at Rupert & Rothschild, and in particular for our flagship blend, the Baron Edmond.

You have been exposed to Merlot wines from the new world and the Old. What are the specific features of South African Merlot as a single variety wine?

In 2017 the Merlot Forum invited the winemaker of Château Petrus, Olivier Berrouet, to South Africa to not only experience our Merlots, but also to impart his insights regards making Merlot in Bordeaux. Petrus is the world-famous Château that achieves some of the highest price points in the world of wine and it is made solely from Merlot.

Petrus has worked with the variety for centuries and on the same sites. The message given to us was that wine regions here in South Africa are incredibly diverse with a multitude of variety in terms of locations, aspects and sites. To make it even more complex, we have new as well as old vines.

Therefore it is very difficult to put one’s finger on specific features that represent South African Merlot. This in itself presents opportunity and makes it very interesting from a winemaking perspective. But it in turn makes it challenging for us to become known for a specific and respected style of Merlot.

Focus is therefore required in finding the right sites suited to the cultivar. The aim of the Merlot Forum is to explore South African Merlot in its entirety, to create a platform where winemakers, viticulturists, industry role players and wine enthusiasts can share their insights on and challenges of the varietal, which ultimately would lead to even better quality Merlot being produced. It could be that through these efforts, a golden thread of South African Merlot is determined and articulated.

Is there a difference in regional expression of Merlot in South Africa, for example between Stellenbosch and Robertson?

Most definitely! Merlot grown on sites within each of these regions also express vast differences in character. Topography within each of these regions for example, are sufficient influencers of character and expression.

Why do you think it is South Africa’s most popular single varietal wine?

There are a number of factors that have led to its success and it would be simplistic to assume that this is due to the wine being a “palate pleaser.” Ultimately the consumer will buy and be loyal to a wine that consistently over-delivers on quality at a particular price point. Merlot is present and has been successful in price-brackets ranging from the popular premium level, right through to the ultra-premium sector. It’s therefore clearly and consistently over-delivering on quality in each of these price-points. This suggests that the wine teams are working with healthy fruit to begin with, which definitively suggests the cultivar is suited to the various sites it is grown on and that Merlot is without a doubt suited to South Africa.

Merlot is an important blending component in SA. What makes it such a great wine to back other varieties up?

It’s a great team player and peace-maker! It brings out the best in the other varietals in the blend, but it also has the ability and versatility to bring restraint and balance to those that are less refined. It’s also a valued contributor in terms of character, ranging from offering vibrant red fruit on the nose, through to lending finesse and elegance on the palate.

How should we be making better Merlot?

Planting it on the right site to begin with is absolutely crucial.