- Climate has a notable effect on wine, shaping the character of the wine through the grapes and wine makers are attuned to the minutest changes in the weather – differences that they can, literally, taste.
- No one is more aware of this ‘time bomb’ than Niël Groenewald, the head winemaker at Distell, Africa’s leading wine producer and marketer since December 2017.
Niël Groenewald, head winemaker at Distell, opens up about what keeps him up at night and how Climate Change affects the wine business
No one is more aware of this ‘time bomb’ than Niël Groenewald, the head winemaker at Distell, Africa’s leading wine producer and marketer, since December 2017.
In less than ten years, your evening may never be the same again and the memory of sipping your favourite glass of wine as you watch the sun set may be all you are left with, courtesy of climate change.
Climate change has become a major issue and talking point globally because of its effects on the environment and the repercussions it could have on global businesses, including the wine industry valued at $302.02 billion as of 2017.
Climate has a notable effect on wine, shaping the character of the wine through the grapes and winemakers are attuned to the minutest changes in the weather – differences that they can, literally, taste in their wine.
So with each new record-breaking heat wave followed by weeks of pounding rainfall that leaves vineyards flooded and inaccessible for days, the wine industry is a worried and not even the most potent of wines can drown their concerns.
No one is more aware of this ‘time bomb’ than Niël Groenewald (NG), the head winemaker at Distell, Africa’s leading wine producer and marketer, since December 2017.
Known by his friends as ‘Tiny’ despite standing at 6’8”, Niël holds an MBA from University of Cape Town and a BSc (Hons) from the University of Stellenbosch.
Niël is also a marketing specialist in his own right and prior to joining Distell, he held a similar position at DGB-owned Bellingham for 14 years.
“I love winemaking as much as I do the business of wine,” says Niël.
Business Insider Sub Saharan Africa (BISSA) met up with this ‘giant in the wine industry’ on Friday evening during a wine tasting event organised by Nederburg and had a chat about what keeps him going to what keeps him awake at night.
Here is an excerpt of our conversation.
BISSA: In your line of work, meeting and working with different people, what do you find most satisfying and most challenging?
NG: Training people. That is actually very rewarding to me. I normally do wine tasting with different people and I always tell them, listen you are not going to find these funny flavours. Look for this and then when they finally get it, their eyes just brighten up and that feeling is priceless. They have actually got what we wanted them to taste, that is very rewarding.
BISSA: That’s sounds like a very rewarding experience no doubt but I am sure that it also comes with a few challenges, right?
NG: Yes, constantly, especially when people have been taught about wine the wrong way and you need to retrain them. It is sometimes easier to train people who have had no prior knowledge of wine.
Right now, I have this sales force that I am training. They come from the beer and spirits world and have never done wines. It is much easier to train them because you don’t need to untrain somebody and you can train them for the beginning the right way.
And then other challenges would be bigger ones like climate, global warming, security and supply with grapes, land reforms that is ongoing right now in South Africa. All those issues are things that we deal with on a daily basis.
BISSA: You have mentioned something that has been dominating the news for some time now, climate change. The recent floods which occurred in France, for example, not only affected ordinary people but wine makers too. So how big of a threat is climate change to the wine industry?
NG: Climate change will be big and we already see it. Companies like Moët & Chandon that do sparkling wine brought property south of England 30 years ago and they couldn’t grow vineyards there, but now they have a full-on production going. In just 30 years, the climate has changed so much that they could actually start growing vineyards.
In South Africa, we are constantly looking for varieties to replace something like Sauvignon blanc which is very susceptible to climate change, a one-degree difference can damage the flavour. So, climate change is very real.
BISSA: Given a chance to give a speech at United Nations assembly about climate change, especially with President Donald Trump saying climate change is not a threat at all, what would your speech be?
NG: You know (thinks for while) I am not sure but I think we are in the advanced stage of climate change. I also believe we are in a circle.
You get heating and cooling circles and we are supposed to be in a cooling circle but cooling is not really taking place. That’s obviously been caused by human activities.
So what I would say is we humans need to leave planet earth better than we found it. I think that’s what we can do for our children, that would be the take home message.
BISSA: Okay that’s settled. Given a chance to have a drink with three people of your choice, who would you choose and why?
NG: I would like to drink Guinness with Bono from U2, they are actually my favorite band. I would like to have a glass of wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, with Mandela, he was very inspiring as a person. Then, I would have schnapps or calvados with Albert Einstein.
BISSA: After a hard day at work, how do you like to retire and relax?
NG: I pour myself a brandy, I don’t drink wine then. And I cook, I am the cook in the house.
BISSA: So you know what they say ‘all work and no play makes Niël’ a dull boy’. Given a chance to go out and have fun say on a vacation, where would you go?
NG: My destination would be Italy, I really enjoy visiting Italy but because I travel quite a lot for work I always get my wife to choose where she wants to go for holiday and she always goes to Mauritius. She just wants sand (laughs).
We were in Kenya for our honeymoon, so we are coming back to Kenya at the end of this year. We are coming back to Malindi early in January because that is where we were 10 years ago for our honeymoon.
JOIN OUR PULSE COMMUNITY!
Eyewitness? Submit your stories now via social or: