Earlier this year, Norma Ratcliffe and her daughter Jenny, came to present a vertical tasting of Warwick Estate's flagship wine, Trilogy, to Society members in London. Joanna Goodman took the opportunity to find out more about what it was like to be one of the first female winemakers in the Cape.
Raised in Edmonton, in the Canadian Prairies, Norma first discovered wine during family holidays in San Francisco, and it became a passion during her student days in France and Switzerland. In 1971, she met her husband-to-be Stan Ratcliffe, and returned with him to his farm in South Africa. There were no vines then, but the couple recognised the potential of the soil and, taking local advice, planted cabernet sauvignon with a view to producing grapes, rather than wine.
But the bug had bitten and Norma became increasingly interested in making wine. Having studied oenology at night, while her children were very young, she started making wine on an experimental basis in the seventies, and in 1984 the first Warwick cabernet was released. Norma admits that being a woman (and a foreigner to boot) was probably an advantage in terms of receiving help and encouragement from fellow winemakers. The Cape wine industry at the time was small and intimate, and, during the tough apartheid years, everyone pulled together. As Kevin Arnold (of Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch) told her: "one of the reasons we helped you was that if anyone made bad wine it would have reflected badly on the rest of us!"
The Bordeaux influence
Visits to Bordeaux and a stint at Château Sénéjac further honed Norma's winemaking skills and gave her an enduring love of Claret. Not surprisingly, Bordeaux varieties became a Warwick speciality. 1986 saw the first release of 'Trilogy' which has since become a South African icon - a blend of the three classic Bordeaux varieties, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Norma was also one of the first to import, at vast expense, new 225-litre French barriques, though at the time it was unproven that the barrels would improve the quality of South African wine; of course they did.
Sanctions limited international demand for South African wine, and importing cellar equipment was difficult and expensive. But on February 11th 1990, the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, everything changed. The Wine Society was one of the first importers of a Warwick wine, a '91 cabernet sauvignon, which Norma said "gave the estate quite a break".
But Norma was also keen to produce a wine with a South African 'stamp'. 1997 saw the first release of 'Three Cape Ladies', a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and the Cape's unique grape, pinotage (a cross between cinsault and pinot noir). The Cape Blend style is gaining in popularity, and a special committee set about defining what it should comprise. As a leading industry figure and keen advocate of Cape Blends, Norma was much involved in those discussions, and cautioned that to prescribe minimum and maximum percentages of pinotage would be counter productive. Flexibility, she believes, is key, so that, as in Bordeaux, the blend should be at the winemaker's discretion, according to the quality of the grapes in any given year. Norma herself is certainly not one to follow rules doggedly. The latest release of Three Cape Ladies includes for the first time a fourth grape, shiraz … "it made the wine taste better…so why not?"
Though Norma has handed over the reins to Louis Nel, one of South Africa' most gifted winemakers, she is still very much involved, particularly in the blending of wines. She is delighted that son Mike, now managing director, and daughter Jenny have chosen to join the team at Warwick, if only because she firmly believes that a family business is something one should never impose upon one's children. In line with the estate's policy of continual improvement, a big replanting programme is currently underway, to grub up under-performing vines and to locate the best sites for individual varieties. "Europe has had centuries to work these things out…it is all still relatively new for us."
Key challenges to the industry
An influential player in the South African wine industry, Norma was one of the founders of the Cape Independent Winemakers' Guild, set up in the eighties to promote quality and provide a technical databank for winemakers. Louis Nel is now Warwick's official Guild representative but, as Norma says" "they rather sweetly made me an honorary member". Her experience and vision are certainly needed to face the challenge of producing quality wines across the board, especially at the £5 price point, where competition from Chile and Argentina is fierce.
The Guild enables young winemakers to learn from blind tastings of wines from around the world, and from periods of work experience abroad. Many of them are women, doubtless inspired by her example, and this year Norma was chair of the judging panel for "South African Woman Winemaker of the Year", a competition not without controversy, with certain commentators citing positive discrimination. In what is still a male-dominated industry Norma believes that such recognition is needed to encourage and promote women: "if the men don't think it is fair…let's open it up and see how many apply!"
I couldn't move away from the subject of fairness without asking about black economic empowerment programmes. It comes as no surprise that the Ratcliffe family is ahead of the game here, sponsoring young black winemakers on exchange programmes to Burgundy and the US and helping the estate's workers to own their homes, giving them a stake in the economy. Tellingly, with above-average pay and conditions, Warwick's black workforce choose not to exercise their rights to union membership.
The ten vintages of Trilogy presented by Norma to members at the tasting, drawn from the period between 1986 and 2004, demonstrated vividly the evolution both of the estate's winemaking practices, and the style of the wine. With Norma still very much a driving force and inspiration to those around her, the wines can only get even better. Though there is much talk of global oversupply, this will never be the case for wines from Warwick Estate, which are leaders in their field.
This article originally appeared in Society News in October 2007. Updated June 2008.