Q&A with Melanie van der Merwe of Tanzanite Wines

Melanie van der Merwe comes from a table grape farm in De Doorns, Western Cape. The last thing her mom, Maria, wanted was another “farmer” in the family as her two older brothers were already joining her dad, Albertus, on the farm.

“But I think I was born to be in contact and to work with nature.  Nevertheless, I went to study BSC Agriculture with Viticulture and Oenology as my head subjects at Stellenbosch University. Directly after my studies I started working at Distillers Corporation at the Bergkelder in Stellenbosch.  I was initially employed as senior wine technologist,” says Melanie. 

“I will never forget … I started in December 1994 and had to take four days of leave as the company closed over Christmas and New year… so on my first pay check my days of leave were: -4 days! Quite depressing! I was employed as sparkling/MCC winemaker in 1995 in the same company. To learn the finer techniques of Champagne-making, I went to France and worked with Michel Pansu, Chef Du Cave at Louis Roederer Champagne.”

She then went back to Distillers with big eyes and new ideas to develop the MCC brand to the next level.

“We launched the first Special Cuvée as well as the first Semi Sweet MCC in the SA market. I went back to France and worked at Pommery with Thierry Gasco and at Moet & Chandon with Goerge Blanc. It was interesting and important for me to explore the different house styles of Champagne and to really explore what is is that makes the difference,” she says.

I fell in love with Champagne – the region and the product. 

“I was employed as a cellar master after the merger of Distillers and SFW to Distell in 1998. I lived in Worcester, travelling to Stellenbosch daily.  Unfortunately, as life goes on you have to make some difficult choices. I loved my work but married an amazing guy: my husband, Wentzel, who’s company is in Worcester. We have two beautiful girls Mari (19) and Hane (17). As they grew up it got difficult to play the role of both mom and winemaker with me working quite far from home.”

Melanie started to play around with small batches of base wine at a nearby cellar, and after she resigned at Distell she launched her own MCC in 2007: Tanzanite Method Cap Classique.

“I only use high quality grapes from chalky soils as this gives the base wine a distinct character and the final product longevity. After 14 years I still love being able to make unique MCCs in the time honoured, traditional way. I buy my grapes from selected vineyards in Robertson and rent cellar space to make my wine. Maturation, disgorgement and labelling I do in Worcester. And I do my work only with women from Roodewal and Avian Park in Worcester. They have exactly the same problem as I had… They have children and cannot leave them alone for long periods during the day,” she says.

“So they work for me in their own time when it suits the family.  Wilma is my chief in-charge lady, an iron woman with a wonderful husband and two boys. I only make limited quantities of around 15 000 bottles annually.  This keeps me busy, it allows me to plough back into the community and in contact with nature!”

What is the essence of your wines / brand?

The most important thing about my wine is to be able to read the vintage and to know exactly how to handle the grapes from harvesting through the process of pressing and fermentation. Then the essence lies in how long to mature that specific vintage by continuously tasting and exploring the development after secondary fermentation to be able to release the wine at optimum maturity. I believe if you love it enough it will talk to you.

What do you enjoy most about what you do? 

To be able to work with a God-given product from nature. I love to explore the whole process from pruning  in winter through to the budding period in September and then eventually harvesting in January. Recently I also started to enjoy doing my own marketing. I never was a talker about my own wine!

Would you say it’s harder for a woman to get her foot in the ‘wine-making door’ or have things changed over the years in terms of female representation in the wine industry?

I was one of the first woman winemakers in the early 1990s.  I grew up with brothers, was the only girl in the class of nine at Stellenbosch University and mainly worked with men during my career. What I loved about that is that men just say a thing as it is and then its over and done with. No hassles or ‘I told you so!’ I enjoyed that and maybe I was totally ignorant but I never had the feeling that because of my gender I had to try much harder to get recognised. I believe if you are good enough and willing to always try your best and do more than what is expected, no matter who or what you are you will succeed.

What have been some of your biggest challenges and successes?

My biggest challenge was not to ponder too long about a mistake I made as I had to learn that you learn through mistakes. My biggest success… Late Uncle Fanie Malan from Allesverloren Estate asked me as a green, newly employed young winemaker: ‘Melanie now what did they think to employ such a young and girly winemaker as you? Give me your hands so that I can see if you work – can you really make wine?’

I never felt bad a I believed he meant it in a dad-like way, but it was subconsciously a challenge! A few years later when I won my first double gold medal at Veritas he came to me and said: ‘Melanie you totally proved me wrong. Well done!’

Any advice for other women in the winemaking space?

Never do winemaking if it is not your passion. As it’s long hours during harvest time, you do get your hands dirty and you will travel and be away from your family for extended periods. You have to love nature and examine a vintage to make some crucial decisions. Maybe the most important is to stay a lady, realise that you sometimes need help as we are not physically as strong as men and I don’t want to be. But we can do anything we want to if we stick to it long enough.

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