Meet the Winemaker: Gavin Brand of Cape Rock Wines

Words: Jess Spiro

A mere 300 km outside of Cape Town, nestled between the two small towns of Klawer and Vredendal, you’ll find Cape Rock Wines. They make unique red and white wines with a variety of interesting grapes and they’ve become well known for their clean-tasting, minimal intervention range. We sit down with Gavin Brand, winemaker at Cape Rock Wines, to find out a little more about this quirky wine brand.

Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you get into winemaking?

Gavin Brand: I grew up on a wine grape farm; my father was a first generation farmer growing grapes, which he mostly sold to the local co-op.  When I left home after school, my father and a winemaker friend started to make bulk red wine in a converted garage cellar on our farm.  After a few years, my father’s friend moved away and he continued to make the wine by himself.

In 2004, I had to leave Cape Town to move to Pretoria for my final two years of studying to become a Landscape Architect. I grew up in a house where talk around vineyards and wine was quite the norm – being so far away from home really made me miss everything that I had grown up with. I got very interested in learning about wine and winemaking and even started a wine club. In 2005, my father allowed me to make two barrels of wine in our bulk wine cellar. Every year after that we made a few more barrels and now we make more than 60 barrels a year.

Where does the name Cape Rock Wines come from?

Gavin Brand: Our farm is located just over 20 km from the Atlantic Ocean (Doring Bay) and we are very aware of the maritime influence cooling the land and making the summer heat bearable. My father registered the name Cape Rock Wines and the West Coast Rock Lobster, which is abundant in our area, as an emblem (my mother drew the crayfish logo).

How would you describe your winemaking philosophy?

Gavin Brand: I have a very hands-off approach to winemaking, while at the same time being very aware of what is happening to the wine. My overall philosophy is one of restraint – I do not necessarily want to smell or taste any oak derived flavours in our wines, but I love what happens to wine when it ages slowly in oak or concrete tanks. In general, I like to pick the grapes quite early in order to avoid the worst of the summer heat and to chase lower alcohol levels and high natural acidity. We try not to add too much during the winemaking process – all our wines ferment naturally and we bottle with minimal sulphur addition and filtration.

What is an average workday like for you?

Gavin Brand: I have a day job running my own Landscape Architecture firm, so I try to split my time between the two professions. Whenever I have time available in one job, I catch up on the ‘to-do’ pile for the other. It becomes quite tricky to juggle both during harvest, bottling and labelling time.

What do you love about the West Coast/ Vredendal region; what makes it unique from other winemaking regions?

Gavin Brand: I love the rugged beauty of the area. I think you have to be from the area to appreciate and love the landscape. To the untrained eye, the natural vegetation seems brown and almost dead for most of the year and then everything starts to bloom for a few weeks in late winter to early spring.  I love the fact that we are so far from the traditional winegrowing areas – when I speak to people from Cape Town or up north, they always seem surprised that we make the wines we do considering where we are situated.

What have been your favourite wines to make so far?

Gavin Brand: I would have to say our flagship Cape Rock Red (a co-fermented blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Viognier).  We have been making it from the start in 2005 and I love noticing the subtle differences in the wine from year to year especially as it ages.

What wines (or varietals) would you like to see consumers embrace more?

Gavin Brand: I think most adventurous consumers already try any ‘new’ or old varieties making a comeback, but I think the most exciting is yet to come. We will see many single cultivar wines or blends made from grape varieties originating in warm Mediterranean climates, much better suited to our climate in the next few years.  Varieties such as Vermentino, Macabeo, Marsanne, Albariño, Bourboulenc, Counoise, Mencia, to name but a few will become available to consumers soon.  It takes a long time to get clean new vine or better clonal material available for planting and then you still have to wait a few years before it will produce any decent wine.

What excites you the most about the South African wine industry?

Gavin Brand: The fact that we are not as heavily weighed down by tradition and law to grow only certain varieties in certain areas like in the old world and that we can still explore the best soil site/grape variety combinations.

What has been the most challenging aspect of winemaking?

Gavin Brand: Working in a very small and very basically equipped cellar.  Also the distance (300 km) I have to travel between where I stay in Cape Town and the cellar in Vredendal.

What is the most rewarding part of being a winemaker?

Gavin Brand: Travelling, meeting people who support us and enjoy our wines is always very rewarding.

What advice do you have for young winemakers starting out?

Gavin Brand: I think most of them are doing it, but I would say travel as much as possible in the old and new world, work in a ‘corporate’ cellar setup and if your employer allows it, find special grapes with a story to tell and make a barrel or two of your own wine on the side if possible.

What is your view on keeping wines for years? 

Gavin Brand: I absolutely see the reward in ageing some special wines for a long time, but it can be risky if you do not have near perfect cellar conditions. I generally enjoy lighter, fresher wines that can be enjoyed in their youth and have potential to improve between 3-7 years.

Quickfire Questions

If you weren’t a winemaker, what would you be? If it wasn’t for the tough working hours, probably a chef.

Your favourite wine to drink that isn’t your own? It has to be French, any wine from the Northern Rhône normally does the trick, especially when from a producer like Domaine JL Chave.

Secret guilty food pleasure? I don’t think is a secret, but any French, Italian or Spanish cheeses and charcuterie will do just fine.

Cape Rock Wines, R363, Vredendal Tel: +27 (0)27 2132567 | Facebook | Twitter

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