Meet The Winemaker: Neil Bester of Plaisir de Merle
Neil Bester has been at Plaisir de Merle since 1993. After completing a BSc Agriculture (Viticulture and Oenology) degree at the University of Stellenbosch, he worked as a winemaker for SFW (now Distell) and then moved to Nederburg. With a career that has taken him across the globe, Niel attributes his winemaking style to the 1992 harvest he spent at Chateau Margaux with Dr Paul Pontallier, who consulted to Plaisir de Merle from 1990 for more than a decade.
Getting To Know Neil Bester
Early on in your career, you spent time learning in France. What did you learn from this experience?
Neil Bester: In the early 90s, we were very isolated from what was happening in the rest of the wine world. Our wine styles were not very modern or fruit driven. I learnt most importantly, that quality comes from the fruit that you work with. A lot more can be achieved through gentle extraction and handling of the grapes during fermentation than by trying to work every last bit of tannin and flavour out of the grapes. I also learnt about the handling of small barrels and the role this plays in the maturation of the wines.
What led you to become a winemaker?
Neil Bester: After school, I studied Animal Husbandry at the University of Stellenbosch but I realised that it would be difficult for me to work with animals as I had not grown up on a farm. I started doing weekend and holiday work on wine farms and that lead to my decision to change my course to Winemaking.
Can you describe your winemaking style and how different wine regions have played a role in that?
Neil Bester: I like to be hands on and actively involved. I then have an understanding of the grapes and what my responsibility in the cellar is to guide the wine towards the desired outcome.
What is the Plaisir de Merle winemaking philosophy?
Neil Bester: I think that the golden thread is always that you cannot change what Mother Nature gives you. Therefore you must strive to work with only the best fruit that you can get.
I have been fortunate to work with Plaisir de Merle grapes for a long time and therefore I know instinctively what I can expect.
So, my role is basically to guide the process towards the best possible wine that I can make from what I was given.
This also applies to the role that barrel maturation plays in both my red and white wines – it should support and add to structure and complexity and never overpower the varietal character.
What is the most exciting thing happening in the South African winemaking industry?
Neil Bester: I’m excited about all the new wine regions that are being explored. Although some of them do not necessarily have a point of uniqueness in the wine style, it makes the palette of the wine landscape so much more colourful.
Besides Plaisir de Merle, are there any other winemakers that you greatly admire and wines that you really enjoy?
Neil Bester: Paul Pontallier played an important role in my earlier winemaking career. I’ve also been fortunate during the last couple of years, to spend time with my Danish agent at his vineyard and property, Quinta do Pego, in the Douro Valley. Wouter Pienaar (ex. Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery days) has been quietly producing excellent red wines from traditional port varieties. He definitely gets my vote.
What wine trends have you seen lately that have gotten you thinking differently about winemaking?
Neil Bester: The use of smaller tanks and containers. Clay amphora and cement tanks. Granite open fermenters for feet stomping of the grapes is still something I would like to explore. Submerge cap is also an excellent technique for fermentation of reds.
Drinking and tasting wine can be intimidating for some people as there is an expectation that you should recognise certain aromas and flavours; what would your advice be for those new to wine drinking?
Neil Bester: Read about wines and read wine comments. Once you have picked up some wine vocabulary, you will quickly start to make associations with wine flavours and general descriptors. If you have your own associations that you put to wine flavors, stick to them. Wine is there for enjoyment, not to bore everyone by talking about it.
If you could make wine in any region in the world where would it be and why?
Neil Bester: The Douro Valley. I am attracted by the beauty of the region and the openness and friendliness of the people. The wines are incredible, layered with flavours and structure. The fact that I can learn more about port wine also helps!
Has the drought in the Western Cape affected your harvest and how do you adjust to accommodate this?
Neil Bester: We are fortunate to have our vineyards planted against the slopes of Simonsberg. This means that there is a continuous run-off of water in the sub-soil even during the drier years such as 2018. Although all our Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards are dryland, there was very little effect from the drought. The fact that they are planted about 300-500m above sea-level also helps.
Besides wine, what would be your second favourite drink of choice? Beer.
Favourite wine and food pairing? Seafood with an older Sauvignon blanc, Chenin or Viognier.
Book you read recently? I’m trying to start the new book, ‘The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye’ which is part of The Millennium Series with Lisbeth Salander.
Bucket list holiday destination? Iceland.
Musician, you’d most like to see live? Jack White (ex-The White Stripes).
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