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UI Podcast #15 | Under the Influence of Vintage | Glenelly | Dirk Van Zyl

In this episode of the Under the Influence podcast, we are under the influence of vintage with Dirk Van Zyl, of Glenelly, as we explore the beautiful Lady May blend, and better understand the impact of vintage variability on wines.

Here is a rough transcript of the podcast courtesy of ChatGPT (excuse AI generated spelling mistakes or misquotes!):

Allister: Dirk, it's such a pleasure to have you here today. We are under the influence of your wine, of you, and also of vintage, exploring four beautiful but very different vintages of the Lady May. But before we get stuck into that, I'd love to know more about your past. You were potentially going to be lost to the South African wine industry and making wine in the States. What was your journey?

Dirk: No, no, no, not completely. Thanks, firstly, for having me. It's great to be back on Belfield, I think, eight years later. So, my journey started in Bonnievale. I grew up on a small family wine farm there. My dad farmed about 35 hectares of vineyard and had our own little cellar. My great-grandfather built the cellar in 1940. It was more bulk wine production. My dad went to study in Stellenbosch in the '70s and returned to the farm in 1983. My grandfather and his brother were farming together on two separate farms, and in 1994, my dad started bottling under his own label. Business was booming then, and my dad has a story of going to the London Wine Trade Fair in 1994 with only 16 South African producers present. It was easy pickings back then.

Allister: Sounds like an interesting time. So, you grew up immersed in wine production.

Dirk: Yes, absolutely. I remember as a small kid, my mom always had to call down to the cellar during harvest time to see if she could bring me down there. If it was a busy day, I wasn't allowed, but on easier days, I would spend my afternoons in the cellar, sitting on the tractor, tipping, and all that. Now, my son is doing the same thing at Glenelly, which is quite nice, a full circle moment for me.

Allister: It's lovely to hear that. You went to study in Stellenbosch as well?

Dirk: Yes, I went to study in Stellenbosch and met my wife there. Initially, the idea was always to go back to the family farm. My first few years in the industry were focused on what I could do on the farm. Bonnievale is known for producing quite a few high-priced red wines, even though it doesn't get advertised much. After studying, I did my internship at Klein Zalze and started working full-time there two days after my final exam. Unlike most winemakers who work several harvests at different places, I went straight into a permanent job.

Allister: That must have been quite different.

Dirk: Yes, it was. I was very lucky. I was appointed as assistant winemaker but was almost their viticulturist for all the outside growers. I had about 30 growers from various farms, and I drove about 13,000 km during my first vintage. I visited vineyards in the West Coast, Darling, Durbanville, Stellenbosch, and even Elgin and Stanford. It was all about merging viticulture and winemaking, fixing shortcomings we saw in the cellar by addressing them in the vineyard.

Allister: That sounds like an invaluable experience.

Dirk: It was. I moved to De Morgenzon with Carl van der Merwe before he left for Canada. Working there was a nice shift because De Morgenzon’s approach to winemaking is quite different. After a few years, I joined Saxenburg. I wasn't planning on moving, but then Luke left Glenelly, and Glenelly has always been a place I admired. When the opportunity opened up, I couldn’t resist. I've been there for a little more than a year and a half now, and it's been an exciting journey.

Allister: We're looking forward to tasting more of your wines. When did you move to Glenelly?

Dirk: I moved to Glenelly at the end of 2022. The 2023 vintage was my first vintage there, which was quite a baptism by fire with the challenging weather conditions. But it's been great.

Allister: It's also interesting to hear about your background. You seem to have really immersed yourself in viticulture.

Dirk: Yes, I had to learn on the fly, working with experienced farmers and new ones taking over family farms. Seeing the progression from vineyard to wine and understanding the unique characteristics of each site was very satisfying. Every site has something that works for it, and I enjoy figuring that out.

Allister: You need to remove your ego and listen to what the site wants to produce, don't you?

Dirk: Exactly. As a winemaker, you must remove your ego and be open to what each site can give. It's about interpreting the site’s unique characteristics and expressing them in the wine. Even with minimal intervention, there’s always some level of intervention. Every winemaker will make a different wine from the same site, and that’s the exciting part.

Allister: Wine is the perfect blend of science and art.

Dirk: Yes, it is. The human hand is a part of terroir. You can't remove the traditions of a place or how things are done. In South Africa, we've moved from trying to copy other regions to embracing our own unique characteristics. The industry has progressed rapidly, and there’s now a collaborative spirit that benefits everyone.

Allister: That's how new regions get discovered or rediscovered. It’s about collaboration.

Dirk: Absolutely. Collaboration is key. When one producer does well, it benefits everyone. The industry has become more open, and that's fantastic.

Allister: Let’s dive into the story of Glenelly and the wines you produce there. How did Glenelly come to be?

Dirk: Glenelly was a fruit farm until 2003. Madam May de Lencquesaing, former owner of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande in Bordeaux, fell in love with South Africa and saw its potential. In 2003, at 78 years old, she bought Glenelly, a 120-hectare farm with no vineyards. She started planting vineyards in 2004 and built the cellar in 2008. Her vision and drive are incredible. The first vintage of Lady May was in 2008, and despite the short history, Glenelly has built a strong reputation.

Allister: It’s inspiring to hear about her determination and vision. Let’s taste the 2016 and 2017 Lady May and continue our conversation.

Dirk: Sure, let's get those wines in the glass.

Allister: Now that we have the wines poured, can you tell us a bit more about what makes these vintages unique?

Dirk: Absolutely. The 2016 vintage was a challenging one due to the drought conditions, but it resulted in wines with great concentration and structure. The 2017 vintage, on the other hand, benefited from a more balanced growing season, producing wines with elegance and complexity. Both vintages showcase the terroir of Glenelly and the meticulous care we put into our winemaking.

Allister: As we taste these wines, the differences are quite remarkable. What are some of the key characteristics we should be noticing?

Dirk: For the 2016 Lady May, you should notice intense aromas of dark fruit, cassis, and a hint of spice. On the palate, it’s bold with firm tannins and a long, lingering finish. The 2017 Lady May, meanwhile, offers more floral and red fruit notes, with a softer, more approachable tannin structure and a balanced acidity that makes it quite elegant.

Allister: Both wines are fantastic, and it's clear how much effort and passion go into each bottle. What are your plans for the future at Glenelly?

Dirk: Our focus remains on producing high-quality wines that reflect our unique terroir. We’re constantly experimenting and refining our techniques to push the boundaries of what we can achieve. We also aim to expand our presence both locally and internationally, sharing the story of Glenelly and our wines with a broader audience.

Allister: It’s exciting to see where you’ll take Glenelly in the coming years. Thank you for sharing your journey and insights with us today. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like our listeners to know?

Dirk: Just that wine is a journey of discovery. Every bottle tells a story, and we hope that when people drink Glenelly wines, they feel a connection to our land, our history, and our passion. Thank you for having me, and I look forward to sharing more wines with everyone in the future.

Allister: Thank you, DK. It’s been a pleasure. Cheers to Glenelly and to many more great vintages to come.

Dirk: Cheers!



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