The sky’s the limit: Rüdger van Wyk

If you want to see who a winemaker is, interview him in his bakkie. Add the vineyards he tends to the scenery that whips by and you’re golden. Rüdger van Wyk chats casually, pointing out the divergent vineyard sites, which make the wines of Stark-Condé so distinct. We lurch up a dirt track carved into the side of the mountain, up to the famed Three Pines, which loom on a hill, giving the name to a nearby cabernet sauvignon vineyard. To the back of this is the Oude Nektar (the farm’s original name) single-vineyard cabernet site.

Stark-Condé is located in the Jonkershoek Valley in Stellenbosch, the vineyard elevations range from 150 to 600 metres. Having reached the top we take in the altitudinous aspects and feel the cool Atlantic breeze on our skin. At just 29-years-old Rüdger’s trajectory is almost as dizzying as the slopes surrounding us. Not only are his wines consistently highly rated by the world’s top critics, but he was also awarded the Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year 2018.

Immediately likeable, Rüdger has the type of personality thathints atbear hugs and braais with friends. He’s not afraid to speak his mind or share his stories. He grew up in George along the Garden Route of the Western Cape. And while Stellenbosch may have been only a few hours’ drive away, to achieve a position as head winemaker at one of the top estates in a highly competitive industry shows just the kind of steel he has beneath all that charming affability.

From the moment he could he pursued a career in wine. He achieved a degree in BSc Viticulture and Oenology from the University of Stellenbosch, and in his fourth year of studying he was approached to take part in the Cape Winemaker’s Guild Protégé Programme.

The Protégé Programme is a 3-year internship, which provides aspirant winemakers and viticulturists the opportunity to work alongside and be mentored by the members of the Guild. For Rüdger this meant a coveted internship at Kanonkop, under the guidance of Abrie Beeslaar, one of the Cape’s most iconic red winemakers.

“To this day I regard him as a mentor, he drove home the mantra of excellence in winemaking,” shares Rüdger.

His mission was to also build up experience. “So that one day when applying for a job, I would at least have covered both premium red wine and white wine production.”

In his second year he moved to Nitida wine estate, to learn more about cooler climate white wine making.

“I was also lucky to do a harvest in Burgundy, where I completely fell in love with wine and that passion still drives me to this day.”

Out of the sun and swaying bakkie – and into the cool, Zen-like tasting room, which is positioned under a weeping willow on a platform on the farm’s dam.

“The wines should always bring you back to the glass. Balance and drinkability are the cornerstones of what we do,” shares Rüdger. I keep my sulphur levels low, and concentrate on building in texture.”

Rüdger’s careful hand and the distinct Jonkershoek terroir are both evident throughout the Stark-Condé portfolio.

Those who shy away from overly acidic sauvignon blancs will be more than pleasantly surprised by the Round Mountain Sauvignon Blanc 2019. Grapes are picked from a 28-year-old vineyard and then traditionally made with barrel fermentation and lees ageing for added texture and complexity. Cool stone fruit, a fine-boned creamy texture and a long saline finish characterise this wine, a soft cleansing acid buoys up the fruit and keeps you going back to the glass.

I’ve long been a fan of the Field Blend (2019) made from an interplanted block. It’s the first vineyard at ground level and is planted in a spear-shape. Made up of a disparate mix of soils, this was troubleshot by planting the site as a blend of chenin blanc, roussanne, verdelho and viognier. The grapes are all picked at the same time, pressed and barrel fermented together. Naturally being different cultivars, the grapes are at different ripeness levels when picked, this lends a kaleidoscopic nature to the acids, layered and enlivening. The brightness of the chenin is a shooting star, rounded out by the richer, more subtle varieties.

The Stellenbosch Syrah 2017 tells the story of its site, vines growing in fist-sized river stones, the red fruit, concentrated and pure. While the Three Pines Syrah 2017 leans more towards the Old World style, dark and perfumed, heady with violets.

Kanonkop alumni that he is, it’s no surprise that Rüdger is gaining a lot of attention for his cabs and cab blends. The pinnacle of these the Oude Nektar Bordeaux Blend 2016, with the majority of fruit coming from a cab site of the same name – high up where the eagles carve through the sky. The third vintage of this wine has a hint of petit verdot and malbec as well as some premium cab from other sites on the farm.

Immediately fine, there’s a freshness born of altitude, of granite and clay soils. Nimble yet concentrated, there’s a deft athleticism to the wine. Layered, transparent tannins as seamless and firm as snakeskin frame dark, brooding fruit; pulling into a long, flinty finish.

Along with the Stark-Condé wines Rüdger has embarked on a joint venture called Kara-Tara with José Conde. A change of pace from the Stellenbosch wines, this brand will focus on sourcing pinot noir and chardonnay from cool-climate vineyards.

I wonder if Rüdger ever feels like he can touch the sky when walking through those vineyards high up in the Jonkershoek. My guess is that the cosmic ceiling is still a way off yet; Rüdger is a winemaker who is clearly demonstrating that even greater heights await him.
Malu Lambert, Fables from the Farmlands

Accolades and counting…

  • 2015 Oude Nektar 91 points, Wine Advocate
  • 2015 Oude Nektar 98/100, Tim Atkin MW’s South Africa Special Report
  • 2016 Oude Nektar 96/100, Tim Atkin MW’s South Africa Special Report
  • 2017 Three Pines Cabernet 95/100, Tim Atkin MW’s South Africa Special Report
  • 2017 Three Pines Cabernet 91 points, Wine Spectator
  • 2016 Three Pines Cabernet 91 points, Wine Spectator
  • 2015 Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Top 100 Wines, Wine Enthusiast
  • 2017 Three Pines Syrah 92 points, Wine Spectator