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Cheers to Elizma Visser, the first female Young Winemaker of the Year

The woman behind the wines at Olifantsberg Family Vineyards was lauded in Tim Atkin's influential SA Special Report. She tells us how it feels

16 September 2021 - 09:05
Elizma Visser has been named Young Winemaker of the Year in the 2021 Tim Atkin South Africa Special Report.
Elizma Visser has been named Young Winemaker of the Year in the 2021 Tim Atkin South Africa Special Report.
Image: Supplied

“No other wine industry has made such strides, no other wine industry possesses such energy or excitement,” writes UK-based Master of Wine, Tim Atkin, on his website as he reflects on the production of his ninth annual SA Special Report of the local wine industry.

The 2021 edition of this influential guide was released last week. In it, Atkin scores SA sips and hands out awards in categories such as White Wine Discovery of the Year and Best Cellar Door Experience.

This year’s Young Winemaker of the Year is Elizma Visser of Olifantsberg Family Vineyards in Breedekloof in the Western Cape.

She tells us how it feels to be the first woman to have been awarded this honour:

What’s it like as a young woman to be named Young Winemaker of the Year in an industry dominated by men?

It feels incredible. An international recognition like this award sheds a lot of light on female winemakers in general. There are more female winemakers in senior positions today than ever before. I am really proud and honoured to have received this amazing title.

Why do you believe you were named Young Winemaker of the Year?

I believe consistency plays a major role. Our entire range of wines has scored 90+ points out of 100 [in the Tim Atkin SA Special Report] for the past few years.

I have been investing a lot of my energy into our vineyards in the past five years and the wines speak for themselves. I believe that you can “grow” really good wine but there is also a little bit of “magic” needed to create wines that score above 94 points.

There are more women entering the SA wine industry. Do you believe they are offered the same opportunities as men?

It is always exciting to see new young female winemakers entering the industry. The opportunities are out there and I think it’s a question of opening yourself up to new challenges and possibilities.

Opportunity presents itself in different forms and it comes down to the individual to grab hold of it. Staying open-minded and being adaptable is really important in our industry.  

What made you choose a career as a winemaker?

I absolutely love the outdoors and getting my hands dirty (literally). This morning I was fixing a farm tractor! I am also a creative thinker and lover of science. If you combine all of the above, I think I made a good decision.

Olifantsberg Family Vineyards is in a unique location with very dry conditions. Describe the area and why it’s good for winemaking?

The vineyards and winery are on the rocky slopes of the Olifantsberg Mountain overlooking the Breedekloof Valley. They endure big daily temperature swings and strong winds throughout the year.

In the summer, these constant winds have a cooling effect on the vines, which helps to ensure the slow ripening of the grapes and in turn contributes to the freshness [of our wines].

The northwesterly aspect of our vineyards ensures there's enough sun exposure to fully ripen the grapes, while the higher altitudes (300m–500m above sea level) ensure slightly cooler growing conditions.

Our vineyards are also surrounded by Breede Shale Renosterveld vegetation, which helps create a natural biodiversity within and around our vineyards.

Atkins described the wines of that area as New World wines. What are New World wines?

They are wines produced outside the traditional wine-growing areas and as we aren’t in the typical wine regions of SA, we do make New World wines.

What varieties of wines do you make — and do you have  a favourite?

We specialise in Rhone varietals (Syrah, Grenache noir, Carignan, Mourvedre, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc). These varieties are very well suited for the growing conditions on our farm. We also work with chenin blanc and pinotage. Both work really well on our farm but also in the Breedekloof area.

I love working with all of these varietals as each one has its own special contribution to make within our range of wines. That said, Roussanne has a hold on my heart.

In celebrating being named as Young Winemaker of the Year, what wine/bubbles did you drink?

Graham Beck MCC and Chassagne-Montrachet chardonnay ... I am actually still celebrating.

You’ve been at Olifantsberg Family Vineyards since 2015. What's next for the Young Winemaker of the Year?

Building on my absolute love and intrigue of vineyards, focusing on sustainability and pushing the envelope with our wines. There will be some new varieties on the horizon soon.