Bruwer Raats: A Vision of Multitudes

As a winemaker, Bruwer Raats is a guy the American poet Walt Whitman would define as one containing multitudes. Wine brand builder. Son of the vineyard soil. Engaging conversationalist and promotor extraordinaire of his acclaimed wines. And now South African Winemaker of the Year, as per Tim Atkin, MW in his 2023 Special Report on South African wines.

But I’ll always remember Bruwer’s thing with rocks. First time we met for a wine chat some two decades back I expected this hearty fellow Afrikaner to braai me some wors, haul out a few bottles and chew the fat on wine and life and the world, and all that stuff. After all, I know a kindred spirit when I see one.

What I got instead was being hauled to a quiet top-level room in Bruwer’s house on Polkdadraai in Stellenbosch to look at a row of rocks placed on a gleaming wooden counter. Here were diversely shaped chunks of granite, slivers of slate and clods of shale. Then there followed a lecture on how soil and rocks and earth affect wine – and not any wine, but the wines he was then making, and continues to make. Only difference between now and back then, is the levels of success those bottles of Raats wines have accumulated locally and internationally, both commercially as well as in terms of critical acclaim.

And his hands have always been in the soil. “My father was a high school principal and wherever we moved to, he made sure to have a big garden,” says Raats. “Myself and my brother Jasper would work the garden with him, or just us two, growing vegetables and stuff. We were not a farming family, but those gardens got my mind going about soil and plants. Add this to the fact that my parents liked do drink wine and share it with us kids from an early age, and winemaking slipped onto my radar pretty easily.”

Despite this love of land and its rocks, vines and slopes, Bruwer was from the outset clear on his vision of not wanting to own a wine farm. With the benefit of hindsight and the realities of how the Cape wine industry has developed over the past three decades it can assuredly be said that when graduating from Elsenburg Agriculture College back in 1995, Bruwer was ahead of his time.

“Back then the concept of a winemaker starting his or her own brand was no industry convention,” says Bruwer. “But this is what I planned to do, the only plan. To make the best wines I wanted to make under my family name without huge investments in vineyards or wineries.”

To realise this vision, he sought experience in other parts of the world. America for the cellar technology and winemaking logistics. Germany for a scientific and very meticulous approach to viticulture. And Italy to experience the passion and personable approach of tradition and the role family and people play in making wine the cultured product it is.

Back in South Africa he did some work in the cellars of others, most notably Blaauwklippen, Delaire and Zorgvliet, but when the first own-label Raats Family wines rolled out in 2000, Bruwer’s journey to the very top echelon of the South African wine offering began.

“My focus on Chenin Blanc came at the right time, as this was at the beginning of the Chenin-revolution that saw people like Irina von Holdt and Ken Forrester take this work-horse of the Cape wine industry and turn it into what I believe the country’s most distinctive and alluring white wine,” says Bruwer, modestly not claiming the rightful role of Raats Family Wines in elevating Chenin Blanc to new levels of excellence and acclaim.

He loves Chenin Blanc’s ability to express a sense of place, in Bruwer’s case the Polkadraai Hills region in Stellenbosch. “People thought I was crazy with my commitment to Polkadraai when starting out,” he smiles. “Back then it was the arse-end of Stellenbosch wine country more known for vegetables and bulk wine production. But I have always believed in that region’s fantastic granite and dolomite soils that are more rugged and visceral in expressing the site through the vines. Until today, Polkadraai is the home of Raats Family Wines where I work closely with growers to get the grapes I want for my style.”

And in dolomite and granite Chenin Blanc can trust. As Raats Family Wines has shown over the years, the brand’s various wines express enticing degrees of variation, but all united in their steely mineral grip and energetic fruit core.

On the red side, Bruwer is known as a pioneer of Cabernet Franc, the old Loire and Bordeaux variety that way back in France, teamed up with Sauvignon Blanc to create Cabernet Sauvignon.

“I was working at Blaauwklippen in the late 1990s and came across a barrel of red with a perfume and sensual palate, the likes of which I had not experienced in Stellenbosch,” he recalls. “Upon learning this barrel was Cabernet Franc I had that ‘right, that’s it’ moment. Chenin Blanc on the white for Raats Family Wines, and Cabernet Franc on the red.”

Suffice to say that while there were only a handful or Cabernet Francs when Raats Family Wines started off, it is currently one of the most talked-about red varieties in the South African diaspora and rapidly becoming a sought-after calling card for the Cape on the local and international wine scene.

Oh, and there was the fruition of Bruwer’s vision to create an icon wine, a red Bordeaux style blend which he launched in 2004 with Mzokhona Mveme. Not only a cult wine emerged, but one of the first true partnerships between black and white wine personalities. MR Compostella it’s called, and from release it has been talked about in revered circles, being one of the consistently excellent wines that resulted in Atkin confirming Winemaker of the Year Status on Bruwer.

“It’s been an amazing journey thus far and awards like these are for sure a great honour,” says Bruwer. “My name might be on the bottle, but it’s all a team effort. This includes the growers of my grapes, the Mvemve Raats partnership and my cousin and partner Gavin Bruwer Slabbert who oversees all the vineyard management and winemaking production of our brands Raats Family Wines, Bruwer Vintners and Mvemve Raats. The most rewarding is knowing that I took decisions I wanted to take that proved to be the right ones. For my business, my family, my team as well as the people that appreciate South African wine and recognise its status as being among the best the world can offer.”

A lot of fat worth chewing.

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