The Verburgs of Luddite Wines in Botrivier have always struck me as a picture-book family. There is Niels, the blonde Viking of a man standing six foot four in his socks, his diminutive dark-haired wife, Penny, and three individualistic children – Daisy, Alice and Kim – each a curious blend of their parents’ genes. What they all share is a certain joie de vivre and a confidence that comes from being happy in your own skin – and in your own life.
This family’s life is firmly planted in the soil of Botrivier – to be specific, on the top of a hill above the Van der Stel Pass, where the wine cellar and tasting room are perched, just a stone’s throw from the family home. Here, on a large verandah that overlooks the vineyards and the valley, with the small town of Botrivier visible in the distance, many an occasion has been celebrated with the trademark charm and hospitality of Luddite Wines.
A recent cause for celebration was the release of Niels’s latest vintage, the Luddite Shiraz 2015, as well as It’s a Shiraz 2017, a wine made by, surprise, surprise… Alice Verburg, Niels and Penny’s 23-year-old ‘middle child’, who’s clearly a chip off the old block. Alice has been working alongside her father since 2017. “The wines have benefitted from a feminine touch,” declared the proud papa bear.
According to Alice, It’s a Shiraz 2017 was a deliberate attempt to break away from the “seriousness and snobbyness” of wine. “It’s an experimental wine for me. I made the decision to make it on the morning the grapes came in – one bin for me to play with,” said Alice with a big smile.
After vinification the wine spent a year in barrel and another in bottle prior to release. The wine is light purple in colour with tones of violet. On the nose, it has spice, vibrant dark fruit and a hint of sweet cinnamon. The palate is balanced, showing juicy red fruit with more spice and a smooth, long tannic finish. So, definitely something to smile about. “It’s suitable to drink now, but also has ageing potential even though it has low sulphur; the good, natural acidity will look after that,” said Alice.
Luddite began life in 2000 when Niels and Penny bought the small 17ha property and started to transform the wild slopes into a beautiful farm.
The couple had met back in 1985 when they were both students at Elsenburg Agricultural College. After graduating, they left the country in 1989 and spent the next few years travelling the globe, with Niels working as a flying winemaker in France, Greece, Chile, New Zealand and Australia. When they returned in 1995, Niels joined Beaumont Wines in Botrivier, where he was the winemaker for eight vintages.
After acquiring their own farm, just a short distance up the Van der Stel Pass from Beaumont, there was plenty of work to be done and no time to waste. In fact, the release of the first Luddite Shiraz came that year too, from bought-in grapes. Vines were planted the following year. In 2002, a barrel-and-wine storage shed was built.
It was only after a house was finally erected that the Verburgs moved in, with three kids and six dogs. More Shiraz plantings followed, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre. The first vintage containing the farm’s own grapes came in 2004.
“The year 2009 was a big one with lots of excitement as our own cellar came to fruition. Before we put the tanks in, we held an indoor hockey tournament to christen the cellar properly,” recalled Niels. “We also used 100% of our own grapes in that year, a requirement for the Luddite label since.”
Within a short time, Luddite had established a firm reputation as a producer of great wines made with integrity and minimal interference. Luddite was the name given to 19th century workmen who destroyed labour-saving machinery. By now, Shiraz-lovers understood the name suited Penny and Niels’ passion for artisanal excellence, rather than wine mechanisation.
Niels’s love of Shiraz was confirmed when working a harvest in Australia, but it was a winery in Chile that inspired his wine-making method. “It was as if I’d gone back 20 years; it was ramshackle and chaotic, but they had great fruit and passion and I’d never seen that quality of wine,” he said.
“The nitty gritty of good winemaking is to have good grapes, good yeast and good barrels. Being hi-tech and cutting edge isn’t important to me. When you go into a winery and see the centrifuges and reverse osmosis, it’s like going into the kitchen of a top restaurant and seeing a microwave; you think: ‘Hey, that’s not right!’”
The Luddite Shiraz 2015 stems from a harvest that signalled the start of a long, dry spell in the Western Cape. “Due to the dryness and heat towards the end of the growing season, the vintage is our smallest to date. We picked both our old block and young block together for the first time and, as depressing as it was to look at, the whole farm fitted into one tank.”
A highlight of the actual winemaking was that being a smaller crop, the wine retained “unbelievable fruit intensity”, said Niels. Various wood combinations were part of the process that led to this excellent wine, a dark, cherry-coloured Shiraz with a nose of spice and scrubland, cloves and dark cherry fruit. On the palate, it’s fresh, dry and spicy with dark fruit and cinnamon sticks. There’s hay, leaves and liquorice on the mid-palate with a refreshing, long, dry finish.
“There’s been an improvement every year,” said Niels. “The ultimate goal would be a perfect wine, but of course that doesn’t exist.”
Luddite Wines is open for tastings on weekdays from 09:00 to 16:00 and by appointment on weekends. Contact the farm on 028 284 9308 or send an email to Penny@luddite.co.za.