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Wine Star: Jean Engelbrecht

South African star champions his country's changing wine scene
Photo by: Deepix Studio
Jean Engelbrecht's humility and humor endeared him to the Wine Experience crowd.

Owen Dugan
Posted: October 26, 2015

After South Africa’s wine market reopened to the world in the 1990s, the now 300-plus-year-old Rust en Vrede winery in Stellenbosch was among the country’s earliest to crack Wine Spectator's Top 100, in 2000—and it has made multiple additional appearances on the list since. Proprietor Jean Engelbrecht showed why it has garnered such acclaim, presenting the Rust en Vrede 1694 Classification Stellenbosch 2007 (93 points) to Wine Experience guests.

Introducing the veteran vintner, Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth said, “His previous careers were airline pilot and rugby star, and they’ve served him well: He’s been the ambassador for the wines of South Africa, and he’s been a team player all along. He’s even helped others get into the business, like his childhood friend pro golfer Ernie Els.”

Engelbrecht, on the other hand, showed personal humility and national pride. “When I saw the list of names of people speaking here this week, I was the only one I’d never heard of,” he quipped. During his short speech, he twice invoked the great natural beauty of his country, and of Stellenbosch in particular.

The country’s wine regions have nevertheless had a bumpy ride, Engelbrecht said. After apartheid ended, accompanied by a lot of hype, “We brought our wines to the U.S. only to find people here were disappointed by them. People said, ‘Is this the best that they can offer?’ At the same time, we realized in South Africa as winemakers we’d fallen behind the rest of the world.” As a result of working in a closed market, “We had tunnel vision.”

But a new generation of vintners opened up to the international palate and embraced modern winemaking techniques. The results are profound: “We’ve come a long way since 1994, when we became a fully fledged democracy,” he said. “People call us an emerging market; I say we’re a re-emerging market.”

The 1694 bottling, introduced to the winery’s lineup by Engelbrecht and named after the founding year of the winery, is 60 percent Shiraz, 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The planting of just three varieties at Rust en Vrede shows their focus: “We only work with three varieties: Cabernet, Shiraz and Merlot,” Engelbrecht explained. “My father told me, ‘There is too much to understand about one variety. Why would you litter the place with 10 varieties?’”

Learn more about South African wine, Rust en Vrede and Jean Engelbrecht:

At a Crossroads: South Africa Reinvents Itself (July 31, 2013, cover story)
Video: South Africa's Rust en Vrede
Blogs: James Molesworth's South Africa Diary—Rust en Vrede

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