David Finlayson, 35, is the head winemaker at South Africa's Glen Carlou, where he makes outstanding Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Finlayson is a third-generation wine professional, taking over the winemaking duties from his father, Walter, in 1996.
After serving his year of compulsory service in the South Africa military, Finlayson studied winemaking at Elsenburg College in Stellenbosch, graduating in 1993. He then apprenticed in Australia and France (working at Château Margaux in 1995) before returning to his homeland. Today he is one of the country's most energetic winemakers, overseeing an annual production of 65,000 cases at Glen Carlou, which is owned by Donald Hess of California's the Hess Collection.
Wine Spectator: You grew up on a wine farm, Blaauwklippen. What are some of your first memories of the wine industry?
David Finlayson: I have fond memories of running barefoot amongst the tanks and causing general mayhem. One incident I remember in particular was when I was 11 years old and fascinated with the workings of equipment in the winery, I proceeded to open the valve on a 12,000-liter tank and was washed off my feet by the Pinot Noir that came gushing out!
WS: What was your first vintage in the wine business?
DF: I helped my dad make the 1991 harvest at Glen Carlou as a student on weekends and after classes. The first wines were made in a half-finished winery without a roof and it was wonderful looking at the stars at night, although hot as hell during the day!
WS: What got you interested in being a winemaker?
DF: To be honest, I contemplated journalism, particularly conflict journalism. Perhaps due to my military training, I enjoyed the thrill and rush of life-threatening situations. But then one night my father took me to a wine tasting where I first tasted all five Bordeaux first-growths from the 1982 and 1983 vintages and it was the 1982 Château Margaux that opened my eyes to what really great wine tasted like. I was pretty much done with the idea of dodging bullets after that.
WS: Who have been your biggest influences as a winemaker?
DF: Obviously my father, who is a real gentleman, a man of integrity and soft spokenness. His 45-plus years of experience in the making of wine have stood me in good stead in many difficult situations. Andrew Wiggan of Peter Lehmann wines and Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux would be the other two people who have influenced me a lot in my winemaking philosophy.
WS: As a winemaker, what is it about South Africa that you like? And what do you wish you could change?
DF: Winemaking in South Africa is so easy in terms of climate. We really are spoiled with virtually great vintages every year. We have great soils and the potential in discovering new terroirs and varietal matchups make it a haven for the entrepreneur and wine explorer.
The negatives are that, worldwise, it's a small industry, historically dogged with internal politics between the two big wine companies and the many smaller wineries. There is very little major investment [in South Africa] like you see in Europe or the U.S.A. I'm fortunate to be working for a great company such as the Hess Group who are investing in South Africa at a time when many sit on the sidelines and watch.
WS: What is your favorite food pairing with Glen Carlou's Syrah?
DF: Without a doubt, seared loin of springbok in a wild berry reduction sauce on polenta. Springbok is a small antelope with very tender meat, it feeds on bushes in the semi-desert areas of South Africa and these bushes often given it a great herbal infused flavor which goes so well with the wild berry flavors of Glen Carlou Syrah.
WS: What is your favorite wine, other than one of your own?
DF: What a question. The world is so full of great wine, and I'll never get through tasting and drinking all the wines I love, but if I were to single out a few of the wines I could drink on a desert island, it would be Château Margaux, Vega Sicilia Unico and Domaine Jacques Prieur Le Montrachet. If it were only South African wine, I'd probably go for Cape Point Isliedh.
WS: If you could be one other person in the wine business for one day, who would it be, and why?
DF: Paul Pontallier, without a doubt. What a job, running one of the world's finest wineries that is based upon such a beautiful and historically rich estate. To me Château Margaux is the Holy Grail of wine. It may not always be the biggest or best-rated wine from Bordeaux, but it is always the most elegant, and Paul Pontallier is one of the finest gentlemen to ever walk in the vineyards of Margaux!
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