Chris Williams, 36, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and initially went to school to study law. But like most folks in the wine business, he got bit by the bug without looking for it, and wound up a winemaker. After graduating Elsenburg College in Stellenbosch, Williams apprenticed with Giorgio Dalla Cia, the longtime winemaker at Meerlust, one of the country's most historic estates. In 1997, he also spent a vintage with Michel Rolland in Pomerol and St.-Emilion.
Williams worked with Dalla Cia for six years, leaving in 2000 to set up operations for a more commercial operation in South Africa. In 2001, Williams opened The Foundry, his own boutique operation, which sources wines from small parcels of vines. He was also working at Delaire winery in Stellenbosch when Meerlust owner Hannes Myburgh offered him the cellar master position at Meerlust after Giorgio Dalla Cia decided to retire. Williams returned to the estate in 2004, and vinified his first vintage there as head winemaker in 2005.
Wine Spectator: What got you interested in being a winemaker?
Chris Williams: I think it was the idea that something so life-affirming as wine was so deeply affected by the soils and climate in which the grapes grow, and that, as a practitioner of this craft, I could have a role in being part of that process. That, and the connected, meaningful relationship you can have with the cycles of nature.
WS: Who have been your biggest influences as a winemaker?
CW: Definitely Giorgio Dalla Cia and Michel Rolland. Giorgio for his affection for the classic French wines and Michel for his technical mastery and understanding of terroir. Then my great friend Richard Kelley for access to his cellar and constant encouragement. Apart from them, Lalou Bize-Leroy, Gérard Chave, Brian Croser and Paul Draper.
WS: Those are two rather different approaches to wine—the modern Rolland and the traditional Dalla Cia. Did you take more from one than the other? Or did you synthesize the two?
CW: Indeed, on the face of it there are differences between Rolland and Dalla Cia, but I think a respect for terroir is the unifying factor. The differences arise in how to express and accentuate the terroir: The modernist uses all available techniques and analysis while the traditionalist uses more gut feel. With the radical improvement in analysis techniques over the last 20 years, both for wine and for soils, climate, etc., more information is available today to the winemaker. The hard part is choosing which information is best adapted to a specific terroir, this is where gut feel and experience play a role. So yes, I think I would say I try to take the best of both approaches, because there are no recipes or sacred cows in the quest for great, terroir-defined wine.
WS: What is it about South Africa that you like?
CW: The fact that we are still on a vertical learning curve and therefore there is opportunity to contribute. We are still jostling among ourselves to sort out which sites are really great and which are just OK. There is no wine aristocracy and therefore plenty of scope for the dedicated and hard working.
WS: And that you wish you could change?
CW: The inequality and divisions amongst our people.
WS: What are your favorite food pairings with The Foundry Syrah and with Meerlust Rubicon?
CW: I believe that really fine wine pairs best with simple, wholesome food prepared from the best fresh ingredients. So with The Foundry Syrah it would be barbequed rack of lamb with rosemary. The Rubicon is superb with peppered Karoo Springbok filet with soy and bok choi.
WS: What is your favorite wine, other than one of your own?
CW: There is a long list, but if I had to choose, it would be Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage or Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny.
WS: If you could be one other person in the wine industry for one day, who would it be, and why?
CW: Aubert de Villaine, of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, to open up, taste and share some of those mythical bottles.