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SA Wine Legends: Beyers Truter

The clatter of dogs’ paws on polished screed leave an aural wake behind Beyers Truter as he walks to his study on Beyerskloof Wine Farm. It’s a sound that’s followed the Pinotage King most of his life. He can scarcely remember a time when he didn’t have a canine companion. Like characters in an epic tale he tells me all about them from behind his desk. 

Beyers has enjoyed an award-strewn career during both his tenure at Kanonkop (over two decades) as well as at his eponymous family-run farm, Beyerskloof. He’s also the founder and chairman of the Pinotage Association.

Clad in shorts (even though it’s raining outside), he’s evenly tanned from plenty of time spent outdoors mountain biking, crayfish diving and vineyard walking. He’s the picture of vitality. The only hint of his 62 years lies in the hue of his neatly trimmed white beard. 

The Jack Russels, Milo and Cleo settle at his feet. “I once had a staffie called Jock, of course,” he says with a smile. “There was Hinza, a ridgeback.” 

“The most famous was Diesel, who we made a wine for [Beyerskloof Diesel Pinotage]. He was a 95kg boerboel—big dogs have this aura about them. When he died I cried for two weeks.”

Not just in wine, Beyers also seeks solace in the written word. “In times of trouble I will often sit down and write early in the morning.” When asked what he writes about, he’s expansive; from stories about people (and dogs) to a song about pinotage, which was recorded by good friend Koos Kombuis.

There’s an ode to Diesel framed on the wall among the signed rugby shirts. It begins:
‘Diesel was nie ‘n hond nie, baie meer. Hy was ‘n MOERSE Groot hond met ‘n hart van goud, oë soos ‘n leeu, balle van staal en taande soos ‘n scalpel…”

Translated from Afrikaans this reads: "Diesel was not a dog, he was much more. He was a HUGE big dog with a heart of gold, eyes like a lion, balls of steel and teeth like a scalpel…”

I’m not surprised at the mention of a scalpel, considering that Beyers once nursed ambitions of becoming a doctor. He spent his younger days in Oudtshoorn, before his family moved to Cape Town for father’s work, an administrator for hospitals. After school he found his studies weren’t working out on the medical front, so he chose his next love, wine. 

“Even in varsity while everyone was drinking beer or brandy, you would find me with a glass of red.” He graduated in 1978 from the University of Stellenbosch with a B.Sc.Agric. and then it was time to find work.

Getting into the industry at first was tough. He harboured a dream of one day working at Kanonkop.  He applied for a number of jobs and ended up in the table grapes industry for a little while. Then, a simple trip to go buy some bread saw his wishes being answered. 

While buying bread in a shop just down the road from the flat he shared with his wife in Stellenbosch, he bumped into an acquaintance that told him he had just been offered the job as winemaker at Kanonkop. The winemaker in question was uncertain he wanted it, so Beyers said to him: “I’ve got no experience but I want that job!

“I was interviewed in the same place I brought the bread.” He was at Kanonkop from 1981 to 2003. “That’s a lifetime.

“I loved it from the word go. Even the various challenges for me have always been opportunities.”

During his time there Beyerskloof also took root in 1988. “When I put my hands in the soil, I just wanted a piece of it for myself.” 

“The industry helped me start my farm,” says Beyers. “On your own nothing is possible, you need people. I was gifted so many things to start my cellar and I am so grateful for all the support I had.” 

These days his son, Anri Truter, is the winemaker at Beyerskloof, while his daughter Corné manages the estate’s eatery, The Red Leaf Restaurant. 

“It’s a blessing—and an achievement,” says Beyers speaking of his children’s decision to continue with the family business. “It’s their choice—if they wanted to do something else I would never stand in their way.”  

Another proud moment says Beyers was when his son won the same award—the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year—as he did, 25 years apart.

Speaking of awards, Beyers reminisces about winning The Warren Winiarski Trophy for Best Cabernet Sauvignon. He says that one of his colleagues had lost his shoe in the punch down of that particular wine. “We looked for the shoe, but we couldn’t find it. But we won the award!”

“We tried the shoe again the next year, but it didn’t work that time,” he laughs.

Shoes aside, Beyers said the turning point for pinotage was when they won The Robert Mondavi Trophy for International Winemaker of the Year. “That was the first year I used new oak with pinotage”

“I learnt the technique from Frans Malan—who was doing it way before me.”

He then went on to start the Pinotage Association in 1995, with the idea of creating a platform for marketing, dissemination of information—and experimentation.

“In the beginning of the Absa Top 10 Pinotage [the annual competition of the pinotage association, which has been running for 21 years], there were about four wines we could really put at the top—but these days, we could change the name to the Absa Top 30 Pinotage. There has been such a massive shift in quality—and it’s clear to see that winemakers are truly in sync with their terroirs. 

Beyers himself is in sync with his vineyards. “I still make wine in the old style. Though they only let me in the cellar at night-time,” he laughs. “During harvest my shifts starts at midnight and will go to 6am, I do this three times a week during harvest. “I’m also the experimental winemaker. Testament to this is his Cape Blend called, Traildust a blend of Pinotage, Pinot noir and Cinsaut.
 
Another important part of his life is upliftment work. One of his projects is The FAITH Fund, which aims to make as many people as possible aware of the dangers of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and of ways to prevent it. 

He has some grand plans afoot. “Next year I’m going to concentrate on getting a Pinotage classification. The last classification was for Saint-Émilion in 1955.  I was born in ’55; it must be a sign.
 
“Watch this space,” he says with a smile as he leaves to go pick up one of his four grandchildren from school; with those paws clattering after him down the hall.

-Malu Lambert