SA Wine Legends: Carel Nel

“My grandmother was a Cloete,” says Carel Nel, owner and patriarch of Boplaas Family Vineyards. He tells me this fact as a reference to our surroundings, the famed and historic Groot Constantia (the estate was home to the Cloetes for five generations).

We’re outside the Jonkershuis Restaurant, sitting at a table, positioned on rough cobblestones. The air around us is practically tactile with history. It’s almost a living thing. It’s this connection, which prompted Nel to hold an event showcasing the estate’s wares to the wine media today. “Keeping the family ties alive,” he says with a smile. A nod to this history is Boplaas’s Ouma Cloete Straw Wine—made in the same style as Groot Constantia’s Grand Constance.

Nel tells me he’s “62 and a half”, broad-shouldered and white-haired, he’s engaging, with an ever-present humour simmering beneath the surface. I can’t help but picture him around a braai, a glass of red wine in hand, surrounded by family in friends.

He continues: “After the phylloxera epidemic destroyed these vineyards in the late 19th century, our family moved inland and settled in Calitzdorp.” Groot Constantia is not the only famous farm in this family’s lineage, in 1690 ancestor Guillaume Nel was the proprietor of Blaauwklippen in Stellenbosch.

Boplaas range with older labels 

But the Calitzdorp Nels have gone on to make their own history—from producing internationally acclaimed port-style wines and wines to award-winning brandy, gin and whisky from their distillery.

Nel recently celebrated his 40th vintage, and he’s racked up the accolades. Among them, he’s a Cape Wine Master; he was also the first and only winemaker from the Southern Cape to become a member of the Cape Winemakers Guild. He was also the first winemaker to distil a certified estate brandy. And of course his contribution to the fortified wine category in South Africa is monumental. Not only was he the founding member and first chairperson of the Cape Port Producers Association—but in 1989 he was instrumental in producing the country’s first dry ports, bringing the quality level up to that of an international standard.

Carel and the 1989 Port

As résumés go, it’s certainly legendary. But it all began quite simply; Nel was born on his family farm in rural Calitzdorp, where he still lives today, in a house next to the cellar, with his wife—and childhood sweetheart—Jeanne.

The story of Boplaas itself dates back to 1880, when Nel’s great great grandfather, Daniel Nel, exported his first consignment of Boplaas Brandy to England.

1980's Boplaas wines

“In those days they transported the barrels of brandy by ox wagon from Calizdorp to Worcester—a few barrels went missing along the way,” he laughs. “From Worcester the brandy would be transported by train to Cape Town, and from there by ship to London.

“It’s an old farm, we’ve seen floods, and we’ve seen droughts. In 2000 we had a massive flood, we get one every 21 years.”  

Boplaas’s modern history only really got its start in the 1980s, when Nel took over the family business. First he dabbled in the restoration of antique furniture, and then he moved on to the dried fruit business in a bid to raise funds to build a wine cellar. It was a success. The first Boplaas Estate wines released in 1982.

Carel and the 1980's Boplaas wines

Prior to Nel completing his studies in viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University, his dad, Danie Nel had planted what he thought was a Shiraz vineyard in the 1970s. Then studying Nel was suspicious of the plant material and took some leaves to be analysed, it was actually Tinta Barocca. This happy accident sent the family on a revolutionary course in the heart of the Klein Karoo, seeing them in the vanguard of port production in South Africa.

“From the very first release we got a Gold,” says Nel. The first SA Champion Port was released in 1986 and was awarded the title at the National Young Wine Show—and has garnered this honour nine times since the first win.

Carel and the Reserve Port range

Since then other awards include the Best SA Cellar at Veritas 2005 as well as best private cellar in 2009, 2011 and 2013. Boplaas has also received 19 Platter 5-stars awards

“We were one of the first farms to produce Touriga Nacional, which is the Rolls Royce of the Portuguese varietals.”

One of the biggest challenges he’s had over his 40 vintages—aside from the extreme weather and climatic conditions—he says was when the European Union ruled that no country outside of Portugal could used the term ‘port’. Nel was the driving force behind naming the fortified wines, Cape Ruby, Cape Vintage and Cape Tawny to overcome this roadblock.

To this day Boplaas is family run; the Nels have three children, all of whom are involved in the estate. Margaux, the winemaker, has just had a baby, two-week-old William.

Nel Family photo in the distillery

“He’s the seventh generation on the farm, hopefully he’ll like wine like the rest of us!” Nel says proudly. Liking wine is an understatement. A family friend once said to Nel: “‘the only thing smaller than an ostrich’s brain is the Nel’s cellar’, we drink everything!”

The other daughter Rozanne is responsible for marketing, and son Daniel is the distiller.

When I ask him what makes Calitzdorp so special for the production of fortified wines, he says: “It’s a combination of the soil and climate, but also the expertise of the winemakers who have long been pushing the category forward.”

On top of this massive contribution to the wine industry Nel is also a keen conservationist, under his custodianship is 2 200 ha of Karoo land, a pristine habitat for spekboom.

“I’ve lived a good life, I wouldn’t change a thing.

“I only have one piece of advice for the younger generation—only do it if you have passion, that’s what all successful leaders have common, the passion for their vocation.”

- Malu Lambert