Bennie Liebenberg

Viticulturist
Nederburg Wines
Bennie Liebenberg has a thing about numbers. He thinks in them, navigates by them and memorises them.

Bennie Liebenberg has a thing about numbers. He thinks in them, navigates by them and memorises them.

"I've always had a mathematical way of looking at the world. It's just how I am," says Nederburg's newest viticulturist, who comes to the team armed with 15 years' experience, working with wine growers across the Cape.

Before the 2016 harvest begins, he is memorising the layout of Nederburg's own four farms in Paarl, Simondium, Groenekloof and Darling, as well as those of the winery's wide network of suppliers in many of the Cape's top growing areas from Durbanville to Gansbaai, from Elgin to Ceres.

"It helps to carry in your head all the numbers about what is planted where, the altitudes of the sites, the density of the vine rows, the clones, the rootstocks and the likely yields, so when the grapes start coming in you can plan the logistics.

"Nederburg is a very complex cellar. There's so much happening here at any one time, from small experimental cuvées to larger scale, popular wines."

In his new job, Bennie will be working with many more vineyard blocks than in the past, but also with many more varietals. "The South African wine industry has entered an exciting phase of its evolution. On the one hand, we now know the best locations for the classical varieties and many of these vines, coming into maturity are delivering exceptional fruit. On the other, we are showing just how successful we can be with newer, Mediterranean varietals."

The varietals he means are Tempranillo and Tannat, Mourvèdre and Macabeo, Grenache (blanc and noir) and Graciano, Carignan, Roussanne and others. Then there's also Grasa de Cotnari, a Romanian cultivar known to produce exceptional noble late harvest wines. He'll be working with all of these.

"This is probably the best time to be in our industry. When I started in 1988, there were seven students in my viticulture and oenology classes. Now everyone wants to be involved in wine because it's such a dynamic and creative industry. Nederburg is at the forefront of many of the trailblazing developments and I want to make the absolute most of the opportunity.”

He admits to being very competitive. "I like to win. I can't deny it. It feels good to be a part of a winning team and I look forward to the role I can play in helping Nederburg maintain its status as South Africa's most awarded winery. Everything starts with the fruit so that is where I shall try to have an impact, working to achieve vines in optimal balance, where all components are in an ideal ratio."

He's back to his numbers. "There's this amazing Cabernet Sauvignon clone 23. It does exceptionally well in Stellenbosch. I'm excited to have the chance to work with it, and with Chardonnay clones 78 and 95, and Merlot 343 and 348."

Apart from his BSc Agric in viticulture and oenology from Stellenbosch University, Bennie also has a BCom. "I went back to university because I couldn't stay away from the numbers and in my second year of the course, I played hockey for the South African national team, thinking I might make a career of it. I come from a family of sports-obsessed people, you see. My father and my uncle were Springbok hockey players but in my case, injuries intervened."

So he doesn't play hockey anymore. Now it's cricket, golf, running in the forests around Stellenbosch, where he lives, and mountain biking. "That's when I do some of my best thinking. Not just about numbers though."

Married to a teacher, he has a daughter. He was previously a viticulturists for Die Bergkelder, worked a vintage in Pauillac, France, and recently led a tour of wine growers to California to observe new best-practice in viticulture.