It’s like stepping into the kitchen of a big family just before dinnertime. Joining the Almenkerk team in the busy cellar during harvest, one notices that each individual knows just what they’re meant to be doing and is busy with it. A radio is tucked away somewhere keeping the vibe up, and the banter is easy. They work so comfortably together, it’s surprising when you find out that some of the ‘family’ are actually interns hired to help with the harvest.
Year-on-year you encounter many of the same staff at the farm which gives one a sense of security and the feeling that it’s good to work there. Chatting to Nina – Harvest Assistant hired for her second harvest at Almenkerk and our tour guide for the day – confirms that sense, especially as we can quote her effusively saying, ‘This is an awesome place to work!’ Nina speaks about wine and the farm from a personal and knowledgeable space, and is so full of interesting nuggets of Almenkerk-information, one would swear she’s been with them for years.
Now, when it comes to wine making, many would agree it needs passion just as much as it needs technical knowledge. And Almenkerk, a family-run estate headed by Natalie and Joris van Almenkerk, seems to be steeped in both. It is a place where they make wine for their family first (we’re sure you can taste the love), and where having fun and producing quality wine is equally important.
Which means excellent wine for us, of course, but also that it’s an enjoyable place to work. Nina hops from foot to foot vibrating with an infectious excitement when she talks about how they experiment with different yeasts, fermentation temperatures, and blending methods each year. When it came time for her to prepare the yeasts, we were invited to sniff each one and watch as it bubbled and grew. Different yeasts need different temperatures and environments, and some need a mix of juice and water and a very particular sugar content, to thrive. With a million yeast cells in each teeny grain, it’s a rather fascinating science which never fails to amaze, and is extra special when someone so avid about it shares it with you.
Out in the vineyard, the grape quality is constantly checked, and most of the sorting happens before the grapes are brought to the cellar, negating the need for a sorting table and saving time in the long run, (much like when carrying groceries from the car and working out how to make one trip instead of two).
There are two blocks of Sauvignon Blanc growing on the farm; the Yvonne block – named after Joris’ mom – and the Sunrise block. Yvonne is cold and south-facing (the vineyard; not Mom!), slow ripening, and has deep clay-rich soils, while the Sunrise block is 300m above sea-level, with a gravelly soil, and a high exposure to wind which stresses the vines and – like people in challenging personal-growth situations – increases the complexity of the grape.
Providentially the mountains surrounding the valley are made of Table Mountain stone, and the valley floor has a large component of clay; the water runs down the slopes to be caught and held onto by the clay meaning the vines need no watering during the rainy season. And this year, although the drought may be making harvest more difficult, the grapes are more concentrated and hold the promise of an excellent vintage. Something to look forward to!
Each day during harvest, the team gathers around a big table right in the tasting room or outside in the sunshine to share something hearty and delicious, bought locally. Conversation is a blend of personal and work stuff, furthering that lovely feeling of togetherness which is inviting and welcoming to newcomers, too.
Would you like to meet some of the family?
Ruth, Tasting Room and Office Manager, was once upon a time the first friendly face you’d encounter when you stepped into the tasting room, and as you lounged on the couch she would convey a quiet passion for the farm and the people through the stories which snuck out between words about the wines she was pouring into your glass. She’s since moved into a position where she can be found hard at work behind the scenes, and has handed the reigns to the warm and welcoming Susan who is adding her own friendly magic to the role. But if you’re lucky, there are still days you might be welcomed by both Ruth and Susan as you step in through the glass doors. So be sure to visit often. 😉
Joris van Almenkerk, Farm Owner, Winemaker, and avid researcher, is always trying new things. He reads as many articles and books as he can find, travels to attend conferences all over the world, and engages with others in the industry to keep himself inspired and well stocked in ideas and experiments to try. Simply being in his presence, one can tell without a doubt that he’s meticulous, mischievous, and that he genuinely cares for the people who work for him.
‘Natalie Opstaele, Director and Sales & Marketing Enchantress, not to mention Joris’ self-proclaimed better half. Using her level head and immense passion for the business, she plays a huge role in the success of the brand. Their natural abilities combined, Natalie and Joris are a special blend of strengths and passions, and together they started Almenkerk back in 2009.’
Ouma is Natalie’s mom. She visits twice a year all the way from Belgium to lend a hand during harvest as well as while Elgin’s annual Open Gardens is on. Her presence adds a matronly warmth to the place, and her flower arrangements add colourful splashes of prettiness. Her name is Claire, but if you bump into her while at the farm, you’re allowed to call her Ouma; we checked. 😉
Dan, Assistant Winemaker, has been making his way to this position since birth. He was born right on the farm! He started working in the Almenkerk orchards as a young whippersnapper, and over time and through diligence and skill moved up to the very Dan-shaped spot in the Almenkerk cellar.
Nina, Harvest Assistant with a great love for working with wine, seems to love equally the aroma of freshly brewed yeast and the pages in a new book. Blending wine is one of her favourite things, and the fact that during the process the flavours can change so vastly from one week to the next has her doing a little jig on the spot when she speaks about it.
Khol, Cellar Worker and Champion Fork Lift Driver has been described as being the oldest man on the farm… and the fittest. And when he smiles, his eyes crinkle in a most charming way.
Paseka, Cellar Worker and Courageous Cleaner of Wine Tanks, always has a warm smile on his face and is ready to leap in when anyone needs help. His is the kind of energy that you want around!
Louis, an affable and attentive intern all the way from Belgium, is easy to be around and eager to learn; a most endearing quality.
And Geena, an intern from Stellenbosch University, just a hop, skip and a jump away, has an exceptional palate; high praise from the Almenkerk family, who are enjoying watching how she develops, and look forward to seeing what she brings to the industry.
When the inevitable weariness happens, and Joris feels he might pack it all in and stick to making wine for his family, an afternoon in the tasting room reawakens his enthusiasm. Swapping stories with people from all over the world and hearing their appreciative feedback is the magic that keeps him producing for the public. (Whew.) So pop in when you’re next in the Elgin valley! You’ll be pleased you did.