Johannesburg - Think of a name synonymous with winemaking in the Cape and you’re not likely to overlook Norma Ratcliffe, of the family-owned Warwick estate near Stellenbosch.
Norma was one of the first women winemakers in South Africa and the first woman to be inducted into the Cape Winemakers Guild.
Dionysus has certainly smiled on the Ratcliffes – her indefatigable son, Mike, is the estate’s marketing director and her daughter Jenny trained at Le Cordon Bleu, a top hospitality institute in Paris, before settling here.
Warwick’s original name was “De Goede Sukses” (great success). After the Anglo Boer war ended in 1902, Colonel William Alexander Gordon, a commanding officer of the Warwickshire regiment, bought the farm and renamed it “Warwick” as a tribute to his troops.
Norma’s now departed husband, Stan, bought the farm on April 1, 1964, and the couple started planting cabernet sauvignon grapes. As the grapes flourished, their neighbours started showing interest in buying them so Norma – who had trained as a textile designer, not a winemaker – decided it was time to learn all about it.
By 1984 the first Warwick cabernet, called “La Femme Bleu” (the Blue Lady), was released. Two years after this amateur attempt, Norma released her first Warwick Trilogy, a Bordeaux-style blend of cab, merlot and cabernet franc.
Nearly 30 years later, their winemaker is the young Nic van Aarde (an admitted lover of Bordeaux blends and chardonnay). Having just rebranded their wonderfully rich wooded chardonnay (10 months in French oak, a third new barrels) into the White Lady, Warwick is still very much a family-run estate with a powerful portfolio of wines.
Firm favourites are the Three Cape Ladies (pinotage, syrah and cab) and the prestige blend Trilogy; the supple pinotage; cabernet franc; sauvignon blanc; First Lady cabernet; and the estate reserve (cab, cab franc and merlot).
The Warwick matriarch says her first stab at winemaking was amateurish as she was still experimenting with New World winemaking styles, meaning big fruit and heavy wooding.
Norma, who is an honorary lifetime member of the Cape Winemakers Guild, was the first woman to be a member of the still largely old boys’ club.
To date, only five women have been invited to join the guild, most recently Andrea Mullineux from Mullineux Family Winery (joining Ratcliffe are Riani Strydom of Dombeya, Janey Muller of Lemberg and Louise Hofmeyr of Welgemeend).
Warwick has done well. In latter years much of its success has been driven by the hard work the younger generation. Mike studied wine marketing at the University of Adelaide – possibly the best oenology institute in the world – and Jenny, who despite living in Jozi remains devoted to the family business as a director and regional manager, also edits WineStyle magazine.
Norma still consults, but has cut back on her responsibilities.
Warwick has retained that personal touch, though, as the estate is family-friendly, with monitored jungle gyms and picnic facilities around the dam.
For those not keen to sit on the grass, there are more elegant ways to enjoy the tapas menu (available until the end of the month – thereafter the gourmet picnics) – at a table with a cloth.
Warwick’s wine club is where it’s at – no matter where you live, every two cases are delivered free, plus there’s a 20 percent discount for online shopping. Additionally, wines not often available to the public are offered to members. - Saturday Star
* To join the Warwick wine club, visit www.warwickwine.com or call 021 884 4410.