FEATURE | Tesselaarsdal: It takes a village

FEATURE | Tesselaarsdal: It takes a village

Berene Sauls has no airs. How I met her in 2020 is how she is today, and I bet will always be. Back then, she loaded me into her white Polo Vivo (like mine) and took me to the 16.5ha property she purchased in Tesselaarsdal, her hometown, in October 2019. I remember her navigating the dirt roads, puddles and potholes everywhere, driving right through, with mud water spraying high up around us, talking the whole way – she drove that Polo like she was driving a Land Rover Defender with a safari hat on. I loved it.

‘When I sucked at au-pairing’

Wine found Berene.

She started out as an au-pair for the Hamilton-Russells in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, but soon found that she had more business sense than child sense. She laughed when I asked her about the failures in her life: “When I sucked at au pairing!”

And what a non-failure that turned out to be.

Anthony Hamilton-Russel said her talents would be wasted as a nanny and she started working in the office in March of 2001, moving to wine administration and certification, driving the forklift, helping to bottle, and running a team of six ladies. Then, she moved to managing export logistics and running the tasting room simultaneously, all while expanding her wine knowledge by attending wine courses and tastings after work. Slowly she became a self-confessed Pinot aficionado, and capable of sniffing it out in any company.

Darren Sauls, Brian Sauls, Dean Leppan and friends helping to plant the first vines at Tesselaarsdal.

The Village

In 2015, the “village” stepped in.

Hamilton-Russell helped Berene establish Tesselaarsdal wines. Buying in grapes from nearby Babylon Vineyards (La Vierge) on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, and winemaker Emul Ross (then in his first vintage at Hamilton-Russell) made the wine (a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as you do in the Hemel-en-Aarde).

Emul still makes the wine today, though 2023 is the first vintage in which he will mentor Berene’s son, Darren, to take over. Darren is 18 this year and has been working at Creation wines during his school holidays for the past three years, and I’m glad to see it. Berene is hellbent on establishing a family business on her slice of earth, and she hasn’t ever faltered in her quest.

In 2015, that first maiden vintage, Greg Sherwood MW unwittingly threw her into a panic, labelling the wine “the next SA Pinot Noir icon”, which created such a frenzy that the wine was sold out on release. They still don’t make a lot of wine. Emul says he wants to express the place, and if that place has a limit to the amount of quality grapes it can produce, then that is the natural ceiling for their production.

Berene has been on a fixed contract with Babylon Vineyards, accepting five tons annually, sometimes topping it up with a ton or two from neighbouring farms. Still, their production remains around 7 000 bottles of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay each, annually.

Tesselaarsdal’s 50 New Vines

In September 2022, they finally planted their first experimental 50 Pinot Noir vines, grafted on different rootstock, to see if they could survive the salty clay-rich soils of her Tesselaarsdal property.

She purchased it outright, having been unable to obtain a loan, through winning several entrepreneurial competitions and awards. The farm is situated in the heart of the Overberg between Caledon and Hermanus, about 36km north-east of the Atlantic Ocean.

Tesselaarsdal is a water-scarce area, and I still remember her recounting her consultations, ranging from serious scientific investigations to an oom with a waterstok (an old man water dowsing with a forked stick) roaming the property and finding the spot where she eventually sunk her boreholes.

Though her water struggles aren’t over because these boreholes have high sodium readings unsuitable for irrigation, Berene has always been known to make a plan, and sourced water from her neighbour, Chris Goatley, for these inaugural vines. She says she loaded the 50 poles into the back of her Polo Vivo. With the help of her father, Brian Sauls, son Darren (and a friend each), viticulturist Dean Leppan, and Wilco den Otter, they planted those vines come hell or high water, and will be able to assess the quality of the grapes with regard to winemaking in the next three years.

Winemaker Emul Ross and Berene Sauls’ son, Darren Saul tasting wine.

Ouma Dot

Why Tesselaarsdal? Because Berene comes from Tesselaarsdal and, when you look at the wine label, you’ll see her Ouma Dot and Tannie Ree on ‘Die Rus Klip’ (The Resting Stone) as they crossed the mountain to Stanford every Sunday to trade their goats.

In the 1800s, Tesselaarsdal was given to Johannes Tesselaar, a general in the Dutch army, together with another property and eight Khoisan slaves. On his death, he freed the slaves and bequeathed the property to them, where they turned to subsistence farming and traded in the little town of Stanford, just across the mountain.

Berene is a direct descendent of these slaves. Her grandmother, Rebecca Swart, or Ouma Dot, was the local midwife and a colourful character by all accounts. She brewed ‘Skofaan’, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented wheat grain and raisins (anything that would ferment, Berene says) and kept it in a bucket under her bed.

Tesselaarsdal Pinot Noir 2022.

Can you believe it?

She released her 2022 Pinot Noir this week, and Christian Eedes of Winemag awarded it a whopping 95 Points, writing:

With good depth of flavour, but also plenty of verve, this is dead sexy.

With good depth of flavour, but also plenty of verve, this is dead sexy.

Berene, like most of the people in the wine industry, doesn’t get bogged down by difficulties. Even the sodium in the water at Tesselaarsdal does very little to dampen her spirit.

“I currently count every single step as a little victory.”

And she has taken many steps since that first 2015 vintage.

In preparation of this release, after she’d recounted everything that had been happening at Tesselaarsdal, I sent her a WhatsApp: “Hoe trots is jy?” (“How proud our you?”) and she wrote back. “Kan jy glo, Daléne!” (“Can you believe it, Daléne.”) And the answer is yes, I believe it.

You can purchase Berene’s latest 2022 Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, via Port2Port or just contact her directly at berene@tesselaarsdalwines.co.za. (She’s one of those people you’ll end up chatting to for 15 minutes, even if it is the wrong number).