Interview With A Winemaker – Den’e van Wyk

21st July 2023

Interview With A Winemaker Den'e van Wyk

Wine isn’t just made, it’s crafted by the unwavering expertise of a Winemaker, sometimes old traditions are passed down by generations and on other occasions, new people venture into the industry, introducing us to new creations, this series of Winemaker Interviews will help you uncover the vast world and skills of how the artists passionate about wine make the world a bubbly place.

In this feature we speak with Den’e van Wyk, an amazing Winemaker from England, let’s discover a little about her time in the English Wine Industry.

Tell Us About Yourself

“I was brought up in the beautiful wine region Stellenbosch in South Africa, where I grew up surrounded by vineyards. I love science and everything that involves a microscope therefore I originally enrolled for BSc Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at Stellenbosch University. However, half way through my first year I was inspired by my peer students and decided to switch to BSc Viticulture and Oenology, and I’ve never looked back since.

I have a wide range of experience in the wine industry, in both the commercial and production side. On the commercial side, I have worked as a tasting room assistant at Delaire Graff and Rust en Vrede, a wine sales assistant at Blanco & Gomez in Chelsea and a wine advisor at The White Horse in Mayfair (owned by Hedonism Wines). On the production side, I have done harvests at Rust en Vrede, Kanonkop (in Stellenbosch), and Chateau Biac (in Bordeaux).

I am currently working as Assistant Winemaker at Simpsons Wine Estate in Barham, Kent, where I am responsible for managing day to day operations in the winery and ensuring that every wine is handled with care from grape to bottle.

Aside from wine, I’m quite a foodie. I love to cook and bake, I have even obtained the title of head baker at the winery! If I’m not in the kitchen or in the winery, you will find me outside enjoying the beauty of the outdoors. Whether it’s a hike in the mountains, walking in the vineyard or camping in the bush.”

How Did You Become Involved In The Wine Industry?

“It was inevitable – wine was such a big part of our family’s culture but I only realised what a perfect fit it was for me during my first harvest at Rust en Vrede Wine Estate. Coenie Snyman, Malie McGregor and the team took me under their wing and exposed me to the world of winemaking. I quickly realised the amazing opportunities a career in winemaking can offer and the experience ignited a burning desire in me to one day create my own prestigious wine.”

As Assistant Winemaker, What Has Been Your Hardest Obstacle To Overcome In Producing Wine?

“Moving from a warm climate region to a cool climate region. It was a total game changer moving to the UK where there are much fewer sunlight hours and the climate is significantly cooler. This obviously means that the grapes grow and ripen differently from those grown in South Africa. The resulting challenges faced in the cellar are very different.

I was trained to harvest when the grapes have optimal ripeness yet still enough acidity. The multiple different varieties grown in South Africa ripen quickly and our aim is to harvest them before they lose their freshness and complex aromas. We harvest when the tannins are velvety, meaning that it is ripe and soft but not completely disintegrated and “flabby”. We also need to ensure that we don’t harvest too early as that may result in green aromas. Due to the Mediterranean climate we usually don’t get much rain during the summer, when we harvest, therefore disease pressure is not a common problem. We can therefore wait longer for the grapes to ripen before harvesting. The biggest challenge faced in the cellar is the lack of acidity and this is frequently adjusted by acid additions.

Here in Kent, I have found that acidity is not something that I will ever find to be lacking, so at Simpson’s, we focus on flavour development, concentration and alcohol. Instead of the grapes rapidly ripening in mid-summer, the grapes ripen slowly and develop aromas in Autumn. We, therefore, need to be much more patient to allow them to fully develop but also balance this with the decreasing sunlight hours and increasing chance of rain.

It is therefore this shift in mindset that has challenged me the most. Being able to think about every single factor possible in each region, and implementing the correct practices accordingly. I do believe this experience has made me well rounded and has given me more tools in order to be the best winemaker I can possibly be.”

How Do You Determine When Your Wine Is Ready To Drink?

“When we talk about English still wines there are a few things you need to look at to decide whether it is “ready to drink”. We try to find the correct balance of freshness and complexity in the final product. More specifically we look at acidity-sharpness, mouthfeel, flavour complexity and length. When all these are in harmony, that is when a wine is ready to go into the bottle. However, the wine needs to spend some time in the bottle to allow the bottle shock to fade. If not, wine might be closed, smell strong of sulphur and have unwanted reductive characters.”

What Part Of The Wine Making Process Do You Enjoy The Most?

“Drinking it! In all seriousness, I really do enjoy being able to spoil my taste buds by tasting from tank and barrel but sometimes the load of work gets so much that I forget to “stop and smell the roses” or in this case taste the wines. This is however a very important part of the process in order to make sure the quality is where we want it and that there are no signs of spoilage.

I also really love the physical aspect of making wine, it involves a lot of heavy lifting and you spend most of the time on your feet. This helps me stay fit and healthy and it is very rewarding knowing that at the end of a hard day’s work, I have had a role in creating an incredible product.”

Thank you Den’e van Wyk, for sharing your words, knowledge and experience with us and we at Glass of Bubbly wish you the very best for the future!

Images belong to Den’e van Wyk and Simpsons Wine Estate. Glass of Bubbly was granted permission to use them.

Oliver Walkey

Champagne and Sparkling Wine Writer, Focused on Bringing the Exciting and Fascinating World of Bubbly to You.