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Mark le Roux Continues Chasing Dreams at Waterford Estate

13 December 2017  -  Waterford Estate

When Mark le Roux was appointed by his mentor Kevin Arnold to oversee wine making at Stellenbosch’s Waterford Estate in 2013, he pretty much thought his one big dream had come true. But four years later, to be named South Africa’s Young Winemaker of the Year for 2017, the 32 year old Le Roux realised that there will always be dreams to be fulfilled.

“Tim Atkin’s comprehensive annual report on South African wine entails him having to get a firm grip on the wine industry, travelling the length and breadth of our winelands and getting to know what we winemakers do,” says Le Roux. “To be named as Young Winemaker of the Year in this report is as much an honour as it was a surprise for me. But essentially, the accolade is shared by our whole team at Waterford who from day one have under Kevin have set out to establish a premier Stellenbosch wine estate aimed at simply making the best wines we possibly can.”

Since its first harvest in 1998, Waterford has established a reputation of excellence for a diverse range of wines among South African and international consumers and today forms part of the pinnacle of the country’s excellence in wine offerings.

When joining Waterford in 2009 as winemaker under Arnold, Le Roux had already visited the estate several times while studying for his BSc in Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University.

“It must have been around 2005 when I began visiting Waterford for the first time, and as a winemaking student I was shown around the winery and the vineyards,” he says. “The first thing that impressed me was the simple, no-airs approach to winemaking here. You have this tremendous range of wines made on a beautiful estate whose reputation has since its inception been that of absolute excellence and premiumisation. Yet, when it comes to winemaking, there is nothing fancy in the approach, nothing gets overthought or over-talked. It is about taking what the terroir gives you and simply making the best wine possible, in its purest form.”

Le Roux admits to being an unashamed terroirist. “You can say I was born into it, as my father was involved with forestry so plants and soil was always in the vicinity, whether it was table-talk or on expeditions into nature. As a youngster we spent time in Malaysia and Indonesia, which furthered my fascination for the world’s diversity in plant-life and the growth cycles.”

On Waterford, situated in one of the South African wine region’s most unique sites, namely the Helderberg, Le Roux is fascinated by the natural environs on daily basis.

“The soils here on Waterford are incredible,” he says. “They are varied with granite, tukulu and some oakleaf, but when I got to know the farm I was really surprised to see how poor the soils are here and in the general Helderberg region. Rocky. Stones. Impenetrable at parts. Seeing the vines bear such fantastic fruit under these conditions remains one of the reasons I am infatuated with making wine and wine farming.”

What might seem as one of the great challenges at Waterford – making a wine selection wines from Cap Classique to Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir to Shiraz, Chardonnay and that iconic The Jem red blend – is for Le Roux a real privilege and a source of excitement.

“This variety really keeps one on your toes logistically,” he says. “But whether we are making wines from our own Waterford grapes, or fruit we manage from Elgin, for example, myself and the cellar team know that we are given the best raw material to work with. This enables us to paint a broad canvas between using a minimalistic approach and having fun with a bit of creativity and experimentation. That has been the great thing about working with Kevin who has always inspired me to think out of the box if I am comfortable with it. As long as the end-product is good enough for the Waterford label, I am allowed to try new things.”

An example of this is Waterford’s unique Library Collection, limited releases of what Le Roux calls “experiments and works in progress”.

“These wines, made in limited volumes and available for tasting, offer wine-lovers a glimpse into what we are busy with in the cellar as a complement to our standard Waterford bottlings,” says Le Roux. “The Library Collection may include a Cabernet Franc, a Grenache Blanc or antique, solera style Chenin Blanc – wines we make in small batches to see what the end-results deliver with the eye on possibly releasing similar wines or blends thereof in the future. In fact, this is the kind of experimentation that led to Waterford’s The Jem blend.”

For Le Roux, the future looks set to be as bright as his light has shone at Waterford – thus far.