Niel Bester (51) celebrates 20 years as the first and only winemaker at Plaisir de Merle this year. Few cellars can boast the honour of having a winemaker with such dedication, passion and knowledge of the infinite details of getting the best from his vineyards.
The exclusive Plaisir de Merle label has been producing exceptional quality wines since inception. The range of wines has attained international gold medals, airline selections, top ratings, and a liberal sprinkling of four and 4½-star ratings in the John Platter South African Wine Guides.
Early in his winemaking career Bester was taken under the wing of Dr Paul Pontallier, director of Château Mârgaux in Bordeaux, when he worked a harvest under Pontallier’s tutelage in Bordeaux. As a consultant to the cellar for the first decade or so, Pontallier was also a major influence on Niel’s winemaking style at Plaisir de Merle.
Niel, a BSc graduate in oenology from the University of Stellenbosch, was appointed cellarmaster at the newly established cellar at Plaisir de Merle in 1992, after a two-year stint as winemaker at Nederburg.
“There are always opportunities to improve on quality; there is no time to become complacent with what you have achieved”. With this motto Niel strives to continue the standard that was set from the start with the Plaisir de Merle wines. He has also undertaken various study tours to Australia, California, France, New Zealand and Washington State.
His conversancy with the Plaisir de Merle vineyards, as well as his classical training have led him to produce well structured, food-friendly, elegant yet complex wines, which, although made for earlier drinking, have excellent ageing potential.
The range consists of a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and a noble red blend - the signature wine - Grand Plaisir. Other single cultivar wines are released on a limited basis.
His winemaking philosophy is to leave the wine to work its own magic with as little interference or manipulations to produce wines that are intense in colour, never harsh, full of fruit flavours, yet soft tannins. He believes that all his wines should reflect the intrinsics of the farm and have a distinct sense of place.
The cellar is designed for low impact winemaking with the accent on technique and not technology, which gives him ample opportunity to test his dexterity and flexibility.
As a marathon runner, Bester compares the challenge of winemaking to those of long distance running. “It’s about training to tackle the obstacles. Focus is paramount - in the planning and execution. You set the goal and then go out and meet it.”
And meet it he has, for the past two decades - setting an unparalleled precedent for future winemakers.
Niel is a member of various organisations and wine clubs. He is also the convener of the Cabernet Sauvignon panel at the South African National Wine Show Society.