Moira van der Merve and Denzel Swarts are two shining stars in the Cape wine industry. As second and third generation farmworkers at Bilton Wines and Simonsig respectively, they have both challenged stereotypes and their own humble origins with passion, determination and a helping hand from committed employers and mentors. None of them have reached their peak yet, and both are also likely to be considerable forces in the quest to transform the wine industry in years to come.
Moira early developed an interest in winemaking, but didn’t think that a coloured farmgirl could pursue a career in this field. “Then one day I saw a story about Carmen Stevens (the first coloured female wine maker in South Africa) on Pasella, and this inspired me to follow my dream”.
With the support of the Bilton family, Moira attended courses first in South Africa and later in France. In 2010, she completed her sommelier course and she is now working as the Senior Assistant in the Bilton Wines Tasting Room.
Moira’s passion for wine is contagious. She takes her guests on a fascinating journey through the cellar all the way to the tasting room. She explains each step of the winemaking process in a confident yet easy to understand manner. This knowledge is something she puts down to her mentors, winemakers Rudi de Wet and Georgio Dalla Cia. Moira is a passionate storyteller; her stories about Sir Percy Bilton, Bonnie Anne the pirate mistress and other characters that have given names to Bilton wines are so enthralling that you almost forget that the main reason you are there is to taste wine.
Like many young people born to vineyard workers, Moira has humble dreams. To provide her daughter with a better quality of life and more opportunities than she had as a child, and to have her own house by the time she retires. But she also has big dreams: “I want to be one of the best Wine Ambassadors in South Africa, and I want to help uplifting farm workers and improve their knowledge of winemaking and the wine industry”.
Encouraged from an early age to work for pocket money, Denzel has done most odd jobs available on the Simonsig farm: sweeping, pest control, cleaning spittoons and buffing glasses. But to move beyond these petty duties required further education, something that Denzel’s family could not afford. It could have all ended there if it wasn’t for Denzel’s determination and Simonsig’s policy to invest in their staff.
With the help of the Malan family, Denzel furthered his studies while at the same time working as a junior in the tasting room. He eventually qualified as a sommelier and, as a recipient of the WineTech skills fund, completed a management qualification. “Apart from the late Mr Frans Malan, my greatest mentor during this time was Mrs Maureen Basson who has been the tasting room manager at Simonsig for over 30 years”.
Denzel guides his guests through the tasting with the same precision he uses to sabrage the well-know Kaapse Vonkel. He somehow manages to explain the subtle nose, mouth-feel and taste in a way that makes sense. This is a gift, just like his sensitive palate is, and together with his determination these gifts have taken him far. Early 2014, he was promoted to Tasting Room Manager, succeeding his mentor Mrs Basson, and later in the year he qualified as a national wine judge.
Denzel is already busy nurturing the fourth generation talent; “I encourage my young son to smell and taste, it is the best way to develop the palate”, but he also wants to share his gifts with other people. “I would love to play a bigger role in the transformation of the wine industry and to, eventually, lecture in wine education”.
This article was written for, and first published in, the Stellenbosch Wine Routes blog, and has been re-posted with their kind permission.