Erika Obermeyer in plain sight

Monday, 31 January, 2022
Samarie Smith(WSETDip)
Stories sell wine; this is true. But the past decade has seen a consumer with a high wine acuity to whom provenance, authenticity, and quality matters most. That is why Erika Obermeyer's story is an engaging one that warms your heart and stirs an urgent appetite to taste her wines.

"I think I understand a vineyard better than I understand most people; maybe because I see and understand the fine intricacies of nature. I do as it propels me to do."

More than a decade has passed since I photographed Erika in her happy place with her dogs in the vineyards. With one hand, she tried taming her long, windswept hair, revealing a smile, the other hand clutching the leashes of her two German pointers, quivering with excitement at the mere sight of pheasants.  

Today, oenophiles are mesmerised by her wine brand, Erika O. She scooped the Platter's by Diners Club South African Wine Guide Newcomer of the Year Award in 2019, winning 5 Stars for the maiden vintages of the Erika O Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 and Erika O Syrah Grenache Noir Cinsault 2016. The Erika O Sauvignon Blanc 2017 received 4½ Stars, missing five stars by one point. Staying on this trajectory, 2020 produced another two five-star wines, and in December 2021, she became the seventh woman inducted as a member of the Cape Winemakers Guild. The woman includes previous members (Janie Muller and Louise Hofmeyr), Norma Ratcliffe as honorary member (Keeper of the Key) and active members Andrea Mullineux, Rianie Strydom, and Samantha O’Keefe. “It is such a tremendous honour to join the Guild and to be recognised as one of the flag bearers for South African wine. I am excited about what 2022 holds in store,” Erika shared, a light beaming from her eyes as she continues sharing her story.

Yet, not so long ago, this new bright future was veiled by her diminishing hope of saving her sight..

Erika grew up in Sutherland (Northern Cape), with nature as her playground. She grew to understand its whims and treasured its gifts of smells and textures. Student life and massive classrooms were quite the paradox to this naturesque upbringing until a visit to Neethlingshof fuelled her intention of becoming a winemaker.

Receiving her BSc honours degree in wine biotechnology was only the start of her vinous journey.

"It was quite tedious sitting in a sterilised cubicle studying plant material under a microscope and running PCR test after PCR test in the lab to improve yeast strains into superpower strains. But looking back to 1998, research work done back then formed the backbone of my newly established quest for cutting edge research and innovation. It was leading molecular biology research with Prof Marius Lambrecht and the dynamic Prof Melanie Viviers. It includes wine lectures and tastings with Prof Joel van Wyk, Prof Piet Goussard, Loftie Ellis and Duimpie Bayly, big names whose legacies contributed to wine and viticulture as we know it today."

Albeit the 2000's wine heroes' pursuit of creating a double gold Sauvignon Blanc differed vastly from the revolt of today's Young Guns, Erika believes they contributed to the paradigm shift that helped position South Africa on the global wine stage.

"I adore nature, and I grew up in an environment where it was encouraged to understand and appreciate its intricate bounty. I remember the smell when we played in shallow riverbeds, cool cucumber in the Karoo-heat and the smell of watermelon when my border collie, Chaka, devoured one. My dad created beautiful gardens with hanepoot, sultanas, pumpkin and sweet potatoes, and I remember the smell and textures when we pulled them out of the rich, wet soil. My mom would cook them for lunch, and the sweet, nutty flavours would be inviting enough to coax me down the fig tree. I discovered so much magic in one fruit: young figs, ripe figs and preserved figs."

Slowly, Erika was unlocking a plethora of aromas that was feathering her memory nest of flavours and references in so much detail that it would one day become her armour as a winemaker.

"Think of the ripening phases of a pineapple. When it is not fully ripe, it is reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc. When it's riper and more succulent, Chenin Blanc comes to mind. I taste like in the vineyards too. You need to explore flavours, understand their aromatics, and simplify them into textures. I never crush based on analysis. Instead, I have trained myself to trust my senses and palate."

From working in laboratories in Vredendal Coop to emerging herself in all the workings of a wine cellar at Kleine Zalze from 1999 to 2004, she joined the Graham Beck team in 2005 when Charles Hopkins was still the cellarmaster.

"Charles Hopkins handed me the key at the right time to unlock my wine career. He gave me the freedom to explore. That year, I trusted myself and made a Sauvignon Blanc that won the SA National Young Wine Show trophy and continued to rein three times over four years. It also won every wine award locally and abroad, giving me the confidence to see the bigger picture and think on my feet. Winemaking is not forgiving; you always have to plan for the worst-case scenario at the mercy of nature."

In 2008, Erika won SA woman winemaker of the year and a trip to Bordeaux. Visiting France during their harvest in 2009 fueled her passion. She rediscovered wine as the elixir that shapes cultures, an incredible gift from nature that even winemakers need to yield.

"You are there to guide it. You need to adhere to what nature is telling you ahead of time. You just need to be patient."

During this journey of discovery and nudging closer to her wine destiny, Erika's nemesis was a condition called Keratoconus. This is where the cornea becomes thin and stretched near its centre, causing it to bulge forward in a conical shape, leading to permanent vision loss. Ultimately, it cannot be rectified with glasses or contact lenses. Surgery was the only hope, albeit her faith was dissipating in finding a surgeon to help her. A temporary solution was to use a specially designed contact lens shaped like thimbles to accommodate the distorting cornea. But, unfortunately, every six months, they had to build it higher and higher, causing trauma that resulted in ulcers.

"My eyes reacted in defence, secreting a protein that caused severe inflammation. It became too risky to wear contact lenses. From 2011 until 2015, it deteriorated at a fast speed."

Dr Attenborough, a cornea and refractive surgeon and leader in ophthalmology, just returned to South Africa after studying in the UK. He encouraged her to consider a cornea transplant.

"Like the doctor explained it: 'A cornea transplant is like making red wine – it needs lots of tender loving care.'" It requires a long healing process and fluctuating vision with recovery for a minimum of a year before considering the second eye for a transplant.

Finally, the first cornea transplant was done on 1 August 2016, and the second cornea transplant on 31 July 2018. Despite the tedious healing time, both operations were a success, and for the first time in a very long time, her career and all its possibilities were illuminated. So was her spirit. The pendulum swung back, and the intensity of her journey crescendoed into the well-deserved acknowledgement in Platters and becoming a member of the CWG based on her trajectory of excellence.

After years of searching for her own cellar space, Erika has come home to her own cellar in Stellenbosch, where she is uprooting the myriad of plans she thought, at one point, she'd never see coming to fruition. But here she is – ready and radiant, ready for the 2022 vintage.

The Wines 

Meticulous 2019

This Sauvignon Blanc hails from a block in Darling adjacent to the one Erika sourced fruit from to make the famed Pheasants Run Sauvignon Blanc (discontinued when Graham Back repositioned themselves as a Cap Classique producer). Succinctly, its detail comes to life in its commanding personality with ripe grapefruit, the tart acidity of kiwi fruit and the pithiness of preserved lemon. Aromas of ripe fig are juxtaposed with lemon thyme's freshness. Bay leaf adds a slight earthy tone. Beautiful length and intensity with a creamy midpalate, announcing the fleshy characteristics of pineapple and nectarine. The wine soars with outstanding balance and weight in the absence of oak, ushered by a phenomenal vintage. With a pleasing astringency, reminiscent of the Darling area often shrouded in mist, the red Hutton soils contribute to a chalky finish, adding delicate nuances of oyster shell and bamboo.

Groenekloof 2017

Moving on to an oaked (almost Sancerre inspired) Sauvignon Blanc, it immediately emits a profound power, accompanied with a sense of confidence one don't always detect in this loved yet often dubbed mundane cultivar. Reminiscent of another stellar vintage, and after five years well settled into its vast layers of primary and secondary aromas, the wine is surefooted like a cat. So complex, it drapes itself effortlessly over your palate, stretching itself out with a long and lingering finish that owns your senses. Delicate aromas of vanilla pod are the opening act for intense pineapple curd and lemongrass; white asparagus adds a silky texture and coolness. As the wine warms up, it emits riper nuances of papaya, etched with a wild fynbos note and pine needles aromas. Unadulterated and elegant with heaps of personality.

Groenekloof 2018

The 2018-vintage continues on the 17's trajectory of capturing the imagination with Sauvignon Blanc, albeit more restrained. White wine lovers will gulp this up for different reasons, entranced with its intriguing purity of St. Joseph Lilly and finger lime perfume. The vineyard is 28 years old with lower yields, and this is where one can detect Erika keen understanding of what nature communicates. A salty, almost slaty textured trail adds tension and definition. One can hear Erika say: "Sometimes, I understand a vineyard better than I grasp people."

Flabbergast Cinsaut 2019

What a delightful wine! While fruit remains the hero, a well-judged blend of old barrels and concrete vessels has built heaps of concentration into the midpalate. The wine is defined by its fruit and alluring spice while being shaped by the tension created between the acidity and the tannin. The first impression evokes generous aromas of strawberry, pepper, violets and incense, dusted with cinnamon and nutmeg. A limy edge joins forces with cossetted tannins neatly laced up to mould the wine. More robust red fruit like rhubarb and mulberry are unleashed on the palate, concluded with a bright and long and mouth-watering finish. 

Syrah/Grenache/Cinsaut 2018

This wine takes you into a magical flower garden where the aromas of violets, lavender and wild raspberries arrest your senses. Lined with vivid wafts of cinnamon spice, it evokes more intrigue upon taste, like the astringency from sea salt seasoning the wine with power and finesse. At its heart, the wine has a flinty edge reminiscent of granite that bestows it with a more linear and detailed quality than other blends of sorts. The wine's structural acidity announces its longevity, albeit already accessible and delicious.

"When you are physically involved with every step of the winemaking process, tasting the ripeness levels in the vineyard to following its progression in the cellar, it's like learning the art of making a perfect pork belly, the crackling just right to seduce you with every bite. You cannot follow a recipe; it is an instinct that you acquire through a deeper understanding of the medium."

Syrah 2017

Here is a vivid and vibrant rendition of Syrah – quite sassy in the way it beguiles your senses with its perfume of violets, orange chocolate and the citrus note of Szechwan pepper. Ethereal yet firmly shaped. One needs to taste it to understand how it follows through into a delicious and mouth-filling experience, becoming her signature rendition of the cultivar –the Erikatessence of capturing a vintage. Gracefully, the robust quality of Syrah takes the lead with both plummy and savoury qualities lingering on the aftertaste.

Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

The grand finale in this tasting is arguably the wine that indicates how powerful her recitation of this cultivar can be. A fresh, almost minty quality alleviates its powerful tannins. In addition, there is a density (not a heaviness) about the wine weighing it down but more like a dense forest bringing forth warm and cool aromas of freshly tilled earth, wet cedar and crushed violets.

"Rocky was always my barometer, telling me when to pick. When she was ready to sunbathe, I knew it was cooling down to harvest the Cabernet for those ultimately ripe tannins without it being too concentrated and overbearing."

Erika Obermeyer
Erika Obermeyer

Erika Obermeyer in her Stellenbosch cellar
Erika Obermeyer in her Stellenbosch cellar

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