One of the Cape’s largest wine farms where wines are nurtured from the cultivars that grow on the east-facing slopes of the towering, sun-shading Simonsberg.

The soaring peaks of the Simonsberg Mountain have long served as a guardian to the birth and triumph of the Paarl wine estate Plaisir de Merle. It is on the foothills of this mountain that vineyards thrive, producing grapes of exceptional richness that would have found favour with our Huguenot founder, Charles Marais. Fleeing religious persecution in France, Charles and his family set sail for the Cape in 1687 and settled at the Cape in the Groot Drakenstein Valley. In 1693, Cape Governor Simon van der Stel granted land to the Marais family which they named after their home town, Le Plessis Marly.

In the hands of his inspired grandson, Jacob Marais, the estate grew to be the finest in the region. It was Jacob who built the elegant Manor House in 1764, which remains one of the finest examples of Cape Dutch architecture. Through various consolidations the modern Plaisir de Merle took shape, later passing by marriage to the Hugo family in the 19th century and after several short tenures came under the ownership of Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (now Distell) in 1964.

It is often said that good wines begin in the vineyard but at Plaisir de Merle, the outstanding wines begin with the soil. Strict adherences to harmonious integration of vineyard practices with modern winemaking techniques have left renowned winemaker Niel Bester free to naturally influence the process.

In 1993, the new cellar was opened, an architectural masterpiece where wood, water and stainless steel harmonise. On the inside, the efficient simplicity and the passion of the winemaker and his team set Plaisir de Merle’s course towards a stellar future.
The modern cellar is surrounded by a moat teeming with Koi which both cools and insulates it. 

Just outside the cellar is a watermill, a replica of the one built by Jacob Marais for his wife, Maria in 1730. Beyond the mill are two “lynhuise” (longhouses) facing each other across a breathtakingly beautiful oak-lined garden. One of the most superb sights is the frieze
or blazon that graces the cellar’s entrance. 

Artist Jan Corewijn crafted the ornate frieze to pay tribute to the early pioneers of the estate who toiled to develop the land and leave an invaluable legacy for future generations.

The excellence of Plaisir de Merle Cabernet Sauvignon was re-affirmed with the 2012 vintage singled out as one of the top three selected in the 2016 exclusive report on South African Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine received a rating of 93 out of 100 – third-highest in a flight of only 60 wines selected by the judging panel.

As an environmentally responsible and ethical producer Plaisir de Merle is certified by a number of organisations including the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trading Association, BRC Global Standards, a leading safety and quality certification programme, the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, and SGS, the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company.

Niel Bester is a foreman for Mother Nature, overseeing but never controlling her purpose, through the philosophy inspired by the soil. From the cellar he coaxes from noble cultivars wines that are personable yet stylish, earthy yet refined, and always imbued with intense colour, ripe fruit flavours and soft tannins to reward discerning palates. Bester has been crafting Plaisir de Merle wines since 1993 and his philosophy infuses every bottle.

Angel Khuzwayo, Durban ICC Candidate Wine Steward, posed the following questions to Niel Bester, Cellar Master Plaisir de Merle.

Why did you choose the wine industry?

“After I finished school I was interested in a career in agriculture. During my first year at Stellenbosch University, I worked at a winery near Stellenbosch over weekends and holidays and decided to specialize in winemaking,” says Niel.

Which wine is your favourite and why? 

“Creating blends are definitely my favourite part of winemaking. I’ll choose Cabernet Sauvignon as it is usually the wine that I use to structure the blend around, and of course Chardonnay. The Chardonnay blend consists of wines from three different vineyards where each is split into several smaller batches. I use different types of yeast, barrels, and periods of lees contact on each batch. So eventually when I make up the blend I have a lot of different components to work with. This gives more complexity and makes the wine so much more interesting.”

In your own view what makes a good Sommelier? 

“An excellent memory to start off with. A good pallet – the ability to taste and recognize wine characteristics and express them in your own words. Eager to learn and stay up to date with new wines and styles. A love to work and communicate with people.”

Candidate Wine Steward Peter John
Sun Time Square

On the 80 hectares that is set aside for you to do your magic is it a variety of grapes or its only one type? 

“We have various varietals planted on the 80 hectares. For the reds we focus mainly on the five Bordeaux cultivars; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc, Malbec and Petit verdot, but we also have Shiraz and Pinot noir, and of course Chardonnay,” explains Niel.

Which would you say is the best sparkling wine to have between the filtered and unfiltered? 

“The Plaisir de Merle Grand Brut is made according to the traditional champagne method. That means the second fermentation of the wine takes place in the bottle and over time (two years plus) there is natural sedimentation of the lees during the riddling or remuage (the periodic turning or shaking of bottled wine, to move sediment towards the cork) so that means the final product is unfiltered – leaving it with all the natural flavours that develop during the second fermentation.”

On the MCC if it happens to pack the wines before 24 months on its lees is this going to affect the taste? 

“The longer the wine stays on the lees the more secondary flavours will be imparted in the wine. This will cause the wine to have a more ‘aged’ character and is softer and creamier. The Plaisir de Merle Grand Brut is blended to produce a wine in a more fresh and crisp style and more fruit forward. This is the reason why we do not leave the wine on the lees for extended periods – usually after 24 months and then with three month intervals we will degorge, cork and label them.” 

Is there any advantage or disadvantage for someone who doesn’t drink to be a wine steward?

“I don’t think whether you drink or just appreciate tasting the wine would make much difference, but I think you have to experience the taste of wine to truly be able to tell the story about the wine and also be prepared to make suggestions about food pairing.”

Candidate Wine Steward Devika Giga
Taj Cape Town

What is your best piece of advice for someone starting a career in the wine industry?

“Whether you want to become a winemaker, marketer, sommelier, etc. I think it is beneficial to experience as much of the process as possible first hand. Work in a cellar, talk to experienced winemakers, taste regularly, discuss the wines you taste, form your own opinions and vocabulary, don’t be scared to express your opinion, but don’t be outspoken and think you know it all from day one. Wine is a personal journey and we all experience it in our own way. But never stop learning,” advises Niel.

Is cork beneficial for long term use?

“My own experience is that if you use good quality corks it will protect your wine for many years – 20 years+. Corking equipment and storage conditions have spoiled more wines than the odd bad cork in a batch.”

What do you find to be the hardest part of harvest?

“Being able to harvest the grapes at optimum ripeness and potential alcohol levels of around 14%. In the last decade, it has become difficult due to changes in weather and climate, managing the cellar in terms of available fermentation capacity has become more of a challenge as most varietals now ripen in a very short space of time.”

Deeply committed Cellar Master Niel Bester of Plaisir De Merle spoke to our group of wine stewards about just what it takes to be a winemaker, the passion, and commitment to excellence you have to have. Hear more here…

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