40 Under 40: Mark le Roux
Meet Mark le Roux. As a young boy who loved the outdoors, he would spend his time exploring and playing in the Stellenbosch winelands. Fascinated by nature and patiently indulged by his father who studied forestry, Mark’s world was shaped by the careful interaction between man and nature.
In the twenty-odd years since he is still exploring and this time, winemaking and terrior is his game. “The challenge of linking the soils and environment to specific cultivars and then to produce representing wine thereof is the rush I live for,” says the 32-year-old Waterford winemaker.
Mark studied a BSc Agric (Oenology and Viticulture) at Stellenbosch University. After graduating, he worked in South Africa for 3 years before doing a harvest in Carneros, California. Mark joined the winemaking team at Waterford in 2009 and took over winemaking production with 2013 being his first vintage. You can sense that Mark is truly happy in his chosen career, possibly because it stills his inherent inquisitiveness to explore and ‘play’. Named South African Young Winemaker of 2017 by Tim Atkin, he surely has a promising career ahead – and not because some critic singled him out as “an awesome talent”. Mark has talent, yes, but his disarming passion for South Africa, its wine and soils are infectious. We talked coffee and the Karoo.
What vintage are you?
If you could bottle yourself, what would the tasting note be?
Aromatics would be classic and traditional with traces of stubbornness masking the fresh, young fruit. The palate would surprise you with emotion and sensitivity. Extremely modest and honest allowing the truth of the terroir to show.
What sparked your love for food and the drink?
As a youngster I was exposed to different foods. Winter holidays on our family farm in the heart of the Karoo exposed me to the smell of genuine fynbos and suur gras, as well as the uncontested Karoo lamb. At the age of 12, our family moved to Indonesia and Malaysia for 5 years which exposed me to a very different style of food. With these exposures I’ve always loved working with my hands, and with my father as a forester, doing a lot of woodwork and planting trees in the garden to watch them grow was a great sense of satisfaction. The delayed gratification of planting a plant and watching it grow is satisfying, but to go a step further and to make wine from the plant you grow is absolutely priceless.
Aliens come down from space and you must explain to them in one bottle of wine what it is that you do – what do you make?
There are aliens out there??? I’ll tell them that I make a natural product from grapes found on earth which makes humans live longer and happier. This product, wine, connects the world in a language spoken by all on earth.
What is still on your wine bucket list?
To tour the wine region of Chile, North to South. That’s at the top, but the list is long.
Tell us about your lucky break?
Taking up a position at Waterford Estate, its where it all started. This year I was named “young South African winemaker of the year” by UK master of wine Journalist, Tim Atkin. To me, it is recognition of my lucky break 8 years ago.
What makes a wine fine?
An honest wine. For me, this is a wine which is made without selfishness and ego. Wine that is most expressive of its terroir and unshowy, with nothing to prove, it just makes sense.
What has been your greatest mistake?
Not trusting my gut. Believe in what you know, but know that you know so little.
What is your biggest motivator?
Today’s work is hard, but only tomorrow will show the results. In the future when I’m old and relaxing in my wing-back chair sipping on the wine I made back then – I don’t want to be disappointed!
How do you measure success?
By how many Instagram followers I have (@markleroux85)! Only joking. By being able to prove myself and family with everything we need and feel a level of contentment.
What inspires you?
Tasting great wines.
It’s Wednesday night at 6:30. What’s for dinner?
As Wednesday is usually braai day, it will be Kudu/Springbok Sirloins on the kole. Sides will be chunky mash potato and if I’m feeling fancy, green beans with roasted almond flakes and cauliflower and cheese sauce. To switch off from work, I’ll have a craft beer whilst braaiing.
If you weren’t making wine, what would you be doing?
A chef or a veterinarian, but thank heavens that it did not work out! Now, I’d be a coffee farmer and roaster.
What do you rate as your proudest achievement?
Being nominated “South Africa’s Young Winemaker of the Year” by Tim Atkin.
What is a big no-no to you when it comes to making wine?
Becoming complacent and disorganized.
What would you like to achieve over the next 15 years?
I would like to prove to the world that South Africa really does make some of the finest wines.
Who or what is your idea of oenological brilliance?
There are so many talented winemakers and viticulturists in South Africa. Oenological brilliance is creating wines which fit and taste like the story of the vineyard. If I can single out one person, it would have to be Eben Sadie. He is leading the movement in South Africa.
Where are you happiest?
On our family farm in the Karoo. There is very limited cell phone signal and freedom in the veld gathering sheep on horseback. The slow pace of simple life, smelling the unpolluted air and feasting on home grown lamb without any pretentiousness.
What flavours inspire taste memories for you?
Cloves. It takes me back to Indonesia where my family lived for 5 years. Indonesian locals smokes clove cigarettes and as you get off the aeroplane the smell fills your nostrils until you leave the country again. The smell of cloves always takes me back to the street food of Indonesia.
Wine, but with my job title it does not count as a vice.
What are the biggest challenges we face in the South African wine industry? Where would you like to see us go and grow over the next ten years?
Quite simple. South Africa can make the best wines in the world. We just need to value ourselves as South Africans, too often we undervalue our products and country and sell ourselves short.
Through trusting ourselves we can achieve this. There are so many amazingly talented winemakers and viticulturists out there and I’m very positive on the future of the wine industry in South Africa.
Your cellar is underwater. You can save one bottle of wine from your collection – what do you choose?
I only have one worthwhile bottle in my cellar at home to grab, and it’s a 1985 Trio Corda from Overgaauw. How often do you get to own a bottle of your birth year?
What is your favourite food and wine memory?
Way back in 2009 I visited a friend who was winemaker at Chateau Malescasse in Bordeaux. For my final dinner before returning home, they spoilt me to one table filled with local cheeses and foie gras, and another with about 20 incredible French wines. Wines we drunk that night included Chateau Angelus, Chateau Palmer, Chateau Rauzan Segla, Chateau d’Yquem. What an amazing dinner.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? What would you cook and why?
Denzel Washington, Van Morrison, Paul McCartney, Will Smith, Freddie Mercury, Michael McIntyre, Captain Jack Sparrow and my closest friends – hopefully all the guys bring good dates!
What is the best and worst thing about working in the wine industry?
The best is that there are no two days that are the same. It is forever exciting and challenging. The worst is that harvest only lasts 65 days – my family will disagree!
Looking back, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?
Don’t let other people stand in the way of what you want to do.