The Hemel-en-Aarde may get all the attention, but its neighbour, just over an Overberg hill, Tesselaarsdal has a far more interesting and further-reaching history. The small town was once a large farm called Hartebeestrivier. That was until East India settler Johannes Jacobus Tesselaar (who the town is now named for) came along; upon his death in 1810 he divided the farm into pockets and bequeathed the different sections to freed slaves. Many direct descendants of the original landowners still live in Tesselaarsdal today, including Berene Sauls—who is making her own history by purchasing a plot of land in the region of her ancestors, on which she’ll be planting pinot noir and chardonnay.
Though she’s been in the wine business for approximately two decades already: as a long-time employee of Hamilton Russell Vineyards as well as the owner of her own wine brand Tesselaarsdal Wines, which she launched in 2015.
When I track Berene down – over, you know, Zoom – it’s clear she’s a woman who has many balls in the air. A single mom of two sons, she’s currently consumed with a borehole project on her farm that’s leaking cash, and not to mention the on-going liquor ban, which has turned her five-year plan into a 10-year one… Do I see a stressed, harassed, tired looking woman? Not at all. She reminds me of this quote by Roald Dahl: If you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely. Berene is full of light and humour, and I can imagine it’s just this inner-strength that has seen her beating down one challenge after the next.
So, how did this story begin? Berene admits she comes from a beer-drinking community; wine was never on the radar. That was until fate intervened with a position as an au pair for Anthony Hamilton Russell’s four children.
“I lasted a month,” laughs Berene. Child-minding aside Anthony recognised Berene’s drive and thought maybe a job assisting the marketing manager, Talita Engelbrecht, would suit her better.
What followed was a year of learning the ropes of the wine business—from every angle. “I got my business sense from Talita, she shaped me from all sides.
In the 365 days of 2002 Berene operated forklifts, worked in packaging and operating logistics, joined the pickers in the vineyards and the winemakers in the cellar, assisted with exports, and even managed sales in the tasting room.
And while doing all that she was ‘trying to develop a palate that wasn’t there’. To this end she would drive twice a week in the evenings to Stellenbosch to join tastings, complemented with ‘a few crash courses at the Cape Wine Academy’. To call her ambitious would be an understatement.
“The following year Talita nominated me to go to the International Wine and Spirits Fair in the UK through an initiative by WOSA.” Berene got the nod, of course.
“I was in awe, it was huge! There looked to be a million producers there. I was so intrigued by the stands, digging into what defined them as a winery.”
Her gnawing curiosity about all things wine kept her ascending at Hamilton Russell, till eventually she ran her own export logistics department.
It was in 2014 that Anthony came to her and said: ‘Look you’ve got no more place to grow, why don’t you make a barrel of wine with Emul? Her response: “I’m going to go get some grapes now and I’ll see you later!”
So with the help of Hamilton Russel’s winemaker, Emul Ross they sourced premium pinot from Babylon Vineyards, located on the Hemel-en-Aarde ridge, securing a long-term contract. To get the business going Anthony supplied the start-up costs with no financial stake, and away she went.
“That first harvest was the most adrenalin-inducing, most nervous, most excited I’ve ever felt.”
With a wine made, it was now time to sell it. “Anthony suggested I show my wine, underneath the table at wine shows I worked for Hamilton Russell,” she shares.
“But the big break came at the Hemel-en-Aarde’s Pinot Noir Celebration in 2016. “Anthony said why not offer the wine to taste at his house where many influnetional people came past for tastings. One of those was Master of Wine, Greg Sherwood. He called the wine ‘the next South African Pinot noir icon’ and posted a photo on social media. My phone pretty much exploded, I sold out of the 200 cases in the first month of release.”
Now in its 6th vintage Tesselaarsdal Wines continues to make strides, largely as an export brand. With the wine brand a confirmed success, her next mission is to bring it home. She bought the property in Tesselaarsdal with profits from her business combined with money she has won from various entrepreneurial awards.
With the borehole issue largely sorted out, she now has to crack on with the rest of her plans. She has no real desire to be a fully-fledged winemaker; rather she hopes to create a legacy for her sons. Her eldest, Darren is already quite keen at 16. “He’s always wanting to smell and taste the wines!”
To start she’ll be planting 1-hectare each of chardonnay and pinot noir. Literally testing the ground before getting more ambitious. “I’m scared but my heart is in it. We want to build a 30-tonne cellar, I said to Emul – ‘so once we get going must I come fetch you, or will you come here’?” she relates laughing. “He said: I will be with you every step of the way.
“The support I’ve received from the Hamilton Russell team, and continue to receive has meant everything to me.”
From Anthony Hamilton Russell
“From the time I first met Berene when she was 19 years old, I could see her ambition, ability and incredible work ethic. I knew she would achieve something extraordinary and I promised myself to do whatever I could to remove any roadblocks to her success. With a few ideas, snippets of advice and encouragement Berene has built an incredible business – and one at the top-end of the South African wine industry.
She has marshalled whatever resources were available to her with great entrepreneurial talent and is now embarking successfully on the real end-goal. Land ownership and her own vineyards and cellar. And all this while holding down a demanding job on Hamilton Russell Vineyards. I see her developing a whole industry for her employment challenged home village of Tesselaarsdal and being a serious force for good in her community. We couldn’t be more proud of her.”
- Malu Lambert