Lunch with Shelley Sandell of Tierhoek
I don’t know about you, but life seems to have got a lot busier over the last few years. So sitting down to lunch at a great restaurant with a beautifully chilled bottle of Chenin Blanc with Shelley Sandell, owner of Tierhoek, in the middle of a working day seemed somewhat decadent.
Back to business. I visited Tierhoek over 2 years ago to meet their winemaker, Carla Niewoudt. Off the beaten track just over 2 hours from Cape Town, I discovered a hidden gem producing exceptional wines from their vineyards, some of which are over 60 years old. I knew then that Tierhoek, a direct translation for ‘Leopards corner’, was a special place.
As such, I was excited to meet Shelley for lunch at the A Tavola restaurant to find out the story behind the farm. Established in 1886, Tierhoek is one of the oldest surviving, original Sandveld farms on the West Coast of Africa. The late Tony Sandell and his wife Shelley, purchased this 715ha farm in 2001. Tony had developed a love of the area while spending time on his grandfather’s farm. So, when a dilapidated Tierhoek came on the market, a highly energetic and driven Tony purchased the farm and became a weekend farmer all whilst continuing to run a successful business in Cape Town.
Even though the first vintage, their Chenin Blanc 2003, was made by Chris Williams at Meerlust, Roger Burton would go on to make the first wines at Tierhoek in 2007. Sadly, Tony passed away the same year and Shelley decided, it would be sacrilege to give the farm up considering Tony’s passion for it and all that the family had invested. “I decided to fulfill my husband’s dream, of producing great wines at Tierhoek, as we had not made wines with all the varietals at Tierhoek yet, because some of the vineyards were still too young”.
She has continued to farm organically, replant more Grenache to add to the 60 year old grafted vines and refined the style of wine to reflect the true expression of this unique site.
Savouring a beautifully prepared Kingklip perfectly paired with the Tierhoek Chenin Blanc 2013, I asked if she had any regrets about pursuing the challenging business of winegrowing. Without any hesitation she responded, “the farm has given me something to focus on and keep busy instead of moping around feeling sorry for myself after losing my husband. I enjoy the excitement of each new Tierhoek vintage and the enjoyment that it brings to people.”
Spending a few hours over lunch with Shelley, reaffirms my sense that her focus and commitment, is slowly but surely transforming a once run down farm into one of the great discoveries of the Cape winelands.
SHELLEY IN A NUTSHELL
Any interesting/amusing anecdotes during your winemaking career?
Every summer having to have “baboon watch” to stop them pinching our drying Chenin grapes, for Straw wine, which are outside under the oak trees
Highlights in your career?
Establishing Tierhoek as a brand and keeping true to its natural beauty and uniqueness of its surroundings.
When did you start at Tierhoek?
We purchased Tierhoek in 2001 just after the birth of my third son, Harry. My day to day involvement happened after my husband, Tony became ill in 2006.
Your winemaking philosophy?
Purity of fruit and natural winemaking with the least intervention, producing balanced wines full of expression and flavour.
The Tierhoek Wine philosophy?
The philosophy of Tierhoek aims at balance in the vineyards to produce grapes of optimal ripeness, and wines that clearly express the Tierhoek terroir.
What do you regard as the main secrets behind Tierhoek’s success?
Tierhoeks’ open secret is that the wines are a true reflection of where they come from, and are like an undiscovered treasure as special as their remote surroundings.
What makes Tierhoek’s terroir special?
Tierhoek is nestled in an isolated mountain bowl, amongst the peaks of the Piekenierskloof , some 800 m above sea level. It has a unique micro climate, and is also cooler because of the altitude, with good diurnal temperatures. It benefits every afternoon from the cool breezes, coming from the Atlantic Ocean some 30km away. It has very pebbly soils from decomposed sandstone.
How do you feel about the SA wine industry’s present standing & future on the international market and why?
SA is producing some incredible wines which the international market is recognising and this has spinoffs for the whole industry.
Challenges for South African wine producers?
Our climate has thrown us a few curved balls and of course managing rising costs against producing great wines.
How can we make wine more accessible to the SA population?
Education and social media.