The announcement of Altus le Roux of Boland Cellars as International Winemaker of the Year is a triumph not just for his winery but for South African wine in general. He talks to Arnold Kirkby about the task of transforming Boland into an international name, a journey that reflects the struggle of the country's entire wine industry.

Being named international winemaker of the year is still sinking in for Boland Cellar's winemaking MD, Altus le Roux, who says his winery is still in a major transformation phase, which will only start realising true results in 2004.

The last decade has seen major strides for this Paarl-based winery, which is transforming itself from a staid, conservative bulk supplier into an ultra-modern market driven company.

Altus le Roux is the third South African since 1986 to be awarded Winemaker of the Year

Thrust into the limelight by being named the International Wine & Spirit Competition Winemaker of the Year, Altus le Roux is from the genus, "Calm Assured Afrikaner", a species that forms the backbone of the South African wine industry.

He is the third South African since 1986 to be awarded this title, the others being Gunter Brozel in that year and Beyers Truter of Kanonkop Estate in 1991. It has also highlighted the progress made by the South African wine industry, and not just estates, in producing wines that meet international standards.

Throughout an interview in his understated office it was clear that he had the greatest respect for the team he had built around himself. Le Roux is from a family of lawyers and started studying in that field before realising that his true love lay with wine and so got his diploma at Elsenburg Agricultural College near Stellenbosch.

He is known for his ability to listen, to work logically and give employees the freedom to do what they do best in their given field, while retaining a firm, guiding hand on the tiller, but he is not afraid of expressing his point of view. Le Roux is a managing director, who remains a winemaker at heart.

"We are quietly confident that we will meet the challenges facing us in the futures"

Together with his board of directors and key personnel, they have over the past decade swung around a production-driven co-operative mentality to a market-oriented company with a clear vision on quality and meeting international consumer demand.

"Communication within the company and our 114 producer-shareholders is one of our major assets and main reasons for our present growth and success.

"We switched from being a co-operative to a company in 1998, but the transformation started with South African wine's return to the international arena in 1992.

"At that stage we were bottling only 1% of our entire crop and selling the rest in bulk to large wholesalers, but are now moving in a steady, controlled manner to developing our own brands and have over 20% under own label.

Selection of Boland Wines

"Boland Cellar is a work in progress, with a long-term programme to develop all facets of the winery into an ultra-modern operator, able to compete successfully on the international and domestic markets. At present we are in 15 foreign markets, with our strongest presence in Holland and northern Europe.

"It is a holistic approach, a change of mindset for everybody, from our producers to the cellar personnel, while our financial rationale, approach to distribution and marketing meets international norms.

"I joined the company in 1984 and it was obvious from the outset that we did not have a good varietal mix, with a 60% Chenin Blanc overload. Many of the other grapes were insignificant white varietals, which were not readily marketable. In those days it was difficult to get people to change their minds.

"Since 1992 we have looked outward and from being exposed to international influences everybody realised the need to be market-driven. It took a bit of time for people to understand. We started where it mattered most - in the vineyards, ripping out unwanted varietals and planting red varietals in particular. By 2004 we intend having a 50-50 split for red and white.

"Since 1989 we spent R14m (US$) on upgrading our cellars and will spend another R15m in the next two years, mainly on the red wine side, so that we are ready for the influx of grapes at that time.

Blend of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling

"In the mid 1980s we were producing between 16 and 18m litres of wine and at present we are down to between 12 and 13m litres. This will grow again in the next two years, but this time with varietals, which the world wants, and from disease free vines.

"We have created mini 'estates' within a big cellar, through buying in smaller tanks to be able to make wines of specific qualities and not just dump everything together as was the case ten years ago.

"We are also fortunate enough to have grape suppliers from five different areas around Paarl, where we can draw from the unique terrior of each. This goes a long way in developing wines for the different markets we serve.

"In the past we also made use of external viticulturists, which was not ideal and since 1998 we appointed our own expert and the difference is quite astounding. We are now able to plan every detail throughout the year and particularly in the run up to the harvest.

"This allows us to control almost every facet and so produce better quality wine. We are under no illusion, there will always be room for improvement, but we are quietly confident that we will meet the challenges facing us in the future," he said.

Wine: The International Market