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Wine Legend—Norma Ratcliffe

Wine Legend—Norma Ratcliffe

The SA wine industry would not be what it is without people of vision, who took a chance when it really counted and put their you know whats on the line. 

Norma RatcliffeToday there are many women winemakers in South Africa, and a formidable collection they are too, but I cannot help but think about the trailblazers who opened up those frontiers for them.

I think of women like Jean Parker at Altydgedacht, Jane Beaumont in Bot River and, of course, the legendary Norma Ratcliffe, matriarch at Warwick with its spectacular wines. Norma was not only the first woman to be elected to the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild, but served as its only female chairperson.

This feisty Canadian (born in Edmonton) met her late husband Stan while working in Greece and came here to carve a name for herself and her family at what has become one of the most internationally known South African wine estates.

She let us take a peek at what makes her tick. Her humour – which must have gotten her through some tough times – and her warmth shine through in every answer…

Can you describe the best glass of wine you’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking?

One of the best wines I’ve tasted is the 1925 Chateau Mouton Rothschild at French winemaker May de Lencquesaing’s ninetieth birthday. It was in perfect condition and I was in awe that it had been made the year she was born. She was apologetic because it was not Pichon. I took the empty bottle as a souvenir and was stopped by security on the way out.

And the worst?
I think we try and forget terrible wines. Don’t cloud your brain with bad memories.

Is there something that makes South African wines special? Can you describe it?

I think I am attracted by all the passionate people that make these wines and continue to pursue excellence. Our soils give our wines unique, silky tannins that I normally recognise before anything else

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What do you find attracts you to people—as friends?

Mostly a sense of humour. This characteristic goes with honesty and integrity. I always like it when famous people make mistakes and laugh about it. I think, ‘There is someone I would like to know’.

What do you like most about yourself?
I also like my sense of humour which often puts people at ease. You know the saying, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff?’

And dislike?

My procrastination is an awful trait. Doing big jobs through the night when I had a week to do them. However, I always get the job done

High heels or flats?

Having spent half my life in a cellar in gum boots, I have taken every opportunity to wear heels when I go out. Good reasons are that I am short but blessed with pretty good legs….heels are an obvious choice. Shall wear them until I topple off them and die.

Do you sleep well?

I sleep badly. Always have slept badly. I can get by on very little which comes from raising babies, and the days of staying up all night in the winery when I did everything myself. My family said I had ADHD before they invented the title.

When in your life have you been happiest – until now?

Each stage of my life has had different types of happiness. Loved my forties when I had super energy, two gorgeous children and Stan and I had the wine business well on track

What can you just not do without in your life?

Naturally, fine wine. Great shoes. I am crazy about white burgundy. Sadly, with our weakening rand, the two things are drifting further out of my reach.

When do you think it is right to tell a teensie weeny lie?

Yes, justified to do so to avoid hurting someone. e.g. Young winemaker comes to you with what he considers to be his great wine. It is not so nice. One starts with, “A well-made wine,” and progresses to, “Have you checked the acid in this wine?” Don’t shatter the guy.

When have you been most bored?

I never really get bored but I do notice that my concentration span is getting a bit short, especially at literary festivals where the panel chairman has not really prepared properly.

What is your greatest regret?

I am so sorry that I didn’t drink quantities of great wine while my body could still take it. I certainly bought wine in those days as if I would be drinking copious amounts well into my seventies.

What is your motto?

Strive for quality and excellence. Hard work gets you a lot further than you would think.

If you could choose to come back as something else, what or who would it be?

I would like to come back as a great rugby player like Naas Botha….only better looking.

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Words: Greg Landman

Pictures: Supplied

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