Niels & Penny Verburg met at a party in the mid-1980s as recent high school grads. They discovered each would be attending the same agricultural college later that year and quickly became friends. As romance blossomed, they decided that after college they would dive head-first into the wine industry. Niels would be a winemaker, and Penny a vineyard manager.
Sadly, these were the darkest days of Apartheid and things were not so simple. With a horrible regime nearly defeated, but fighting to the bitter end, South Africa offered virtually no opportunity to prosper. So, the couple was forced to leave their homeland in 1990 in search of greener pastures. Niels was fortunate during this time to make wine in France, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, and Greece, while Penny worked alongside him in the vineyards.
In 1994, when Apartheid ended, the couple saw their opportunity to return to South Africa, and within a year, were back home. Niels took a job making wine at Beaumont Family Wines, the most historic property in Bot River and after eight years, he and Penny decided it was time to branch off on their own.
The couple purchased nearly 30 acres of land just a couple of kilometers down the road from Beaumont, at the base of the Houw Hoek Mountains. At this time, this hilly landscape was nothing but shrubs that took years to clear. But they took it slow – the Luddite way. After the land was cleared, they planted the first vineyards in 2001. Then their wine cellar was built, followed by planting another parcel of vineyards. The last step was building the production facility.
The entire process took 10 years. In the end, Luddite Wines was one of the first to plant Shiraz in Bot River, their Chenin Blanc is one of the best in the world, all their vines are practicing organic and dry farmed, and their winemaking technique is as ‘minimal’ as minimal intervention can get. Luddite is, without a doubt, a top producer in South Africa. The Verburgs are legends, too, having influenced many winemakers along the way to simplify and let the land speak. Go to any establishment related to wine (or food) in South Africa, and their work is immensely respected.
The Verburg’s greatest influence are the Luddites; they often refer to themselves as such. The Luddites were a group of British rebels during the industrial revolution concerned their jobs would be replaced by mechanization, so they rallied against it. The Verburgs do not take Luddism as a by-all means halting technological progress. Moreso, their philosophy is to use nature and their hands as much as possible, and machinery only when necessary. This translates into an experience entirely of their region; a place with gentle rolling hills dotted with fynbos, a slow-moving river, and cool ocean air converge into something so perfect for wine. This experience just couldn’t be captured with a machine-led operation.
From day one, their guiding mantra has been, “if you’re not having fun, then why do it?” Throughout their property are mini art installations as reminders to the other elements in life that are important outside of work (for the Verburgs, and their incredibly fun community, Afrika Burn is an important annual Out-Of-Office event). They also throw a legendary braai, taking their local lamb very seriously (as an ex-chef, I can get down with this).
Today Niels and Penny are accompanied in the cellar and on sales calls by their daughter, Alice. She’s a culinary school grad and WSET Diploma holder (last pre-req. to Master of Wine) and being primed to take the wheel in due time.