Norma Ratcliffe - Warwick Estate

Norma Ratcliffe

Earlier this year, Norma Ratcliffe and her daughter Jenny, came to present a vertical tasting of Warwick Estate's flagship wine, Trilogy, to Society members in London. Joanna Goodman took the opportunity to find out more about what it was like to be one of the first female winemakers in the Cape.

Raised in Edmonton, in the Canadian Prairies, Norma first discovered wine during family holidays in San Francisco, and it became a passion during her student days in France and Switzerland. In 1971, she met her husband-to-be Stan Ratcliffe, and returned with him to his farm in South Africa. There were no vines then, but the couple recognised the potential of the soil and, taking local advice, planted cabernet sauvignon with a view to producing grapes, rather than wine.

But the bug had bitten and Norma became increasingly interested in making wine. Having studied oenology at night, while her children were very young, she started making wine on an experimental basis in the seventies, and in 1984 the first Warwick cabernet was released. Norma admits that being a woman (and a foreigner to boot) was probably an advantage in terms of receiving help and encouragement from fellow winemakers. The Cape wine industry at the time was small and intimate, and, during the tough apartheid years, everyone pulled together. As Kevin Arnold (of Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch) told her: "one of the reasons we helped you was that if anyone made bad wine it would have reflected badly on the rest of us!"

The Bordeaux influence

Visits to Bordeaux and a stint at Château Sénéjac further honed Norma's winemaking skills and gave her an enduring love of Claret. Not surprisingly, Bordeaux varieties became a Warwick speciality. 1986 saw the first release of 'Trilogy' which has since become a South African icon - a blend of the three classic Bordeaux varieties, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Norma was also one of the first to import, at vast expense, new 225-litre French barriques, though at the time it was unproven that the barrels would improve the quality of South African wine; of course they did.

Sanctions limited international demand for South African wine, and importing cellar equipment was difficult and expensive. But on February 11th 1990, the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, everything changed. The Wine Society was one of the first importers of a Warwick wine, a '91 cabernet sauvignon, which Norma said "gave the estate quite a break".

Cape Blends

But Norma was also keen to produce a wine with a South African 'stamp'. 1997 saw the first release of 'Three Cape Ladies', a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and the Cape's unique grape, pinotage (a cross between cinsault and pinot noir). The Cape Blend style is gaining in popularity, and a special committee set about defining what it should comprise. As a leading industry figure and keen advocate of Cape Blends, Norma was much involved in those discussions, and cautioned that to prescribe minimum and maximum percentages of pinotage would be counter productive. Flexibility, she believes, is key, so that, as in Bordeaux, the blend should be at the winemaker's discretion, according to the quality of the grapes in any given year. Norma herself is certainly not one to follow rules doggedly. The latest release of Three Cape Ladies includes for the first time a fourth grape, shiraz … "it made the wine taste better…so why not?"

Though Norma has handed over the reins to Louis Nel, one of South Africa' most gifted winemakers, she is still very much involved, particularly in the blending of wines. She is delighted that son Mike, now managing director, and daughter Jenny have chosen to join the team at Warwick, if only because she firmly believes that a family business is something one should never impose upon one's children. In line with the estate's policy of continual improvement, a big replanting programme is currently underway, to grub up under-performing vines and to locate the best sites for individual varieties. "Europe has had centuries to work these things out…it is all still relatively new for us."

Key challenges to the industry

An influential player in the South African wine industry, Norma was one of the founders of the Cape Independent Winemakers' Guild, set up in the eighties to promote quality and provide a technical databank for winemakers. Louis Nel is now Warwick's official Guild representative but, as Norma says" "they rather sweetly made me an honorary member". Her experience and vision are certainly needed to face the challenge of producing quality wines across the board, especially at the £5 price point, where competition from Chile and Argentina is fierce.

The Guild enables young winemakers to learn from blind tastings of wines from around the world, and from periods of work experience abroad. Many of them are women, doubtless inspired by her example, and this year Norma was chair of the judging panel for "South African Woman Winemaker of the Year", a competition not without controversy, with certain commentators citing positive discrimination. In what is still a male-dominated industry Norma believes that such recognition is needed to encourage and promote women: "if the men don't think it is fair…let's open it up and see how many apply!"

Black empowerment

I couldn't move away from the subject of fairness without asking about black economic empowerment programmes. It comes as no surprise that the Ratcliffe family is ahead of the game here, sponsoring young black winemakers on exchange programmes to Burgundy and the US and helping the estate's workers to own their homes, giving them a stake in the economy. Tellingly, with above-average pay and conditions, Warwick's black workforce choose not to exercise their rights to union membership.

The ten vintages of Trilogy presented by Norma to members at the tasting, drawn from the period between 1986 and 2004, demonstrated vividly the evolution both of the estate's winemaking practices, and the style of the wine. With Norma still very much a driving force and inspiration to those around her, the wines can only get even better. Though there is much talk of global oversupply, this will never be the case for wines from Warwick Estate, which are leaders in their field.

Joanna Goodman
News editor

This article originally appeared in Society News in October 2007. Updated June 2008.

Members' Comments (0)

There are no comments for this article.

Want more inspiration?

Sign up for a carefully-curated selection of recipes, guides, in-depth expertise and much more.

Our website uses cookies with the aim of providing you with a better service. By using this website you consent to The Wine Society using cookies in accordance with our policy.

Close

4.4. Cookie Policy

By using The Wine Society website, you agree to cookies being used in accordance with the policy outlined below. If you do not agree to this, you must alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you or cease using the website.

The Wine Society uses cookies to enable easy navigation and shopping on the website. We take the privacy of all who use our website very seriously and ensure that our use of cookies complies with current EU legislation. The following guide outlines what cookies are, the types of cookies used on The Society's website and how they work.

You may alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you, but this will cause difficulties when accessing and using some areas of the site. Instructions on how to do this can also be found below.

4.4.1. What are 'Cookies'?

  • Most major websites use cookies.
  • A cookie is a very small data file placed on your hard drive by a web page server. It is essentially your access card, and cannot be executed as code or deliver viruses. It is uniquely yours and can only be read by the server that gave it to you.
  • Cookies cannot be used by themselves to identify you.
  • The purpose of a basic cookie is to tell the server that you returned to that web page or have items in your basket. Without cookies, websites and their servers have no memory. A cookie, like a key, enables swift passage from one place to the next.
  • Without a cookie every time you open a new web page the server where that page is stored will treat you like a completely new visitor.
  • More recently, cookies have also been used to collect information about the user which allows a profile of their preferences and interests to be created so that they can be served with interest-based rather than generic information about available goods and services.

4.4.2. How do Cookies help The Wine Society?

Cookies allow our website to function effectively. Cookies also help us to arrange content to match your preferred interests more quickly. We can learn what information is important to our visitors, and what isn't.

4.4.3. How does The Wine Society use cookies?

The Wine Society does not accept advertising from third parties and therefore, as a rule, does not serve third-party cookies. Exceptions to this include performance/analytical cookies (see below), used anonymously to improve the way our website works, the provision of personalised recommendations, and occasions when we may team up with suppliers to offer special discounts on goods or services.

The Society uses technology to track the patterns of behaviour of visitors to our site.

4.4.4. What type of cookies does The Wine Society use?

We use the following three types of cookies:

4.4.4.1. Strictly Necessary Cookies
These cookies are required for the operation of our website, enabling you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these cookies, services like shopping baskets or e-billing cannot be provided. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Authentication Cookie and Anonymous Cookie
    These cookies remember that you are logged in to your account – without them, the website would repeatedly request your login details with each new page you visit during your time on our website. They are removed once your session has ended.
  • Session Cookie
    These cookies are used to remember who you are as you use our site: without them, the website would be unable to tell the difference between you and another Wine Society member and facilities such as your basket and the checkout process would therefore not be able to function. They too are removed once your session has ended.

4.4.4.2. Functionality & Targeting/Tracking Cookies
These cookies are used to recognise you when you return to our website and to provide enhanced features. This allows us to personalise our content for you. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Unique User Cookie
    This cookie is used to:
    • store your share number in order to identify that you have visited the website before. Without this cookie, we would be unable to tell whether you are a member or not.
    • record your visit to the website, the pages you have visited and the links you have followed. We use this information to make our website, the content displayed on it and direct marketing communications we may send to you or contact you about more relevant to your interests.
    • This cookie expires after 13 months.
  • Peerius Cookies
    These third-party cookies are used to provide you with personalised recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history. They expire within 4 hours of your visit.

4.4.4.3. Performance/analytical cookies
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information which identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Google Analytics Cookies
    These are third-party cookies to enable Google Analytics to monitor website traffic. All information is recorded anonymously. Using Google Analytics allows The Society to better understand how members use our site and monitor website traffic.

4.4.4.4. Authentication Cookie
In order for us to ensure that your data remains secure it is necessary for us to verify that your session is authentic (i.e. it has not been compromised by a malicious user). We do this by storing an otherwise meaningless unique ID in a cookie for the duration of your visit. No personal information can be gained from this cookie.

4.4.5. How do you turn cookies off?

All modern browsers allow you to modify your cookie settings so that all cookies, or those types which are not acceptable to you, are blocked. However, please note that this may affect the successful functioning of the site, particularly if you block all cookies, including essential cookies. For example, In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools Menu, then go to Internet Options, then go to Privacy. Here you can change the rules your browser uses to accept cookies. You can find out more in the public sources mentioned below.

4.4.6. Learn more about cookies

4.4.7. Changes to our cookie policy

Any changes we may make to our cookie policy in the future will be posted on the website and, where appropriate, notified to you by email. Please check back frequently to see any updates and changes to our cookie policy.