Trizanne Barnard is 44 years old, a nature lover, a surfer, and a prize-winning kickboxer. She is also the owner and winemaker of Trizanne Signature Wines — making some of the most expressive, interesting and affordable wines being produced in South Africa today. I talked with her before a wine dinner featuring her wines in Madison in early June.

Her interest in agriculture started on a kibbutz where she farmed koi. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but the koi fish hatchery looks very similar to a winery,” she says. “You have big stainless steel tanks and you have sorting tables, and you’re sorting these fish” — like grapes, in a way. 

Eventually, she returned to South Africa and Stellenbosch University, where she earned a degree in enology and viticulture. After working harvests in Australia and Alsace, she again returned to South Africa to make wines at Klein Constantia, where, at age 25, she worked to produce the winery’s iconic dessert wine Vin de Constance. “That was probably the first ‘Aha!’ moment for me in wine. You don’t need to know too much. If the grapes are really amazing, you can make an amazing wine,” she says. 

After that successful vintage, Barnard worked on the inaugural 2005 vintage of Klein Constantia’s high-end red bottling, Anwilka. The wine immediately found critical success, with Robert Parker calling it the finest red wine he’d ever had from South Africa. Despite the fame and attention it brought her, Barnard says that it was “probably the worst thing that could have happened to me as a young winemaker because it was so much hoopla.” She felt that instead of having a creative outlet, there was “this one thing that I was trying to perfect.” 

Barnard wanted to make wines that reflected the land in which they were grown. “Anwilka was this super-ripe, super-high alcohol wine, and I think that when you’re in that realm, you do completely lose a sense of place.” That’s because as winemakers extract the flavor from the skin of overripe grapes, there’s a point past which it becomes difficult to discern where it’s from. It’s like adding salt to a dish — too much and you lose the subtleties.

This led her to leave the Anwilka project and strike out on her own in 2008. “My focus was to find a pocket of land, a vineyard that is very expressional of that area.” And she did, focusing on parcels in Elim and Swartland that she felt best represented the quality in each region. Starting with the 2009 vintage, Barnard has been producing wines, both red and white, that are perfumed, mineral-driven and elegant.

Barnard sources most of her red grapes from the relatively warm Swartland region on South Africa’s western cape, and was among the group of young winemakers that rediscovered the area and helped to reestablish the wine region’s identity. “We have some of the oldest vines [in South Africa] here, but [the grapes] were all picked together and dumped into co-ops.” Barnard started developing relationships with farmers in the region and bottling smaller production wines that highlighted the vines’ potential. “At that time, there were only a handful of us doing it.” 

Barnard’s red bottlings are fresh, savory and relatively bright. Her TSW 2020 Swartland Cinsault ($17) balances fine tannins with juicy cranberry notes and a peppery nose. Served with a slight chill, it makes a great accompaniment to grilled summer squash and lamb chops. The TSW 2020 Swartland Syrah ($17) has delicate floral notes on the nose, and a palate that balances sophisticated dark fruit flavors with an umami-laden, acid-driven finish. It is the polar opposite of the Hershey’s-syrup-meets-raspberry-vodka characteristics of many warm climate syrahs. 

Although her red wines are quite good, it is Barnard’s white wines that are exceptional. They are all from Elim, near Cape Agalas in the southern part of the country, which means a long ripening season for the sauvignon blanc and sémillion that she sources from small family farms. “It’s not the easiest of farming because of the elements, we’re dealing with huge winds. But you have these incredible aromatics forming over a huge ripening period.” Despite these challenges, Elim is where Barnard’s heart lies: “My passion and love has gravitated to the South Cape.”It is easy to believe it when you taste her wines from the area. The TSW 2021 Cape South Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($17) is the best sauvignon blanc that I have tasted in recent memory. It is 100 percent sauvignon blanc, and has a salinity that makes it incredibly refreshing, while the herbaceousness in the aroma skirts the grassy notes typical for the grape. It is an incredible value, and well worth seeking out. Fans of richer, more aromatic white wines will find the barrel-fermented TSW 2019 Elim Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc Reserve ($26) enjoyable. The slightly oxidative palate is reminiscent of lemon juice tempered by waxy, honeyed notes on the finish.

Too often in wine criticism, there is a tendency to define wines like Barnard’s by what they are not. And certainly her wines have a lightness and grace that places them in stark contrast to more famous, heavier South African wines. But Barnard’s wines are more intriguing for what they are: pure reflections of terroir. When asked what she most wanted people to know about her wines, she was clear: “Please notice that this is Elim, please notice that this is Swartland, and I am doing my best to portray that in the glass.”

Bob Hemauer consults with the Tornado Steak House on its wine selections.

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