In her 20th year at Simonsig Estate in Stellenbosch, Debbie Thompson has been promoted to cellar master at this revered and pioneering third-generation winery. Thompson takes over the role of cellar master from Johan Malan under whom she has worked since joining Simonsig in 1999.
Malan will in future be Simonsig’s Director of Winemaking, leaving Thompson to lead the winemaking team of Charl Schoeman (Cap Classique and white wine) and Michael Malan, the third generation Malan in the Simonsig cellar, who takes over from Thompson as red winemaker.
Thompson graduated from Stellenbosch University with a degree in oenology and worked for a brief stint at Hazendal before joining Simonsig where she has spent most of her career. Over two decades Thompson has proven herself to be one of the country’s leading winemakers, winning numerous awards including six Absa Top 10 Pinotage Trophies as well as in 2005 being awarded the title of South African Woman Winemaker of the Year.
“It is a tremendous honour to be given the responsibility of cellar master at Simonsig, especially as this is where my wine home and wine family are,” she says. “When I started out 20 years ago, a scrawny, nervous and overwhelmed young winemaker I never dreamed of actually being in charge of this famous winery and the diverse range of reputable wines made here.
“I am truly indebted to Johan for giving me this responsibility. He basically taught me all I know about winemaking, vineyards, cellar management and logistics, and were it not for him I doubt whether I would have ever reached the degree of professional development to be given this opportunity.”
Debbie hails from the wide, parched expanse of Namaqualand in the Northern Cape and had initially wanted to study veterinary science, but held back when she found out this entailed living in a big city, namely Pretoria.
“I came to study BSc in Stellenbosch, and as things go with student life, the wine bug bit,” she says. “So I veered off in that direction, and never looked back.”
Besides the reputation Simonsig’s wines have accrued, being one of the first Stellenbosch farms with a history of estate winemaking going back 51 years, the element of tradition runs deep and is strongly associated with the brand.
“I was fortunate to have experienced taking advice from Oom Frans (Malan), founder of Simonsig and one of the true South African wine pioneers, during harvest time,” says Thompson. “During harvest he would come to me as each load of grapes was being crushed and ask me for the sugar, acid and pH readings. It’s very special to be part of a farm where the rich history and strong legacy play such important roles along with the scientific approach to winemaking and commitment to quality.”
Debbie says teamwork is paramount, from the vineyard management to winemaking and logistics, such as blending and managing cellar space and equipment.
“We’ve got a superb young team, and Charl and Michael are destined for great things in the wine world,” she says. “Both are skilled in their respective fields, and to be able to count on them in helping me get to the final bottled wines is a privilege. And of course, Johan is just around the corner – although we won’t try to bother him too much!”
According to Johan, Debbie has proven herself a worthy successor as Simonsig cellar master. “She knows the winery back to front, knows what she wants from each vineyard and has the necessary methodical management and logistic skills to handle the day-to-day operations of a big winery of our size and range,” says Johan.
“As a winemaker, Debbie has also proven herself one of the best in the country and the reason Simonsig’s Pinotage and other red wines have been accorded such acclaim locally and internationally has largely been Debbie’s doing,” he concluded.