The Engelbrecht family’s involvement in the wine industry started four generations ago, when the family settled on the West Coast of South Africa as grape growers. Jean’s true passion for wine began when his family took ownership of the historic Rust en Vrede estate in 1977. As a youngster, he moved to the centuries-old Stellenbosch estate and grew up in the Manor House, built in 1825, and still lives there today.
A deep connection to the estate where he grew up, an international sensibility, and a hunger to see his country’s wine industry emerge from the shadow of apartheid have fueled Jean Engelbrecht’s career in wine.
“The estate was fairly run down and had not produced wine for many years,” Engelbrecht recalls. “Due to economic sanctions, South African wines could not compete on an international stage, except in a few European countries. This result was that, as an industry, we had lost touch with international trends.”
Engelbrecht began to learn the art and science of winegrowing while working at Rust en Vrede during school and university holidays. In 1998, four years after democracy formally arrived in South Africa, he was ready to assume leadership of the estate, and to expand its horizons. “Since the early ’90s, when we could showcase our wines internationally, industry players were on a steep learning curve,” he says. “Rust en Vrede was no different and stylistically we made adjustments that were in line with what the international palate expected.”
Doing this meant gaining access to the best barrels and expertise from around the world, and bringing the estate’s technology into the modern era. But perhaps more than anything it meant gaining a faith in how South Africa’s natural gifts, the terroir of its breathtakingly beautiful wine country, could be translated onto an international stage. Under Engelbrecht, Rust en Vrede would go on to verify the dreams and aspirations of the South African wine industry. It was chosen by President Nelson Mandela to be served at his Nobel Peace Prize dinner; the winery was host to the Queen of Denmark for lunch at the Manor House; and Rust en Vrede became the first South African red wine in the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines – and repeated this achievement for four consecutive years. This notoriety helped to revolutionize the South African wine industry by improving the presence of South African producers in the United States, earning him a well-deserved reputation as an innovator, an "ambassador of South African wine" (according to Wine Spectator) and ultimately a key player in helping his nation realize its winemaking potential.
This success was founded on Engebrecht’s belief that South Africa’s diverse terroir can produce wines of great stylistic diversity, but that as a country with an abundance of sunshine, its red wines should first and foremost be rich and balanced. Having lived in California for two years, his palate is influenced by New World wines. This has been a key factor in the success of his wines, as according to Wine Spectator “South Africa’s best wines are a combination of New World style with Old World elegance.”
In Engelbretch’s vision, these wines also fit like interlocking puzzle pieces with food. A dinner at the French Laundry in Napa Valley in the late 1990s showed him how a great menu and a great wine list complement each other. “Ever since that day I wanted to do something similar at Rust en Vrede,” he says, and in 2007 the winery opened Rust en Vrede Restaurant, housed in the old winery building that was built in 1782. Not surprisingly, it is now considered one of the Cape’s top restaurants.