Norma Ratcliffe never intended to spend her days in a South African wine cellar, crafting some of the Cape’s most celebrated red wines. Instead, the Canadian-born matriarch of Warwick wine estate outside Stellenbosch had a career in textiles in mind, until a chance holiday encounter in the Greek isles with a South African farmer brought her to South Africa in 1971.
Her late-husband Stan purchased Warwick estate in 1964, but Ratcliffe didn’t start making wine until 1974. “Stan and I had a big bond on the farm and we didn’t have any money to invest in a cellar; instead we invested in the vineyards.”
It’s an investment that paid off. When Ratcliffe began releasing wines under the Warwick label in 1984, her Femme Bleu cabernet sauvignon quickly became an icon of the Cape winelands.
Although the Warwick Trilogy – a three-way blend of classic Bordeaux cultivars – is the estate’s flagship wine today, Ratcliffe is also famous for being the first winemaker in South Africa to bottle a single-varietal Cabernet Franc.
“That was in 1988, and we’ve been bottling it ever since. It’s a wine that just does really well at Warwick.”
Over more than four decades in the industry Ratcliffe has blazed a trail –opening the cellar doors to women winemakers. In 1990 she was the first woman invited to join the prestigious Cape Winemakers’ Guild (CWG), and served as its first female chairperson in 1993.
“There are often complaints that the wine business is an old boys’ club, and we’re working hard to change that image,” says Ratcliffe, who remains an honorary member of the Guild. She also pours her energy into the CWG Protégé programme, which supports and encourages young winemakers, many of them women, from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.
One of her proudest moments was in 2015, when she was awarded the 1659 Medal of Honour for her contribution to the South African wine industry, an award previously bestowed on the likes of iconic Nederburg winemaker Günter Brözel. Constantly developing the industry while crafting her own award-winning wines, Ratcliffe is certainly a worthy recipient of the award –a much-loved ‘First Lady’ of the South African winelands.