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As you approach Mitre’s Edge Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, you have to watch out for wildlife. I’m not talking about lions—but rather winemaker Lola Nicholls’ menagerie of dogs. There are six of them, including beautiful Irish Wolfhounds, and they can be found roaming the property and lounging in the house during wine tastings and tours. If you’re an animal enthusiast like myself, this is simply an added bonus to the enchanting flavors you’ll find in the wine cellar below this stately manor.
Mitre’s Edge is a family-owned and operated boutique winery tucked away beneath Simonsberg Mountain, between Stellenbosch and Paarl, South Africa. With Lola in charge, this wine estate has seen a tremendous amount of success despite being a rather small operation. Though not the first, Lola came to winemaking when it was not common practice for women. “I didn’t realize that women were allowed to study winemaking,” she told Departures. She did, however, enjoy learning about the industry growing up. Her dad owned a few farms, and Lola often helped him with grape deliveries for local producers.
After a chance encounter at the Cape Wine Academy in 1988, Lola seized an opportunity to work for Norma Ratcliffe, a co-founder of the Cape Winemakers Guild and head of the notable Warwick Estate. “I thought it would just be a holiday job, but I stayed, and she trained me up. I loved it, like a duck to water,” Lola said. She admitted she was lucky to end up at one of the most important wine estates in South Africa without a degree. “The winemaking was a challenge, but I loved making different blends and tasting them.”
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Her father’s farms were eventually split up between the children, and Lola inherited Mitre’s Edge. It wasn’t long before she and her husband, Bernard Nicholls, decided to turn the grape farm into their own winery. “My dad always said, you need three years until there’s fruit on the vine, and seven years for quality,” said Lola. They started with five Bordeaux varieties and a shiraz in 2004. Then, “2012 was our breakaway year,” said Lola. “It’s only grown from there.”
Mitre’s Edge, classified as a boutique winery in South Africa, produces about 25,000 bottles annually, or between 160—180 tons of grapes. “We use about 25–30 tons in our cellar and sell the rest to bigger producers. We’d like to increase production, but you can’t make more than you can sell. It’s not just one year’s wine that you’re carrying, it’s at least three to four years,” Lola said.
The Mitre’s Edge collection of wine is uniquely fragrant and flavorful. Specializing in Bordeaux-style wines, the winery features a range of vino, from the velvety shiraz with notes of spices, stewed prunes, white pepper, and liquorice, to the cabernet sauvignon with hints of eucalyptus and tobacco. “My favorite grapes are the cabernet franc and the malbec, but of course I enjoy all of our wines,” said Lola, noting that their cab franc won the Michelangelo International Wine & Spirits Award for Top South African Cab Franc, and the malbec won the Malbec Challenge 2019 Award. Then there’s the award-winning Sholto, a red blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and petit verdot. “The Sholto is close to my heart,” said Lola, explaining that the word means “sower” or “farmer,” and was aptly named for her late father.
In growing these savory grapes, Mitre’s Edge keeps sustainability at the forefront of its practices. As Lola told Departures, “Bernard is of the mindset, do something and do it properly.” The couple has instituted many eco-friendly practices on the property such as the installation of a solar panel in the garden that powers the farm during the day and common practice recycling. Mitre’s Edge wine is also certified through Sustainable Wine South Africa (SWSA), meaning the farm is audited to ensure it meets the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) standards, earning each bottle an integrity and sustainability seal. “They make sure we’re using the right pesticides, or in our case, herbicides, and fungicides. We have to record everything—our electricity, fuel use, etc.,” said Bernard, who uses his engineering background to help with these initiatives.
In 2016, Mitre’s Edge partnered with a company called Wine Flies Tours, and began conducting wine tastings for about 100 people per day. “It took off,” said Lola. “Suddenly, all of these overseas people knew about our wine, more so than South Africans, but COVID-19 changed everything.” When the pandemic threw a huge curveball her way, essentially canceling overseas tourism, Lola switched gears, catering to more locals instead. “The pandemic brought South Africans to our door,” she said. In addition to the initial lockdown in March 2020, other roadblocks surfaced when the South African government banned the sale of alcohol and cigarettes multiple times during the pandemic. “Some doors have closed but others have opened,” said Lola. “We’ve opened up tastings again, but tourism is gone. Where we used to do six, seven, eight tastings a day for groups, we’re now down to one or two every couple of days for just a handful of people.”
Mitre’s Edge navigated these rocky waves and came out on top. Lola and Bernard were able to keep all employees on staff, adapting with slight redistributions of work, and though tasting sales had stopped, shipping and exports kept them afloat. While it may be less feasible to visit their winery at the moment due to travel constraints, you can still treat your palate to the golden apple that is Mitre’s Edge wine. “All of our wines are available online, but it’s more economical to order several cases rather than just a case or two for private export, to account for customs expenses and shipping costs,” said Lola. (For order inquiries and quotes, email Lola Nicholls at email@example.com.)
Looking to the future, Lola said, “I’m keen to get back to normal as soon as possible, both for people’s sanity and the economy. Tourism was our best form of advertising, and my heart cries for [those in the tourism industry].” She plans to get her kids more involved in Mitre’s Edge going forward, with one of her sons in marketing and her daughter in wedding and event planning. They are even building a deck with a large staircase in the middle of the vineyard for more intimate tastings (and perhaps even dreamy marriage proposals). So, once travel picks up again, if you’re looking to escape the fray and find respite in the quieter areas of South Africa, look no further than staying on-site at Mitre’s Edge or one of their other single-family properties located in Arniston, Langebaan, and Little Karoo. And if you’re a COVID-19 bride, Mitre’s Edge might just be the perfect spot to hold that dream wedding, with an impeccable wine selection to boot.