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Biodynamic wine farming at Waterkloof – #SAgoodwine

 – Squashed Tomato Blog

Waterkloof Restaurant and Cellar (photo courtesy of Waterkloof Wines)

It’s funny how fate works, isn’t it? You’re led down a path that doesn’t altogether seem to make sense at the time, but suddenly, with the beauty of hindsight, you realise how the last few events worked together to create the present moment. When I was invited to attend the media and trade launch ofWaterkloof Wines’ new vintages, as a guest of Norman McFarlane, I eagerly said yes, as I had not yet had the opportunity to try any of their wines (those who keep an eye on my Wine Bucket List would know that I have been wanting to go there for a while). It may have been the look of pure astonishment on my face as I tasted the wines, or the un-ladylike manner in which my dropped jaw as I learned more about their biodynamic farming methods, that motivated Norman to arrange an education in biodynamics for me quick-smart, Waterkloof style. And so, in the blink of an eye (ok, one week), on a gorgeously wet and wintery Cape day, I found myself standing outside the great wooden doors of Waterkloof’s restaurant and cellar, gazing out over the majestic views of False Bay.

The view from Waterkloof Wines (photo courtesy of Waterkloof Wines)

I felt hugely privileged to be spending the afternoon with Werner Engelbrecht, winemaker, and Christiaan Loots, farm manager. On arrival, Werner gave me a tour of the winery’s grand restaurant. There’s a very good reason why Waterkloof occupies the cover page of the gorgeous coffee-table book,Modern Wineries – the architecture is truly a work of art and, when paired with the situation high atop the slopes of the Schaapenberg, it’s a sight to behold indeed. The farm boasts 53 hectares under vines, and about the same in natural vegetation. A cellar tour with Werner revealed a rare approach to and respect for winemaking. The Waterkloof team believe that biodynamic wine farming results in the most honest expression of place – the almost zero-manipulation approach, which allows Mother Nature to do what she does best, results in a wine that expresses the beauty of the site which it came from.

The entrance to Waterkloof Wines (photo courtesy of Waterkloof Wines)

Some of the distinguishing features of Waterkloof’s biodynamic approach in the cellar include natural fermentation (no added yeasts which end up giving the wine a flavour profile that is not true to the grape itself), no added enzymes and as little human intervention as possible. For example, the white wines remain on the lees for 10 months – far longer than conventionally-produced whites. On the red side, all Rhone varieties are aged in large, 600l barrels – this is because these varieties have big berries and thinner skins, meaning that the juice has less tannins and is more sensitive to oxygen. The Bordeaux varieties, which have smaller berries and thicker skins, are more prone to having harsher tannins and are thus aged in smaller barrels, where oxygen is needed to soften and stabilize the wine. This “hands-off”, older winemaking style results in wines with characters unique to their origin and, as an added benefit, they enjoy a far greater ageing potential.

In the cellar (photo courtesy of Waterkloof Wines)

After our cellar tour, we were placed in the capable hands of Christiaan, Waterkloof’s incredible farm manager. Despite the rain that kept pouring down, we climbed into Christiaan’s 4×4 and headed out to find out more about how biodynamic farming really works. The first thing I learned was that Christiaan wants to do away with tractors completely. In the place of these gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting vehicles, Christiaan uses beautiful and majestic Percheron horses instead. There are currently 4 on the farm (Lady G, Dawn, Sampson and Louis) and they’ll soon have 8. We visited the site where the new stables are being built and boy, do these horses have a fabulous view from their bedrooms! 1 horse is capable of covering 8 hectares of the farm, drawing a specially-designed cart (Christiaan’s invention) that has attachements for ploughing, carrying compost and containers for grapes during harvest. Each horse will have its own handler, who will also be responsible for those 8 hectares – a great way of providing autonomy and responsibility to Waterkloof’s staff.

The Waterkloof farming team – and I’m talking about the horses! (photo courtesy of Waterkloof Wines)

Waterkloof’s biodynamic farming team doesn’t only include beautiful horses – there’s also a happy flock of Dorper sheep that graze amongst the vines. Despite being a very effective means of weed control (they just gobble them all up), their droppings also add valuable nitrogen back into the soil. They’re spread out, ensuring low density, and aren’t kept in an area for more than a day or so – this negates any soil compaction concerns. In addition, the sheep also share the vines with a number of freerange chickens! Housed in moveable “chicken mobiles” (imagine a large tin crate, that a man can stand up in, on a trailor), the chickens run free throughout the vines and lay their eggs in their warm, straw-filled nests in the chicken mobiles. Apart from providing the restaurant with delicious, fresh and organic eggs, these ladies can also spot a vine weevil a mile away and enjoy snacking on these pests whilst pecking and scratching their way through the vines. The farming team also includes some Dexter cattle, all the way from Sutherland, who provide the manure to fill Christiaan’s cow horns – if you’re new to this biodynamic farming concept, you can find out more here.

Vineyards – as natural as they should be (photo courtesy of Waterkloof Wines)

I was overwhelmed with the amount of knowledge that Christiaan passed on to us during our 2 hour farm tour. He has recently established a nursery on the property, where he will grow a variety of plant species (including sour fig) which they then use in an extract form to spray onto the vines, as opposed to chemical sprays. Weeds and living organisms flourish between the vines, yet are never out of control (due to those hungry sheep), maintaining the integrity of the soils. Christiaan even farms according to a biodynamic farming calendar, which tracks moon phases and suggests different farming activities accordingly. Instead of ugly borders, Christiaan has left natural fynbos “corridors” running throughout the farm – these provide small creatures with safe passage, but the diversity of plants is also so great that something is flowering all year long – this attracts insects and adds to the harmony of the ecosystem that Waterkloof has created and fostered.

This wine has a great story to tell (photo courtesy of Waterkloof Wines)

Waterkloof’s approach to farming is not a new one, despite it’s rareity. Rather, it’s an old, tried-and-tested style that helped our ancestors survive for centuries. By respecting and relying on what nature provides, you’re able to create something beautiful that will last and last. As I stood there amongst the vines, watching the sheep and chickens move through the rows as the soft rain fell around us, it felt so peaceful. I found myself asking “but, shouldn’t all farming be like this?” While the answer to that question may not be what I want to hear, I am just glad that there is a farm that’s committed to making a difference. After watching the entire process, from the quiet, sleepy stillness in the vines to the restful ambience of the cellar, there’s just so much more to enjoy in a bottle of Waterkloof’s wines. Each offers a story of its past – isn’t that just the way it should be?



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