The De Wets through the ages

The De Wet family arrived at the Cape in 1693 and have been actively involved in the South African wine industry ever since.

The De Wet family arrived at the Cape in 1693 and have been actively involved in the South African wine industry ever since.

As expansion took place from the Cape, so the De Wets moved out with each successive wave of pioneers.

They trekked from the Franschhoek area, over the Drakenstein Mountains in the mid 1700s and established themselves in the Breede River area near Worcester. By the early 1800s the first De Wets had moved into the Robertson area, establishing among others, vineyards, in the region.

Today kith and kin are spread throughout the region.

Then back in 1952, Oom Johann de Wet, father of present owner of De Wetshof Estate, Danie, sold his farm in the Agterkliphoogte area and purchased a portion of the old “Goudmyn” or Goldmine farm, which covered a wide area in the valley.

His original farm was called De Wetshof and he brought the name over the Riviersonderend Mountains with him.

The trend in those days was to establish a mixed farming operation, and Oom Johann did so with pigs, fruit and wine grapes.

It was as a boy that Danie first grew to love the hills, mountains and the Breede River, where there was an abundance of fish and birds and particularly raptors about which he developed a keen interest.

As a young man Danie had his heart set on becoming a veterinarian. His dad asked him whether he was not perhaps interested in studying viticulture and oenology.

It was one of those subjects fathers and sons discuss and debate towards the end of high school.

It happened on a spring day in the Karoo block, a section of the farm, which then had Chenin blanc grapes flourishing in it. Today it is one of the prime Chardonnay sites on De Wetshof.

They weighed up the options of the various farming sectors and their future in them as well as tertiary institutions to attend to progress in each field.

Oom Johann, who had always had a passion for winemaking, established which were the leading viticultural and oenological institutions of the day at which to study.

This was the sweetener in the recipe and he offered his teenage son the option of studying at the Geisenheim Institute in Germany. He had heard of the cutting edge technology Professor Helmut Becker was expounding in the Rhine Valley at the time.

That swung the debate and the history of the farm, together with the fortunes of the family.

Danie left for the cold climes of the north armed with the enthusiasm and determination, which have marked his path in the industry ever since.

He arrived at Geisenheim near Heidelberg in 1969, then ploughed his way through the three-year course. Holidays were spent working in Germany and France. All thoughts of being a vet were lost in the feel of loamy soil and the smell of freshly pressed grapes in the cellar.

As with many young men who were starting out in the industry in those years, a tertiary education was not the norm it is today and with it came a host of ideas that differed from the traditional viticultural and oenological principles handed down from father to son.

But Oom Johann allowed Danie to follow his training and intuition and De Wetshof started moving towards becoming a dedicated wine farming operation.

The estate movement in South Africa was gaining momentum and status, creating alternatives to the strong co-operative regime that the vast majority of grape growers supported. In 1972 De Wetshof became the first Estate in the Robertson Valley and has remained one ever since.

It was also a time when new dimensions in viticulture and winemaking were coming into their own, while wine styles were starting to expand and evolve.

Wine lovers were starting to experiment more readily with natural wines and particularly whites, which is where Danie saw opportunities aplenty. He chose a course which would see noble varietals such as Sauvignon blanc, Rhine Riesling and Chardonnay being introduced onto the estate. Ultimately, however, it led the fledgling estate into becoming the country’s premier Chardonnay House.

It was not without its trials and tribulations. In those early years for Danie, the rigidity of the importation system to bring new varietals and their different clones into South Africa caused problems, especially with regard to Chardonnay. The industry’s conservative approach regarding the quarantining of new material following the disastrous phylloxera epidemic in the previous century was still impacting heavily on development.

This was awkward for winemakers who did not have 12 to 30 years to waste waiting for the varietals to be released from quarantine. Danie and a few other forward thinking producers started bringing in their own material through unconventional methods.

These actions led to conflict with the authorities, but it also helped change the attitude towards dealing with introducing new disease free clonal material to the Cape.

From there some of the most famous Chardonnays from South African emanated on De Wetshof Estate.

Besides his father, he had a number of mentors in the wine industry, one of them being Oom Sydney Back from Backsberg, who introduced him into the world of wine politics.

Being on the Cape Town side of the mountain, Oom Sydney had his ear closer to the ground than did Danie in distant Robertson.

De Wetshof has flourished over the years and Danie has remained among the leading winemakers and viticulturists in the country, maintaining the highest standards in both fields.

Always looking for challenges and developing his portfolio of wines, Danie started introducing red wines into his portfolio in the new century. He first started with Cabernet Sauvignon which he sold under a separate label, then moved onto another Burgundian favourite of his, Pinot noir and has subsequently introduced a Merlot and a little Petit Verdot.

One of the biggest challenges, Danie, together with his viticultural consultancy team of Phil Freese from the United States and Francois Viljoen from VinPro the leading local viticultural consulting company in the Cape, was deciding whether to introduce the finicky Pinot noir onto the estate.

Never one to step away from a challenge, but also having to carefully weigh up the implications of making a success of the venture, they made use of NASA satellites, aerial photography, extensive research into wind and other weather patterns, together with the best potential location on the estate.

He harvested his first grapes early in the new millennium after extensive work to prepare a south facing shale slope on the Bon Vallon section of De Wetshof. This had reminiscences of the 1970s when some critics were just as sceptical of his planting noble white varietals in Robertson.
On the marketing front, Danie’s wife Lesca, assisted by Bennie Stipp have travelled the world establishing what consumers want and understanding new trends in this complex industry. It has been and is an ongoing programme to ensure the success of the estate in an ever evolving international market, where new demands are made each month.

Their sons Johann and Peter have also joined the team and are starting to learn all the intricacies of operating in the highly competitive wine world.

De Wetshof Estate