At a dizzy height of 25km above the earth a satellite at night resembles a pinhead floating overhead – from that height De Wetshof Estate in Robertson resembles less than a minor smudge on the lenses of the cameras on that same satellite.

Cutting edge technology & Common sense farming and winemaking

Yet the images those cameras are able to capture present a composite picture showing an array of data, which forms part of the technological know-how that enables Danie de Wet and his viticultural experts to determine what is best for each vine on the estate.

Layers of data captured from space, together with aerial photography from aircraft, are some of the innovations that have helped De Wetshof win the agricultural section of the MTN Technology Top 100 Award in consecutive years.

Through these aerial components, together with computer linked weather stations, operating in conjunction with other computer aided moisture testing probes in the soil and finely tuned equipment to measure water retention in leaves, berries and the stems of vines, a comprehensive picture is captured of the estate and its vineyards.

Soil mapping of the whole of De Wetshof has added another vital segment of the puzzle – helping to determine the best terroir in which to correctly place each varietal or clone.

The carefully sited weather stations feed in data on temperature, wind speed and direction and humidity that are of particular importance during each critical stage of the growing season.

State of the art irrigation systems created by the Israelis, who turned sections of the Middle East desert into a horticultural paradise, ensure that each individual vine gets the correct water requirement when it needs it.

Toys for boys – hardly – each of these are vital tools, used judiciously and in conjunction with a deep understanding of the land on which Danie farms.

He grew up on this land, played in the soil when he was just knee high to a grasshopper, while also following his father around the farm, soaking up its strengths and weaknesses.

Careful attention to detail was one of the traits reinforced during his studies at the Geisenheim Institute in Germany in the years straddling the 1960s and 1970s.

His love of soil and the vine, together with commonsense farming, while following his natural intuition have gone a long way in helping develop De Wetshof into the Chardonnay House it is today.

Added to the mix, was drawing in the vast expertise of leading American viticulturist, Dr Phil Freese from California and local specialist Francois Viljoen, who heads the VinPro viticultural consultation services.

Phil Freese, who works closely with NASA, helped Danie gain access to the satellite technology almost a decade ago. Danie, Phil and Francois have also spent many an hour tramping through the vineyards to get an up close and personal understanding of each block.

Danie’s use of drip irrigation dates back to 1971, a year after it was introduced into South Africa. He started laying thousands of meters of black pipe in his vineyards and ever since, has continued to find innovative ways of improving his systems.

As technology has developed, so De Wetshof has evolved its practices, each time working to either assist nature, or to try and counter its periodic, harsh idiosyncrasies.

Danie went to Israel in the early 1980s to study the computerisation of their drip-irrigation systems and applied what he learned there on his return. This is an ongoing process, trying to derive the most from the soils.

When he decided to plant Pinot noir, he again called on a leading Israeli company to install the right system for the shale of the south facing slopes he and Phil Freeze chose.

Today each vineyard is clearly demarcated, with the irrigation systems able to supply the correct amount of water, taking into account contours and how water seeps down the slopes. This ensures that the plants are not over or under watered, especially at critical times of the growing season.

Pressure Bomb Technology

In 2002 Danie introduced the “pressure bomb” into his technology arsenal.

This apparatus aids irrigation management by measuring the leaf water potential, so giving an accurate indication of the quantitive water stress level of a vine at a specific moment.

He initially introduced the system in his red wine vineyards, which he has been carefully cultivating over almost a decade. He then expanded it to other vineyards as well.

It was a device only used previously under laboratory conditions, but which was adapted for this more robust field application.

Essentially a wine farmer plucks a leaf from a vine, after it has been in the sun for six to eight hours, slides it into a chamber and applies nitrogen. The length of time it takes for the leaf to produce water through its petiole or leaf stem, is an indication of the amount of the stress the vine is under.

De Wetshof Estate