Cape wines have been given a bad rap recently. A 58-minute documentary entitled Bitter Grapes – Slavery in the Vineyards made by Danish filmmaker Tom Heinemann, and which aired in Denmark and Sweden in October, threatening exports with boycotts of South African wines, has left the local industry smarting. As I write, workers at Robertson Wineries have been on strike for over three months. Historically, a reputation for employment injustices has dogged the local wine industry fostered among other issues by the notorious Tot System (dopstelsel), whose legacy has resulted in systemic alcoholism among farm working communities in the Western Cape.
I was invited by Thompson Holidays to spend some time on several wine farms in the Cape recently, and these thoughts – fuelled by the wider social and economic dilemmas being played out in South Africa right now – were top of mind as friend and fellow blogger Ryan Enslin of My Limeboots turned into the sweeping white-walled entrance to the Wildekrans Wine Estate.
Wildekrans is found on the R43 on the road to Hermanus, Western Cape about 3,2km from Botrivier in the lee of the Houw Hoek Mountains to the North and the Overberg to the South. In November, the area and surrounds are dry having missed the coastal rains of the perhaps better known wine producing areas of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Wellington and Franschoek. Wildekrans is hidden deep in a valley that sweeps and dips in lines alternately green and yellow. Framed by the grey of the mountains in the distance, its location makes for gorgeous photographic statements, making the Estate’s essences stark and clearcut.
There is a lot at stake here. Our four-star self-catering cottage homes for the night, run by Endless Vineyards, were picture- perfect with views that went on for miles, spacious and comfortable and appropriately decorated in a country living style with benches, chairs and tables made from recycled oak barrels.
Food was delicious and prepared in modern style in the recently opened restaurant, which provides all the ambience of a fine dining establishment. It is apparent that no expense has been spared to ensure visitors enjoy the very best of Cape hospitality accompanied by the Estate’s many fine award-winning wines.
The immaculate order of the Estate’s cellars, tasting rooms and public amenities are echoed in the vineyards themselves. Planted and flourishing in the impossibly straight lines coaxed by farm manager and viticulturist Braam Gericke – and aided and abetted by his self-admitted OCD tendencies, the vines sit “penreguit” (straight), standing like soldiers in a military parade. Everything is in a straight line, nipped, tucked and suckered to perfection. Obsessive though Gericke’s nature maybe, it speaks of a deep and complete commitment to the land, its people and the overall well being of the farm itself.
While the coaxed vines and fruit trees, whose branches are deliberately and somewhat awkwardly laid bare to the taught wire, may appear contorted and forced, their fruit speaks another story. The careful husbandry nurses a determination to provide sustainable year-round crops that can provide steady annual income for employees. Farming practices too must meet the rigours of various local and international accreditation agencies including WIETA promoting fair labour practice, LEAF promoting environmentally friendly farming, and BWI. In 2015, the estate was awarded Conservation Champion status by WWF’s Biodiversity & Wine Initiative, giving them the right to display the sugarbird-and-protea logo.
Sustainability at all levels is the name of the game. Wildekrans was the overall winner of the 2015 Nedbank Green Awards best farming practice category, showing that sustainability is about more than just the birds, bees and the fynbos. In their case it is also about being the leader in community development and winning wine awards, which it did in the Best Value category with its 2015 Sauvignon Blanc.
While Botrivier is ranked among the poorest communities in the Western Cape, ironically skilled labour is scarce.
“To up skill and retain our people, we had to think about how we provide year round employment,” Gericke says.
The farm plants a mixture of fruit – plums (early, mid and late season) and pears – wheat, olives, multiple wine cultivars, as well as raising sheep. Fruit is largely exported (fetching better prices than those achieved locally). However, gleanings from the fruit trees are left in open barrels for locals to take.
As if market uncertainties and sustainability challenges were not stringent enough, there are also natural foragers to take care of, such as the birds and small deer (bokkies). Gaps in the vines speak of stolen midnight feasts, which Gericke deters with creosote sponges attached to the vines. Scarecrows dot the landscape. These are made by local school children – the result of a competition among classes to create the best scarecrow. The winning class is taken on a bus trip to the Oceanarium in Cape Town.
Passion and vision
While Gericke’s focus has been on the land and its sustainability, he admits that he could not have achieved the results without the vision and passion of owners Gary and Amanda Harlow, who bought the Estate in 2007, as well as the wizardry of winemaker William Wilkinson. Both he and Gericke have a symbiotic relationship, together overseeing the planting and raising of the various cultivars to produce the fruit needed for the top quality wines that the Estate is developing a reputation for.
Our tour of the Estate concluded with a stop at the champagne block, when William hauled out a bottle of award winning Méthode Cap Classique (2013) , which he had kept hidden in an ice bucket in the boot. Armed with a crisp white serviette, he he produced two champagne flutes, popped the cork and that was that – sparkling wine at 11 am among the vines and the most incredible view.
Following a tasting of William’s award-winning wines Chenin Barrel Select Reserve 2014, Pinotage Barrel Select Reserve 2014 and Shiraz Barrel Select Reserve 2014 and a wonderful lunch surrounded by the kindness of the Estate’s staff, I left with a sense of awe at what it takes to develop, grow and maintain a prospering wine estate in South Africa today.
It is somewhat of a dance coaxing the fruit of the land, meeting the stringent demands of international retailers in terms of ethics and sustainability, overcoming the vicarious elements, and then there’s the wizardry of the winemaker himself to ensure that which is bottled pleases the palettes – first of the wine critics and then the consumer. In addition, the wine estates themselves must provide cuisine and hostelries that rival the standards of the best hotels. I left Wildekrans with a sense of tremendous hope and pride in what can be accomplished with heart and determination to do what is right, by the land, by the people and by the greater universe – despite enormous odds.
This place plays it straight!
How to get there
Thompson Holidays have block bookings and flights with most of the leading wine estates at competitive pricing. Wildekrans Wine Estate is highly recommended to anyone wanting a feel-good space with great food and wine, which is both close to Hermanus and whale watching, and about an hour’s drive through exquisite countryside from Cape Town airport. To book for Wildekrans Wine Estate go to http://www.thompsons.co.za/deals/endless-vineyards-boutique-lodge