In 2002, Nick van Huyssteen decided to add farming to his diversified business portfolio to fulfil one of his earliest
aspirations – planting his own vineyards. Three months after buying a farm in Tulbagh in early 2003, he learned the hard way that farmers are at the mercy of nature: large parts of the farm were destroyed by a fire that ravaged the valley.
But instead of the fire reducing his wine ambitions to ashes, Nick and his winemaker Dewaldt Heyns chose to see the disaster as an opportunity to begin afresh. They planted vineyards and built a cellar that soon started to deliver some of South Africa’s most highly rated wines. This year, a decade after producing its first vintage, Saronsberg was awarded the Trophy for Top Producer at the Michelangelo International Wine Awards, one of South Africa’s biggest wine competitions.
This achievement added to an impressive line-up of 23 double gold medals, 100 gold medals, 19 trophies and numerous accolades that the winery has received at various shows and wine competitions over the past decade.
Despite its many achievements, it is not Saronsberg’s principal aim to collect accolades and win awards, according to Dewaldt. “We strive to make wines that reflect our region, with an inherent quality and a true South African identity,” he says. Dewaldt completed a diploma in Cellar Technology at Elsenburg Agricultural College in 1995. After this, he did
harvest stints in California, USA, and Condrieu, France, to gain an international perspective of wine styles and winemaking practices.
In 2008, he was nominated to the Cape Winemakers’ Guild, an association of some of the finest local winemakers, recognised for their high standards of craftsmanship. Saronsberg’s winemaking philosophy is simple, says Dewaldt: “Get rid of your pre-conceived ideas about wine, listen to the vineyard and make wines that release the soul of the grapes. You have to make wine in the style that suits the area in which you farm, not in a style that suits your fancy.”
He disagrees with the type of winemaking that copies styles of successful international brands. “Even if you successfully copy great wine that you tasted overseas, what you have made is still a copy, not something unique that
can be associated with your own brand,” he says.
Two wine ranges
Dewaldt is fortunate that his approach to winemaking is a perfect match for the unique diversity of terroir at
Saronsberg. The 510ha farm, with 51ha of vineyards planted, consists of two distinct parts – Waveren and Welgegund
(also called Die Erf or the Yard). They stretch from the centre of the valley up Saronsberg mountain. The climatic conditions between these two sections vary greatly, with an average temperature difference of between 4°C and 5°C.
The rainfall averages at about 1 200mm per year on one and 550mm on the other. The difference in altitude, aspect, soil
type and temperature produces grapes with contrasting characteristics. So great are the variances in growing conditions on these parts that Nick and Dewaldt have decided to create two different wine ranges, the Saronsberg range and the Provenance range, each a true expression of its distinctive terroir.
Waveren, which extends over 350ha across the valley floor, is the warmer, dryer part of the farm and has partially weathered shale soil. Grapes grown here form the backbone of the Saronsberg range because of their concentrated colour and flavours, and firm, tight tannin structure. The remainder of the farm, Welgegund, lies in the shadow of Saronsberg.
Higher and cooler than the valley floor, it has a variety of soil types – sandy loam as well as structured red and yellow clay loam soils with a varying degree of gravel. The wines produced from these cooler vineyards have more floral
notes and greater elegance. They form the foundation of the Provenance range while also serving as blending components in the Saronsberg range.
Nick van Huyssteen (left), owner of Saronsberg, and Dewaldt Heyns,
general manager and winemaker.
“Before planting the vineyards, we carried out a hectare-for-hectare analysis of the farm to determine which grape
varieties should be planted and where, and what rootstocks to choose. We even used it to select the most suitable clones of the varieties we decided on,” says Dewaldt.
The range of clones and rootstocks is so diverse that there are 28 blending components for the Shiraz alone. The vineyards are planted in one-hectare blocks. All blocks are harvested and made into wine separately, and blended only when the wine has had time to develop its distinctive characteristics in the cellar. “The variety of clones and rootstock combinations help to enhance diversity between blending components,” explains Dewaldt.
The Provenance Shiraz, for example, is a blend of 19 different Shiraz wines made from eight different clones. In total, there are 15 different cultivars planted on the farm, but Shiraz is the main focus, comprising almost 50% of plantings.
A change in irrigation
The vineyards are fitted with a drip irrigation system. Irrigation management is done by visual assessments of the vineyards and physically assessing the soil water content of the soils to determine the water needs of the plants.
“In the past, we were more high-tech and used soil water probes. However, as each probe measures only the small plot where it’s stationed we had poor results because the soil tends to vary a lot even within vineyard blocks.
“We aim to maintain moderate water stress, which ultimately results in berries with greater flavour concentration,” says Dewaldt. Nick and Dewaldt broke with generally accepted practice in the local wine industry when they decided to plant the vineyard rows running from east–west rather than north–south. This ensures optimal sun exposure to the canopy, shielding the grapes from harsh, direct sunlight.
The farm supplies about 85% of the grapes used to make its wines. “It would be nice to produce 100%, but time will tell if that’s the direction in which we’ll go,” says Dewaldt. It is cheaper at the moment to buy in wine grapes than to establish new vineyards to increase their own supply, he explains, but buying in a percentage of the grapes allows him the freedom to experiment with a larger variety of grapes. Importantly, this allows him to quickly adapt to market trends.
Slow and carfeful
When designing Saronsberg’s cellar, Dewaldt and Nick considered a variety of production facilities and available techniques, looking to utilise existing technology in an innovative way. “We incorporated practices such as the forced cooling of grapes [the first South African cellar to do so], intensive hand-sorting of all our grapes on vibrating sorting tables and the use of gravity during the fermentation process,” says Dewaldt.
Hands-on care is integral to the process. Grapes are hand-harvested early in the morning and taken directly to the cellar. There, they are cooled to 4°C within two to three hours to prevent oxidation. After this, they are painstakingly hand-selected at a rate of about 1,5t/hour.
Dewaldt admits that most cellars who hand-select achieve approximately double that rate. Instead of using pumps to transfer grapes into fermentation tanks, Saronsberg uses small satellite tanks hoisted with lifts to the larger fermentation tanks and the grapes simply fall from the satellite tanks into the larger tanks. “The quality of our wines is not a result of a single action, it’s the result of the care that goes into every little detail,” says Dewaldt.
Nick is adamant that farming is no hobby for him. While it might not be his main area of investment, the farm has to operate as a self-sufficient, sustainable business. With grape production and winemaking now well established at Saronsberg, he is broadening his farming interests through diversification. He recently entered a joint venture with a neighbour, an experienced fruit farmer, to plant 9ha of stone fruit, and has started farming Nguni cattle.
The latter are run on about 250ha of natural veld, where they are left to graze with minimal interference. Nick chose Ngunis because the breed is well-adapted to South African conditions. At present, the herd comprises approximately 85 head of cattle. Nick’s intention is that this will ultimately form the nucleus of the Saronsberg Nguni Stud. If this enterprise receives the same attention to detail and commitment as that devoted to Saronsberg’s wines, is it likely to become one of the premier Nguni studs in South Africa.
Phone Saronsberg on 023 230 0707 or visit www.saronsberg.com.