Venturing into viticulture on the Cape south coast

The Joubert family, who farm grain and livestock on the Cape south coast near Riversdale, produce their award-winning wine in an area not normally associated with viticulture.

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The southern part of the Western Cape is an important winter grain region, as becomes clear when driving through the area: wheat, canola and barley lands stretch for kilometres. Many farmers here also run livestock and dairy operations. So the sudden appearance of rows of neatly tended vineyards is a strange sight indeed.

Yet the signs of change in this area have been evident for at least a decade. Parts of the Cape Overberg, like Hermanus and Elim, are already regarded as new wine regions, having produced multiple award-winning wines. And now, further down the coast beyond Cape Point, a young farmer and his team are proving that the Cape south coast may hold more potential as a wine region than was previously thought.

The Joubert family farms on Dassieklip and Uitkyk, both situated between Riversdale and Vermaaklikheid. They are well-established grain and livestock farmers, producing wheat, canola and barley on 2 000ha on a rotational basis with lucerne. Their livestock component consists of a 400-ewe Dohne Merino stud, Droogerivier Dohne Merinos, and a small Brangus stud of the same name. They also have a commercial sheep herd of about 3 100 Dohne Merino ewes.

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Jan-Hendrik Joubert studied agricultural economics at the University of Pretoria and started farming with his father, Fanie Joubert, in 2005.  “I found life on the farm somewhat tedious at times and wanted a challenge and to do something different,” he recalls. “I’ve always had a keen interest in wine, so I suggested to my father that we experiment with wine grapes. At first, though, he wasn’t taken with the idea.”

Fanie was wary of developments that would require additional farm labour. But in 2008 Jan-Hendrik convinced him to plant a few olive trees, and in 2009 finally persuaded him to plant vineyards.

Making the move
“I think in farming, more so than in any other business, you need to have a well-developed sixth sense for taking risks and trying new things. I felt certain that we’d be able to successfully produce wine grapes in this area, and one thing led to another.” They had no idea which cultivars to plant, and could not learn from other farmers nearby because, apart from some small vineyard plantings in and around Riversdale, they were the first farmers in the area to attempt growing wine grapes on a large scale.

They were referred to Johan Wiese of Voor-Groenberg Nurseries, a seasoned consultant in the selection of vineyard plant material. Like the wine-growing regions near Elim and Hermanus, the farm where the Jouberts decided to plant their vineyards is only a short distance from the sea, benefiting from cool ocean breezes. “We took our cue from what worked well for wine farmers in those regions,” Jan-Hendrik recalls.

With Johan’s help, they took soil samples and dug profile holes to compile a general assessment of which cultivars, clones
and rootstocks would be most suitable. They eventually decided on three red wine cultivars, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Tempranillo, and two white cultivars, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

They had to steer away from more traditional red cultivars such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as the area generally does not accumulate a sufficient number of heat units during summer to ensure these cultivars would ripen properly. Their decision to plant Tempranillo, an unusual variety in South Africa, was based on Johan’s recommendation. If it is successful, says Jan-Hendrik, it will be a unique offering to South African wine drinkers.

The red cultivars were planted in 2009 and the white cultivars in 2010, adding up to nine hectares in total, of which Pinot Noir and Chardonnay make up roughly a third each. “Our first vintage was in 2011. That year we harvested only two tons, but by 2012 the total yield had increased to 40t and last year we harvested 110t,” says Jan-Hendrik.

At this stage, they did not have their own cellar or winemaker, and partnered with Newald Marais, formerly a winemaker at Nederburg, producing their first wines in rented cellar space in Philadelphia. When they were unable to secure space in a cellar in 2013, they were forced to use a makeshift cellar set up in one of their farm sheds.

“It was stressful, but I’m glad that we got the opportunity to see how it’s possible to produce wine with so little equipment,” says Jan-Hendrik. With their wine-making venture slowly becoming more established, they appointed full-time, on-site winemaker, Jacques Geldenhuys, in 2013. Jacques arrived as they began building their own cellar.

From left, Jan-Hendrik Joubert and Jacques Geldenhuys.

Planting vineyards
According to Jan-Hendrik, establishing the vineyards on land previously used for grain production cost them between
R100 000/ha and R120 000/ha. The vineyards were planted at a density of 3 333 vines/ ha, with an inter-row spacing of 2,5m and an intra-row spacing of 1,2m.

To prepare the soil they carried out a deep ripping at a depth of between 800mm and 900mm. The soil did not require much correction, however, with only the phosphate levels needing adjustment. “We put in drip irrigation, but during the past three years we’ve received so much rain in summer that there was no need to irrigate,” he says. Shallow trenches about 300mm-deep were dug and filled with compost, and the vines were planted directly into this. Thanks to their livestock component, they have access to manure for compost.

Production methods

“I’d say the region has the same type of soil as Robertson, with high limestone content and a similar climate to Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in Hermanus,” says Jacques, who studied winemaking and vineyard management at Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute. He worked at Nederburg, Durbanville Hills and Merwida before being appointed winemaker at Baleia Bay.

According to him, the soil and climate combination in the area produces wines with a unique ‘minerality’, and the vineyards are performing very well with minimal intervention. “For the last three years, we haven’t applied any irrigation or fertiliser,” he says.
Apart from snails, which are managed using bait and snail pellets, they have not experienced any pest problems. Diseases are regulated through a comprehensive, preventative spraying programme that runs in a 14-day cycle from September until about two weeks before harvest.

“We mainly spray for downy mildew and powdery mildew with a range of preventive fungicides,” says Jacques. To improve soil health and increase organic content, they plant barley as a cover crop between rows. The farm’s surplus hay is spread around the vines as ground cover.

The business of wine-making
Wine farming, says Jan-Hendrik, has proven to be a stimulating challenge. “We’re still learning. The vineyards are looking good and our wines are performing well, but we have only been involved in this business for five years. Who knows what the vineyards will look like and how they’ll deliver five years from now?”

The toughest challenge in the wine industry, he stresses, is not making good wine, but selling it.

Last year, Baleia Bay produced 65 000l of wine, a third of which was sold in bulk. The remainder was bottled under the Baleia Bay label and is sold locally. The new cellar is on the N2 outside Riversdale and is open to the public for tastings and sales.
“Our location next to the N2 has definitely helped boost our cellar door sales,” says Jan-Hendrik.

The winery has also benefited from exposure through wine competitions. At last year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, it won a gold medal for the Baleia Bay Wooded Chardonnay 2013, and was also awarded the Discovery of the Show trophy. Later in the year, Baleia Bay won a double gold medal for the same wine at the Michelangelo Wine Awards.

Following the awards, they were inundated with wine orders – so much so that the winning wine is sold out and there is a waiting list for the 2014 vintage. “The pressure is on,” says Jacques. “After our wines performed so well last year, everybody is waiting to see if it was just a fluke or if this new region can consistently produce top-quality wines.”

Future plans
Jan-Hendrik says that they have plans to expand the vineyards, but at the moment he does not know by how much. “We want to plant more vineyards, but not hundreds of hectares. I want Baleia Bay to be known for its uniqueness and quality, rather than for quantity. If the demand gets too high, I would rather push the prices up a bit,” he laughs.

Jan-Hendrik says that exposure to the wine industry has changed the way his team approaches its various farming activities.
“In the wine industry you have to be open to new trends and you must actively market your product. Our experience in this industry has also made us act more pro-actively in our other farming interests.”

Email Jan-Hendrik Joubert at [email protected] or Jacques Geldenhuys at [email protected]. For more information on Aan’t Vette Estate Wine and De Doornkraal Boutique Hotel, email Prof Pieter Steyn at [email protected].