Waterkloof – chickens in the vineyard

Waterkloof vineyards and False BayYou may notice a trend in our recent Grapevine articles.  We’ve had a kangaroo in a vineyard, sheep in a vineyard and now continue the theme with chickens.  Waterkloof is a winery that clings to the south-facing slopes of the Schaapenberg, overlooking False Bay in the Cape, South Africa.  Louis Boutinot visited MMI recently and Grapevine got the chance to discover more about the estate and its wine-making techniques.  Chickens play an important part in the process.

But first some history from Louis; his grandfather was born in the Loire in France and keen to resist the German army who were advancing on his home, he escaped to England in a rowing boat.  He joined a regiment (that became the SAS) fought in World War 2, settled and married in England, trained as a chef and then opened a French-style bistro in Stockport.

Louis’s father Paul grew up in the heart of the kitchen but was more interested in wine and started driving a van to France to import good quality stock for the restaurant.  Paul’s passion for wine continued to grow as did his business and once the company became a leader in fine wine imports, in the early 90’s he started to look for a suitable vineyard to enable him to get involved in fine wine-making.  His search took ten years but finally led him to Waterkloof in Schaapenberg, now considered the finest cool-climate terroir in South Africa.

Sheep at Waterkloof

Louis carved out his own career in wine retail and export sales in Europe before joining his father as part of the Waterkloof team.  His enthusiasm evident as he explained their wine-making methods; from the start Paul Boutinot was keen to follow the best practises of Old World winemaking to emulate the flavours and style of classic fine French wine.  Louis described their ethos as ‘slow wine’ where they use  wild yeast fermentation and a ‘hands-off’ approach, intefering with the natural processes of the wine as little as possible.

Waterkloof is now South Africa’s largest biodynamic winemaker and this includes using horse-power especially on the slopes, keeping a herd of cows to provide natural fertiliser, letting sheep graze in the vineyard and most recently aquiring 60 chickens.

Waterkloof Farm Manager, Christiaan Loots explains their important role, “Our entire estate is treated as a holistic entity and Waterkloof, a strong follower of sustainable farming, steers clear of conventional pesticides. The chickens keep the horses’ paddocks and stables free of ticks and mites as they love to forage for insects and will even overturn stones to find them.  By keeping chickens in the vineyards, we are free of vine weevils and mealy bug activity and, along with our Dorper sheep, they ensure that our vineyards are kept in tiptop shape whilst their nitrogen rich droppings fertilise the soil.

Chickens are very easy to train and mostly take care of themselves. In the first week we kept them in transportable chicken coops, and once acclimatised to their new surroundings, we let them out during the day to forage. At 5 o’clock they walk back to their chicken tractor for shelter.”

Back to Louis who had just come from the harvest at Waterkloof, so gave a first hand report of this year’s vintage.  A shortage of rain combined with the constant Southerly winds that this area is known for, led to low yields this year and smaller grapes.  ‘This is where the winemaker shows his stripes” he smiled, predicting high quality reds in particular, food-friendly and slightly lower in alcohol, which will age well.

Waterkloof winemaker Werner Engelbrecht and owner Paul Boutinot amongst vines

Waterkloof winemaker Werner Engelbrecht and owner Paul Boutinot

Werner Englebrecht Waterkloof’s viticulturalist has deemed it ‘a winemakers vintage.’ “Nature has not given us her offerings on a plate, as in 2009.   2011 has thrown lots of climatic variables at us.  Winemakers who paid attention reaped the benefits of a small crop with tiny berries that had lots of concentration and complexity, as well as grapes that fully ripened at lower sugar levels.  All our wines are happily fermenting…now awaits the fun part as the wines slowly start to show their potential.”

This tale of three-generations of Boutinots from France to French winemaking techniques in a stunning part of South Africa could be from the pages of a romantic novel.  The wines also starting to tell their own story:

Jancis Robinson rates Waterkloof, Circumstance Chardonnay 2008
“Lovely nose.Green fruit and very racy.Aged in large oak – great vibrancy and pretty subtle.”17/20

Jamie Goode ‘The Wine Doctor’ praises Circumstance Syrah 2008
“I particularly liked the Waterkloof Circumstance Syrah 2008, which flirts with a little too much ripeness but is saved by a delicious peppery freshness and lovely structure. A portion of whole bunch was used; this will be increased in the 2009.”

Waterkloof 2011 harvestWaterkloof and False Bay wines are available in MMI stores.

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