The day the harvest season starts is the moment the Waterford team prepares for all year. Now’s the time to put the fruits of their labour to the test.
It’s 6am on a Tuesday morning. The town of Stellenbosch is slowly starting to wake up, yet there’s already some movement in the vineyards at Waterford Estate. If you listen closely, you’ll hear a tractor grumbling, the snip-snip of fast hands and sharp cutters, and the barely audible thud-thud-thud of bunches of grapes landing in crates.
Today marks the official start of the 2018 harvest season, and the Waterford Estate team is in high spirits. A handful of pickers is moving swiftly through a single Chardonnay vineyard block. Beautiful bunches of bright-green grapes – set to form part of a new vintage of Waterford Estate Methode Cap Classique (MCC) – are ripe for the picking.
This will be the 4th time MCC is produced from this particular block, perched high up on the slopes of the Helderberg and planted in 2007. With sandstone and granite-rich soils adding back bone and minerality to the grapes, and the vines benefiting from a hint of sea breeze, the wine promises to boast characteristics typical of the French Champagne style while telling a fascinating story about the terroir.
This early in the harvest season, the grapes are still acidic – the aim being to produce a neutral, dry base wine that can develop over time. Only 2.5 tons of grapes are being picked this morning; the rest will follow a day or two later.
True to Waterford’s nature, there’s a sense of camaraderie in the vineyard as the pickers make their way through the rows of vines. “Tel op – elke korrel is ‘n borrel (Pick up – every grape is a bubble),” one of the pickers quips. “Fill it, Sarel, fill it, fill it,” another one says, as the picked bunches of grapes are added to the pile.
This may look like quick, easy work, but there’s more to it than meets the eye, says viticulturist David van Schalkwyk. He keeps a couple of rolls of bandages in the front of his bakkie, as cuts and bruises are par for the course. This morning, extra pairs of hands come in the form of friends and family who, along with the permanent staff contingent, make short work of the harvest.
When the first strong rays of sunlight hit the vines, the tractors start making their way down to the cellar. Here, the whole grape brunches are pressed and the juice is settled, as only the clear juice is fermented. The wine will be aged for about 9 months, after which bottling – and a second round of fermentation – will follow. Magic is about to be made.
Just after 8am, the team gathers in the courtyard for the blessing of the grapes. This tradition, in which glasses are raised in a toast to the harvest and MCC from a previous vintage is poured over the freshly picked grapes, is not to be missed.
It’s only fitting that Marvin Gaye’s “I heard it through the grapevine” can be heard through the speakers in the courtyard as glasses are clinked. If these grapevines deliver as they should, the bubbles may just exceed the team’s wildest expectations.
Waterford Estate’s Ord and Arnold families are well known, but scattered among the staff are other interesting families. Bernie and Hendrik Engelbrecht share their story.
It’s a week before Christmas, and the courtyard at Waterford Estate is stylishly decorated: branches, twigs, paper stars and wreaths made of “kooigoed” (aromatic herbs traditionally used to stuff mattresses) hang from the eaves. On each table, there’s a fresh flower posy.
Evidence of strong family bonds can be seen everywhere – from the Arnold family dogs that play in the citrus orchards to the Ord and Arnold family names that feature prominently on the wines. And, if you linger long enough, you’ll learn that many of the staff members around you also form close-knit families.
One such example is Bernie and Hendrik Engelbrecht, a marvellous couple who has been part of the Waterford “family” right from the start.
Bernie and Hendrik first met Waterford Estate managing partner and cellar master Kevin Arnold at Rust en Vrede Estate, where Kevin spent 10 years establishing the Rust en Vrede brand. When, in 1997, Kevin left Rust en Vrede to start Waterford Estate with Jeremy Ord, Bernie and Hendrik jumped at the chance to be part of the new adventure.
“There was nothing here then,” remembers Bernie, who patiently worked her way up from farm hand to tasting-room assistant, co-decorator (her partner and mentor is Heather Arnold, Kevin’s wife) and florist at the Estate. “We had to start by planting the vineyards, and then we built the cellar. We gradually built the Estate up to what it is now.”
Hendrik also started out as a farm hand. But, through hard work and dedication, he was promoted to store manager. He also now manages the labelling process with the help of a team (all Waterford Estate wines are bottled on the premises).
“Waterford did me a massive favour by giving me a chance to prove myself,” Hendrik says, noting that Kevin played a key role in helping him to grow on both a personal and professional level since he started out at Waterford in 1997. Now, Hendrik is a leader in his own right – in the store room and among the farm community.
Bernie’s days are busy, too: her mornings usually start with the flower arrangements. She painstakingly checks that all the posies are ready, and that the tasting room and courtyard is spotlessly clean. “The look and feel must be perfect,” she says.
Then she bakes bread for the wine drives, which start at 10am. Bernie also helps with the tastings, keeping a beady eye on her colleagues. On some days, she takes time to walk through the vineyards, gardens and orchards to pick flowers and fynbos for her displays.
Bernie and Hendrik just celebrated their 23rd Christmas together. Their two sons (one of whom also works on the Estate) and two granddaughters spent the holidays with them. “We always enjoy Christmas together as a family,” Bernie says. “But, while it’s important for us to be together as a family, I don’t always feel like cooking. Some years, we book a spot at a restaurant and spend the day there.”
The family’s favourite meal is Bernie’s legendary lasagne and, on Sundays, they usually braai after spending part of the morning at church where Hendrik is a pastor. On Saturday afternoons, Hendrik, Bernie and many of the other families who live on the farm hop on a truck to see the Waterford soccer team in action – a fun way of relaxing after a busy week.
The couple’s advice for those who haven’t visited Waterford Estate yet? “Come and spend the day with us. It’s really peaceful here, and you can linger as long as you’d like to,” Bernie says. “Back when we just started out, there were only bushes,” Hendrik adds. “Just look at it all now – it’s breathtakingly beautiful.”
The phrase “hurry up and wait” pretty much sums up the process of making Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) at Waterford Estate. The process of bottling is fast and intense, but then we kick back, relax and wait for almost a decade before we pop the cork.
On a cool November morning, there’s a buzz in the Waterford Estate wine cellar. Today, a 2017 Chardonnay is being bottled. The aim? To allow for a second process of fermentation in the bottle and, ultimately, the production of 4,000 bottles of sought-after, seductive Waterford MCC.
The day before bottling, winemaker Mark le Roux warns that emotions could run high in the cellar. This is the last step in the wine-making process that can be controlled, and Mark is anxious. Over several months, he worked side by side with viticulturist and good friend David van Schalkwyk, tending to the grapes, overseeing the harvest, nurturing the wine, and planning the end product with great care. A lot hinges on the success of the day.
David explains that, in South Africa, Méthode Cap Classique or MCC is usually produced from Pinot Noir, Meunier and/or Chardonnay – grape varietals that are fairly easy to grow and which offer only subtle fruit notes, especially when picked early in the season. The Chardonnay grapes used to produce the 2017 Blanc de Blanc MCC were all sourced from a 10-year-old block on the estate, and harvested early in the summer of 2017 to allow for the production of a neutral, dry white wine (the so-called “base wine”).
The grapes spent approximately 26 days fermenting, after which it was aged for a further 9 months in stainless-steel tanks. Using oak barrels were out of the question, Mark says, as wood flavours tend to overpower the delicate, unique character of the grapes. And at Waterford Estate, the team’s goal is clear: all wines produced have to be an honest expression of the terroir – the rich, fertile environment in which the grapes are grown.
Time to focus
Despite warnings of slightly inappropriate language, a sense of deep concentration and silent camaraderie reigns among the team on bottling day. Bottles are swiftly added to the production line, filled with wine (and just enough sugar and yeast to allow for a fresh new round of fermentation), plugged, capped, and carefully packed in wooden crates. Safely secured with their crown caps, the bottles are now able to withstand the immense pressure that will build up in them over the next few months.
Mark allows for many years of maturation in the cool cellars on the estate, giving the yeast a leisurely 7 – 8 years to work its magic. And there’s really no rush. To flow with nature’s cycles, and to take the time to experiment with an MCC that’s matured much, much longer than most other products on the South African market, is what The Waterford Way is all about. While the team will only really know the success of the MCC when the corks are popped several years from now, they’re giving the wine all the time it needs to develop the flavours that will tell a very unique story.
To be rewarded with a crisp, clean MCC that sings with subtle notes of apple, pear, citrus and biscuit, and which boasts the most delicate of bubbles, is certainly worth the wait. But, ultimately, the team will have produced a wine that speaks to the environment, to authenticity and to adventure, and which echoes the friendships forged during the long, slow journey from farm to flute.
Meet Mark le Roux. As a young boy who loved the outdoors, he would spend his time exploring and playing in the Stellenbosch winelands. Fascinated by nature and patiently indulged by his father who studied forestry, Mark’s world was shaped by the careful interaction between man and nature.
In the twenty-odd years since he is still exploring and this time, winemaking and terrior is his game. “The challenge of linking the soils and environment to specific cultivars and then to produce representing wine thereof is the rush I live for,” says the 32-year-old Waterford winemaker.
Mark studied a BSc Agric (Oenology and Viticulture) at Stellenbosch University. After graduating, he worked in South Africa for 3 years before doing a harvest in Carneros, California. Mark joined the winemaking team at Waterford in 2009 and took over winemaking production with 2013 being his first vintage. You can sense that Mark is truly happy in his chosen career, possibly because it stills his inherent inquisitiveness to explore and ‘play’. Named South African Young Winemaker of 2017 by Tim Atkin, he surely has a promising career ahead – and not because some critic singled him out as “an awesome talent”. Mark has talent, yes, but his disarming passion for South Africa, its wine and soils are infectious. We talked coffee and the Karoo.
What vintage are you?
If you could bottle yourself, what would the tasting note be?
Aromatics would be classic and traditional with traces of stubbornness masking the fresh, young fruit. The palate would surprise you with emotion and sensitivity. Extremely modest and honest allowing the truth of the terroir to show.
What sparked your love for food and the drink?
As a youngster I was exposed to different foods. Winter holidays on our family farm in the heart of the Karoo exposed me to the smell of genuine fynbos and suur gras, as well as the uncontested Karoo lamb. At the age of 12, our family moved to Indonesia and Malaysia for 5 years which exposed me to a very different style of food. With these exposures I’ve always loved working with my hands, and with my father as a forester, doing a lot of woodwork and planting trees in the garden to watch them grow was a great sense of satisfaction. The delayed gratification of planting a plant and watching it grow is satisfying, but to go a step further and to make wine from the plant you grow is absolutely priceless.
Alienscome down from space and you must explain to them in one bottle of wine what it is that you do – what do you make?
There are aliens out there??? I’ll tell them that I make a natural product from grapes found on earth which makes humans live longer and happier. This product, wine, connects the world in a language spoken by all on earth.
What is still on your wine bucket list?
To tour the wine region of Chile, North to South. That’s at the top, but the list is long.
Tell us about your lucky break?
Taking up a position at Waterford Estate, its where it all started. This year I was named “young South African winemaker of the year” by UK master of wine Journalist, Tim Atkin. To me, it is recognition of my lucky break 8 years ago.
What makes a wine fine?
An honest wine. For me, this is a wine which is made without selfishness and ego. Wine that is most expressive of its terroir and unshowy, with nothing to prove, it just makes sense.
What has been your greatest mistake?
Not trusting my gut. Believe in what you know, but know that you know so little.
What is your biggest motivator?
Today’s work is hard, but only tomorrow will show the results. In the future when I’m old and relaxing in my wing-back chair sipping on the wine I made back then – I don’t want to be disappointed!
How do you measure success?
By how many Instagram followers I have (@markleroux85)! Only joking. By being able to prove myself and family with everything we need and feel a level of contentment.
What inspires you?
Tasting great wines.
It’s Wednesday night at 6:30. What’s for dinner?
As Wednesday is usually braai day, it will be Kudu/Springbok Sirloins on the kole. Sides will be chunky mash potato and if I’m feeling fancy, green beans with roasted almond flakes and cauliflower and cheese sauce. To switch off from work, I’ll have a craft beer whilst braaiing.
If you weren’t making wine, what would you be doing?
A chef or a veterinarian, but thank heavens that it did not work out! Now, I’d be a coffee farmer and roaster.
What do you rate as your proudest achievement?
Being nominated “South Africa’s Young Winemaker of the Year” by Tim Atkin.
What is a big no-no to you when it comes to making wine?
Becoming complacent and disorganized.
What would you like to achieve over the next 15 years?
I would like to prove to the world that South Africa really does make some of the finest wines.
Who or what is your idea of oenological brilliance?
There are so many talented winemakers and viticulturists in South Africa. Oenological brilliance is creating wines which fit and taste like the story of the vineyard. If I can single out one person, it would have to be Eben Sadie. He is leading the movement in South Africa.
Where are you happiest?
On our family farm in the Karoo. There is very limited cell phone signal and freedom in the veld gathering sheep on horseback. The slow pace of simple life, smelling the unpolluted air and feasting on home grown lamb without any pretentiousness.
What flavours inspire taste memories for you?
Cloves. It takes me back to Indonesia where my family lived for 5 years. Indonesian locals smokes clove cigarettes and as you get off the aeroplane the smell fills your nostrils until you leave the country again. The smell of cloves always takes me back to the street food of Indonesia.
Wine, but with my job title it does not count as a vice.
What are the biggest challenges we face in the South African wine industry? Where would you like to see us go and grow over the next ten years?
Quite simple. South Africa can make the best wines in the world. We just need to value ourselves as South Africans, too often we undervalue our products and country and sell ourselves short.
Through trusting ourselves we can achieve this. There are so many amazingly talented winemakers and viticulturists out there and I’m very positive on the future of the wine industry in South Africa.
Your cellar is underwater. You can save one bottle of wine from your collection – what do you choose?
I only have one worthwhile bottle in my cellar at home to grab, and it’s a 1985 Trio Corda from Overgaauw. How often do you get to own a bottle of your birth year?
What is your favourite food and wine memory?
Way back in 2009 I visited a friend who was winemaker at Chateau Malescasse in Bordeaux. For my final dinner before returning home, they spoilt me to one table filled with local cheeses and foie gras, and another with about 20 incredible French wines. Wines we drunk that night included Chateau Angelus, Chateau Palmer, Chateau Rauzan Segla, Chateau d’Yquem. What an amazing dinner.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? What would you cook and why?
Denzel Washington, Van Morrison, Paul McCartney, Will Smith, Freddie Mercury, Michael McIntyre, Captain Jack Sparrow and my closest friends – hopefully all the guys bring good dates!
What is the best and worst thing about working in the wine industry?
The best is that there are no two days that are the same. It is forever exciting and challenging. The worst is that harvest only lasts 65 days – my family will disagree!
Looking back, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?
Don’t let other people stand in the way of what you want to do.
It is with huge excitement and joy that we share this press release with you our valued partner. Waterford Estate produced its 20th Vintage this year and to have our Wine Maker, Mark Le Roux, announced as Junior Wine Maker of the Year by Tim Atkin MW, is a new milestone in our short history.
All thirteen of the Waterford wines Judged by Tim Atkin for his South African Report, received 90 points or more – see press release. This is a truly remarkable achievement and emphasizes our Brands attention to quality and consistency. Thank you for your continued support in working with our wines that we are so proud of.
Waterford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Voted in South Africa’s Top 10 – 4 out of 5 Years Running
The Prescient Cabernet Sauvignon Report 2017, is the sixth Cabernet Sauvignon report conducted by a panel of three judges annually, namely, Christian Eedes, Roland Peens and James Pietersen. Christian Eedes is an acclaimed wine expert with extensive experience in judging high profile wine competitions, currently the editor of Winemag.co.za. Both Roland Peens and James Pietersen are part of the Wine Cellar team, one of South Africa’s foremost importers and retailers of fine wines.
The selection of 65 wines are chosen based on recent local or international accolades, as well as those producers Christian Eedes considers to be the best in their field. The tasting is conducted blind, and scoring is done according to the 100 point system.
The Stellenbosch region dominated with 14 out of 15 wines scoring 90 points or higher on the 100-point scale. Out of the top wines, 9 were from 2014, indicating that 2014 was a particularly good vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon. The average score of all 65 wines in the line-up was 87.8 points, proving South Africa’s potential in producing Cabernet Sauvignon.
Previous appearances of the Waterford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon on the Cabernet Sauvignon report include:
2013 Report – Waterford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, with 4 and a half stars,
2014 Report – Waterford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, first place with 5 stars
2015 Report – Waterford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, first place with 93 points
This year Waterford Estate has appeared in the top 10 with 91 points for the fourth time out of five years being selected for the competition.
I’m Mark Le Roux, the winemaker at Waterford Estate. In 2004, while I was still studying, I spent my summer holiday working in the vineyards at Waterford Estate. This was my first encounter with Waterford Estate, and I have since come to truly believe in the land and the wines we produce. In 2009, after spending some time overseas and at other well-known South African wineries, I joined the cellar team at Waterford Estate.
At the end of 2012, I took over as the Winemaker at Waterford. I believe my style in winemaking to be a style which is honest, true and authentic. I also believe it requires a lot of planning around practicality and logistical aspects throughout the winemaking process in order to produce well-conditioned and stable wines. I have an open-minded approach to winemaking, and firmly believe in attention to detail and desire to explore new grounds as key aspects in producing wines consistent in quality and style. A true sense of place is expressed by interpreting all factors and breaking away from formula farming and winemaking.
The vineyard is where it all begins, the months prior to the actual harvest season are crucial in the formation of important flavour precursors and tannins. I spend a great deal of time in the vineyard, working alongside our viticulturalist, David Van Schalkwyk, a great friend of mine. Our mutual understanding is what allows for us to take leaps towards producing fantastic wines. The sites on Waterford Estate are unique in their ability to produce 11 different varietals, driven by Cabernet Sauvignon. There are most definitely vineyards consistently producing high quality grapes year after year. This can be seen in upcoming single vineyard wines, produced in limited quantities under the Library Collection label, which come from these sites.
The 2017 harvest saw the last of our grapes entering the cellar in the middle of March, leaving me on a high from what I believe to be the best vintage I have seen in my career thus far. This harvest once again experienced a bone-dry season, with even more force than previous years. On our daily vineyard walks, monitoring the ripening patterns of the grapes, very low dam water levels or completely dry dams were quite a common sight. The vineyard teams never the less managed the water usage very well, and as a result our vineyards were in top shape throughout the season.
Owing to lack of wind and rain during flowering season, the yield on the 2017 vintage was carrying at full potential. This lead to record harvest levels on some varietals, and more excitingly on Cabernet Sauvignon tonnages which were most welcome. Not quite the biggest vintage, (in fact the second biggest) for Waterford, but in my views, it was the best quality vintage to date.
The harvest was filled with creative winemaking and small parcel ferments. Open top fermenters, egg shaped fermenters and cement fermenters all playing integral roles in creating some spectacular wines. I cannot wait to start looking at the individual batches we have for blending and single vineyard bottlings.