Among South Africa’s wonderful array of natural resources, the Western Cape plays host to some of the world’s finest slopes for wine growing. Located just an hour’s drive north-east of Cape Town, Kloovenburg has established a fine reputation for hospitality, innovation, olives and of course high quality wines.
The wines came first, with the du Toit family preparing to hand over the reins to a fourth generation in the coming years, as Pieter du Toit, Director and Owner explains:
“My grandfather bought the farm in 1958 and at that time, there were approximately 10-15 hectares of wine grapes, which had been grown here since the early 1800s, in addition to peach and plum trees.
“When I came here to work in 1986, we realised that a lot of the plants: the old Palamino grapes and Cincaut grapes, were vines infected and were not producing good quality wines, so we embarked on a replanting exercise.
“The old grapes were not good enough for production and profit and we replaced these with new vines producing Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz.”
At the time du Toit’s grandfather acquired Kloovenburg, it was already known as one of the best farms in the region, with some of the best soils. The family carried out tests on the soil and was able to determine the coolest places on the farm, that would be most suitable for certain types of grape like Sauvignon Blanc.
“Temperatures are very important to the individual types of grape and we have to think about the best slopes for each wine,” du Toit describes, “the Shiraz can handle much more heat than say a Merlot or a Sauvignon Blanc.”
Presently Kloovenburg covers an area of 350 hectares, which includes 110 hectares of wine grapes. Du Toit says that roughly 20 per cent of the grapes come to the Kloovenburg boutique cellar and the rest are sold to private winemakers and companies.
An additional 40 acres of land is set aside for table grapes which the farm mainly exports to the UK and the Far East, while du Toit’s wife and co-owner Annalene utilises 25 hectares for growing olives.
“The olive business was started by my wife several years ago. Annalene presses her own oil and then makes olives and a number of beauty and olive products,” du Toit explains.
Today du Toit estimates that the olive trade accounts for nearly 25 per cent of Kloovenburg’s revenues and says that the farm was the first in the region to introduce olive trees.
“My grandfather first planted olive trees around 24 years ago, but it was our four boys who were the inspiration for Annalene’s business; when our first born was small he always had a lot of jars around the house and one day it was suggested that we make some olive jam. Annalene was the first person in South Africa to make olive jam and today the business has grown enough that we are exporting in small volumes to Mauritius, Germany and the Netherlands. Perhaps when the recession is over we will look to expand into the UK market also.”
The olive products also offer another source of interest and revenue; the Western Cape is increasingly becoming a tourist haven and many tourists want to visit the many vineyards in the region. Kloovenburg very much welcomes the influx of international visitors and du Toit feels that the olives provide an added interest:
“We often get tourists who come and stay with us and the husband may be interested in wine tasting in our cellar, but the wife’s interest may quickly dwindle. However, the olives and beauty products provide an added attraction and often keep visitors in the cellar for longer,” he suggests.
The philosophy of starting small is one that du Toit says is the secret to Kloovenburg’s success; “I remember when my father was starting to replant that we had hard times at first. But if you work hard, know what you are doing and where you want to be – and watch the markets, you will succeed.
“We started small and did lots of experimenting and in those days our tasting room was very small. I always believe that you have to crawl before you walk or before you run and then you will grow the business.”
The whole process of wine growing has become increasingly scientific in recent years. Kloovenburg does its own wine pressing and packaging on a 7 acre site which also accommodates the olive packaging and production of olive-derived soaps.
For a wine to achieve a suitable standard for production can take a minimum of three years of nurturing and du Toit says that full production takes at least five years per vine.
“From year 10 onwards is better and at that stage you are starting to get a top quality wine – which is especially true of the white wines. The wine gets better as the vine gets older and you start to see smaller berries that are more concentrated.”
Currently around 70 per cent of Kloovenuburg’s wine is red although du Toit says that this figure is partly determined by market demands and there is an increasing trend towards white wines at the moment.
One of the most important aspects of wine growing is soil suitability and du Toit says that the farm has some soils suitable for growing both red and white wine, but that the top soils are mainly for red.
“Climate also plays an important role and we have some slopes that are good for a merlot wine – in the afternoon in the summer, the temperature from 3pm can be 35 to 40 degrees but we then have cooler nights which helps the colour of the grape and gives the wine a good colour,” he adds.
“Over the last 3-4 years we have seen a change in our summers which have been arriving much later. In September it is often still cold whereas when I was a boy I remember we used to get the blossoms. It is now October before we start to see spring-like weather and in recent years we have also seen heat waves during the harvest season – the Shiraz can handle that sort of heat better than other types of grape,” du Toit continues.
Flavour of course is an essential part of the wine experience and again, du Toit puts emphasis on the soil conditions being tantamount to the type of wine grown:
“On the higher slopes the soil is predominately Malmesbury scale which is much more suitable for fruity wines than on the lower part of the farm. We do lots of blending and experimenting with flavours and again timing is important for each plant, regarding the time of day that we pick and exposure to heat and sunlight.”
Such small details all add up to a successful wine business and du Toit has seen the industry (and the farm) introduce many changes over the last five years:
“There have been a lot of changes like the introduction of laptops, which has made farming much easier in a competitive market place. Irrigation has also become very important, given the general lack of water in South Africa.
“We are able to put probes into the soil next to each plant and every half an hour these probes will message me how much moisture is in the soil, which means we only water plants when we need to, which of course saves water and money. Your footsteps in the vineyards are still the most important thing.
“We have also been able to introduce programmes which monitor the risk of disease in our plants and we know that high humidity and rainfall are a combination that increase the chances of disease if there is a lack of wind – we now know to be wary of these conditions and which sprays we need to use to eliminate the dangers.”
Seasonality is something all farmers are prone to. At Kloovenburg, maintenance is largely carried out during the off season, although tractors and transport still have to be attended during the busy time.
The farm employs around 42 permanent staff, but the numbers can increase to 80 during the busy season (which typically starts in the last week of December and runs through to the middle of March, after which there is a small break before the olives are picked).
“Training is a big problem in our country,” du Toit impresses, “and wherever possible we train labourers and encourage them to return each year so that our time and investment has not been lost. We offer extra money for workers to return each summer and in some cases have generations of the same family working for us, including people I played rugby with when I was a boy.”
At the moment du Toit says that the South African wine business is under pressure, but remains optimistic for its long-term future:
“We are regulated and have to be members of the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW), who come out to the farm to inspect standards. At the moment the whole industry here is suffering at the hands of government taxes and we get no help from them, which I think makes us unique as a wine growing country.
“We are seeing increases in fuel and electricity, while wine prices remain stable – all of which affects our margins. However, I am a very positive person and I see lots of potential in South Africa if we all work together.
“Tourism is one area that is helping to maintain our way of life and we are increasingly looking to export when we can. The wine market is growing in the Far East and also here in Africa, offering lots of opportunity.”
It is a future that will eventually see du Toit and Annalene pass on their knowledge as Kloovenburg passes into the hands of another generation, and du Toit is excited by the prospect:
“I’m blessed with four wonderful sons and they are all interested in farming, so the future looks good at Kloovenburg. We will certainly look to invest when the time is right and while the wine industry is going through hard times at the moment, it goes through cycles and that will change eventually.”