Danie de Wet is not a man to be trifled with. Bearing a face that was
not meant for pity and with a sturdy towering frame, he’s a giant of the
wine industry both figuratively and literally. Big hands show signs of
hard grafting, years of toiling with South African soil that would
eventually bear such fruits as to name De Wetshof wine estate one of
South Africa’s leading wine producers.
When writing about such a figurehead, a patriarch, it would be easy enough to list all their achievements and accolades but the heart of the man is what is compelling. No one knows the heart, mind, passion and history of Danie de Wet better than his wife, Lesca de Wet
We sit together in her office at the De Wetshof estate in Robertson, the office that she shares with their eldest son Johann. “I’m here most days” she laughs, with no sign of slowing down or use of the dreaded “R” word (retirement).
We recall the early days, reminiscing over the past that has led them to their present.
The estate has been with the family for years and Danie found his love of winemaking from watching his father Johann work. “When Danie was 18 his father said he could study either in Stellenbosch or go abroad and Danie chose to go abroad.” Says Lesca, and it’s clear that that was one of the best decisions of Danie’s life. From 1969 to 1971 Danie studied Viticulture and Cellar Technology at the world-famous Geisenheim Wine Institute in Germany. His professor at that time was experimenting with new varieties, more specifically with varieties that could produce more but with less sun – perfect for Germanic conditions.
Every year they took the final students on a tour of a country and Danie, because of his South African passport, was not permitted to go and missing out on a trip to Russia must have been disheartening, yet his professor had other plans. Danie was requested to work personally with him, “His professor really encouraged and ignited an eager sense of experimentation in Danie.” An instinct that, Lesca says, has never been quelled.
He was abroad for a solid 3 years with every holiday spent working in different wine regions. When he returned in 1972, he was brimming with ideas that he wanted to put into practice.
During his travels through Europe as a student, Danie fell under the spell of Burgundy and especially the noble Chardonnay grape. In 1981, after exhaustive experimentation and plant selection, De Wetshof became the first winery in South Africa to market both Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in the country.
Arriving back home, he started working in the vineyards of the estate and eventually, De Wetshof moved from a mix of orchards and dairy to being solely focused on wine. In 1972, De Wetshof became the first registered wine estate in the Robertson region.
1974 Lesca and Danie got married, moving to a house a mere 7km away from the estate and Danie continued working to establish Robertson as a top wine region.
He worked for years on the Wine and Spirit board and on the SAPO (a specialist plant improvement organisation in South Africa); he was also chairman of KWV Ltd from 2004 to 2009. Although he has taken leave from many boards, he still wants to improve the grapes of South Africa and urges growers in each region to understand and care for their soil and vines to further propel South Africa into international markets. Of his accolades, Lesca expresses, “You know, Danie has done such a lot not just for Robertson but for South African wine as a whole. But you’ll never hear him talk about it. He’s just too humble for that and I think that’s why he’s been so successful.”
Their two sons, Johann and Peter, were brought up to love and respect wine – Danie having taught Johann how to spit correctly in the bathtub. This led to one evening which Lesca lovingly shares, “we had guests over one day and were all in the cellar. Danie mentioned how he had taught Johann to spit and so a competition arose in which Johann came out on top. As the evening drew to a close Johann was looking very ill and I said to Danie that we need to take this boy to the doctor because he looks terrible. We then both realized that not only had he been spitting, but he had also been swallowing and was quite drunk.”
Perhaps now Danie has slowed down a little bit, his sons work the estate and are going full-steam ahead with their wines – Peter recently releasing Thibault, De Wetshof's first Bordeaux-style red wine, to great acclaim. Yet there is still a glint in their father’s eye when he speaks about his wines and he will always demand that winemakers continue to strive for excellence in soil, grape and the final product.
Watch Danie de Wet and his sons discussing more about their history and dedication.