SA Wine Legends: Danie de Wet

“I was born into it,” says Danie de Wet, at heart a Robertson farmer. In stature, a rugby player. He eases his large frame into a chair on the porch of The Robertson Small Hotel. We’ve met in his hometown. Known widely as the Valley of Wine & Roses, Robertson is a riot of Edwardian and Victorian architecture, semi-Karoo scrub, cacti and fynbos, purple jacaranda trees and rows and rows of red cannas. The farmlands and vineyards spiral off from the town, and are as countrified as the Cape Winelands get.

Interconnected sub-regions Ashton, Bonnievale, McGregor join with Robertson to make up the Robertson Wine Valley as a whole. Danie can be largely credited with having put this region on the map.  And indeed for putting the spotlight on the production of fine white wines in South Africa.

This gentle giant of a man, with his large farmer’s hands, thoughtful blue eyes and thick head of silver hair is so much more than meets the eye. He’s a trailblazer. A pioneer—and smuggler—of white wine cultivars, a multi-award winning winemaker, a plant selection and new cultivar champion… He’d be intimidating, if he wasn’t so nice. Danie radiates that slow Robertson charm, and is so humble of his achievements I need to coax the information out of him.

“I was born into it and I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve always enjoyed it,” he says speaking of his life in wine. Born in 1949, he grew up on De Wetshof Wine Estate. The estate is just outside of Bonnievale; and its iconic white Manor House—a replica of the Koopmans/De Wet House in Strand Street—is pretty much the Eiffel Tower of Robertson.

Danie was in a small, rural school before he was shipped off to Cape Town for his formal schooling, at Jan van Riebeeck High School. “I wanted at first to be a vet,” he says simply. But who was he to argue with the pull of destiny? His father urged him to pursue winemaking, and encouraged him to study in Europe.

He soon found himself studying Viticulture and Cellar Technology at the Geisenheim Wine Institute in Germany. “This was where I discovered my passion for wine.” He also made a friend for life, fellow South African wine legend, Achim von Arnim, who was studying there at the same time.

Not only did he discover his passion there, but also he came home with a sense of urgency, of wanting to improve South Africa’s offering.  “I was shocked at the plant material we had to work with. It was going to take a lifetime to bring in the material we wanted in the official way. I decided to bring it in ourselves.”

He achieved this along with winemaker friends, such as legend Jan Boland Coetzee. Burgundian chardonnay found its way to South African soil in the most prosaic of channels, from the lining of jackets to being disguised in chocolate boxes.

Before he was summoned to face the music, he decided to fly up and meet with the judge presiding over the case. He talked, the judge listened. He ended up helping to rewrite the whole system, changing the way that vineyards are built as a member of the Vine Improvement Board.

In 1972 De Wetshof became the first registered wine estate in the Robertson region and began producing the area’s first dry white wines. And in 1981, the estate became the first in South Africa to commercially market both Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. And the awards soon followed. In 1984, the De Wetshof Sauvignon Blanc 1984 was named South African Champion White Wine. While internationally, the De Wetshof Chardonnay 1985 was awarded the Grand Prix D’Honneur at the Vinexpo in Bordeaux, France.

Other awards include the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year (1993), the State President's Export Award for Export Achievement (1993 and 2001) and the British Wine Writers Association International Winemaker of the Year (1995).

When asked why Chardonnay in Robertson, he says: “Good Chardonnay needs soil with lime, and I knew we had that in plenitude.”

“I always believe playing in the first team and I’m passionate about our industry,” he says looking out at the graceful green garden of the hotel, musing on the future to come.

“I believe in the younger generation. They believe in themselves and in their products. The industry is alive! Most of them don’t see it as a job, but see it as a way of life.

“Wine is the only agricultural product with an address on the package, and to me there is no other agricultural product that can build South Africa up in the eyes of the world quite like wine can.”

When not walking his vineyards, he spends time with his family. He’s married to Lesca de Wet, and they have two sons, Johann and Peter. Their children are both involved in De Wetshof, and Danie says they often have lunch together on the farm.

His other great passion in life? Nature. He’s just come back from Kruger Park and is already planning his next trip. “I spend six weeks of every year in the bush.”

“In life you must be able to say: “it was good”.  And my life has been very good. I know how lucky I am.”

- Malu Lambert