‘Our ducks are good and loyal colleagues’

We chat to Johan Delport, winemaker at Waverley Hills, about organic farming, killing weeds and working with ducks. 

When did you know you wanted to become a winemaker?
I was five years old and took a sip of my father’s glass of wine at a braai. After that I said I wanted to be a winemaker. I can even remember the wine. It was a Slanghoek Stein. 

And if you hadn’t made that decision, what do you think you would have done?
Most probably become a journalist. I do some amateur writing, and I like to do research.

What’s the best part of being a winemaker?
There are many aspects I like, but I think the fact that I’m creating something is the best part.

How has the decision to go organic affected your winemaking?
Obviously, we work in a more natural way and without adding too many additives to the wine. We are allowed—by the organic certification body—to add some natural additives that are used in conventional winemaking as well. But working with good quality grapes makes it easier. The same principles of winemaking still apply. It is not a case of just throwing the grapes in a tank and waiting until everything starts to rot and you extract the juice. You have to look after and care for your wine just as much as any other winemaker.

Is an organic vineyard easier to maintain and work with?
It is definitely not easy to maintain. The biggest challenge is weeds—you are, of course, not allowed to spray any weed killers. We have started with a programme of covering the ground in some of our vineyards with shade netting to block out the sun and kill the weeds. It gets easier over time to work with organic vineyards as the ecosystem gets back into place and the natural resistance and immune system of the plants starts to improve.

And the ducks get rid of the snails?
They need a lot of babysitting, though—what with rooikatte and stray dogs trying to have an easy meal. Other than that, they are good and loyal colleagues.

Do you think other vineyards should follow in your footsteps?
A lot of other farms already have started to use more sustainable practices. It’s the way to go; it’s how people farmed for centuries. It is actually not a question of whether organic products are better for humans than conventional products. For me, the main thing is that organic farming is better for the earth.

What’s your favourite spot on the farm?
There are a few spots. After hours, alone in the cellar, when everything is quite and I have time to think... On the farm’s hiking trail with my family... Walking through the vineyards during harvest time...

What do you do when you’re not making wine?
I spend most of the time with my family. There’s not much time for hobbies. I play a bit of social cricket in summer for the local club and am also involved at our church.

And what did working overseas do for you?
It broadens your mindset. You work under different conditions, with different cultivars and styles of wine. All of that influences your own techniques. Often you also learn what not to do, as well as what to do.

What superhero power would all winemakers benefit from?
I think we could do better with a God-given talent, like prophecy, to predict how our wines would turn out at the end. And where to find customers.

Johan is married to Carlien and they have two children: Liza-Marié, 5, and Hanray, 2. They live on the Waverley Hills farm.

For more information on Waverley Hills go to www.waverleyhills.co.za