When you sit in Waterford Estate’s generous and inviting courtyard at the heart of the Winery, intimately surrounded by the vibration of its operations, and enjoy a glass of their globally recognised award-winning wine, it’s hard to believe that this farms potential for quality was neglected. In just two decades, this pasture of promise in the protective shadow of the Helderberg mountain underwent a most sensational transformation – thanks to managing partner Kevin Arnold’s unrelenting vision, the financial backing and trust of owners Jeremy and Leigh Ord, and the support and effort of the willing staff.
The 120-hectare property that now forms Waterford Estate was registered as such in April 1998. At the time, Kevin had already made a name for himself as winemaker – first at Delheim and later at Rust en Vrede Estate. Despite his success at these two wineries, he dreamed of creating a fresh new brand that would make the world sit up and take notice of the world-class, unique wines that can be realised in Stellenbosch in South Africa.
Kevin’s first introduction to the Blaauwklippen Valley was as a Stellenbosch student in the 1970s. A few years later, as assistant winemaker at Delheim, he also had to tend to some of the vineyards in the area on the land that is now Waterford Estate. “The valley left an imprint on me and I often thought about it after that. I remember thinking about it as ‘the Constantia of Stellenbosch’.”
But Waterford Estate’s story really only started in 1997, when Kevin got an unexpected call from Jeremy Ord. Kevin barely knew the founder and CEO of Dimension Data but was excited: Jeremy and Leigh wanted to invest in a Cape Winelands farm, and asked Kevin to assist. The farms on the northern slopes of the Helderberg, which Kevin got to know as a young winemaker, came to mind, and these were acquired by the Ord Family.
The land was not only breathtakingly beautiful; it offered an interesting combination of different soil structures, elevation and climate, as well as stone and good-quality timber with which a cellar, tasting room and homes could be built. But, apart from a couple of vineyards, an old pack shed, an ancient Roux family graveyard and a few fruit orchards, there was little else. Kevin had to start from scratch.
The property also had to be given a new name, as both Kevin and Jeremy felt that a new identity suited a post-apartheid South Africa. And so, when the Ord and Arnold families popped a bottle of bubbly in celebration of their newly acquired property in August 1997, they were inspired by a waterfall that was visible from the property after heavy rains. “Waterfall” eventually became “Waterford” – a name that also celebrated the Ord family – and the rest is history.
Kevin started making wine as early as the summer of 1998, even before the property was officially registered as Waterford Estate. With the help of fellow winemakers Jan Boland Coetzee, Neil Ellis, Braam van Velden and Frans Smit, who made space available in their cellars , he was able to make Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and the first Kevin Arnold Shiraz in that same year.
“Jeremy wanted the estate to be cash-flow positive within six years,” Kevin recalls. “The only way I could remotely accept this challenge was if I used my own name on a wine. People didn’t know the Waterford Estate brand yet, but many of them knew who I was. I was known for producing Shiraz at Rust en Vrede Estate and I knew that a Kevin Arnold Shiraz could be successful.”
Kevin was right, and the property became cash flow positive only seven years after registration.
While Kevin and his only two full-time winery staff members then, Bernie and Hendrik Engelbrecht, were tending to the vineyards and harvesting fruit from the established orchards on the farm, his wife Heather planned and helped to create the estate grounds that are as unpretentious today as they are stunning. Within 11 months, an elegant tasting room was open for business.
Most of the winery’s current activities centre around the production of The Jem, the Estate’s internationally recognised flagship red wine. The one-of-a-kind blend, named after Jeremy, is made up of Estate-grown red varietals.
“With The Jem, we wanted to create a world-class wine on one property – a wine with its own unique DNA,” Kevin says. “Combining a potential 11 varietals from one estate into a single wine was something nobody else had done. Most vintages have around eight varietals in the blend. As such, the wine is a true expression of the Estate and its soils.”
Herein, adds Kevin, lies both the luxury and the authenticity of the Waterford Estate brand. “We’re in South Africa’s most beautiful wine-growing region, we’re close to two oceans, there’s Cape Town in the background, the town of Stellenbosch nearby, and there’s the fynbos, which can only be found in the Western Cape. All of this is reflected in a wine that’s 100% pure in its intention.”
When you drive through the well-maintained citrus orchards to the cellar’s entrance and walk through to the courtyard with its iconic fountain, it’s hard to believe that – just two decades ago – there wasn’t much here. And now one only has to enjoy a bottle of The Jem – with its unassuming label that perfectly summarises everything the estate stands for – to appreciate what a difference only 20 years can make.