The residual heat radiating from the smoke blackened walls is scalding, almost unbearable, some 12 hours after fire swept through and gutted the thatch roof manor house at Druk my Niet Wine Estate in Paarl.
The warped glass shards in the courtyard give an indication of the terrible heat of the conflagration that reduced this once proud homestead, built in 1750, to a smouldering ruin.
Thankfully, nobody was injured when the wind-driven fire swept down the slopes of the Du Toitskloof Mountains late last Monday night, and in just four hours, virtually destroyed the entire property: manor house, three guest cottages, farm foreman James and Katarina Johansen’s home, the beautiful old boutique wine cellar, and most of the 11 hectares of prime vineyards on the farm.
I had awoken from a deep sleep at 1.35am that morning to my wife, Eppie’s fraught cry, informing me that the wine farm our daughter works at, was burning.
Last year’s terrible Simonsberg fire sprang immediately to mind: Alex, our daughter, lives on Rustenberg Wine Estate in the shadow of that mountain which burned so fiercely in September, but it was Druk My Niet in flames now, and Alex was rushing to the aid of co-owner Dorothee Kirchner, who had already abandoned the manor house and stood in the road with a visiting friend and James and his family, watching the farm burn.
At 2.25am my phone pinged, and I saw the chilling words: “Lost the whole farm. It’s all gone.”
By the time I arrive there later in the day, with food and drink for James and his family – like the Kirchner’s they lost everything in the fire, escaping literally with the clothes on their backs – the fire is extinguished, and the devastation is apparent.
Tendrils of smoke from hotspots spiral up, tugged apart by the breeze, and as the afternoon wears on, a fire tender drives onto the property, the exhausted fire fighters ever vigilant for hot spots, despite an interminably long shift.
The vineyards are almost uniformly burnt olive-black in colour, leaves crisped by the fierce heat, relieved by surprising blooms of bright green, where the fire faltered, because the cover crop biomass was perhaps less thick.
The exposed bunches have a sheen to them, and they look as if they might be all right, but they, of course, are not. “The only block of vines that didn’t get burned is our merlot,” says Alex, winemaker and viticulturist since August. “I’ll be able to make a rosé with them, and I’ll also be making some chenin with bought-in grapes.”
But making wine will mean finding cellar space somewhere. The concrete mezzanine floor above the cellar collapsed onto the stainless steel tanks in the furious heat of the burning thatch roof, irretrievably damaging them and probably all of the other cellar equipment. Thankfully, neighbours have rallied to assist.
Across the road, are the charred remains of Augusta Kleinbosch Guest House, which like Druk my Niet, saw every thatch roof building on the property destroyed. That buildings with other than thatch roofs survived is no miracle: metal roofs do not easily burn when struck by an ember.
It is this saving grace which left Druk my Niet’s new maturation cellar, temperature controlled wine store next to the ruined fermentation cellar, and larger temperature controlled implement and wine store near the vineyard, intact and undamaged. Which means that the farm’s wine stocks are largely intact.
A concerted effort on social media saw a massive community response to the plight of James and his family with donations of food, clothing, toiletries, money and food vouchers pouring in. “We are so grateful to the many people who have made donations to help James and his family,” says Alex, “but we also need to rebuild the farm, and that is going to take a long time and a lot hard work.”
Dorothee’s husband and co-owner, Georg, overseas on business when the fire struck, arrived back on Wednesday afternoon to the heartbreaking reality of their loss, and the daunting task of rebuilding their dream.
But it is a comment from Paarl wine route chairperson, Stephen Richardson, the next day which convinces me that this Phoenix will rise from the ashes: “I visited Dorothee on Tuesday, and although she was appalled at the speed of the devastation, there was a stoic optimism that the property would be restored and producing wine again in the future, and the members of the Paarl wine route have offered their support and services to assist Druk My Niet in the short term, to continue some form of operation.”
Anybody wishing to make a donation to James and Katarina Johansen and their family, can email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.