In 2017 I started working with Eben. Our viticultural views, philosophy and passion aligned one evening in his cellar, while we sat ontop of some barrels discussing our views and passions till past 10 that night. About a month later I started to work with Eben. There where, and still are, enormous challenges in viticulture in South Africa, where the sociopolitical environment and the lack of a “vignerons” culture puts the breaks on in terms of greatness and viticultural superiority. That night we solved all those issues in his little cellar…, but now we had real problems to solve – our own vineyards.
Eben took me to one of his vineyards in the Kapteinskloof near Piketberg, in the heart of the Swartland. The vineyard is called ‘T Voetpad (meaning “the footpath” in old Dutch, “Het Voetpad”). It is probably the oldest vineyard in South Africa, planted from the late 1890’s till the early 1900’s, it is a blend of Palomino, Chenin blanc, Semillon, Semillon Gris, and in the old days, some Muscat d’ Alexandrie. The vineyard had a lot of gaps, where vines had died in the decades past, and little did we know that we are at the beginning of a devastating drought, one that we are still in today in 2020, and one that will not only test our wits and our emotions, but also our viticulture competency and our ability to adapt. We saw our rainfall not only half, but in some cases dip below the critical numbers of 250mm per year, the least amount of rain you can commercially cultivate vineyards at…
I have worked in more than a thousand vineyards, covering nearly 3000 hectares over the past 11 years. I have never seen a vineyard like this. I have never had a place, a vineyard, make me feel this way. The atmosphere in and around this vineyard is magical. It is the closest I will get to feeling like I am in a fantasy realm. The tranquility, the peace, the stillness. To this day I still get this feeling in this vineyard, and this relates to the wine.
The vines are twisted like no other vines I have come across in South Africa. Eben says he has seen some like this in Spain. The arms of the Semillon – twisted like corkscrews. Beautiful, upwards towards the sun, and in some vines you can read the story of winters, wind, extreme sunlight exposure and survival.
But not all was well. The drought was setting in, and the vineyard needed help. This was my first season with this vineyard. And this was the story told from the sky…
We set up a viticultural management plan for 2018. We knew hard work and determination will get us, and this vineyard, through these tough times. Keep in mind it is nearly 160km from my home in Paarl, so every action in this vineyard is a journey.
We went about filling the gaps with new vines. You know, an old age home with only 90 year olds are a dying old age home, you need some young blood too to keep up the spirits! So in winter 2018 we started our program of interplanting.
The first fruit will be harvested separately in 2021. We also decided not to fill in the whole vineyard in one go, but rather interplant over 6 years, with the Semillon, Semillon Gris and Palomino as massal selected material. This gives us the chance to take care of these new vines and spread the young age over six years, so by the time the block is full the “new” vines will already be 6 years old.
Battling weeds was our next challenge. We can’t plant covercrops in the weeds, so we divided the vineyard into three sections. We will tackle this one section at a time.
The drought hit us hard in 2018. The crop was extremely low, but we weren’t prepared for harvest 2019, where we harvested 0 grapes. Between the drought, the weavils, the birds, the baboons and the buck we didn’t stand a chance. This was probably the first time I literally cried in a vineyard, and looking over my shoulder, I could see Eben had the same emotions. We were broken. Our hard work, our hours spend in that vineyard and no reward. It was time to head back to the drawing board and up our game.
So we hit the vineyard with vengeance in 2019, and a new team. Morné Steyn joined our crew late winter 2019, and brought in our own viticulture team of workers, whom we will train and we will dedicate to only our vineyards. The game was on.
Our winter work was a big success, now for spring and summer.
We adopted an organic approach with foliar feeds and fertilizers. Our strategy was to “micro-dose” with seaweed based foods, as to not stimulate only growth, but healthy canopies. We kept on tackling weeds throughout the season.
The results where amazing. We had very good growth, healthy canopies and lots of fruit. Fruitset was brilliant. Now it was just the birds. We netted the whole vineyard over two days in the beginning of December 2019. We also fenced the whole vineyard in winter. We had no bird damage and no buck damage!
So yesterday was D-day. It was time to harvest the 2020 ‘T Voetpad. I would describe the feeling as nervous, but excited. I could not be there, as I have a lot of other vineyards and clients too. Yesterday afternoon at 16:21 I received a Whatsapp from Eben. “Voetpad = 3 tonnes!! Thanks for not giving up!” That is probably the best text I will receive this year. The joy and excitement cannot be described. I think only if you are as obsessed about viticulture like I am will you understand. I can’t wait to tackle this vineyard in 2020.