In In the Vineyard

In 2015, South Africa experienced the lowest levels of rainfall that had been recorded since 1904. Thus, making it no secret that the drought has run its toll on the economy and the environment. If we as humans, could cope with the drought as well as the grapevine can, then we would be having a much smaller problem. We may not possess the ability to turn water into wine, but we however, need to start researching ways to turn wine into water.

El Niño, which is labelled as the rise of oceanic temperatures in the South Pacific, is said to be one of the main causes of this massive drought. South Africa’s bipolar weather patterns has furthermore been affected by the change in global climate, which has ultimately led to the abnormally high temperatures across the southern tip of Africa.

Over the past year or so, this drought has had an immense impact on the South African agricultural sector, leading to a decline in production, livestock and finances. South Africa’s food security is also under threat, as summer crops have not been able to survive the decreased levels of winter rainfall.  Ultimately, farmers are looking for more solutions as water and grazing has become a huge issue for livestock, resulting in higher meat prices throughout South Africa.

In the midst of our doom and gloom, it is absolutely fascinating to see how well some parts of the wine industry is doing, considering the lack of water and moisture in the air. Vines have the most outrageous ability to perform under any given condition and can therefore be looked at as, the sweetest form of weeds, growing wherever they are planted, producing the most complex fruit that eventually gives as wine.

According to VinPro, the 2017 harvest overcame most expectations and delivered a harvest that was 1.4% larger than the 2016 one. This was due to cooler nights and relatively constant temperatures during the day, which had a soothing effect on the vines when it came to harvest time.

It seems like the corks will continue popping as wine drinkers will not be experiencing a drought after all. Stressful conditions can sometimes have a positive effect on the quality of grapes, if the vineyards are managed well enough. Farmers must be willing to go the extra mile, protecting the grapes against the suns extreme heat and applying water as cautiously as possible. A possible solution for farmers is Canopy management. Canopy Management can be a very labour intensive process, which requires a thorough knowledge of the cultivar and climate. However, the effect can be advantageous, as the spacing of leaves on a vine can protect the grapes and prevent loses in acids, flavour compounds and colour.

The large leaves found on vines, provide an excellent umbrella to shade the grapes from the sun. As in life, tough situations can sometimes have a very positive outcome. With applied stress in grapevines, the vegetative growth is neglected and all the reserves are optimized and channelled towards the greedy sinks of a vine. In other words, all the good stuff is produced by the greedy nature of the reproductive sinks in a grapevine.

A grape formed under stressful conditions can have a concentration of sugars and anthocyanins, which is the compound responsible for colour development in wine. I personally love our South African red wines, with their high tannin, full bodied form, providing us with the best natural lip colour that any woman can ask. South Africa is seen as a warm wine producing region, known for our full bodied, high tannin and deep coloured wines. Cooler regions, such as France and Germany, produce wines with a higher acidity, lower tannins, with a light ruby colour form.

Under optimal conditions, leaves can get lazy. This can come in the form of, vine leaves not contributing to the process of photosynthesis. During harsh conditions and high radiation, the sun causes the outer leaves of the canopy to shut down over lunch time. During this time, the radiation is too high for the leaf to withstand the heat and causes the leaf’s stoma to close. It is then up to the shaded leaves deeper in the canopy to produce photosynthetic products that will ultimately keep the vine alive. Thus, allowing the grapevine to deal with high sunlight exposure and water stress on its own.

During this significant drought, our wine farmers have been pushed to the brim. Winemakers have been challenged and have had to look for new methods to help sustain vineyards and find a perfect balance between quality and quantity. Vines found in regions like Breedekloof, Stellenbosch and Worcester delivered a smaller harvest, but wine of a high quality.

At the end of the day, wine lovers can sleep well at night as the hardened nature of grapevines and the innovative management practises of viticulturists and winemakers, provides us with high quality wine that can drive us through this tough period. Needless to say, this drought is a huge problem, and we should do everything in our ability to try and keep our water usage as low as possible.

Be sustainable and drink a glass of wine instead.

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