In In the Vineyard

“Rain, rain go away, come again another day”, I remember singing these words as a child, while staring at the drenched playground outside. Thick clouds, the pitter-pattering of rain against the window sill and  misery was all that accompanied those wet days as I looked towards the garden through the water-tinted glass. Fast-forward 15 years, and here I sit, staring out of a sun-dried window, searching the horizon for any sign of those heavy grey clouds.

South Africa is no stranger to drought, we’ve been experiencing these “dry-spells” over the decades, with increasing frequency since 1997. Although it is true that we produce some of our best wines under a little bit of (water) stress, how much can the vines really handle? How much can we handle?

In 2009, 2015 and 2017 South Africa saw some of its best vintages, with wines scoring well into the 90s (Wine Spectator). Stats have also shown that our overall harvest has actually increased by 1.4% from 2016 to 2017 (VinPro), which was not the overall expected outcome following the 2016 dry period. Could water stress be responsible for the slight increase, or are we perhaps still trying to use every last drop of water while it’s still available to us?

Recently, water stress has been emphasised in both our Soil Science and Viticulture courses. Research, evaporation minimalization, efficient irrigation scheduling and the science behind water stress in the vine have especially been highlighted. However, the costs and expenses involved in the implementation of drought control strategies seems to have slipped out of our teaching somewhere.

I only realised this when visiting a well-known rootstock plantation in the Paarl/Wellington region. One of the viticulturalists posed a question to our class: “Wat kan ek doen om waterverbruik te verminder (What can I do to reduce water consumption)”. Having just been taught this in Soil Science 344, many of us were eager to jump at the opportunity to share our new-found knowledge, oblivious to the trap he had set for us. He showed us that it is easy to think of a solution, however the costs implicated in the implementation of the best solution prove to be a difficult hurdle to overcome. This unfortunately leaves many farmers, in the wine industry and other agricultural sectors, with a very limited set of options on what seems like a very long list of solutions.

“How would you advise a farmer on how to manage his crops in such a way as to minimise the effects of drought and evaporation in the vineyard?” – This is a typical example of a test question or class discussion topic that a third-year student would be expected to answer. Answers would run along the lines of the use of mulches (plastic or organic), the installation of micro-drip irrigation systems, the regular measuring of soil water content using a tensiometer, vine water stress monitoring using a pressure bomb, installing irrigation lines beneath plastic, installing a wind break, the use of netting, the use of drought resistant rootstocks…the list goes on. These all seem like logical answers to a student, who has no idea on how to budget.

I took a drive through Stellenbosch recently, and the reality of the situation unfolded before my eyes. Vineyards are being pulled up, left to sprawl out through collapsing trellising systems and farms are being sold and auctioned off. A harsh reality for a youngster like me to face, is that more often than not, farmers are victims of unforeseen circumstances like drought, fire and flooding (wouldn’t that be lovely? – just not during harvest, please!). What can we expect for the 2018 harvest with the conditions ever-worsening and the expenses forever increasing? We can hold on to hope and faith in the mean-time; I hope that our rain will come soon, and I have faith that our beloved vines will cope if it does not.

Dry-spell feels like an appropriate word to use, doesn’t it? The upside of feeling like we are being bewitched by drought, is that any spell can be broken. A beam of light does shine through the current crisis, our yield has not yet seen an overall decline and our wine quality is still improving. Our red wines, in my opinion, have seen few better vintages than our drier years.

Why is this? Well, if water stress is applied at the right stages of ripening, berry metabolites and anthocyanins as well as other crucial wine components begin to accumulate into the berry. The vine goes into, what I like to refer to as an, “Oh shoot, ek gaan vrek” stage, meaning most of the vines reactions are pushed into a survival or reproductive mode. This could very well be a contributor to the deeper colours as well as the more full-bodied texture and mouthfeel of our fruit-packed wines.

Moving forward, I think the South African wine industry is going to experience a major shift in white wine production due to the drier conditions, focusing on a drier yet more tropical fruit driven style with slightly higher alcohol levels. White wines in particular, may need some kind of acid adjustment to reach a desired level of acidity due to the lower natural acid levels in ripe grapes. Red wines however, may become much darker and may require less skin content due to the higher anthocyanin accumulation at phenolic ripeness. More full-bodied, heavier and fruitier (dark berries and red fruit) driven red wines can be expected, adding more character to the wine and its complexity.

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