Are drought-tinged vintages truly better?

Jun 15, 2021

Whether one is a wine drinker or not, we know, when it comes to farming, drought is a bad thing.

On the other hand, wine lovers may be aware that vines cope and can do well in marginal environments, where other plants would not flourish.

This point is never more obvious than when we look at the number of exciting wines coming out of some rather harsh and dry environments. Two recent vintages (2015 and 2017) in the Western Cape, fell amongst the driest years recorded, but were also touted as two of the most exciting vintages of the decade.

But is this always the case?

In the latest episode of the Vinimark podcast, host Jono Le Feuvre picks the brain of Callie Louw, custodian, farmer and winemaker at Porseleinberg, about the effects of drought, both in the vineyards, and also in the glass.

It’s all about balance

“I’m opposed to the notion of vines being anorexic,” says Callie in the opening moments of the conversation. “I don’t think anything that struggles that much can produce anything of quality.”

To him, the main aim is to ripen the grapes on the vine to the best sugar potential and without too much stress for the vine.

“And for that, you need leaves and an active root system,” he says.

In terms of drought, the past six years have been particularly challenging at Porseleinberg, with the average rainfall having dropped from 450 mm per year to only 350mm.

“We will need a good few years before we get back to a stress-free productive cycle,” Callie says.

Dryland farming

Currently Porseleinberg relies on some irrigation, without which – as Callie puts it – nothing will grow.

However, the ideal would be to switch over to dryland farming, which relies entirely on rainfall.

“Dryland farming is quite a privilege,” Callie says. “If you’re farming in an area with soil strong enough and natural rainfall high enough for you to realise quality and quantity crops, it makes life a bit easier.”

However, if your land is not naturally endowed with these gifts, dryland farming isn’t altogether impossible. As long as you are willing to go the extra mile to improve the health of and life in your soil.

This includes using a diversity of cover crops and minimising the use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

Because the ultimate goal is to grow your soil’s carbon content and improve its ability to retain moisture, leaving it to develop relatively undisturbed rather than regularly tilling, is also essential.

“Evidence shows that if you can raise the real carbon in your soil by 1%, you effectively double the water-holding capacity of the soil. That’s substantial,” Callie says.

This is especially significant during the height of summer in the Swartland, when heatwaves put extra strain on the vines.

“The first thing the plant wants to do is drop its crop and just goes into a complete state of stress,” he says. “The grapes just don’t develop further. You will have an increase in acid and an increase in sugar, but that’s because of desiccation rather than a bunch of grapes really ripening because the plant is doing what it should be doing.”

Increasing the moisture content in soil can go a long way to buffering the vines’ resistance to stress during heatwaves.

Water wastage in the cellar

Towards the end of the discussion, Jono raised the point that some parties had expressed concerns regarding the amount of water used in the cellar, where even in times of drought there is a lot of wastage.

According to Callie, these figures aren’t quite as high at most South African cellars, where a ballpark average would be about 3 litres of water per 1 litre of wine.

“Over all, cellar usage is actually quite insignificant in comparison to [the volumes of water used] in the vineyard and definitely insignificant in comparison to orchards etc,” he adds.

“In the cellar, all of us obviously try to use as little as we can, but if we can farm the grapes with less water, we’re winning a hell of a lot more than trying to save in the cellar.”

Pragmatic as always, Callie is firmly focused on the ground beneath his feet, and the task right in front of him. And as a man that has managed to produce a 100-point wine (or as he would say, “wine from a 100-point farm”) off the back of the worst drought in almost a century, there is no doubt that, at least for the time being, his approach is working.

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