The soil and ducks of Avondale

Somehow the Paarl mountain and Paarl valley looked unfamiliar when I visited Avondale recently, and I realised that I hadn’t ventured into precisely this part of the winelands before. The farm is on the south of Paarl town, in fact on the south of the N1 motorway, at the foot of the Klein Drakenstein Mountains, climbing the lower slopes.

There was more to learn than simply a new angle on a mountain or two. Johnathan Grieve was going to teach me. He’s part of the family which has owned the historic farm since 1977 (apparently it dates back over 300 years, and was perhaps the first in the area to be allocated specifically for wine production), and abandoned his training as an artist to become a practical viticulturist – and a passionate, eloquent and convincing one he is too. Well, he certainly convinced me of the logic of what he’s doing.

Essentially it’s organic farming – about a quarter of the farm is officially certified as organic, but it all is farmed that way, in fact. This split (which exists only on paper, but paper is important in marketing and suchlike) can lead to some confusion – and in fact did so when there was a flurry last year about their maiden Cap Classique bubbly, which was punted (correctly and incorrectly) as organic although it was not from certified vineyards.

But the viticulture at Avondale isn’t bounded by the rules and conventions of any particular system. Much organic practice, Johnathan feels, is just a question of mechanically substituting “green” methods and products for the admittedly more horrible nostrums of the agro-chemical industry (advocated by the educators of most viticulturists whose research tends to be funded by the same industry – Jonathan Grieve finds a positive benefit to not having had a formal education in viticulture). Biodynamics can also be narrow-minded, he says, though there are elements of it that he likes (and disagrees when I call it silly). For Johnathan, the thing is (this is what I gathered) to enter into dialogue with your soils, to read the vines – and, following his line of integrating modern science with tradtional practice, he uses a lot of high-tech methods to come to an understanding of what the grapes and the leaves are telling him about his soil.

Get the life back into the soil; look at the sort of weeds that spring up and see what they tell you about the deficiencies and excesses of the soil; make intelligent use of cover crops of indigenous species and celebrate the growth between the vines, however untidy it looks compared with the scraped and herbicidal neatness of some vineyards. Use natural predators rather than killing them with chemicals.

Bring along the ducks to feast on snails rather than using expensive snailbait: apparently the ducks will march up a row (munching as they go, of course) and down the next, much like a lovelier and less fuming tractor. But unlike a tractor spewing out snailbait, the ducks will linger (munching and crunching) where the snails are more prevalent. It’s all so obvious, it’s all so natural, says Johnathan, and surely responding to the soil and its life is the way to bring out what is unique to a vineyard? I understand fully why they call their viticultural philosophy practice “BioLogic”. And you can eat the ducks after they’ve worked for you, which also has some logic to it, if not for the ducks.

The wines that emerge from the vineyards are treated with naturalness in the winery too, with a minimum of intervention. We sat down to sample a small section of the large Avondale range. Of those I tried, I particularly liked the whites. The famous Cap Classique is appley-flavourful, with a real earthy minerality – a quality and an edge to flavour that was present in most of the wines, and porbably a good index of their connection to the soils that nurtured them.

The standard Chenin Blanc 2008, fermented in big old barrels, selling for about R60, is big but subtle, balanced but powerful. Not available yet is a Chenin Reserve 2008 (to be much more expensive, around R200) which is a brilliant intensification of the standard wine: delicately powerful, perfumed, and long long flavours. A nice tannic edge, but unspoilt by any new wood flavour intrusion. Beautifully balanced and deliciously drinkable.

There’s a chenin-sauvignon blend, with a touch of sauvignon blanc: The Duchess, in the Green Ducks range.  We tried the 2006, and the extra few year in bottle brought out some quirkiness here; it’s a rather fascinating wine – less imposing than the Chenin Reserve, say, but with a good deal of interest.

Les Pleurs Viognier 2007 (also about R200 – Avondale wines are by no means modestly proced) is the current white incumbent of the top Avondale range. It has, of course, the typical apricot-peach of viognier, but it doesn’t come billowing out of the glass at you, and it is made more complex and subtle in its effect by the way it combines with the estate’s earthy minerality. And although the wine has the typical oily richness of the variety, the lack of OTT flavour is parallelled by the unusually modest 13% alcohol.

My word counter tells me that I’m likely to be outstaying what welcome I have had. So I’ll mention the Avondale reds next time, as I found them to make a rather interesting comparison with what I tasted a few days later in a cellar on the slopes of some distant mountains, at Constantia Glen.

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