Our very virulent virus

A little while back I wrote somewhat bemusedly about a picture showing massive virus on a vine producing grapes for Ridge Monte Bello, one of the New World’s most established great wines. There’s more. As I made my way further through the as usual weighty (in all senses) edition of the World of Fine Wine, I came across a photo taken in the Gimblett Gravels, part of the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand and the source of much of the country’s increasingly-lauded syrah (they mostly call it syrah there, presumably to distinguish their elegant style from the major trend in Australian shiraz). Alongside is a section of the photo, rather badly scanned, I’m afraid. Could that be just autumn colouring, or was this another part of the world suffering from virus yet apparently, unlike South Africa, not getting bashed for it?

So I asked Rod Easthope. Rod (whom I got to know when he lived here for some years, initially as the man who made the first few mid-1990s vintages of the re-invented Rustenberg) is now a winemaker at Craggy Range, one of New Zealand’s top wineries, some of whose vines are in the photo. He tells me that leafroll virus (which is the virus that bedevils the Cape) is indeed a problem in New Zealand – especially in Hawkes Bay.

What was most interesting in what he had to tell me was what they’re doing about it – and I wonder if there aren’t some lessons for many (by no means all) Cape winegrowers about not pretending-the-problem-isn’t there and about dedication and commitment to solving it.

Rod is heavily involved with the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association and, apart from the usual promotional stuff, they are vigorously tackling leafroll virus. He says: “The Gimblett Gravels appellation is strictly demarcated by soil type and is therefore only 800 hectares.  It is 80% made up of red cultivars (the Bordeaux suite and Syrah).  Over the last season we have individually mapped every single red vine within those 800 hectares and plotted them via GPS and marked those that exhibit leafroll virus.”

They haven’t released the results yet, and are talking to individual growers about what they’ve discovered. The incidence of virus is obviously very varied from grower to grower (and Rod is confident that the results indicate that the best wines come from the vineyards with the lowest number of affected wines). And they’re still talking about the policy they should follow. It’s even possible that “if a high level of virus incidence is not dealt with (i.e. vine removal) then the Association may revoke that vineyard’s right to use the Gimblett Gravels Appellation on the wine – we take it that seriously”.

That is indeed taking it seriously.

Further: “The complete vine mapping project will be carried out every three years.  We are tackling the policy formation for control of virus on newly planted vineyard and the restoration of blocks that have 20% or less (above this threshold – even short-term economics dictate entire vine removal).” At Craggy Range they’ve been particularly careful and their leafroll virus incidence is low – and every year they remove up to 30 of their 450 000 red Gimblett Gravels vines to maintain 100% virus-free status. “Forget to do it for a couple of years and you are in trouble with exponential expansion of virus incidence.”

Although virus in New Zealand has the same effects as in South Africa – problems with ripeness and increasingly uneconomic yields – Rod doesn’t think that the effects manifest there as negatively as they do in the Cape. “Those very dry hard astringent tannins are more just greener tannins in New Zealand”, he says. (It does seem that the Cape is particularly afflicted by “type 3” leafroll virus, which is the worst type…..)

Talking of the problem in the rest of the world, Rod wrote: “I have just returned from a trip to the United States and Burgundy. First time in Napa, and the valley floor (lesser quality) was riddled with leafroll virus. I hadn’t visited Burgundy since 2004 and I could not believe how much leafroll virus I saw there. Fanleaf used to be their major problem.  Going by my cursory glance, leafroll is a major issue in Burgundy (on great vineyards) that I had not heard anyone talking about before.”

So. It seems we’re not alone. Just having the worst of it. And – although many individual wineries are battling to keep their vineyards as virus-free as possible – perhaps the wine industry as a whole is not doing enough. We seem to have few industry associations with the vigour to do much except marketing. And we are, after all, living with, and not sufficiently repairing, the consequences of long decades of mis-leadership (autocratic misrule, arguably) that allowed the situation to get as bad as it is.

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