Fire, mildew, drought – nearly harvest time

This year’s will be a harvest that many will be pleased to see the back of, and nearly everyone will be particularly grateful if it turns out well. It’s still far off in most parts, of course – André van Rensburg of Vergelegen with him is still on leave, he’s pretty confident it will be a lateish harvest this year.

Francois Viljoen, chief viticulturist at Vinpro, with clients around the Cape, told me late last year that this was the most difficult vintage he’s known. Storm damage for many, Downy mildew a more significant problem in most parts, rampant green vigour. I also had the benefit of a little telephonic lecture from Eben Sadie about that latter problem: while a vine’s root system can’t change rapidly, the leafy canopy can vary tremendously, and when it’s lush like this year, and then the heatwaves come as they surely will, the poor vines can be thrown into a panic, and what remedial action one can take with irrigation and shoot-trimming is not enough. That’s not exactly how Eben described it in his customary detail, but it reinforced one real principle that I’ve learnt about viticulture: harmony in a vine is everything (just as harmony is everything in wine).

A vineyard in natural harmony is the sign of a great terroir. The more interventions necessary, and the more radical they are – green harvesting, irrigation, chemical fertilisers and the like, the less great the vineyard. Need for intervention varies from year to year, of course, and even more of course viticulture is needed even in the greatest terroirs – just less so, and to more wonderful effect.

Anyway, I turned from considering lushness and Downy mildew, to a diametrically opposite problem, in an email from Samantha O’Keefe, the Californian whose pioneering Lismore Estate on the mountainside near Greyton offers what must surely be amongst the most spectacularly beautifully sited vineyards anywhere. (Producing some increasingly good wines, too.) But the rain and moisture that many of the more coastal areas have experienced (and has given them the headaches of mildew and too many leaves) has skipped over Lismore.

The problem there is drought: “given that my vineyards are dry-land farmed, they are taking strain. Farming – whose idea was this anyway?”

I’d been asking Samantha about whether the fires in the Overberg had affected her farm, She told me:

“On the 28th, the fires jumped the river and burned several farms between Lismore and Greyton.  It was so tense and stressful.  My guys were fighting on a neighboring farm and then we had to retreat to Lismore to prepare a strategy for when the fire reached our land.  As the fire reached Lismore land (in the kloof, see photo) on the evening of the 30th, the skies opened with a mil or two of rain – but it was enough to put the fire out!  It was a miracle.  We have had spot fires flaring up in the area, but our farm has been safe since.”

That was around the time that a winefarm worker died fighting a fire in the Elim area, near Cape Agulhas. The death of John Europa didn’t get the same internet and newspaper coverage as the burning suffered by another fire-fighter, Paul Cluver Snr in Elgin. Fires are the most terrible part of the problems of hot summers in the Cape. I fear these won’t be the last of them leading up to harvest 2010, but let’s hope that more deaths and injuries can be avoided – and wish Dr Cluver a speedy recovery.

And best wishes to everybody for 2010. May you drink some great wines and no bad ones.

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