Going organic on Porcelain Mountain

Porseleinberg is a beautiful, but perhaps rather too grand, name for some rather modest hills swelling beneath the enormous Swartland skies ten kilometres or so south of Riebeek-Kasteel. On the other hand, no name could be too beautiful and grand for the splendid wine-growing project that is starting to take shape there. Porcelain Mountain, the translation into English, will appear on the label of the wine from the maiden 2009 vintage.

Some of the wine, that is. The larger part of what comes off more than thirty hectares of mostly shiraz will go to Boekenhoutskloof in far-off Franschhoek, for various of the wines made there. The Swartland farm was bought by Boekenhoutskloof last year – for a few years it had been home to Schonenberg Wines, which planted the first organic vineyards here in 2005.

The new regime is also committed to organic production – with a good bit of more mystical biodynamism too. Presiding over it all (though that’s another inappropriately grand expression, for a literally down-to earth farmer!) is young Callie Louw. He worked briefly at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards prior to coming here, and before then at Vondeling in the Voor-Paardeberg, not far away from Porcelain Mountain.

Callie picked me up at 6.30 one fine spring morning last week and after coffee took me for a long tramp around his farm. The wakening Swartland, spread all around us, was looking wonderful. It’s easiest to think of it as golden-ochre, as it is through summer, but is there anywhere in the Cape more intensely green than the Swartland in spring, with those vast stretches of ripening wheat, and the scattered and rare vineyards still with their winter cover-crop? (The photo above, taken the previous afternoon, shows the Perdeberg in the distance.)

Apart from the one established vineyard (from which the maiden vintage will be made), the vines that have been planted so far are still very young – and hard to see amongst the greenery. And amongst the characteristic shale rocks (as the picture shows): planting vines must have been an enormous effort in the stonier parts. Water to irrigate them in their infancy (they will be dryland farmed once established) had to be pumped from the Berg River some way distant, as the water of the hills is too brak/salty.

Organic farming is made easier by the relative isolation of the vineyards and the fact that they are planted – on all slopes of the hill – on soil previously unused for vines. Vegetative growth is the major challenge, perhaps, of organic viticulture, which cannot resort to the herbicidal poisons on which, sadly, most modern wingrowing depends. “Round-up”, the name of the commonest herbicide, and the factor behind the neat and tidy vineyards one sees everywhere is something worse than a swearword, a curse, for people like Callie. (And it’s remarkable how, once you start becoming aware of all the realities involved, those immaculate vineyards, hooked on chemicals, start looking even more sterile than they are.)

Apart from manual labour to prevent his vines from being overwhelmed by nature, Callie is looking to domesticated animals. He explained the process to me (I hope I have it right). First the cattle go in (already there’s a small herd of pretty Ngunis on the farm) and crop it to a certain level; then the sheep (they’re on their way – a tough, indigenised breed, of course) will crop it lower still – once they been trained through aversion therapy to avoid eating the vine-leaves). And then (or is it simultaneously?) the chickens peck their way around the stalks, eating their way through vast volumes of irritating insects and destructive snails. Of course, a good deal of fertilsation is happening all the time….

All is at an early stage now, of course. The little winery is one large insulated room, with the large barrels and foudres increasingly favoured by clever makers of syrah. A house for Callie, his wife and children is nearing completion (replete with solar panels to provide power, of course) … it’ll be a long way to go for a forgotten litre of milk – ah, but Id forgotten the cows!

It’s immensely heartening to see projects like this, and to see the enthusiasm of people like Callie Louw for integrated, environmentally friendly farming. Even the strictly vinous arguments for organic farming are strong, I believe, and it’s no coincidence that more and more of the most ambitious winegrowers in the Cape are – to the extent that it is possible, and it’s much less easy in Constantia than in the Swartland – turning to such methods. I myself am less convinced by theories of planetary influences and buried cows’ horns – but to have chickens and ducks clucking around the vines, and the cattle ruminating alongside, is wonderful.

Incidentally, Callie Louw threatens that in a few years time he’s going to eat little Sylvester, the young bull (soon to be a steer); but I wonder.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you human? *