Shivering and damp under gloomy skies, I nonetheless try to be happy for the vines. They like that sort of thing. After three relatively warm and dry Cape winters, this one has been wet and cold and the farmers seem pleased – insofar as farmers are ever really pleased.
Between sodden vineyards the rough roads are shiny with rain, hollows muddily brimming; dams are almost full. The vines are enjoying a proper dormancy, without warm sunshine sending inappropriate suggestions that it’s time for sap to start flowing again. In a warm winter there can even be premature leaves, which vineyard workers call “vlaggies”, little flags unfurling here and there.
Now, rather, the vines look gnarled and naked in the cold air. But they’re not neglected, for this is the pruning season. If the weather is already influencing next summer’s harvest, pruning will do so perhaps even more – not only shaping the vine for the long term but also basically controlling the yield, the number of grape bunches on each vine. “Pruning is the beginning of the new season” says Rosa Kruger, a leading viticulturist, “it is the beginning of the new wine.”
It’s skilled work, though too often treated as unskilled, while training of vineyard workers is terribly neglected. Tradition, scientific principles, and experience all play a part in vital decisions about how to do the job. Rosa, who works in various parts of the Cape, told me: “The key to success is to interpret your land and vines according to the correct viticultural principles and to be there, amongst the vines, to understand them and get the best crop from them.”
So, one icy early morning in the Elgin valley, Rosa met with the foreman of the vineyard workers, to discuss how best to prune a fine chardonnay vineyard that regularly loses much of its crop to black northwesterly winds. Later that week, she visited Retief Uys on his small farm near Montagu, where she saw such clever pruning techniques for old vines that she plans on returning to learn more from him.
Then back to the cold: “I was pruning vines a few weeks back in Koue Bokkeveld at 1200 metres above sea level. Small, fragile little bush vines, interplanted with fynbos and native trees. It was cold (I imagine two degrees) as we were pruning. Runny noses and stiff icy fingers quickly warmed up as the company was good and the view spectacular from on top of the mountains.”
Rosa travels widely with her skills and her pruning shears. “In Swartland we found an old Chenin block on the Kasteelberg that the farmer has not tended to for a year or two. Pruning here is difficult as we have to cut back into older wood to reshape the cup-like shape of the bush vine. The oldest vines in the world, are, according to a recent study by an Italian group of viticulturists, all in this traditional bush vine or gobelet shape. The reason why? We do not have to cut back into wood older than two years. It is the pruning into older wood that causes wood-borne diseases that have such a huge impact on the life span of a vine.”
Few people are lucky enough to have work that they love as much as Rosa Kruger does hers. Rosa’s best experience this winter was teaching a team of vineyard workers, including a deaf and dumb man, a new pruning method. “Each worker prunes four to eight vines as the team is watching and I teach as we go along. When it was this young man’s turn, I looked at him and he at me and he started pruning. After every cut, he looked at me and I indicated correct or wrong with my hands. He made a small little sound every time he cut and when I showed him that he was wrong, the sound he made was a bit louder! After a while I kept my hand near to where he was pruning and made a thumbs up when he pruned correctly and a horizontal waving of my hand when he did it wrong. It took him a bit longer, but now he is a pruner, his hands forming the beginning of the new vintage.
I should probably be recommending a warming jerepigo or port this wintry week, but here are a pair of wines, a red and a white with an appropriate name: Circle of Life, from the fine organic Stellenbosch producer Waterkloof. They’re pricey but fair value at about R120, and both blends are deliciously ready for drinking in their youth though far from trivial and will age well for a good few years if you can keep your hands off them now. While sipping, you might spare a respectful thought for the cold hands of the pruners a few years back.
First published in Mail & Guardian 31 August-6September 2012, but this is an extended version