You can grow grapes almost anywhere: In Kenya’s Rift Valley or in the heat of Arizona in the US. And even on the dry slopes of a mountain in South Africa.
On a recent trip to South Africa’s winelands, we made a stop at Olifantsberg, located on the slopes of the Brandwacht Mountain Range overlooking the Breedekloof valley in the Western Cape. Elizma Visser, winemaker and overall manager of the farm, was on hand to give us a tour. We climbed into her car and she drove us to the highest point of the farm, 450 metres above sea level, all the while telling us about her experiences there.
She has been at Olifantsberg since 2015, and is part of a growing number of women successfully running farms and making wine in South Africa. She talked enthusiastically about the farm.
One of the most important considerations in winemaking is the terroir in which the vines will grow, Visser says.
Terroir refers to how a region’s climate, soils and terrain affect the taste of the wine.
As it was the end of summer, the temperatures at Olifantsberg were beginning to drop, but remained relatively high. Visser explained that temperatures go as high as 45 degrees Celsius and as low as zero degrees in the winter.
During winter, the mountain peaks are covered in snow, giving the vines plenty of time to rest. And in summer, the constant winds have a cooling effect on the vines. This helps to ensure slow ripening of the grapes and in turn contributes to fresh and elegant wines.
However, with just 400 millimetres of rain annually, how does she keep the grapes thriving? Visser explained that the very dry conditions favour lower yields from the Rhône varieties that they grow, and produce more concentrated fruit.
Coming out of a three-year drought, Olifantsberg has found ways to cope when the dry weather threatens the very life of the vines. In between the rows, they use dry grass for mulching. This prevents whatever little water there is from evaporating, and also keeps the weeds down because they are covered, thus minimising the need for herbicides.
Although Olifantsberg tries to keep the vines growing in as natural an environment as possible, there are several dams on the property for drip irrigation. Pipes with small holes run under the mulching, and water runs through them, dripping 2.2 litres very hour, so according to the plant it feels like rain. The vines get 12 litres in total every week; they are irrigated for six hours every seven days, when there is no rain.
A tension meter measures how much water the vineyard needs. It sits about a metre deep in the soil and uses a GPS system connected to Visser’s computer. The readings chart a graph that shows how the water moves down, and when it goes below 40 per cent, she irrigates again. The technology helps her to farm optimally.
Because of the steep incline of the farm, Visser farms using a style called vine-to-post. The post helps prop up the plant, and you can grow more per hectare. Visser has 7,500 vines per hectare as the plants grow close to each other: They yield 10 tonnes of grapes per hectare. If she was using trellises, she would have about 4,000 plants per hectare.
The vine-to-post style of farming is popular in France, Switzerland and Italy, but relatively new in South Africa, where most farmers prefer trellises as they are less labour intensive. With vine-to-post, all the work is done by hand, including picking of the grapes. With the trellises, a machine can harvest the grapes. Visser works with 13 other people who include tractor drivers and sprayers. Everyone working on the farm knows how to prune and sucker, she says.
Another advantage of vine-to-post is that during summer, the wind blows freely between the posts, keeping the grapes cool.
The soil here is rocky, mostly shale with quartz in between that started off as sandstone.
Visser’s plants are just five years old, and she would like to grow them for up to 50 years. She has three white and five red varietals, with the most popular being the Chenin Blanc.
With 4,000 brands in the country to compete with, how does her wine stand out? Wine grown from rocky soils is citrusy and light to the taste, Visser says. We had a taste of the farm’s Chenin Blanc the evening before visiting Olifantsberg, and yes, there were bright citrus notes with a clean-cut freshness.
Visser’s wines are fermented in traditional oak casks and foudres. Where possible, the grapes are naturally fermented to encourage lower alcohol and sulphur content.
We also had a taste of the wines at various levels of progress in her cellar. Even though they were not ready to be bottled yet, the freshness and elegance was already evident.
Visser is certainly making the best wine out of a tough environment.