A thought­ful birth­day gift al­lowed Irna van Zyl to play wine­maker for a year

For her 60th birth­day ear­lier this year, Irna van Zyl re­ceived the un­usual gift of 60 vines to take care of for a year. She tells us what hap­pens when a run-of-the-mill wine drinker be­comes a “wine­maker”.

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Cut. “One, two, match­box.” Cut. “One, two, match­box.” Cut. This is the rhythm keep­ing us go­ing on a win­ter morn­ing in a vine­yard in the Over­berg strand­veld, just in­land from Cape Agul­has. There are six of us, plus the wine­maker, his son, who’s in ma­tric, and an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant. Just the nine of us and 60 Shi­raz vines. A whole row of them. Mine.

Well, mine for a year only. But still. My birth­day gift from a group of friends. The most orig­i­nal gift ever.

The big birth­day

Okay, time to let the cat out the bag: I turned 60 this year and, as any­one who’s been there or is close to that age can at­test, it can be a ter­ri­bly in­tim­i­dat­ing birth­day. For mine, a group of 10 (much younger) friends started plan­ning three months ahead for a spe­cial gift on the big day: 60 vines for a 60-year-old.

On that day in March, I re­ceived an in­no­cent-look­ing pink box with the in­struc­tion that the gift should be opened that very evening. There were a lot of pink rib­bons at the bot­tom, and a beau­ti­ful card with the fol­low­ing mes­sage: “For a year, you are the proud owner of 60 vines at Strand­veld Vine­yards, and your gift en­tails be­ing in­volved five times over the next year in the fol­low­ing pro­cesses: 1 An adop­tion cer­e­mony, dur­ing which you get to se­lect the vines and mark each one with a pink rib­bon. 2 The prun­ing of the vine­yard. 3 Suck­er­ing, dur­ing which un­wanted green shoots are dis­carded. 4 A sec­ond suck­er­ing, where you make sure the grape clus­ters hang loosely and re­ceive enough sun­light and air through the leaves by re­duc­ing the num­ber of leaves (which is nec­es­sary in the cool cli­mate, says wine­maker Con­rad Vlok). 5 Pick­ing and press­ing the grapes in the tra­di­tional way by stomp­ing them. This is the fi­nal step and only hap­pens after 15 March.”

And, prom­ises Con­rad, I’ll get to taste “my” young wine for the first time after the sec­ond fer­men­ta­tion process – be­fore it is aged in oak bar­rels.

“This wide open land­scape of the Agul­has Plain is de­void of the pre­ten­sions some­times en­coun­tered in the Boland. Wind is a con­stant fac­tor – “windswept” is the word that comes to mind – but it is in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­ful.

Of cor­dons, spurs and buds

For var­i­ous rea­sons, we’re an hour late on our first visit to Strand­veld Vine­yards, but even­tu­ally we end up on the last stretch: the 5km or so of gravel road after turn­ing off the newly tarred road from Uilenkraalsmond, past Baardskeerder­s­bos to Elim and Bredas­dorp.

This wide open land­scape of the Agul­has Plain is de­void of the pre­ten­sions some­times en­coun­tered in the Boland. Wind is a con­stant fac­tor – “windswept” is the word that comes to mind – but it is in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­ful. As are the old out­build­ings, typ­i­cal of this area, wel­com­ing us to the farm along with Con­rad and his team.

We drive in two cars to the vine­yards – Con­rad in ours, ex­plain­ing things as we go – past a lovely re­stored cot­tage in the veld and through the most beau­ti­ful fyn­bos en­vi­ron­ment. The vine­yards are barely vis­i­ble from the road.

We drive up a hill, where Con­rad points out the dif­fer­ent colours of the soil. Red rocks in one place, yel­low in an­other. Red and yel­low fer­ri­crete in which the Sauvi­gnon Blanc grows, we learn later. The Shi­raz block to which we’re head­ing is grown in white quartzite gravel soil.

“We could just about make a dif­fer­ent kind of wine for ev­ery type of rock or soil here,” Con­rad says.

Next, we drive past a dam, a lovely full blue dam. What a beau­ti­ful sight dur­ing this time of drought in the West­ern Cape. I think of the dusty Thee­wa­ter­skloof Dam…

A short while later we see a sign­post to “Po­fad­der­bos”. This is the sin­gle block of Sauvi­gnon Blanc that has made Strand­veld Vine­yards fa­mous and where the grapes grow for one of its many el­e­gant wines. Fur­ther up the hill is the Shi­raz vine­yard.

We stop at Block 14, planted in 2003. The last row.

Here, we need to count 60 vines and tie a rib­bon around each one to mark them. This is the “adop­tion cer­e­mony”.

We are given our first les­son and be­come ac­quainted with the ter­mi­nol­ogy. The “arms” on ei­ther side of the trunk are called a cor­don. Each cor­don has three to four spurs (a knot in the cord from which a cane grows), and each spur has two buds from which the green shoots will make their ap­pear­ance in a few months’ time. >

The next task will be the suck­er­ing, which in­volves re­mov­ing the green shoots, lim­it­ing them to two per spur.

Each shoot has the po­ten­tial to carry two bunches. Thus the wine­maker will know from the start what his yield will be. “Here, we fo­cus on mak­ing qual­ity and not quan­tity,” Con­rad says. “Now you can visit your vine­yard any time. Pack a pic­nic bas­ket and come en­joy a glass of wine next to your vines late in the af­ter­noon.”

Back at the cel­lar we go for a wine tast­ing – not that we need any in­tro­duc­tion to the fruit of Strand­veld’s vine­yards. To start with, there’s the First Sight­ing Rosé, then the fa­mous Po­fad­der­bos Sauvi­gnon Blanc and then some of my vine­yard’s Strand­veld Shi­raz, the 2013 vin­tage. It’s a proper head-girl kind of a wine, we re­alise when we see all the stick­ers: Top 12 Shi­raz, Ver­i­tas Gold and 4½ stars in Plat­ter’s Wine Guide. We hope 2017’s har­vest will be just as stun­ning.

Strand­veld and its wines

Strand­veld Vine­yards is renowned for be­ing the south­ern­most win­ery in Africa, and it is pre­cisely its lo­ca­tion and cool cli­mate that are so good for the cul­ti­va­tion of Sauvi­gnon Blanc, Shi­raz and Pinot Noir. “Na­ture has given us an ex­treme ter­roir, a cold east­erly wind from the sea and a low yield,” Con­rad says. “That’s what you have to work with as wine­maker.”

After a long search for a farm in an area with a cool cli­mate and spe­cial gravel soil, Nick Diemont and Ger­rie Wa­gener bought the prop­erty in 2001. On their first visit, a freez­ing gale-force east­erly wind was blow­ing. It con­vinced them that this was the place where they had to make wine.

The two men (Ger­rie has since passed away) got to­gether 10 more share­hold­ers from Jo­han­nes­burg and also in­volved lo­cal landown­ers Adam and Benno Al­ber­tyn.

Vines were planted in 2002 and the first wine was made in Fe­bru­ary 2005. With the first sips of that Sauvi­gnon Blanc, they re­alised they had some­thing spe­cial: the kind of wine with a min­er­al­ity you don’t find any­where else in the coun­try.

Con­rad started as wine­maker in 2004 and since then the farm has been show­ered with nu­mer­ous awards and many stars. Cur­rently, the 65 hectares un­der vines pro­duce 25 000 six-bot­tle cases per year. Con­rad also makes wine for a cou­ple of other brands with Strand­veld’s grapes. He also en­joys ex­per­i­ment­ing with other cul­ti­vars, such as Pino­tage, Viog­nier and even a lit­tle Cin­saut. I re­ceive a gift of a bot­tle of the Vlok fam­ily’s Stam­boom, a blend of Pinot Noir, Pino­tage and Cin­saut, of which just more than 800 bot­tles are made.

That first prun­ing…

I’m too ner­vous to prune the first shoot and look around for help, but Con­rad is help­ing some­one else fur­ther down the row. What if I slice through a bud and the har­vest – al­ready geared to­ward qual­ity – suf­fers be­cause the yield from my vines is lower? What if I do more ru­in­ing than prun­ing?

I count the buds on my shoot: one, two and then an­other mil­lime­tre. It’s old-fash­ioned to prune close to the buds, Con­rad ex­plained ear­lier. It’s too easy to botch it and do harm. That’s where the match­box size comes in. You leave a small piece of the shoot above the bud that can dry out.

“No, that’s too much,” Con­rad says next to me, point­ing at the long piece of shoot I’d left. He shows me again how and where to prune.

First of all, the light prun­ing, or a brush cut, as Con­rad calls it. You can do it in two parts: first the skoon­s­noei, prun­ing just to get rid of the long­est shoots, and then a stomp­s­noei a few days later, which is the finer work. Here at Strand­veld they do it all in one go; it saves time and ef­fort.

The brush cut gives me con­fi­dence. Fi­nally, I pluck up the courage to ap­ply the su­per-sharp prun­ing shears.

“We’re prun­ing the vines just be­fore they wake up,” Con­rad ex­plains. Un­til now, since we tied the rib­bons at the be­gin­ning of June, the vine­yard has been hi­ber­nat­ing.

And that’s when I re­alised, on this sec­ond visit to Strand­veld, that this gift isn’t some­thing you merely re­ceive. You need to give, par­tic­i­pate, work hard too. You have to plan a week­end away, com­man­deer your will­ing friends and drive for two-and-half hours – and then it’s not just jol­li­fi­ca­tion and good wine await­ing you. No, you have to work in the vine­yard for at least two hours. After that, you can re­lax, maybe at Black Oys­ter­catcher, the wine farm next door, and have lunch and a glass or two of wine.

But it’s worth ev­ery minute. It’s a gift you’ll never for­get.

Na­ture fol­lows its course

The “ridge” is the small mound on which the vine is planted. Here the weeds are left to al­low the nat­u­ral cy­cle to take its course. It’s also where Con­rad looks for ants and snail ac­tiv­ity. The snails eat the weeds, the ants eat the snail eggs, the la­dy­birds eat the ants and that’s how na­ture works.

“The an­te­lope and hares also need to have an op­tion if they come here to nib­ble on some soft leaves. With the weeds, there’s hope­fully enough food >

on the ridge to keep them from tack­ling the vine­yard.”

This means all they need to spray against are fungi: botry­tis, downy mildew and oid­ium (pow­dery mildew). The biggest threat in this en­vi­ron­ment is the leafroll virus, spread by the mealy bug. The mealy bug’s nat­u­ral en­emy is the la­dy­bird. At Strand­veld, where na­ture is dis­turbed as lit­tle as pos­si­ble, they don’t have a prob­lem with mealy bugs.

Of course, the south­easter helps to keep the vine­yards dry and cool in the hot sum­mer.

The other word we learn to­day is bleed­ing, or huil­sap in Afrikaans – that’s when the vine­yard “cries” where you have pruned it.

A GOOD WINE­MAKER, Con­rad be­lieves, does not merely re­ceive his grapes in the cel­lar. The art of wine­mak­ing is to work with the vines through­out the sea­sons. This is what he teaches us at our next ses­sion: Suck­er­ing takes place when the first green shoots and leaves and the first bunches of blos­soms – “the size of a match head but not of a pea” – make their ap­pear­ance.

A wine­maker makes two im­por­tant de­ci­sions, says Con­rad: the one is when to pick the grapes; the other is the day you put the cork in the bot­tle. Un­til then you can still in­flu­ence the wine by pay­ing at­ten­tion to small de­tails. How do they know when to pick? “It’s a gut feel. We watch the grapes and we taste them… even nib­ble the seeds and skin. We an­a­lyse the sugar and pH, of course. And we look at what the birds are do­ing. Just be­fore the grapes are too far gone, it’s time.”

The birds get their own patch of vine­yard that is not cov­ered by net­ting as the grapes ripen. They eat about two tonnes of grapes ev­ery year. But this keeps them from caus­ing trou­ble in the rest of the vine­yards.

“All my grapes are har­vested by hand. If grapes are dam­aged they dry out – those bunches are not picked. What you wouldn’t eat, I won’t use to make wine.”

The last thing we do is to un­hook the canopy wires of the trel­lises so they lie low in the vine­yard. This is to pre­vent the shoots from be­ing dam­aged in the wind. As the shoots grow stronger, the wires are hooked up again and the shoots are trained onto them. “Oth­er­wise you make bon­sais,” says Con­rad la­con­i­cally.

IT’S TIME TO GO HOME. The sun is about to set and it’s bit­terly cold, de­spite the fact that it re­ally is al­most sum­mer in Cape Town to­day. I had to bor­row Con­rad’s jacket for pro­tec­tion from the cold wind.

We slowly drive back through the vine­yards. Beyond the birds’ share, past the beau­ti­ful fyn­bos with pin­cush­ions in flower. “There, look, there’s a sug­ar­bird. Not the colourful fel­low, the one with the long tail.”

And then, a mo­ment of pure magic. Right there, be­hind the pin­cush­ions, a herd of grey rhe­bok come fly­ing by, white tails in the air. Happy an­te­lope in a beau­ti­ful set­ting. And, oh, such a happy 60­year­old “wine­maker”.

Per­haps I should adopt some more vines for year 61.

“A good wine­maker, Con­rad be­lieves, does not merely re­ceive his grapes in the cel­lar. The art of wine­mak­ing is to work with the vines through­out the sea­sons.”

“I re­alised that this gift isn’t some­thing you merely re­ceive. You need to give, par­tic­i­pate, work hard too. It’s a gift you’ll never for­get.”

TO FIND OUT MORE, CHECK OUT:

First work, then taste. Wine­maker Con­rad Vlok (right) shows Irna (sec­ond from right) and friends how to use prun­ing shears. From left are Brid­get McCarney, Crispian Brown, Jay Smit and Kate Fordyce. Only af­ter­wards do you get to taste some Shi­raz, which your own wine will hope­fully re­sem­ble (inset above).

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