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”.
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.”
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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).