Growing wine in KwaZulu-Natal
25 December 2015
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Brad Brown: Welcome onto this edition of Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now. I’m pretty excited for the next conversation I’m about to have because often people think wine, ah, it’s the Western Cape, it’s the only place where things are really happening and that is not true, particularly here in South Africa.
There is a little wine industry, a juvenile wine industry that’s popping up and growing in KZN and we’re joined now by Rob Osborne who is the head of Horticultural Research at Cedara in KZN. Rob, welcome, nice to touch base, thanks for joining us today.
Rob Osborne: Yes, thanks Brad, thanks very much.
BB: Rob, I’m keen to get into what you guys are up to in KZN in quite a bit more detail, but before we do that, I want to find out a little bit about you and your journey into wine because you’re not from one of those traditional wine growing areas. You’ve obviously been to the Western Cape, but you’ve spent most of your adult life in Pietermaritzburg, in the sleepy hollow of Pietermaritzburg. Where did your fascination with wine come from?
Inspired by what they are doing in Australia
RO: Well, Brad, I’ll be honest, I didn’t really have too much interest in wine prior to working on the project. I think, as you say, at Maritzburg University, you learn about avocadoes and subtropical fruit and vegetables and very little on the industry. In fact, when we started this project we had a lot of opposition from, as you can imagine, people saying that you need a Mediterranean climate to grow grapes.
Although, you know, as students we’d go and tour the Western Cape and look at the industry there, it was only until one of my colleagues who had worked in Australia and he spent a year in Australia and he realised the Aussies – typically they’re pretty advanced – they were growing wine in every state. He was working in Queensland.
They’re growing vines in Queensland this chap, Clive Kaiser, came back with the idea of looking at wine, I think that was back in 2001, but of course at that stage we knew very little. It’s one thing to look at another industry, it’s quite another thing to establish from scratch and there’s no support. That’s one thing we found here, there’s very little support in terms of what chemicals, whether it be trellis wire or clips or even corks, there’s no industry, so it was a very rough start to this industry.
BB:I think it’s truly fascinating cause I love the fact that it’s out there, that it’s not like, you say, people said it’s not a Mediterranean climate, you can’t grow grapes there, but you guys have sort of proved that you can. It obviously comes with its own set of challenges and things are different to what’s being done in the Western Cape, for example, but it is definitely possible.
There has been a lot of trial and error
RO: It definitely is and that’s one thing Brad, we didn’t know that and we started the project, we had very little information. Even the guys who were helping us from the Cape didn’t know and even in terms of varieties. I remember I wanted to plant Cabernet Sauvignon and they said no, you can’t grow it there, it’s too late. It’s not going to do well with you and they rather tried to get us to grow early varieties.
But in fact Cabernet has been one of the better varieties and it’s just so different. For instance, in the Cape, late is bad, cause that’s when they go into their winter rainfall, whereas for us, our main rainfall is really mid-summer then going into February and March we’re drying off, so later varieties have done well.
I think the challenge was, even with good intentions, and we certainly had a lot of support from the Cape industry in terms of supplying us vines and giving us advice. We went down and we looked at some of the nurseries down there, so they were certainly supportive of us back then. But even they were, I mean the Cape it just so different and I think we realise that more than the guys in the Cape. I think that really was a steep learning curve.
BB: Rob, you talk about the project and it was early 2000’s that this got off the ground, tell me about the thinking. You said you weren’t sure if you could grow grapes back then, what was the thinking behind starting this thing? In the beginning, what would you have liked to have seen?
RO: I think back then Brad, we really were looking, remember this was a branch out of Clive Kaiser, his original vision…I think, was really going, not around the Midlands here, but more towards Dundee. I think he wanted to look at maybe a battlefield sort of wine route and I think only when we looked at the climate and spoke to the farmers there and realised the hail risk was so much higher up in Dundee that we looked more towards the Midlands meander.
I think really, initially, we wanted to see, would it work and then really, we envisaged it really more as a little boutique, certainly not a big scale and we were just happy if we could get, like in New Zealand, they have little industries, a little cottage industry that we could maybe tie into that meander.
We didn’t really have a vision that we’d be producing fantastic wine, certainly at the early stage, but I think ten years later, sjoe, the one grower there has actually won an award. I think we have proven that it is possible.
We can produce good wine
BB: Let’s talk a little bit about the region itself. You talk about the meander and I know that sort of part of the world, Nottingham Road, I mean it’s a lovely part of the country. But wine is not one thing that springs to mind there. There’s lots of craft breweries and there’s a lot of fishing, it’s very rustic. Obviously like you said, you wanted to create a boutique industry, but it’s turned into something slightly different hasn’t it?
RO: I think we’ve got farmers who want to look at maybe adding value to their land in terms of agri tourism. The biggest grower has put in almost 30 hectares up in the Winterton area, in the Champagne Valley. I think he’s also then, as a marketing, to buy into like a lifestyle resort, so that’s the one aspect. That’s certainly the biggest grower we’ve got, Maurice Koster up in Winterton.
Certainly we’re not anywhere near challenging the Cape in terms of production and we’re certainly not going to be producing wine for Pick n Pay or Makro, but in terms of a good wine, I think we have shown it is possible, but a lot more difficult.
BB: From a wine producer perspective and particularly from the agricultural side of things, what are some of the challenges that you guys are faced with in KZN, trying to grow these grapes and produce good quality wines?
The climate has naturally presented challenges
RO: Brad, I think climate is the obvious answer, in fact, much harder than we thought. In fact, when I thought of hail, I thought hail wouldn’t be such a big factor because you’re not selling a fresh product, you’re not selling table grapes, which means you can still make wine.
But we’ve learnt the hard way that hail can be very damaging to the crop. In fact this last year, at Cedara I didn’t harvest a single grape for the first time in seven years. The hail is unpredictable; we’re looking at putting up netting now, against hail. In terms of disease, probably the most difficult thing to control, you need quite a stringent spray programme.
We’re looking at spraying maybe every two weeks whereas in the Cape they might do it four times a season and the problem with our humid, as you can imagine, here in KZN, you get these hot, humid days; once the downy mildew is on the grapes, sjoe, it’s almost too late to control it. You need a preventative disease programme, you have to be quite rigorous in applying that disease programme.
I think in terms of disease control, watching out for hail, certainly I think our soils are a lot more fertile, they’re quite different to the Cape soils, we get a lot of vigour and vegetative growth, so the pruning maybe has to be done a bit more severely than in the Cape.
The fact that there’s no back up support, whereas if I were in the Cape, I could get someone to even test, there’s laboratories to test the wine for sulphur or test it for acidity and I could just go and buy yeast and all of the equipment and items that you need for making the wine.
Also you can’t just go and buy a hundred bottles, I’d have to get a pallet full of bottles. Just the fact that the industry is isolated, but the good news is that the growers have formed a Wine Growers Association and they meet quite regularly, largely to taste each other’s wine.
I’ll be honest, but in terms of cooperation, in terms of ordering, they’ll combine orders. If people are bringing vines up from the Cape or bringing barrels, the transport alone is quite expensive. They’ve sort of joined forces, logistically, to try and overcome the logistical problems.
BB: Rob, I want to delve into the Wine Growers Association, but I think we’ll save that for our next chat. I wanted to just touch on Cedara as an organisation and what it is that you guys do. If somebody hasn’t heard of Cedara, what is that organisation tasked with?
What goes on at Cedara?
RO: Cedara has got a long history, it’s been over a hundred years, it started as an agricultural college, so it’s one of the oldest agricultural colleges in the country. It was founded in 1905, but as well as the college and most people associate Cedara with college, it’s also the headquarters of the KZN Department of Agriculture.
Traditionally we’ve done a lot of dairy research here, pasture research. Certainly 20-30 years ago, Cedara would have been well known right throughout the world for their pasture breeding. We’ve also got a very good soil analytical laboratory and service.
There’s a good means for farmers to test soil, test feed, have a leaf analysis done, and also large administrative components based at Cedara; which serves, I think the Department of Agriculture has probably got close to 4 000 employees and head office is at Cedara and the MEC for Agriculture will also sit here.
BB: Fantastic. Rob Osborne, who is the Head of Horticultural Research at Cedara in KZN, thank you for your time here today on Old Mutual Live. I look forward to catching up again soon and just delving a bit deeper into that Wine Growers Association of KZN. I think it’s an interesting organisation and I’m sure our listeners would love to find out more.
RO: Actually Brad, when I meet you in person, you’ll not only see it, you’ll taste it.