The KZN Midlands Wine Growers Association
11 January 2016
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Brad Brown: Welcome onto yet another edition of Old Mutual Live, time to chat some more wine. Another pretty unique organisation that has sprung up and you would think Wine Growers Association, you think Western Cape. But no, KZN has got a KZN Wine Growers Association. We’re joined now by the Head of Horticultural Research at Cedara in Kwazulu-Natal. Rob Osborne, welcome back, thanks for taking the time to chat to us once again today.
Rob Osborne: Thank you Brad, a pleasure.
BB: Rob, the last time we spoke, we spoke a little bit about your history and how you got involved with growing grapes in KZN. Not the vine mecca of the world, by any stretch of the imagination. But there’s a small industry that’s really sprung.
We spoke a little bit about it last time around, particularly in the Midlands and one of the challenges you mentioned was obviously, if you’re producing on your own, in order to get bottles or corks or that sort of thing, you need to obviously buy in larger quantities. These farmers have got together they’ve put together a co-op and a Wine Growers Association, in all places, KZN. It sounds fascinating.
Tying wannabe winemakers together
RO: It is and I think Brad, it’s out of necessity. Traditionally farmers don’t really like talking to each other. They’ll look over the fence, but they don’t often share information and it’s normally quite a competitive industry. But I think with Wine Growers, because everyone was starting off on quite a low knowledge base, they banded together just to share information.
Largely in terms of management and pruning, basic things that in the Cape they would just take for granted, or spacing or what type of pole you buy. Also, they’ve got to know each other quite well, the producers, so they banded together.
They have what’s known as the KZN Midlands Wine Growers Association, it’s chaired by Dr Roy Mottram, who is a consultant agronomist, was also one of my colleagues at Cedara. The meetings certainly do share information in terms of technical information.
There’s also report backs on what the problems the growers have, one guy might have gerbils, the other guys have a problem with weed control. But it’s a good social occasion for networking and certainly we don’t stint on tasting each other’s products at these meetings.
There’s also a lot of sharing of equipment, cause with wine, it’s quite a different product. Certainly for me, as a horticulturist, who didn’t study wine, it’s not really part of the horticultural syllabus. Unlike most other horticultural crops, there’s no value in the product. There’s no value in grapes. There’s only value in the wine. That’s been the big challenge. You also then have to invest in a lot of equipment to process those grapes.
I think that’s what the growers also then, to some extent, shared equipment in terms of if you have a crusher to stemmer or a press, that can be shared amongst growers. They’re not all going to press on the same day, so it’s been a very good, out of necessity, the guys banding together to work and have this and it’s worked well. It’s actually one of the better associations I’ve been involved with, Wine Growers.
What wines are working in KZN?
BB: Brilliant. Rob, tell me a little bit about the wines itself that are being produced, the different varietals of grapes that are growing and what the final products are that you’re putting out.
RO: Brad, at Cedara, as I said in the last talk, when we started we had absolutely no idea how to grow grapes, what cultivars would do well. I started here at Cedara, we planted 18 different cultivars, to see how they do in the climatic conditions. We also then put in some, or helped some of the farmers establishing little on farm trials, maybe half a hectare each to see how they do in different areas.
I think, I’ll be honest, some of those little trials didn’t work. We tried even down Oribi Flats, down inland from Port Shepstone, that didn’t work. Up in Nottingham Road, there were a couple of plots there, the climate was just too hard. In terms of climate, I think we’ve learnt quite quickly, it’s quite a narrow band of area which proved suitable for growing the vines.
From that, in terms of the varieties, I can tell you consistently, Pinotage has done exceptionally well, at every site. In terms of our number one red variety, Pinotage has done well. It’s one of those varieties, it’s pretty hardy, it gains its sugar levels quickly, it has a good yield and its produced quite a nice wine. Pinotage, in terms of our red wine has done well.
White wine, I think possibly the most success would be Chardonnay or any of those, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier is another one that’s done quite well. But unfortunately, it is at early stages. I met some of the guys from the Cape who came up and they found out our vineyards were less than 10 years old, they were actually quite encouraging. Saying, gee, in Stellenbosch they wouldn’t think of making a fantastic wine out of a young vine like these.
So it gave me hope in terms of at this young stage we can produce certainly acceptable quality wines. It’s not just our opinion, wine was sent down to the Cape, a few of the growers have had certified wines. So at least it’s recognisable as a wine, whereas some of my attempts haven’t always been successful.
Luckily we’ve had access to a still, so we were able to turn that into brandy and the one grower, Ian Smorthwaite at Abingdon, he won a decanter award. A decanter bronze award last year and that’s an international award competing against Australia, New Zealand, Europe. So he has shown, it is possible, with care.
How many growers are there?
BB: It’s such a great story. Rob, how many producers do you have at the moment as part of that Wine Growers Association in the Midlands?
RO: I did a quick count now before I spoke to you. I think we’ve got a total of 12 members and they’re ranging from literally half a hectare of grapes to the biggest producer in Winterton, Maurice Koster has got close to 30 hectares of grapes. He’s certainly put a big investment in, in terms of equipment and I think he’s also employed a fulltime viticulturist up there too.
BB: It’s fantastic, like you said in our first chat, it almost started out as cottage boutique thing, but it’s growing and it’s exciting that there is another little hotspot popping up outside of the Western Cape. That’s a beautiful part of the country where you’re based out in the Midlands and it’s just another reason to come visit.
Still in the early stages
RO: It is a bit early still, I think there are three vineyards or sellers who have made certified wines, consistently Abingdon on the Lions River Road has done well. I think he’s probably had 20-30 different certified wines, including a champagne-type bubbly, you can’t call it MCC, I think he’s going to call it Midlands Cup Classique or Midlands Classique.
I think with perseverance, watch this space. I think we will get, maybe not more growers, but we’re going to get more product out that people can taste. Because I think at the moment now, people arrive at some of these farms expecting to taste wine and there’s just such a limited amount. It’s maybe a couple of barrels a year that the guys are producing. So it’s not really getting out on the commercial shelves as yet, but I think they’ll come quite soon.
BB: We’re looking forward to it. Rob, thank you so much for your time once again here on Old Mutual Live, I look forward to popping down and checking out the KZN Winelands one of these days soon. I love that part of the world and I think it’s definitely time to come see what you guys are up to.
RO: As I said, come drink some glasses.
BB: It sounds like a horrible idea Rob, thanks so much for the invite, we look forward to taking you up on it.
RO: Fantastic, thanks very much Brad.