Angus McIntosh farmer

Our vineyard berm management strategy

The discussion below relates to vineyards that are irrigated. Dryland has its own challenges but weed management is not one of them.

The vineyards on Spier are in their second year of conversion to organic status and then to biodynamic status. I have been managing my dryland Chenin vineyard according to biodynamic principles since 2005. I produce my straw wine from this vineyard.

In my limited viticultural experience the two biggest problems faced by organic/biodynamic vineyard mangers are feeding the plant and weed management. Feeding the plant is a subject for another day. Within weed management the tricky part, in our experience, is the berm or the bankie.

The berm needs to be kept with as little plant material on as possible so as to first allow no competition for the vine and second allow light to penetrate the canopy and and air to move freely. The air flow is almost most important because conditions conducive for fungal diseases need to kept to a minimum as we don’t have the weapon of a systemic fungicide in our arsenal.

With conventional management nothing beats glyphosate (I lie, rye grass does) but organic/biodynamic vineyard managers can’t/won’t/are not allowed to use that tool. Also we don’t want our soils without Zinc, Managanese or Iron (glyphosate chelates these minerals and we have the soil tests to prove it).

Most organic/biodynamic managers use the mechanical method of either using various tractor drawn implements to rid the berm of weeds or use labour to hoe the berm clean. Our problem with this is that the soil is left bare and bare soil is between 8 and 20 Celsius hotter than covered soil so then we need to use more water and the microbes get hurt.

Our biological method was inspired by Nick Kotze of Agricol, improved by Bennie Diedericks (082 452 7263) and is being perfected by my colleague Orlando Filander.

The first thing to do is to clean the berm mechanically. As soon as possible after harvest. Turn on the irrigation to see where the dripline is and then clear a hoe width on that dripline. Then mix Subterranean Clover seed, obtainable from Agricol, and some compost and apply this mix through a 2 litre Coke bottle in your newly created trough. Water regularly to give the clover a chance to get growing before the winter rains stimulate the other weeds to grow. The above photo was taken on the 22nd of May.

Above is one our better examples, taken on the 6th of September, of where the sub clover has established and is covering the berm and not allowing too much competition to grow on the berm. Please don’t forget that clover is a legume that is fixing Nitrogen for plant growth into the soil.

There are some other areas where we have not established the sub clover that well and accordingly there is more competition that has grown through the sub clover and we have had to use weedeaters to cut them back.

The photo above was taken on the 27th of October and shows where we want to get to with all our vineyards. The sub clover has almost entirely died, only after burying it’s seed. So not only did it fix Nitrogen whilst living, it has created a mulch to keep the soil cool and finally it has reseeded itself which absolves us of that duty next year. Every year that subclover blanket gets thicker and fixes more Nitrogen.

 

 

Why farm mechanically when you can farm biologically?

We always try to opt for the biological solution where possible. This vignette, pertaining to management of our cover crop in the vineyards, illustrates the point I am trying to make.

A major problem for almost every wine farm at this time of the year is a weed called Ramnas, a type of wild radish. It outcompetes the cover crops and will eventually hinder the flow of air through the vineyard (increasing the risk of fungal diseases) and where it grows particularly well it grows higher than the cordon and interferes with vineyard growth.

 

All weeds are messengers and what ramnas indicates is leached nitrogen. Most artificial fertiliser leaches and ramnas has the ability with it’s long taproot to go and mine the nitrogen. We have ramnas because we are in conversion of our vineyards from conventional to organic and eventually biodynamic management. Spier was conventionally farmed for many, many years. Instead of listening to the messenger, my fellow wine farmers shoot it.

The standard solution to ramnas is to send the tractor in with a bossiekapper(a giant lawnmower). Usually twice a season. This achieves the following:

  1.  Compaction of your soil.
  2. The ramnas lies on the ground, and because there is no life in the soil because it is chemically farmed, it will take a very long to break down.
  3. Diesel cost.
  4. Tractor driver costs.
  5. The cover crop is also mown which removes the primary reason for having the cover crop in the first place, namely biomass in the vineyard.
  6. Maintenance costs for the tractor.

What we do is put 237 cattle into 1 hectare and move them twice a day.

There are none of the above mentioned expenses and more importantly there are the following benefits:

  1. The ramnas has been eaten and gone through the digestive system of the herbivore(not a grainivore) and is therefore bioavailable to the microbes in the soil.
  2. The cover crop has been eaten by a herbivore which has an enzyme in its spit that stimulates plant growth and so the recovery in the cover crop is tremendous.
  3. Cattle herdmen cost a lot less than tractor drivers.
  4. The electric fence that contains the cattle is solar powered and movable.
  5. An enormous amount of free, microbe friendly fertiliser has been deposited in the vineyard in the form of manure and urine.

PLEASE COMPARE THE TWO PHOTOS BELOW, ONE BEFORE THE CATTLE AND ONE AFTER.

 

Below is the after

Ezibusisweni Straw Wine

How it started.

Back in 2005 whilst we were housebuilding (out of clay, the subject of an imminent blog) and starting to develop our garden along permaculture and biodynamic principles under the guidance of Avice Hindmarch, we also decided to learn Italian. In Stellenbosch there is only one Italian teacher worth having and that is Simonetta dalla Cia. We were soon befriended by her husband the genial connoisseur, Giorgio. At that time Avice decided to revive an abandoned 3 Hectare Chenin Blanc vineyard close to our building site. Giorgio determined that I learn about winemaking as he understood there was no money in growing grapes. He also said that it would be boring to produce just another organic Chenin Blanc and that I should make straw wine.

 

Ezibusisweni Chenin Blanc vineyard

Home of Ezibusisweni Straw Wine

 

 

What is straw wine exactly?

I have learnt to suppress a smile when asked how you make wine from straw. It is a wine made from grapes that have been dried to intensify the flavour and sweetness. Depending on which country you are in your Passito in Italy or Schilfwein in Austria or Strohwein in Germany or Slamove vino in Czech or Vin de Paille in France will be made from different grapes dried differently in each country. There are a handful of producers in this country and the few I have visited have dried their grapes on nylon bird netting and metal chicken wire!!! Our grapes are dried on racks covered with straw that we harvest on our farm. See below

 

Packing Chenin Blanc Grapes onto straw racks

Julian packing Chenin Blanc grapes onto straw racks

 

 History of the vineyard

Planted by the previous owner in 1983 and 1984 and then conventionally farmed for 20 years until abandonment. Heavily irrigated and fed all the cides (herbicides, larvacides, pesticides, fungicides, nematicides etc etc. Cide is the Latin word for killing), none of which are on the side of the farmer or the soil or the plant. It is fair to say that this was a tired vineyard. Through biodynamic management the vigour of the vines has improved and I think the wines are becoming more interesting every year.

 

Who helped me

If it was not for Avice Hindmarch, seen below driving the tractor at age 67 whilst the youngsters are off loading compost into the vineyard,

Avice Hindmarch driving the tractor at Ezibusisweni, age 67.

Avice Hindmarch driving the tractor at Ezibusisweni, age 67.

I would never have had the winemaking discussion with Giorgio dalla Cia. Fortunately for me I also knew Adi Badenhorst from university days and he along with Spier’s Cellar Master Frans Smit helped me tremendously. Finally Duimpie Baily did what he could with the wine authorities to make sure that I could get through all the legalities. Thanks again to you all.

 

Feeding and nurturing the vineyard.

Winemaking happens in the vineyard although most of today’s viticultural practices are so mutilating to the grape that the winemaker is burdened in the cellar to produce wine from these grapes.

Because we don’t irrigate (Surely irrigation is one of the factors negating terroir?) we have to make sure that first our soils absorb all the rain and that second the vines roots go as deep as they are capable of doing. Biologically active soils enable the above.

with paultjie and hairy vetch cover crop

with paultjie and hairy vetch cover crop

First we plant a variety of crops as cover crops, (another blog to follow on vineyard cover cropping) which bring various nutrients to the vine roots as well as break up the hard ground. Second we graze our cattle in the high density method, an enormous energetic and manure stimulus for the land. Third we apply a small amount of Talborne compost and our own vermicompost to each vine. Fourth we apply as  folio spray the PFPE from BioEarth to which we have added a little of our own Cow Pat Pit/Barrel compost. Finally we apply the BD 500 horn manure preparation three times a year. See photo below of me stirring the BD500 before spraying onto the vineyard.

stirring the BD500

stirring the BD500

The process of making it

Our way of making straw wine is very simple indeed. We wait for the grapes to get to a Brix count of 22.5 and then harvest on the fruit day (according to the biodynamic calendar developed by Maria Thun) closest to that sugar level. The grapes go onto the straw covered racks for about a month.

At a Brix of 48 we then crush them with a handcrusher made by Helmut Amos of Magitec,

 

leave them overnight in a bin after being sprayed with SO2 of 60ppm and then the next day we press the grapes in a barrel press. The juice then goes into 225 litre French oak barrels. We usually bottle about 2 years later.

We also compost the grape waste with our chicken manure and the Bio Earth DDS innoculant. Here it is being removed from the hand operated barrel press.

 

What does Ezibusisweni mean?

Ezibusisweni is a Zulu word meaning “The Place of Blessings”. It refers to the area where we built our clay home, established our garden and the vineyard.

 

The bottling process

The bottling and the corking and labeling is all done by hand. Below is a photo of the three bottle manual bottler on the left and the hand operated corker on the right.

hand bottler and crusher at Ezibusisweni

hand bottler and crusher at Ezibusisweni

 

Where all the work takes place.

Inside a cob building at Ezibusisweni watched over by angels.

The Angels looking down on the winemaking at Ezibusisweni

The Angels looking down on the winemaking at Ezibusisweni

 

What the bottle looks like?

There are only 2280 of these beauties with each bottle numbered by hand.

Ezibusisweni Straw Wine 2008 bottles

Ezibusisweni Straw Wine 2008 bottles

 

 

More about the lady on the front.

My oldest friend, Mqapheli Enoch Zungu, is apart from being a graphic designer also an accomplished artist whose best work I think is in pencil.

This is him below

Artist Mqapheli Enoch Zungu

Artist Mqapheli Enoch Zungu

 

This is his sketch that now adorns the bottles

Mqapheli pencil illustration for Ezibusisweni Wines

Mqapheli pencil illustration for Ezibusisweni Wines

 

Where can you buy it?

At this stage directly from me. Contact details on the blog’s contact page.

 

 

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