Had a lovely morning with Johan Reyneke at is Stellenbosch farm. Duncan Savage and I swung by for a spot of breakfast, and we had a lengthy chat about how he farms, as well as a chance to wander the property before I had to head off to the airport.
Johan is the standard bearer for biodynamics in the Cape, and currently farms 40 hectares of vineyards this way. This will soon expand, though, because half of the neighbouring farm has come up for sale. Reyneke are buying it, which means they’ll have 80 hectares of estate vineyards. The deal is that when they buy this slice of the neighbour’s farm, they are also allowed to farm the remaining 40 hectares of vines and have the grapes for no extra cost. This would leave Johan farming 120 hectares, making it one of the globe’s largest biodynamically farmed vineyards.
He’s very happy with how the 2016 vintage is looking. It was a very dry year, though, and one of his blocks – four hectares of 40 year old Chenin Blanc vines – only gave him 1.2 tons of grapes.
One of the key decisions for biodynamic farmers is whether or not to work the soil. If you leave a permanent sward and just mow occasionally, this is good for soil microlife, but bad for yield. In this part of Stellenbosch this would give him yields of 4 tons/hectare. With soil cultivation, he can double the yield because of the lack of competition for soil nutrients and water. But cultivation can be bad for soil life, as it’s bringing a layer of soil up to the surface and thus disturbs the microbial balance. Also, discs can create a hard pan just below where they reach. Johan has recently been looking at older texts written by farmers who worked before the widespread availability of chemical solutions, and is getting lots of ideas for ways of preserving the soil microlife while not taking an unnecessary yield hit.
He had a team of workers out in the vineyard doing the back-breaking work of removing a type of couch grass from the soil (I don’t remember its name). This grass is invasive and it is also allelopathic, which means it sends chemicals out of its roots that inhibit the growth of other nearby plants. Using this bullying tactic, it spreads fast by means of thick rhizomes, and once it takes hold you lose the diversity of species that is beneficial for soil life and which also provides refuge for beneficials.
The Reyneke farm (and the two new neighbouring blocks) are in a beautiful setting. The soils, a sort of pink, almost sandy decomposed grantite, are devigorating and give very good quality grapes. Johan is currently deciding what to do with the extra 80 hectares he now has access to. In the short term, even though he is farming them biodynamically, there’s a three year conversion period. So if he were to use these grapes, his wines wouldn’t be certified biodynamic, and he feels that biodynamics is an important part of the Reyneke story. To take a holiday from certification might cause him problems in those export markets where he’s part of a biodynamic portfolio.
Interestingly, he finds that it is actually cheaper for him to farm biodynamically than it would be conventionally, ‘because cow shit is free.’ He doesn’t have to buy any products (fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides), save for a bit of elemental sulphur, and also some Trichoderma preparations (this is a form of biological control against downy mildew). He very occasionally uses a bit of copper, but this is now quite rare for him. Composting is a very important part of his farming. About half of his costs are labour, because working with biodynamics is labour intensive. But he’s happy to pay people wages, and would much rather do this than make agrochemical companies rich.
It was a lovely way to spend my last morning in South Africa. Talking and walking with lovely people, on a stunning morning, in a beautiful spot in the wine lands.