Because viticulture matters

Monday, 9 December, 2013
Demi Laurent
"Our vineyards in the valley are situated on northern facing slopes, which results in maximum sunlight exposure for optimum ripening for our grapes" Thank you dear tasting room assistant, thinks the consumer. Unfortunately, I’m a rookie wine drinker without a degree in Viticulture and Oeneology....
....So despite your thorough training from your brand’s winemaker, that statement doesn’t mean very much to me. 

‘We’ve had a very good season, and the late rain in November hasn’t been too detrimental to the vineyards. We should be able to harvest in time!’
And again, another phrase, I'll presume, a lot of consumers merely nod and smile at.

Winemakers have for very long time been deemed the rock stars of the industry, with well deserved praise from loyal brand followers, wine writers and various competitions and shows which have elevated them to the Grammy status of the wine industry.

Fair enough I would say, but there is the lone ranger - usually in a single-cab bakkie driving through the many hectares of the estate - with a pair of pruning scissors in hand, who most likely sat next to the said-winemaker in class some years ago. This is the Viticulturist.
Now I’m not talking about the farm manager who has claimed the title, I’m talking about the bloke who sweated through his B.Sc. and is responsible for managing all the viticulture aspects and practices aimed at ensuring a consistent and successful season, resulting in ‘a good year’.

*Cue technical jargon*
Viticulture is the science behind the cultivation, growing and study of grapes along with all of the operational activities and needs of the vineyard that goes along with it. It includes the basics such as the classification of the Genus Vitis, the morphology and anatomy, biology, soil and climate, propagation and all of the aspects relating to establishing a vineyard which leads to the growth, harvesting and the viniculture towards the final product – your favourite bottle of vino.

Through the following series of articles, I will approach various topics and elements of viticulture to try and spark excitement in those who perhaps don't know the 'behind-the-scenes' of wine making. It's my aim to make it as interesting for you as it is for me.
Why do I get a kick out of it? 
Because there is so much that you, the consumer, doesn’t know yet, which is so relevant and important to the production of the highest block of vineyards. 
It's a need in my DNA to preach this knowledge to all in the wine drinking world.
I am not a viticulturist, make no mistake, but I seem to have a passion for it - though I am by no means dead keen on getting into the technicalities of it all. I just want you to be able to make sense of the information you get told at tasting rooms, on the back of wine labels and in the wine articles that you read.

So let's begin and you may reward yourself with a glass/bottle once we're done.

In light of the recent heavy rainfall experienced in the Western Cape and the winelands, I am going to touch upon the issue of climate. Firstly climate refers to the long-term averages associated with the environment of an area that is expected daily - weather is what changes and often can’t make up its mind (no jokes about likening it to women).
Climate is an undeniably important factor in not only determining appropriate areas for commercial planting, growing of wine grapes and the quality of the yield, but a consistent or inconsistent and extreme season may have a devastating result on the production of a vineyard (even within the most desirable areas of the winelands).

It is generally accepted that the most favourable conditions are when the cooler areas have a hot year, and the hot areas have a slightly cooler year. Thus, very Mediterranean and mild weather is ideal – with dry and mild springs, abundant rain in the dormant winter period with cold temperatures (note: not frozen temperatures), and warm summers. The reason why Europe, with its Mediterranean climate, is so famed - our South African climate can be compared to this - is the ocean influence on the vineyards from the coast and its surrounding areas. The water from the lakes, dams and the ocean, has a moderating effect on the temperature of the vineyards by regulating the heat. So in theory, this ensures that the summers aren’t drastically hot in temperature. This is not to say that hotter regions do not produce good wines – the Robertson/Ashton/Bonnievale area in particular is a highly undervalued wine region and they definitely produce some epic wines. 

So back to my opening statement - what would a sunny northern facing slope mean in SA? Let's break it down:
- A slope facing north in the Southern hemisphere (where we are) ensures that the vineyards standing on these particular slopes will receive the best/optimum amount of sunlight.
- Through photosynthesis plants use CO2, water and sunlight to ‘make’ sugar.
- The higher the temperatures and CO2, the higher the sugar in the fruit becomes, and the lower the acidity and higher the pH levels. This will ensure proper and consistent ripening of the fruit and the sugars. 
- The altitude, aspect and inclination are likely the most important landscape aspects that influence the climate of the vineyard, and it is well accepted that the steeper the inclination the more notable a decrease in temperature there will be.

It all boils down to the fact that the more sun and the more heat a vineyard experiences, the better the ripening of the fruit, the higher the sugars and (more often than not) the higher the alcohol may be in the final product. 
The cooler the area, the longer the ripening period may be – which may lead to certain varieties being picked later in the harvest period to give the grapes the time to reach the desired sugar level, making them ready for the picking!

So, that was Climate 101! You get all that? If not, I'm sure we could organize a vineyard tour to get down to the nitty-gritty basics.