This is a Bonnievale wine harvest story about worms. It’s also a story about fathers and sons, long walks, and farming.
We considered reporting on the Bonnievale wine harvest. But, no matter how they’re presented, statistics on yield, climate conditions and all that just don’t go deep enough. We don’t see our wines as mechanical.
Theirs is the story of generations, of fathers who learnt the hard lessons, who handed them over to the next generation. But it’s also the story of moments that make a season. The spirit is captured in the messages. Neighbours tease each other as they work; youngsters competing over the size of the yield. Photographs fly too. A memorable one flying around our networks was a snake that had found its way into a loading bucket (it was released unharmed).
PK Uys is one of the wine farmers supplying Bonnievale Wines. “My father has farmed here at East Wandsbeck for 46 years,” he says. “I’ve been in the business with him for eight years.”
With this history, it’s no surprise they feel the very heartbeat of the land. “Our soil is mostly Karoo, but we also have loam and, nearer the river, loamy sand. Our hillsides face north to south, and we always try to plant the vineyards as such, to get sunlight on the entire vineyard throughout the day.”
Every three years, the soil at East Wandsbeck is analysed and fertilised to restore any balance upset by drought or other abnormalities.
Despite the many years, however, the farm still manages to surprise PK occasionally. “The Cabernet vineyards are under micros (irrigation) and they’re 23 years old.”
That’s a fair age for a South African vineyard and one you’d expect might decline in vigour, especially after the recent droughts. Not only did they survive, but they’re now producing good yields of premium fruit for a specific “Cabernet Sauvignon project”.
Dirk du Toit is another example. “The family has farmed here at Concordia since 1926, when my great grandfather, Danie du Toit, originally from Ouplaas, bought the land,” says Dirk.
He started with ostriches and horses but later planted Concordia’s first bush vines. “My grandfather, Dirk du Toit, expanded the vineyards and started a dairy while my father, Danie, added stone fruit to the mix in the 1980s.”
Dirk’s legacy may well have been established last year, when he decided on a new approach.
“It began with a memory. My father always talked about his childhood, telling us how he’d go barefoot to the river and fish for bass. Bait was plentiful. He’d dig for earthworms among the palomino vines.
“Everything changed after weedkillers became the norm,” says Dirk. “We developed duwweltjies [a thorn weed]. The earthworms became scarce.”
Last year, Dirk and his team started to phase in a process of regenerative agriculture. “Our vision is to try and repair the soil’s biology that will provide healthy plants, thereby reducing reliance on artificial chemical inputs while generating good yields that are rich in nutrients,” he says.
The long-term view is informed by his own memories of growing up, and how many of the paths run parallel to those of the vineyards. As an example, he tells the story of his grandfather’s muscadel. “This block is 26 years old. When we were young, my father would take us into the vineyards to pick some of the crunchy berries, polished yellow by the December afternoon sun. This was followed by a fig or five from great grandfather Danie’s fig tree on the dam wall, just before the mousebirds would arrive to graze.
“We all have our own children now and this excursion became a big highlight for each of them too,” says Dirk. But dark clouds were gathering.
“When the drought arrived, oupa’s muscadel began to take strain. It looked like the end. Adding pressure on the vineyard was the highly brak soil whose effects could be kept away with supplementary irrigation that diluted the salt.
“Just in time, the rains arrived, and they were good. So good, in fact that oupa’s muscadel escaped the red list and produced its best harvest in six years!”