Annelie Viljoen, Zonnebloem's Wine Mom
01 August 2012 by Zonnebloem Wines
Who says, less is more? Not viticulturist Annelie Viljoen, at least not
when she's talking about increasing yields but maintaining wine grape
quality. "The relationship between quality and yield doesn't have to be
at odds. It's quite possible to up quantity and still retain quality and
make wine-growing a more sustainable pursuit."
She isn’t just theorising. She’s seeing improved yields at the same time as there has been growing affirmation from the Veritas and Concours Mondial judging panels for Zonnebloem wines and she reckons there’s still more positive impact to come from adjustments made in viticultural practices over the past few years.
Annelie works with an extensive network of supplier-growers to Zonnebloem across many parts of Stellenbosch, Darling and Malmesbury, visiting their 330 individual vineyard blocks, consulting, analysing and refining strategies to enhance vineyard management.
“In a fiercely competitive global market, we have to keep on finding ways of farming smarter. It’s all about being more cost-effective while delivering grapes with well-balanced, vibrant fruit character. We trial and then, where appropriate, adopt new trellising, pruning, irrigation, light management and other techniques that address changing economic and climate realities.”
Is it a tough job faced with farmers, many who are a lot older and more experienced? “When I first started out as a young graduate it was difficult to get senior colleagues to take a 21 year-old girl like me seriously. It made me realise I would just have to work that much harder to get people to believe in me.”
As good as her word, she won the Winetech/Vinpro vineyard block competition in both 2005 and 2006, while working for Lourensford.
Then it was time for a new challenge. She switched to academia, moving to Elsenburg Agricultural College to help develop a viticulture degree course.
For the past five years she has worked as a viticulturist and grape buyer at the Adam Tas cellars in Stellenbosch, barely a kilometre from where she was born. “I always wanted to be a scientist. It’s what I love, along with the freedom of the fresh outdoors, so this seemed an ideal occupation.”
Annelie comes from a family of scientists. Her father is a well-known soil scientist and academic, Bennie Schloms. Her brother is a soil scientist and her sister is a biochemist. Her husband, De Wet Viljoen, is a winemaker. “Science is our language. It’s how we communicate and interpret the world. It’s what makes us get up and love every day.”
Science doesn’t have to be hard, cold or clinical and can be combined with grace, she insists. “I try never to bombard people with information or ideas. Instead of imposing my opinions, I try to work in a gentle and respectful way. I usually start with small steps. If we want to introduce a new trellising system, for example, I’ll say: ‘Why don’t we start with just a few rows, look at the results we achieve and work from there.’ It’s about building relationships, so why dictate when you can collaborate and work far more effectively?”
When it comes to trellising, she says farmers are switching increasingly to the Smart-Dyson vertical shoot positioning system. “It promotes balanced growth with a good ratio between foliage to fruit and produces excellent quality grapes with smaller vine leaves, smaller bunches and smaller berries which have an improved skin to fruit ratio. In some instances, this system has not only increased quality but also increased yields by as much as 50%. The system is also designed to withstand wind.”
It’s also designed to let a portion of the vine's fruiting canes fall downward instead of all being trained upwards, and can be applied with success across all wine grape varieties. Another advantage is that it allows for the penetration of diffuse sunlight that is ideal for slow, even ripening and it promotes the circulation of air within the leaf canopies essential for the health of the grapes.
Annelie is also encouraging growers to go back to some traditional pruning systems. “There’s no single recipe. Vineyards are living entities and like people, their circumstances change. You have to be constantly vigilant and flexible so you can adapt to new situations. It’s like being a mother. You have to be grounded by solid values and parameters but think on your feet to solve problems creatively.”
With three young sons, she should know exactly what she is talking about.
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