|Organic wine farming is a hot trend in South Africa at the moment, with at least 10 certified producers and many more about to get the official stamp.
But have you ever spared a thought to the original pioneers of the movement, people who were trying out more nature-friendly ways of cultivating vines decades before most of us even knew what organic meant?
It was with this in mind that I found myself driving along a very rocky track in a beautiful hidden valley in Wellington, on my way to meet Edmund Oettle of Upland estate, one of the first South African organic winemakers. I had previously held a tasting of 19 organic wines and his cabernet sauvignon 2005 was the hands-down winner, yet none of us had even heard of him and his niece told me he didn't "agree" with marketing. So, it seemed I must go to the mountain if it wouldn't come to me.
At the end of the vineyards, which looked rather unkempt with vegetation growing between the rows, was the eclectic farmhouse and artist’s studio. It felt like entering a 1970’s hippy commune, with a shower room made of empty wine bottles, abandoned vintage car and a motley crew of hens and dogs.
Edmund started experimenting with organic viticulture 20 years ago and has won top awards year after year for his cabernet sauvignon, dessert wine, grappa, brandy and port, much of which is exported to the US and Europe. At the time, his neighbouring farmers thought he was mad. "There wasn’t much information around so I just had to feel my way along. I did lots of trials over a period of years to find out what worked best", he recalls. "My volumes got smaller and smaller. It was scary. My neighbours all said I was going to go bankrupt and they were very nearly right."
He made the radical decision (for the time) to stop using pesticides, weed killers and fertilisers and instead plant cover crops between the vines to nourish them as well as introduce natural predators such as ladybirds. His motivation was the arid state of the vineyards when he bought the farm. "The soil was devoid of nutrients – it was like concrete", he says. "After two years of conventionally growing grapes, I realised it was not a sustainable way of farming. The writing was on the wall. If we carried on farming this way, we would destroy the soil and the planet."
As a former vet, he compares using nitrates to feeding sweets to a kid on demand. "Whenever you abuse a drug it’s not going to work anymore", he explains. "The fruit will swell up and become less concentrated in flavour, and more, not less susceptible to disease. You wouldn’t then give the kid more sweets, would you?" Building up the health of the soil has become his priority. As we walk through the vineyards, letting handfuls of the loose, friable earth run through our hands, it’s obvious he has succeeded. The other interesting difference is that grapes are much less densely clustered and smaller, which Edmund says means they get more air and are more concentrated in flavour.
Organic wine here means wine made from organically produced grapes, and Upland gained official international certification over a decade ago. However, Edmund is frustrated there is no uniform standard in SA, and "anyone can say anything, they can just make an organic label and put it on the bottle." Upland extends the way of thinking to the winery with no fining agents, egg white, fish extract and from 2009 no added sulphur although it is still sprayed in the vineyards at the start of the season. Instead, the tannins help protect the wine which he aims to smoothly integrate into the wine with the use of micro-oxygenation. "I don’t like wines with their guts stripped out", he says.
We taste Upland’s first vintage, the 1998 cabernet sauvignon and if there is one thing that can convert me to Edmund’s way of thinking it is this 14-year-old wine. It has aged beautifully, and is amazingly fresh, delicious and pretty good value at R200 a bottle. Edmund believes his wines take longer to express themselves fully, and the current available vintage is 2005 (R110) which won my organic tasting and was beautifully structured with aromas of aniseed, blackberry, mulberry and tea leaves. The 2008 (R60) is a bit leaner and excitable with more noticeable acidity, while the 2009 at R80 (the first no sulphur-added wine) has a rich, porty nose and smooth texture.
Other favourites from the organic tasting were: Bon Cap The Perfect Blend 2009; Reyneke Reserve Red 2008; Bon Cap Cap Classique 2006; Waverley Hills Shiraz Mourvèdre Viognier 2009; Bon Cap The Ruins Chardonnay/Viognier; Waverley Hills Semillon/Chardonnay 2009. I also love Avondale Cyclus 2009 and Samsara Syrah 2006.