Drought has been the talk of the town for some time now. Unsurprising that when one of the most vital resources of all biological and mechanical activity goes missing, so too does any state of calm. It’s a true natural disaster, one that manifests itself as directly as a hurricane or as indirectly as an economic recession. This has impacted us all in the Southern tip of Africa and has been felt from the veld of the Karoo right to the gardens of Constantia.
As we all know, the grapevine is a well rooted plant. And it’s not one of those pseudo plants that can just up and move (like tumbleweed), nor is it a crop that can simply be replanted elsewhere. It’s a commitment plant. Trade in your wedding ring, the vine is your new life partner. It’s there to stay, and it’s going to need just the right amount of care (and neglect) to make the journey.
This journey largely takes place below ground, in the subterranean; the biological dungeon; the organic labyrinth; erebus … (soil often needs hyperbole to keep people interested). This underworld supports everything that sits on top of it – and is actually quite fascinating – but it can’t do that without water. Water feeds not only the vine, but the millions and billions of fauna and flora that inhabit the soil and are quintessential for the operation of the vine. They provide food and protection from other harmful parasites. Without these the vine now has to do it all by itself.
Take away water and take away the soil life and strain sets into the vine, often a beneficial state that helps concentrate the flavours in the grapes, like a light sweat on the brow of an athlete.
Around the start of summer, the vine is growing in all directions – literally and figuratively. It’s trying to grow physically larger and ripen its fruit, like a pregnant lady in third trimester training for Ms Olympia. You can imagine what that must be like if, on top of all of that, you have no water and it’s hot: the pregnant lady’s gym is now in the Sahara desert. In the vine, stress would set in at this point. This is when things cross into danger the zone: acids in the berries degrade, leaves wilt, growth stops, the vine’s ability to fend off pathogens diminishes. It burns out all of its supplies to keep going and produce fruit, and by winter time the reserves it needs to make it to next spring have taken a heavy hit. The poor vine may lapse into a state of weakness for some years to come.
This stage was set in the summer of 2016 in South Africa. We are now well into 2017 and the biblical rainfall the vine needs is still yet to come. It’s going go deeper and deeper into the red zone. We must simply pray this dry period comes to end. South Africa – its dry(er) regions in particular – sit on the boundary of viticultural possibility. I’ve heard it said, in Burgundy the vine goes through a summer about as difficult as a Sunday morning fun-run; in South Africa, it’s the Comrades Marathon and more. And it’s only getting more and more difficult. The world is getting warmer, if you live in Iceland or own a Sunscreen brand, you’re one of the very few who is benefitting.
In the meantime we watch and wait with baited breaths for relief this coming winter.