Johan Reyneke was the first wine farmer in South Africa to adopt biodynamic farming. He is a tall fit looking young man with a thatch of blond hair. His winery in the Stellenbosch region of the Cape of Good Hope wasn’t open to the public but when I phoned he invited me to visit him. I drove off the main road and up a dirt incline, slowing down when I saw a red bordered triangular sign beside the red mud road depicting a mother duck and her chicks. Ducks are let loose in vineyards to eat snails.
The Reyneke family farm covers the top of a hill. From here you can see 360 degrees to a ring of purple mountains on the horizon.
Johan took me walking through vines rows knee high in weeds which, I learned, were encouraged to attract insects which would eat harmful aphids on vines. Johan dropped to his knee and plunged his hand, with fingers stretched out, into the ground. He brought up a clump of friable moist soil teeming with worms. Then we walked ten metres through a gap in a hedge to a neighbour’s conventional vineyard. Vine rows were neat and there was nothing growing on the barren soil between them.
Again Johan knelt and plunged his hand down but it bounced off the concrete hard impacted soil. He pointed at the drip-irrigation lines running along vine rows. “Shortly after I changed my vineyard to biodynamic I had a visit from the water company,” he said. “My water consumption had dropped so dramatically they thought the meter was faulty.”
In the heat of long summers farmers use a lot of water which has to be transported long distances and is stored in manmade lakes on their farms. Here was a concrete example of benefits gained from biodynamiv farming.
I had noticed the difference between Johan and his neighbour’s vines. Johan’s vineyards looked scruffy. Vine leaves were ragged and pierced with many holes from leaf eating insects, while the neighbour’s were pristine. It is a result of the difference in philosophies; the conventionally farmed vines were regularly sprayed with chemical insecticides, and the ground with herbicides.
Johan sprays using complementary herbal teas that he brewed himself. I asked how he could create biodynamic preparations which needed plants from the northern hemisphere. He replied that he was experimenting with local vegetation. Johan’s attitude is that biodynamics cannot be separate from the local biosphere so local remedies will be found.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle and Apple iPad.
Disclosure: Peter F May travelled to South Africa at his own expense and paid full price for all his accommodation, meals, tastings and wines.