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The South Africa Diary: Reyneke

At Johan Reyneke's biodynamic estate in Stellenbosch, grapevines share the workload with Jersey cows and earthworms
Photo by: James Molesworth
At Reyneke, old e-mails aren't just recycled. They're fed to the earthworms.

Posted: Jan 22, 2013 3:30pm ET

"Howzit, howzit, howzit?" enthusiastically asked Johan Reyneke as I walked up to his Stellenbosch winery. The wiry, flip-flop-and-sunglass-wearing, well-tanned owner of Reyneke Wines is both laid back and ebullient at the same time. "Come on man! Let's go look at my new cows."

A new pair of female Jersey cows have been brought in to augment the herd at this biodynamically farmed estate located in the Polkadraai Hills of Stellenbosch, and they've found a home with the herd of native cattle.

"Does the native bull have interest in these foreign cows?" I asked.

"Oh, man. He can't get enough," Reyneke laughed. "He's got low standards you know?"

During my last visit here in 2007, Reyneke, now 41, was just starting, making a little wine on the side but selling most of his grapes. Now his 91-acre property is almost entirely planted and he's producing some of the Cape's best wines, headlined by a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc. And he's also become a poster child for biodynamics, both in a good and bad way, drawing attention which he's not always happy to have.

"I'm not here to stuff this thing down people's throats, man," he said. "I've been getting a lot of head wind. The difference is, when you talk about it, people listen. When I talk about it, I'm just some nutty winemaker. But you know I really believe in respect for living things, and biodynamics is about that. But I also know that it isn't just biodynamics. If you think only about biodynamics, this is your scope," he said, making a small circle with the fingers on one hand. "But if you're thinking about quality wine, then this is your scope," he said as he held his two hands far apart.

"Plants need animals," he said, gesturing to the cows. "They need them for fertilizer and pollination. There has to be a balance on the estate. The conventional farmer goes to the chemical company and buys phosphates. The organic farmer goes to the co-op and buys Bounce Back fertilizer [an organic brand]. The biodynamic farmer buys cows. If you're using fertilizer, the cost goes up every time something happens in the Middle East and the price of gas goes up. But my cow shit costs the same every year."

"Or another way to think of it is this: You send an e-mail to a conventional farmer and they print it out and chuck it away. The organic farmer prints it out and then puts it in the recycling bin. The biodynamic farmer prints it out, shreds it and then puts it in the worm farm."

To prove his point, we stopped at a row of old barrels standing on end. Reyneke pulled back the lid to show a pile of shredded paper, which he then lifted up, revealing a mass of black, rich humus teeming with earth worms. It's part of the composting program on the estate which Reyneke has used to build up his soils.

"Let's walk back through time," he said, stopping in a vineyard parcel where he bent down and pulled at the dirt. "Feel how soft it is in here as you walk, and look how dark the soil is. It's dry on top but not eroding, because it's soft and spongy and it holds the water so well underneath. And all the organic material has brought the vines back to life and made them stronger. In Europe, maybe 3 percent of the soil is humus. Here in South Africa it's less than 1 percent naturally, because it's so old. But if you can get it up to 5 percent, you increase the vine's natural defenses three-fold."

As proof, he held up the canopy, verdant leaves reaching outward. It's hot and sunny here, but there's no wilt and even small tendrils at the tips show the vines are still growing even late into the season.

In the next parcel, old head-pruned Chenin Blanc vines are being nursed back to health. They were being farmed conventionally up until just a few years ago and the previous owner began to pull them out as their yields decreased.

"He was pumping them full of crap just to keep the vineyard growing and then he got tired and started to rip them out. I asked him to let me lease it, and then eventually I bought the parcel. The first year we took it off conventional farming, it went from [1.2 tons per acre] to less than [half a ton]—it totally crashed. But we stuck with it. The second year it crept back above [a half-ton], and now this year it's almost [1.7 tons per acre]—more than it was during conventional farming."

Reyneke bent down again to pull back the soil. Dry and dusty on top, like in the previous parcel, but soft and moist underneath. It forms small clumps, though not as many as the previous parcel, and the color isn't quite as dark.

"it's coming back to life," he said. "It will take a few more years."

From there we crossed into a neighboring parcel. The soil was suddenly hard and crusty underfoot. Weeds were thigh-high but burned and dry, and there was moss growing on bare patches of soil.

"This has been sprayed so often the weeds are resistant, and the soil is dead," said Reyneke. To demonstrate, he picked up a fist-sized rock and beat down on the ground with it. The ground barely cracked.

"That's the difference," said Reyneke. "12 years, five years, zero years. A trip back in time. This is the way my farm was when I started and I've brought it back to life, step by step. My yields are higher but the vines are in balance, and I've cut my irrigation in half over the last 10 years. And to top it off, I don't need to replant every 20 years. That's what I mean about respect for living things. It's common sense."

Inside the winery, Rudiger Gretschel, 34, has been making the wines since 2008. The former winemaker at Boekenhoutskloof is low key, a sounding board for Reyneke's unbridled enthusiasm. He opened a mini-vertical of the reserve white, the barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc that has been earning outstanding marks, including 93 points for the 2010 vintage. The wine is made with natural yeasts and whole cluster pressed before spending 16 months in barrel.

The Reyneke Reserve White Stellenbosch 2010 is still youthful, with green fig and white peach notes while the just-released Reyneke Reserve White Stellenbosch 2011 offers blanched macadamia nut and almond notes and a brisk green plum note that will need some time to flesh out.

The Reyneke Reserve White Stellenbosch 2009 is lusher in profile as the wine starts to show the effects of aging, with apple, white peach and melon flavors offset by a hint of apple peel that gives the finish some definition. The Reyneke Reserve White Stellenbosch 2008 is still crunchy and vibrant, with a light toasted coconut edge and lots of full-bodied jicama, white peach and macadamia nut notes. It's taken on a different dimension while retaining it's original bright, lively profile.

"That's my biggest stress in winemaking," said Gretschel. "Making a wine that drinks like wine five years after vintage date. Too many wines just survive as they age but they don't mature. Getting to a wine that can change for the better and not just survive isn't easy, but that's what we're trying to do."

"The pony is off and running," said Reyneke, smiling as he tasted through the wines. "It's really going now and it's going well. I don't know where it's going, but man, is it fun."

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

Louis Boutinot
UK —  January 24, 2013 12:07pm ET
Hi James,

They do have lovely and well-priced wines at Reyneke. Thanks for highlighting the great work they are doing.

Enjoy South Africa and hope to one day see you at Waterkloof.

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