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Wildfires Sweep Across South Africa Wine Country

Also in Unfiltered, putting the biodynamics calendar to the test, the return of coca wine, and Starbucks regroups on wine service
Photo by: Justin Sullivan
The full extent of the damage at Vergelegen won't be known for some time.

Posted: January 12, 2017

Devastating wildfires are spreading throughout South Africa’s Western Cape wine region, causing extensive vineyard and property damage. The first fires began Jan. 3, threatening wineries including Vergelegen, Morgenster and Lourensford; another fire caused massive damage to wineries in the Dal Josafat region of Paarl. Unusually high winds with gusts of up to 60 miles per hour and exceptionally dry conditions have hampered firefighters’ efforts to control the blazes, with new outbreaks now reported on the Cape Peninsula, close to the wine region of Constantia.

More than 250 people and six helicopters were involved in fighting the fire in the Western Cape's Helderberg region according to Don Tooth, CEO of Vergelegen, where 4,500 acres of the 7,500-acre farm burned. The majority of acreage burned was part of Vergelegen's nature preserve, home to indigenous fynbos plants. “Fynbos has to burn every 12 to 15 years as part of the natural life cycle of the plant," Tooth told Unfiltered, "so although this is a little soon after the previous fires [in 2009], it does mean that we can now ensure the eradication of alien vegetation completely, to give us more protection in the future.” However, about 25 acres of prime vineyards were damaged in the blaze; the vines are expected to recover, but Vergelegen's 2017 crop of flagship wines will be much reduced. At nearby Lourensford, general manager Koos Jordaan reports that 5,000 acres—nearly half the property—were burned, including a pine plantation, but that only a few rows of Chardonnay were scorched.

Norman McFarlane
Druk My Niet's staff house was lost in this week's wildfire.

At Druk My Niet in Paarl, several buildings, including a historic 300-year-old manor house and the wine cellar, as well as virtually all of the vineyards, were destroyed when fire swept across the property on Jan. 9. Guests and staff were evacuated to safety as firefighters struggled to fight the blaze, again hindered by strong winds. Winemaker and viticulturist Alex McFarlane says almost all the vineyards have been affected but she is unable to assess the full extent of the damage. “Thankfully our 2016 wines in barrel are safe,” she reports.


Scientists Put Biodynamic Calendar to the Test

Biodynamics devotee Maria Thun introduced her Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar in the 1960s, and its success spawned her Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers, which she published in 2010 with her son Mathias. They postulated that "fruit days" (when wines would taste their best) occur when the moon is in Sagittarius, Aries and Leo; "root days"—the worst for wine drinkers—fall when the moon is in Virgo, Capricorn and Taurus. "It doesn't matter whether you believe the theory behind this," the forward to the 2017 edition reads, "after all, scientists once believed the sun revolved around the Earth. What matters is trying it for yourself and seeing how well it works."

Indeed.

A New Zealand–led research team now claims to have debunked the biodynamic wine-tasting calendar. They set up a controlled blind test, choosing 19 New Zealand wine professionals to taste 12 Pinot Noirs, tasting each wine four times, twice on fruit days and twice on root days. The tasters used a list of 20 descriptors for aroma, taste and mouthfeel. "The findings reported … no evidence in support of the notion that how a wine tastes is associated with the lunar cycle," wrote the research team, headed by Dr. Wendy Parr at the Centre of Viticulture and Oenology at Lincoln University. "The Pinot Noir wines in the sample set were judged by experienced wine professionals as varying significantly in a range of characteristics. However, the day on which they were tasted did not influence these judgments."

Not surprisingly, Parr's results have met skepticism from biodynamics proponents. One supporter of Thun's wine-drinking calendar, a winemaker and former buyer for British retailer Mark's & Spencer, questioned whether Pinot Noir was the appropriate variety for the study, contending that a Barolo or Bordeaux would be more sensitive to the impact of root days. Parr also insisted that the study should not be viewed as a rebuttal of the farming practices of biodynamics. "Our aim in the present study was never to investigate biodynamic agriculture," she told Unfiltered via email. "That is a spiritual approach for which most phenomena do not lend themselves to empirical investigation."


It's a Hell of a Wine

Nowadays, people mythologize the wild, heady 1960s, or '70s, or '80s, or '90s (you know, whichever time correlated with one's own twenties), but in fact, the hardest-partying years of modern Western history occurred from roughly 1870 to 1914, which historians now call the "Great Binge" (seriously!) because men and women, kids and adults alike, got into the narcotics craze: opium, heroin, morphine, you name it. And one of the most popular poisons to pick was a fashionable drink called Vin Mariani—red wine with a sprinkling of coca leaf. It was invented in the 1860s, and soon anyone who was anyone in the late 19th century was doing it: Alexandre Dumas, Ulysses S. Grant, Queen Victoria, multiple Popes. Eventually the good times had to end, once governments discovered that cocaine dependence was not, in fact, such a good time, and most of these substances were illegalized. (Though a knockoff American version of Vin Mariani, Pemberton's French Wine Coca, evolved into a tonic that would make addicts of American schoolchildren for generations more: Coca-Cola.)

Despite its once-huge popularity, even the trademark to the Vin Mariani name ultimately lapsed—until now. A company called Babco Europe, which specializes in coca-infused beverages, has resurrected the most storied of them all, launching a new Vin Mariani this month: fortified Bordeaux wine with Peruvian coca leaf. Babco told Unfiltered that the project was long in the making and intended to replicate the historical recipe as closely as possible: "Using a combination of pharmaceutical reports from the early 1900s and pharmacopeia journals, over a period of 10 years working with world master blenders, leading pharmacologists and flavorologists, we were able to piece together the original Vin Mariani recipe." Of course, there is one critical difference: The coca is now decocainized, which might perhaps dampen the "sustaining, stimulating and invigorating powers" Mariani once advertised of his product. It does, however, provide a "very distinctive flavor" to the wine, Unfiltered is told. Babco is in talks with distributors to bring the Mariani to U.S. shelves soon, for drinkers who want what Thomas Edison was having.


An End to Bartending Baristas?

In other wine-and-stimulant news, coffee chain Starbucks, which began aggressively expanding its "Evenings" menu of wine, beer and small plates in September 2015, has put booze on "pause," ceasing sales this week. In 2015, the company planned to expand Evenings to more than 2,000 stores in the U.S. over four years, but Starbucks has decided on a different tack instead. "We have been learning a lot along the way," a company spokesperson told Unfiltered. Now, the plan for nibbles and drinks will be integrated into Starbucks "Roastery" and "Reserve" venues, which will feature "small-lot" coffees, special flavors and a food partnership with Italian café chain Princi. The first Reserve stores are slated to open later this year, with the goal to have 20 percent of all Starbuckses offering the Reserve bells and whistles, including wine and beer (and now spirits as well), by 2021. In the meantime, you will have to go elsewhere for a cru grande.


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