After the flood

It’s winter in South Africa, a time in the Cape when vines enjoy their annual rest during the cold, wet months. There’s always concern that anticipated rainfall will be sufficient to fill dams and top up the water table to sustain the vines over the next hot, dry summer.

This winter, it’s a deluge within an unusually short period that has caused concern. It was described to me by a weather expert as ‘significantly abnormally wet’. To find out how abnormal it was, I asked winemakers around the winelands for their long-term average June rainfall as compared with June this year. What a story it tells!

Craig Wessels, Restless River, Upper Hemel en Aarde: 60-70mm vs 240mm

Francois Haasbroek, Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, Tulbagh: 60-80mm vs 280mm

Chris & Andrea Mullineux, Swartland: 105mm vs 298mm

Gottfried Mocke, Boekenhoutskloof, Franschhoek: 300mm vs 700mm

Andries Burger, Paul Cluver, Elgin: 106mm vs 230mm

Chris Williams, The Foundry, Voor Paardeberg: 128mm vs 144mm

Other areas I’ve not covered would be similar; even winemakers who don’t have exact figures, also comment rainfall is abnormally high. Luckily for John Loubser of Silverthorn, his property is on a ridge overlooking the Breede River in Robertson, so what he describes as ‘one of the biggest floods in living memory on 16th June,’ caused virtually zero damage.

Since much of this deluge fell within a week, one might imagine some significant damage to the vineyards. Viticulturist, Rosa Kruger mentions the waterlogging in some might be a problem with uneven and late budding if the water doesn’t fully drain by September. Otherwise, erosion appears to be the main issue, either on steep slopes where there have been wildfires and alien clearing, roads where drainage channels couldn’t cope with the volume of water, or before cover crops had properly taken root.

Dams are, unsurprisingly, full; a downside to that is when; ‘An excessive overflow on the dam wall washed away soil, even carving into the wall, which it nearly broke,’ recalls Werner Wessels, farm manager at TMV. At a more major level, Gottfried Mocke tells how the high volume discharge from the Berg River dam (one that supplies Cape Town) led to severe flooding and damage on farms all the way to Wellington.

Work on the farm never stops, even after these downpours. In the Mullineux’s case, rather than doing the normal maintenance of fences, pipes and equipment, they have been focusing on what they can do indoors. Outdoor tasks that have been disrupted include uprooting old vines in preparation for replanting, ‘which has cost us a year in that block,’ sighs Craig. Any action that required tractors, which would get stuck in the mud has also been delayed. Pruning for most starts later in July or August, only Andries Burger has had to postpone this task for a few weeks. ‘Fortunately, it is cold, the vines are dormant.  I hope it stays like that for another month, especially as chardonnay is prone to uneven budding. In fact, it has been the longest prolonged period this cold and wet in my 27 years on Paul Cluver.’  

Many lessons have been learned from this unusually extreme weather. Frequently mentioned is the importance of preparing the land well for winter, especially keeping the water run-offs clear and well maintained. Cover crops and mulches are also essential to help prevent erosion in heavy rain and, in drier years, help maintain moisture and keep soils cool.

Winter is far from over; more rain and cold weather is on the way. It must be one no one involved with growing vines and making wine would want repeated at such an intense level.

Top image: Unusual sight of waterfall on Kasteelberg in the dry Swartland

- Blog by Angela Lloyd