Viticulture vultures

When Reckson Mulidzi was growing up in Venda, he never dreamed that one day he would become something of a wine connoisseur. Now, it seems his life revolves around the fruit of the vine.

As the lead programme manager in a team of researchers, technicians, assistants and students from the Agricultural Research Council, Mulidzi is helping to take the guesswork out of the process of winemaking, proving without a shadow of doubt that when it comes to producing a quality vintage, terroir is everything.

Long the subject of dispute, terroir is a French word used to refer to the general characteristics a particular place imparts to the taste of wine. It’s a ‘sense of place”—a unique combination of geology, soil, weather conditions and the grapes themselves, which together produce a flavour.

Most connoisseurs consider terroir to be an important part of a wine experience and some even place it as superior to the cultivar of the grape itself. Bordeaux, for example, is a terroir, not a grape type—it is the region in France where
the grape is grown, where all of the factors that make up the terroir combine to give the wine produced there its specific taste.

Thanks to Mulidzi’s team, the importance of terroir has now been proved. In partnership with WineTech the team can analyse soil conditions, geology and climate to determine which cultivars will be successful in which spots.

‘Wine style is mainly influenced by climate,” says Mulidzi. ‘Soil form does also play a role, especially under South African conditions. This can lead to big differences in wine style even under identical climatic conditions,” he says.

‘The extent to which wine style will be affected by soil form under identical soils will also lead to different wine styles under different climatic conditions. Current knowledge points to water storage and movement in different soils as the main reason for these differences observed under identical climatic conditions. This can cause some cultivars to underperform on certain terroirs. The problem to predict wine style is exacerbated by the fact that water regimes of identical soils can differ under different climatic conditions.”

Mulidzi says that within a certain region climate can differ markedly because of different slopes and aspects. Geology can also differ. ‘Variations in soil form, which commonly occur within one vineyard, can thus be the result of parent material or position on the landscape,” he says.

Mulidzi and his team’s research will enable them to establish which types of grape will do well in specific areas. ‘In Grabouw, for example, we have found that the terroir is best suited to white wines,” says Mulidzi. ‘But within that, some sites on the same farms are better suited to a particular cultivar than others,” he says.

Over a four-year period climate is scrupulously recorded and scrutinised, with soil conditions and underlying geology. The data is compared to the responses of different vines and then analysed. ‘The aim is to improve the quality of the wine grown in a specific region,” says Mulidzi.

‘By being able to understand the important role terroir plays in the character and quality of a wine, we can recommend to a viticulturist which cultivars will respond best to their land and prevailing climate conditions.”

The research has been met with much excitement from South Africa’s vintners, keen to maximise their yield and up their already considerably renowned quality. ‘Through our research, viticulturists are able to make informed decisions on which cultivars they grow and where, resulting in grapes of a superior quality for the winemakers to create exceptional vintages,” says Mulidzi.

‘We ultimately help to add value to the wine on the local and international markets,” he says. ‘And because up to 90% of South Africa’s wine is exported, the added insight we provide into the history of a particular vintage adds to its reputation.”

Through Mulidzi’s team efforts, the country’s wine estates will be able to run at more profitable levels. ‘By understanding the importance of terroir in their operations they can maximise their profits,” says Mulidzi.

All of which is of vital importance in protecting the industry from the job losses that are the blight of other sectors, thanks to the global economic downturn. ‘All the terroir knowledge and information will be used to develop new wine-growing areas with high potential for wine quality,” says Mulidzi.

‘This will lead to the development and expansion of the industry and creation of jobs in areas where new developments took place. For each two hectares of wine grapes planted, about one permanent and two temporary jobs are created. Terroir knowledge will also help farmers to farm smartly; that is, not spending time and money on areas that are not suitable for certain cultivars.”

Most of Mulidzi’s research students come from the Western Cape, but he is keen to use the programme to introduce both the wine industry and the science around it to students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds who, like him when he started out, may not have had any interest in, or knowledge of it, before.

‘When I left Limpopo to embark upon my studies, I never dreamed I would be working in the Western Cape in the wine industry,” says Mulidzi. ‘I knew wine was for drinking, but had no idea of the science involved in making it. Now I am privileged enough to know both the science and the wines, intimately.”