If you have a hectare or two lying idle, would planting a vineyard be a good idea? That depends on what you plan to do with the grapes.
There is a slew of residential wine estates in the Western Cape, and for very good reason. Vineyards are beautiful, and living among them is a privilege and a pleasure. And people all over the world are planting micro-vineyards, harking back to a time when everyone who lived anywhere near the Mediterranean had a few vines in front of the house, and made enough wine to see them through the year. So, maybe, if you live somewhere where vines can survive, it’s worth planting a few. But what’s really involved?
Firstly, decide why you want to grow vines. If it’s just because they are pretty, and you have a couple of hectares going spare, then scout around and find a keen micro-vintner who will do it all. Stonehaven Estate has a nice little vineyard up against the mountain looking north over the Fish Hoek Valley – all planted, tended and harvested by a vintner who doesn’t have sufficient space to grow his own grapes. A win-win situation.
But, if you want to actually make wine – even on a small scale – it’s possible, but it’s an enormous amount of work for very little (make that no) financial reward, but – if you get it right – immense satisfaction. And possibly a great community-building strategy, too, but don’t get carried away imagining all the residents dancing barefoot on oaken vats of bright red grapes, as tubby moustachioed men in striped T-shirts play the accordion. That’s not really practical but, with a relatively modest investment in cash, and a huge investment in time and sweat equity, you can make, bottle and label your own wine. And – let’s face it – a wine with the estate’s label on it could be quite fun.
Then do the groundwork
From one hectare, you can – on average – get about six tons of grapes, which will give you about 3,000 litres of wine. And you could tend that with one full-time worker, or more not-so-full-time ones. But, before you buy the first little baby vine or turn a sod, find out if you have suitable soil and climate for wine. If you don’t, you’re better off planting something more practical.
Then, if the soil will support wine grapes, you need to decide what cultivar. If you are going to make your own wine, your best bet is to plant red grapes, says winemaker Hermann Kirschbaum of Buitenverwachting, because you need less equipment. However, he adds, the most satisfying wine to make is a bubbly, but that requires even more equipment, and even more time and work. ‘It’s high risk, and high reward,’ he says, smiling at the very thought.
From the first planting, you’ve got about three years to build a cellar in which to actually make the wine, and gather together all the gadgets, because that’s how long it takes before you’ll have grapes. A cellar needs to be cool, max 20°C, easy to access and easy to keep clean. And then you’ll need to buy a whole lot of stuff – a press, vats, buckets and a slew of specialised doo-dads. It requires vision and passion, and should not be undertaken lightly. Hermann quotes a sobering statistic – in wine-making, 80% of your time is spent cleaning up. It really is not all dancing on grapes in your bikini.
While, yes, it is hard, it is also incredibly rewarding. So, don’t dismiss the dream out of hand, but you’ll need someone to drive the whole project. And it will take time – just like a good wine.